How Does It Feel to Be a Problem on the Internet?

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A diagram of comments left on a blog post by a woman who identifies as a rape survivor. The post argues for Penny Arcade's "Dickwolves" shirts to be discontinued. credit @kirbybits

I feel like I promised y'all at least one nerd-culture post, and so far all I've written here is, you know, actual issues. So boring!

If you've led a good and honest life, perhaps you haven't come across the "Dickwolves" controversy that's dominated the social-justice/video-games intersections of the Internet I hang out in. This wisely anonymous person has assembled an astonishingly comprehensive timeline of events, but the short version is this: Penny Arcade, an incredibly popular webcomic about video games and gaming culture that hubs a small media empire, made a throwaway joke about rape in a strip a few months ago. Some people objected, using the opportunity to talk about rape culture; the creators responded in an atypically dismissive manner to the criticism, doubling down and selling T-shirts based on the joke. And, in turn, some people objected even more strongly. Before long, the worst of Penny Arcade's massive legion of (mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight) fans was on full display; those asking for an apology from PA were anonymously harassed, threatened, asked to prove their status as survivors of rape, preferably with a YouTube link, and generally encouraged to feel that they didn't have a right to be on the Internet. Ironic, when all they really wanted to do was help create a welcoming space to talk about video games.

The conflict, in recent hours (hours = years in Internet time), has cooled considerably, with the PA heads standing down and apologizing. But nothing's really changed. This is still the same Internet where the real racists are the ones who think Spiderman could be black, where immigrant deaths are a suitable topic for an iPad game, where interactions with actual women are sold to male gamers for money, and where those women receive official letters reminding them never to say no to their clients' requests.

Even Wikipedia is having to take measures to counter its embarrassing lack of diversity. It's a medium with more stuff in it than any medium that preceded it, contributed by more people, capable of more things -- and yet, it's measurably less inclusive and more threatening than the society that spawned it.

So why is the Internet, and the nerd-Internet in particular, so awful? I'll posit a few reasons. It mimics the same anonymizing conditions that lead to inhumane treatment in jails. It carries over the same slanted cultural weights that appear in the non-Internet, despite being conceived as a tool to level the playing field. It receives a constant influx of new teenage boys who are, believe you me, inherently awful people who do not understand their own privilege -- and then markets to those awful people, because they're there. It's dominated by no-attention-span click-hungry shock humor. It charges admission, in time and money and cultural capital. And it's a medium in which the essential question is "Why wasn't I consulted?" — it's an infinite number of experts with keyboards, each banging out a string of incurious, profane, definitive Hamlets.

And finally, the Internet is full of nerds: people who actively define themselves and the value of others by their beliefs and opinions. Compare the comments on Courtney Stanton's blog to any Youtube comment argument about the merits of Battlestar Galactica or Gucci Mane; the angriest parties in both treat a disagreement of opinion, or a patient explanation of inconvenient fact, as a personal attack on the core of one's being. This is nerd privilege: when the sole battle you need partake in is against someone being wrong on the Internet.

Obviously, not all of the Internet is terrible; here we both are on it now, and it's fine. But it's a system that, by its very nature, seems to default to inconceivable depths of human depravity in every scenario, given a long enough time frame.

I don't have any concrete answers about how to solve this problem; it seems cat photos haven't worked. But I suggest, since we're about halfway through moving the entirety of human essence onto it, we prioritize figuring it out. 

A note: This is the last post of my week of guestblogging here at the Prospect. I said enough mushy stuff in my intro, so let me just reiterate what an honor it is to be invited into these ranks. You can keep up with me and my crew at Colorlines.com, or with just me on Twitter.

-- Channing Kennedy

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