Is Online Harassment Inevitable?

The internet can be a very hostile place, but it doesn't have to be. 

Comedian Leslie Jones, star of the new Ghostbusters movie, made headlines this week when she responded to a deluge of racist and misogynistic Twitter messages by retweeting them, shining a spotlight on the disturbing reality that many public women experience every time they go online.

"But just as there were articles and tweets going out standing in solidarity with Jones and expressing outrage at the abuse," writes Ijeoma Oluo in The Guardian, "there were those who quickly wrote it off" as the cost of being a well-known figure on the internet. Oluo goes on to make the case that the goal of targeted trolling campaigns like the one Jones experienced is to silence outspoken womenparticularly women of colorby making the internet unbearable until they give up and leave.  

Unfortunately, a woman doesn't even need to be famous to experience online abuse. Nearly half of all women have experienced some form of harassment online, with young women being the most frequent targets of everything ranging from trolling to threats of violence and death. 

Not surprisingly, this abuse often surfaces in the online dating arena. Creepy come-on lines, unsolicited dick pics, and other forms of harassment all-too-often establish a dynamic where women are punished simply for signaling their availability for dating. 

Is this just the way things are? Is it something we have to settle for because being vile to one another is "human nature?" 

Not exactly, argues tech blogger Anil Dash. Five years ago this week, Dash wrote a post titled If Your Website's Full of Assholes, It's Your Fault, words which are as true today as ever:

As it turns out, we have a way to prevent gangs of humans from acting like savage packs of animals. In fact, we've developed entire disciplines based around this this goal over thousands of years. We just ignore most of the lessons that have been learned when we create our communities online. But, by simply learning from disciplines like urban planning, zoning regulations, crowd control, effective and humane policing, and the simple practices it takes to stage an effective public event, we can come up with a set of principles to prevent the overwhelming majority of the worst behaviors on the internet.  

It's not that we can't possibly make the internet a kinder, less abusive place. We just have to be motivated to do so, and take steps to create the kind of community we would want to visit ourselves. 

Here at Siren, we're committed to keeping our community from becoming a platform for harassment. Here's how we do it:

  • Our interface discourages objectification and encourages real dialogue.
  • A mutual connection is required before a message may be sent. No contact without consent.
  • A streamlined feedback process makes it easy to report problems, and takes those reports seriously.
  • Our values are clearly stated, and our members are a self-selecting community that is here because they respect those values.

The internet can be a hostile place, but it also doesn't have to be. If there's one thing we've learned since we founded this app, it's that a little humanity can go a very long way.