Making the Inhabitable Habitable: Audrey Watters on Gender, Ed-Tech, and a Refusal to be Silenced

Audrey Watters ( / gave a powerful talk tonight about the dark side of the internet, with the hope that it will challenge the notion that the internet is an equitable place for all.

As a white male, I have seen firsthand, through comments on youtube, twitter, facebook, etc., as well as on online game forums the depravity that comes about from the freedom that the internet offers, and how far people will push that. Thankfully the hate has never been directly focused towards myself, or the ideas I have chosen to share online. While it’s certainly disgusting, and I would never engage in same behaviours, because it hasn’t directly affected me, it’s easy to set it aside as just something that comes as a result of the open ended nature of the internet.

This is a really poor attitude to have, and I’m ashamed that I have dismissed it. Being a white male I am in large part excluded from being the focus of the bile that flows on the internet. Audrey Watters did an excellent job of portraying the real dangers apparent for women, children, and visible minorities on the internet.

Gamergate has been the most recent opportunity for everyone using the internet to realize just how entrenched misogyny is in the online world. Women who came forward to express their concerns have faced very real death threats, and have been forced, due to the sheer volume of hate, to minimize their online presence out of real fear to their lives.

This is an extreme example, but Audrey shared that this is in many ways a working reality for any woman or visible minority using the internet. Audrey herself has faced both death and rape threats, as well as the ongoing ‘mansplaining‘ that acts as micro-aggression which slowly but surely undermines and picks away at one.

Audrey relates the idea that once the trolls realize that you are not one of them, you are the enemy, is well summed up by this cartoon from the New Yorker.

Another example that had me recently aware of the ongoing hate and misogyny online was the Atlantic article that Katia recently shared on Twitter:

Reading this article made me feel violently ill, shame that I’m of the same sex as these creeps, and had my heart go out to all the women who are being forced into putting up with this situation, not only on web dating sites, but as a daily online experience. Gross.

Audrey also had me thinking of how the Internet causes exposure of the kind I would imagine celebrities have experienced for decades. The internet has allowed for anyone to express their ideas, as well as the ease for others who disagree to reach their victims. I remember seeing one of these clips on Jimmy Kimmel a few years ago, and not having really used Twitter at the time was amazed at the ease in which people with no objective point other than to slander others can easily reach out to those who, before, seemed impossible to interact with. Warning, following video features adult content:

Before it was easy to laugh at content such as this because there is a real novelty in ‘normals’ being able to interact with the upper elite, and seeing them reading these texts humanizes them in a way that seems comforting. Bringing them down to ‘our’ level. Regardless of their talent, and the hard work and sacrifices they have made to become famous musicians, actors, and the like, as a societal whole, enjoy seeing these individuals hurt.

However, just as much as the internet has allowed the plebs to reach the top of the societal hierarchy, so too has it become possible for those to share their voice to a much wider audience, and in effect become the target of those same people who prey on those who do not fit into their narrow xenophobic ideology.

Audrey provided us with a recent report by Pew Research that breaks down the very real amount of online abuse that is occurring. It’s sad to say that I’m sure no one who uses the internet on a daily basis was very surprised at their finding that 73% of online users had experienced harassment online. What is scarier, the resigned nature to such facts, or the fact that perhaps the seemingly harmless ‘minority’ of xenophobic creeps are in fact not a minority at all?

So, what can we do to solve this problem? Part of this clearly is a systematic one which has larger implications on our society and the way women and visible minorities continue to be marginalized. Audrey spoke of how tech companies continue to be largely male populated and male driven entities, and perhaps this speaks to the fact that females from an early age aren’t being promoted into the sciences.

I know that there are a number of people and groups that are fighting to make a change in this lopsided gender inequity in technology and science.

Amy Poheler’s Smart Girls (above) is one of many groups who recognize the inequity, and are using the internet in a powerful way to reach out and educate. Other sites like CODE are promoting the creation of new technologies as a unisex venture, as well as the Maker Culture, and inspired makers like Silvia, who give younger girls and boys alike the inspiration to create:

One of Audrey’s other hopes for changing this current problem was to look to reshape the current technologies we are using, in a way that might turn the inhospitable nature of the internet into a hospitable one, where the cultural values of the community was built into the technology. She shared with us the blockbot, a community approach where a database of well known online harassers is made available to your own application’s blocking software, that is constantly modified and added to over time.

While the internet has provided so much opportunity in so many ways, we should never allow ourselves to believe that with opportunity comes collateral damage. With all the innovation available, can it not be more possible for we, as a society to come together and support one another when marginalized? While the problem is much bigger than an individual act of bullying, a good start might be to stand up online for others who are in the firing line, as opposed to simply scrolling past the hate-fuelled non-objective comments left below a (any) youtube video, or to make a point to always report such comments and behaviour to sys admin who can effectively shut the user down, or perhaps even revoke the membership to, as an example, online gaming sites entirely.

Thank you Audrey for making me see clearly the elephant on the web. Now that I’m aware, I will make a point to educate, as well as to act in a responsible fashion when coming across content online that doesn’t represent what anyone with sound moral judgement would approve of.


5 thoughts on “Making the Inhabitable Habitable: Audrey Watters on Gender, Ed-Tech, and a Refusal to be Silenced

  1. Really enjoyed reading your blog! Thoughtful summary of the discussion. I have seen the celeb twitter video before and I often think of the abuse celebrities go through.

  2. I had never heard the term “mansplaining” before. It makes a lot of sense now, and I can see how often it has happened to me. It has made me feel that I don’t know what I’m talking about only to realize later that I really did understand the topic and had meaningful contributions to the discussion. Self-esteem is key so that women don’t allow it to “pick away at them.”

  3. Great summary of Audrey’s class. She also gave me a lot to think about in regards to my online presence. I often find that I avoid places online where harassment is happening, turning my eyes from the bullies and their abrasive comments. I agree that as a responsible online community, we need to fight back and make sure we are reporting the online harassers.

  4. I love that you’ve gone to such great lengths to explain the ‘elephant’ on the web, horrified by the article Katia tweeted and like you, am determined to bring this issue into the consciousness of my teaching. Thanks for a great post.

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