Hashtags And Harassment: Is Participatory Culture In Trouble?

Courtesy of Pew

Eight years ago, ancient in digital years, media scholar Henry Jenkins, with assistance from Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison and Margaret Weigel, wrote a white paper entitled, ' Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (PDF).' The first paragraph of the document, in its executive summary, draws from a 2005 Pew Internet & American Life (PDF) project study:


'more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one-third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced. In many cases, these teens are actively involved in what we are calling participatory cultures.'


Fast forward to earlier this week, when the Maeve Duggan, a research assistant for the Pew Research Internet Project, summarized recent survey findings:


'Harassment-from garden-variety name calling to more threatening behavior- is a common part of online life that colors the experiences of many web users. Fully 73% of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.'


You need only reach back to the past few days to find examples. Christine Teigen, a model and avid user of Twitter , was run off the platform by death threats, which started as invectives and morphed into every other form of digital harassment you could image. Teigen tweeted about the Ottawa shootings:'active shooting in Canada, or as we call it in america, wednesday.'


It is a tweet that should stir a heated debate about violence in America and maybe even the appropriateness of strident political commentary at the moment of tragedy. What it should not lead to is this: 'I hope someone murders some you love, like your ****** husband.'


Pew's survey of 2,839 Internet users found that men were overall more likely to experience harassment, but that the most severe forms were more likely to target young women. '26% of these young women have been stalked online, and 25% were the target of online sexual harassment.' Men were threatened with physical violence more often, but by a few percentage points.


Those statistics won't surprise anyone who has been following #GamerGate. Yesterday, Newsweek published an analysis of the hashtag that many of its users claim is a movement to expose shoddy ethics of gaming journalist. Based on its findings, Newsweek asked, 'If GamerGate is about ethics among journalists, why is the female developer receiving 14 times as many outraged tweets as the male journalist?'


The Internet is much more than trolling, but Duggan's one paragraph summary of recent news in this vein should send chills down your spine when seen all together:


... this issue has recently become the focus of female journalists and commentators who have shared similar stories of harassment, bigotry, and threats in various online spaces. Journalist Amanda Marcotte recently shut off 'mentions' on her Twitter feed-the ability of other users to tag each other in their tweets-after feeling defeated from years of harassment. Soraya Chemaly, a media critic and activist, recently outlined why online harassment is uniquely harsh and cruel to women. Jill Filipovic detailed her experience with how easily online harassment becomes offline harassment. Game developer Zoe Quinn and video game critic Anita Sarkeesian were forced to leave their homes after harassment surrounding what's called #Gamergate, where the tension between the traditional 'boys club' mentality of gaming and a growing call for gender parity in the community came to a head. As the controversy escalated, Ms. Sarkeesian was forced to cancel an appearance at Utah State University when she did not feel security under Utah's gun laws would be adequate after receiving a 'school shooting' threat. Amanda Hess , a freelance writer, argued that online harassment creates a 'chilling effect' whereby women are disinclined to participate professionally, socially, or economically online.


What is telling about Pew's research overall is that harassment language is widespread and that the number one source comes from strangers. It also is most prevalent in social media sites or apps (66 percent), website comments sections (22 percent), followed by email, discussion boards, or, the most notable examples of participatory cultures.


Pew quotes examples of online vitriol, from mild to serious, but some of the insights were just as important: 'I really know better - nobody changes their mind based on something they read on an internet forum.'


In the white paper about participatory cultures that I mention above, Jenkins and colleagues address the challenges of this culture as one of media literacy. While harassment is only mentioned once, the authors think through numerous related challenges for young people, their primary focus, in navigating a new media ecosystem. They call for a large, systematic educational efforts to seed the culture with 'core social skills and cultural competencies needed in a modern era.'


It hasn't happened. Last Wednesday night my wife I presented a talk to the Colorado State chapter of PRSSA, a very impressive club for those hoping to enter public relations after college. My wife, a former ad agency professional now working in career development, helped them better optimize LinkedIn . I talked to them about general digital impression management. One exchange during Q&A has been on my mind since. A student asked that if she had a locked account on Twitter, should she bother to link to it from other sites. I asked her why she had a locked Twitter account for professional-oriented content. She didn't trust the strangers who would be able to see her feed.


This is just one example of many students from whom Snapchat, YikYak, and even old-fashioned texting is preferable to more open platforms such as Twitter and semi-opened Facebook. This was the generation to whom Jenkins and colleagues argued needed to be prepared for participation. That participation is again becoming closed or anonymous, and only ones with access to your personal information are the developers who will monetize it. That is not a culture, but rather an underground.


We have seen the Internet already miss its idealized mark in many ways. It has become largely commercial rather than a free forum, regionalized rather than a global village and now it runs the risk of become balkanized and depersonalized. A participatory culture is something I personally still hope can work, but I am starting to have my doubts.


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