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June 22, 2010 / missmarymax

Privilege and the Internet of Death.

Cartoon image of menacing computer

Image Credit: Via Agon’s blog.

For the love of all that is holy, you have got to stop reading this blog.

Seriously. If only to protect yourself. I thought we had established, by now, that no good can come from the Internet, but if you’re reading this, you clearly are not paying attention. I do not want to over-generalize here, but I want to be clear: the Internet is a porn-infested cesspool made popular by social degenerates. It’s a playground for pedophiles, who disguise themselves as friendly pre-teens, innocently inquiring about your age/ sex/ location. It’s responsible for our degenerating English sklz, our lack of physical activity, and the rampant (I repeat RAMPANT) epidemic of video game addiction.

Put mildly: THE WEB IS OUT TO GET US, AND YOU WILL NOT BE SPARED.

Does this …sound familiar?  Have you heard, by chance, this particular branch of the (remarkably dominant) Technology-as-Villain narrative? Do you hear a disproportionate number of news stories about Facebook bullying, the MySpace menace, or the terror that is Twitter? And do you wonder, ever, why we hear so many of these stories (true as they potentially are) and so few about the Internet-as-good?

I want to be clear that I don’t doubt harassment occurs on social networking sites or that harassment in those arenas can have devastating consequences (much like harassment “IRL.”)  I also don’t doubt that there are sexual predators on the Web.  I actually tend to argue in favor of discussing the (various) sexual and non-sexual threats in online interactions, and providing tools to Web-users about how to prevent/ manage those threats.  I take issue with the notion that everyone I interact with online is a serial killer… but not because I doubt the existance of web-savvy murderers.  I take issue with this narrative because there are other threats online that get overlooked, and — just as importantly — because there are great benefits to Web culture, which are routinely dismissed in favor of schaudenfreude and fear-mongering. 

I say this from experience.  This treacherous technology — quite frankly — has saved my life on more than one occasion.

That might seem like an overstatement, but (for once), there’s no hyperbole.  The Internet saved my life both in concrete ways — (when I was 14 and suicidal, I reached out via e-mail) — and less tangible ones.  For example: I knew I needed help for various mental illnesses years before I was diagnosed, years before I received treatment.  And during those years, my main support networks were online.  I belonged to a listserv (read: the discussion board of the Paleozoic Era) for people with depression and other mood disorders, and routinely sneaked online to vent my struggles and support others through theirs.  I found a community of online diaryists — back before the term “blog” had even entered our vocabularies, and wrote (often multiple times a day) about the various experiences I was struggling to survive.  Through that forum, I met some of the most supportive people I have ever had the luck of encountering, many of whom remain amazing friends (online or off-) a decade later.  And again — near the end of high-school, when my online support networks were (thankfully) being supplemented by (gasp) actual treatment — I frequented the message boards at the Something Fishy Website on Eating Disorders, seeking out others who could understand experiences with which my meatspace relations struggled to empathize. 

I eventually left Something Fishy, when the triggers and enmeshment there began — in my personal cost-benefit analysis — to outnumber the perks.  But — as with the other communities before it — I have a special gratitude for the role it played in my life.  I remember, with sincere thanksgiving, exchanges I had back in those days, both with friends who remain in my life currently and with borderline-acquaintances whose screennames have long-since slipped my mind.  Far from putting me at risk — or perhaps, in addition to doing so — the Web facilitated relationships for me that have, in turn, faciliated both my recovery and (the overlapping) life-I-lead-today.

I don’t think this experience is limited to those of us who are (or have at some point been) a few Pita chips short of an appetizer.  While my struggles with depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder provide one of the more dramatic examples of how the Internet helped make me who I am, the Web has played an expansive role in my larger life, not just in my recovery.  Around the same time I engaged daily with the mental health listserv, I also routinely participated in a group specifically geared toward young writers.  (Writing classes, in my experience, were often diminished to a pseudo-therapeutic space for expression, and as someone with a serious interest in honing an actual craft, I struggled with feeling under-challenged by them.)  Likewise, as a homebound high school student and then as a Geek Adrift (for the seemingly endless three-year span between my high school graduation and my first college course), the Web became my go-to source for intellectual stimulation.  Medically homebound and nowhere near a library, I kept my brain from collapsing in on itself with the ever-present assistance of the World Wide Web.

In the last few years, when my social life has exploded (into actual existance!), the Web has remained one of my main sources for new ideas and news.  At 21, when I began attending an arguably-conservative university, I dealt with my rage over anti-feminist (etc) statements largely by (blasting Sleater-Kinney songs from my dorm room and) seeking out like-minded radicals online.  Over the past eight months or so, I’ve developed a Twitter feed that provides a hub of sex-positive, anti-racist, queer-friendly feminists and media-literate, critically-engaged body image activists.  Not only does this service keep me on top of news I’d otherwise miss, but it often directly connects me with the people I’m following, and has resulted in some powerful alliances, which help sustain my own activism and other endeavors.

Additionally, there are a great number of (omg)-technological services available today that I did not have access to, growing up, things I know would have benefitted me if they’d been around.  (And which I trust currently benefit others.)   The first time I saw a library self-checkout station, for instance, I flashed-back to all the research literature I wanted — as a teenager — to read, but couldn’t bring myself to admit interested me.  (I have a longstanding habit of reading up on the theory of things I’m personally trying to sort out, but could not — while under the impression that my every move was being watched and judged — bring myself to look as actively into topics like mental health and sexuality as I was compelled to do).  Likewise, every time I log onto Scarleteen or a similarly fantastic sex ed resource, I’m reminded of the prehistoric era — (not so far back) — when the Internet was not an available resource for answering those questions.  (I have a keen memory of looking AIDS up in the dictionary, and — finding nothing — asking my mother what it was.  Her reply — “a disease” — was less than enlightening.  I’m grateful for those services that provide better answers, to help all of us sort out the situations, which arise whether or not we are prepared.) 

There are plenty of people vocally opposing the Internet as an information resource, — particularly in terms of information like the kinds I’m highlighting, information related to sexuality or to medical well-being.  After all, there is dangerously misleading information readily available all over the Web.  And resources like WebMD are arguably as likely to facilitate hypochondria as they are to lead to an accurate diagnosis.  But when we’re given tools to seek out appropriate online media and to protect ourselves — not only from identity theft and sexual predators, but also under-addressed issues like flaming and online abuse — I, for one, believe the Web’s benefits balance (and perhaps even outweigh)  its risks.

And while I suspect this to be the case for all of us, I think facilitating online communities and resources holds special importance for disadvantaged groups, particularly persons with disabilities, youth, and LGBTQ people.  Those who bemoan the “death” of face-to-face communication inherently overlook the vast number of people for whom that kind of communication can be difficult or even impossible.  Online alternatives to “simple” tasks — (like using a telephone, dropping-in at a business, or paying a cashier) — may spur nondisabled persons to wax nostalgic, but for many others, these tasks were not “simple”  prior to the Internet.  And when “simple” actions require massive effort — or are altogether impossible — an online alternative is more than advantageous.  It’s an issue of accessibility, of justice.*

The same can be said for youth and LGBTQ people, two other populations for whom access to answers (and even space to ask questions) remain strikingly limited by outside interests.  It’s important to keep in mind that while the Web does not technically hinder a person’s ability to purchase goods, exchange information, or socialize face-to-face, the lack of an online alternative legitimately does limit others’ abilities to meet these same needs.  I’m proud to be at a point where face-to-face communication is an everyday and relatively low-energy practice for me personally.  But I remember, clearly, when it wasn’t.  My brother’s grins when I order my own food or ask a question of a store clerk — and our shared pride over this progress — have as their foundation the still-sore memory of a time when these actions weren’t a possibility.  My own disability status has been fluid; new skills have created new abilities and new options.  Others — whose disabilities or identity markers are not as “manageable” — cannot adjust for the sake of “society.”  Thus, the society  must adjust for them. 

Despite all the news stories designed to rile us up about Big-Bad-Web, the Internet does a great deal more than enable your friends’ Farmville obsessions.  It also provides opportunities, which are at times mundane, at times dangerous, and at times life-saving.  Like any tool, the ‘Net can be wasted, and it can be used as a weapon.  But it can be used, also, to do a vast amount of good.  We are as able to get helped as to get harmed online, as able to do good as to do damage. 

That, too, is worth acknowledging.  So tell me.  What’s the best thing the Web has done for you lately?  Or the best thing you’ve done for the Web?

*It’s also important to acknowledge that very few websites are fully — or even partially accessible.  (This one, included.)  A good overview of what makes a website accessible can be found here with more detailed suggestions here.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Ily / Jun 23 2010 1:17 am

    As someone who’s part of a few unusual groups, I agree that the internet has done a lot for me. It has changed my life for the better, I think. But I can understand all the fear about it, though. This might be totally presumptuous, but I think a lot of people are conflicted about technology as a whole. I liked this term for it that someone used: “The modern zeitgeist”. We’re supposed to be happy, excited and supportive about new technology, whatever it may be, just because it’s the next new thing…but I wouldn’t be surprised if people are starting to wonder “is this all there is?” Even with the internet, people are lonelier than ever and have fewer people to confide in (studies keep saying this). Sometimes the ‘net, with all those kindred spirits, can make it obvious how few someone has in their RL, making that person sad. The internet might be a convenient scapegoat for technology in general. It’s a lot easier to voice ambivalence about Facebook than about “the entire project of modernity” or whatever. Well, that’s just a theory, don’t know how much truth there is to it.

  2. SlightlyMetaphysical / Jun 23 2010 1:10 pm

    Good ideas. Shame I took you at your word and stopped reading 😛

    I spend a lot of my time on social justice websites, hearing the voices of a whole load of people I wouldn’t otherwise. And it’s started to affect my voice- I can call out transphobia despite having never knowingly spoken to a transgendered person, I can call out institutional racism despite that same racism meaning I meet shockingly few people of ethnic minorities. And my voice, when I speak out, might affect the voices of others in small ways, which may then pass on to the people they speak to. And there must be thousands like me out there.

    The internet can be useful. It has no bad or good that people don’t bring to it, but it is a very, very easy villain.

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