Think of this post as the science of drawing the space between the pumpkins, while observing human behavior.


For my social media class, I needed to watch the documentary, We Live in Public, which is all about the ongoing developments in Josh Harris’ life in how he helped build a portion of where the internet has gone. In fact, people believe that Josh Harris predicted where the internet has gone, with his many projects. He predicted that we would constantly watch and be watched by the internet. His ideas were that we would essentially program each other. And, interestingly, he was able to see something of how the programming of people can work. Even the movie suggests that Harris’ work and philosophy predicted how the internet works, today.

While he made a few correct predictions, I think they’re wrong. There are things that Harris just didn’t take into account about the internet. His perspective was based more on the scary environment we see in works such as 1984, from Orwell, but it is not really what we have now, at this point.

To begin, I should probably talk a bit about my experiences as a webcam model, not too long ago. Once upon a time, as I was navigating the adult industry, I found that doing work as a phone sex actress and cam girl, in the depressed economy of Eastern Oregon, was the best option that I had that could both answer my curiosities about human sexuality and could also earn me money. Making money while learning things seemed like a great idea, especially for someone who’s sexuality had suffered from the extremely biased conditions she grew up in. This exploration not only paid the bills and gave me the information I wanted about human sexuality and the adult industry, in a way that no academic persuit ever could have, it also led to me learning a lot about self-exposure. It was there that my understanding of things like consent, boundaries, privacy and performance were more finely developed than any of my anthropological, sociological or gender studies courses ever could have done.

I lived a life that, for at least 8-10 hours per day, was exposed. While it wasn’t a 24 hour exposure experience, like the experience of Harris and his wife in their wired house, living in public, the time I spent being watched did show me some interesting things. Not only was I in public view for several hours a day, I was also in public view in some of the most intimate forms, much like the people in Harris’ Quiet experiment. There are few places that are an experience of greater exposure while being intimate than the experience of masturbating to a shared fantasy, on camera, while you’re watching someone else masturbate.

But, there is a very dramatic difference between what I did, and what happened in the underground bunker of the Wired City and these things are precisely the reasons why some of Harris’ predictions missed the mark. When it comes down to it, I had control over my experiences, I had the power of ongoing consent, my behavior was tied to my ongoing well-being and ability to support myself and I could have a private moment any time I wanted.

I write about consent quite often. I speak about the topic at events, I train people on consent and ethics and I’m an activist that is known for being an advocate of consent culture. When it comes to the topic of consent, I am generally considered an expert. One aspect of consent that people have some trouble with is linked to the problem that was faced by people in the Quiet experiment, featured in the film, We Live In Public. While the people who went to live in this small city of chaos did so willingly, their ongoing consent wasn’t necessarily respected or even checked on. Instead, their consent was a matter of a social expectation. As happened in the Milgram experiment, the effect of authority, on the situation, led to people being completely willing to do awful things and to let awful things happen to themselves and others. Authority, in this case, can even include the pressure from the peer group. Nobody outside the situation approached these people and checked to see if their consent to be there was still really ongoing and enthusiastic. Instead, it was simply assumed that the consent was there – the consent to be watched, the consent to losing privacy, the consent to be vulnerable and risk victimization. Of course, nobody checks on our consent in most of our every day lives, one could argue, but most of our everyday lives aren’t spent locked in a bunker with cameras on them at all times. (This is the thing that makes many reality shows on TV exist in a very hazy ethical area). Harris’ wife suffered the same fate. She consented in the beginning of their project, “We Live In Public,” but, her consent was clearly not ongoing, and she had no power to turn it off, until she left the relationship. When I was working on webcam, I was able to turn it off anytime I wanted to. I could choose to be public, or I could choose to re-establish my privacy. I could set my boundaries and I could take a day off from the internet, whenever I liked. The participants in these experiments simply couldn’t do that. But most people on the internet, as we experience it, today, have the power to turn off their cameras and we’re developing social norms surrounding privacy, so that they can continue to do just that.

Harris’ experiments also meant that the people involved didn’t really have a lot of control over things that were going on, even when he was the subject, himself. They didn’t know when another person would invade their privacy, unexpectedly. They weren’t able to decide when and where a camera was following them. Their decisions were often driven by the cameras and the viewers. Constantly under the pressure of others, their decisions generally were not about themselves or their own well-being. When I spent time on webcam, my decisions were mostly about me. I had the control, and I enjoyed that. When animals or people are exposed to situations that they feel trapped in, they often learn to remain in those situations, without recognition of ways to get out. They learn to respond helplessly, termed “learned helplessness.” One of the key elements is the perceived absence of control over things that are going on around them or the results of a situation. The theory of learned helplessness implies that many mental illnesses are the result of this problem. So, it is literally the case that my control over my situation led to a very healthy relationship with the interactive media I was producing, in my personal experience, in live pornography. People who felt trapped in Harris’ experiments, however, did not have that control. They were taught by the situation that they were not in control. Harris’ philosophy failed to predict that cameras might have an off button and that society may learn to accept and encourage its use.

Another element of what I was doing is that I was highly motivated to do what I was doing because it helped me to survive in the healthiest way I could, at the time. That isn’t to say I was doing well, as my early days in the adult industry were not financially lucrative, but it kept me alive and kept me from having to do more degrading work (bidding for long-distance office jobs for pocket change, per hour), and I had the bonus of learning something interesting about a subject I felt was important. While the participants of Harris’ experiments were certainly surviving in their environment, their survival didn’t necessarily rely on their behaviors and interactions. Their food was provided for them, their basic needs were covered and they were allowed to be creative and do as they wished. I’m not sure if supporting oneself is really very closely tied to one’s mental well-being, but boredom certainly is and someone considering one’s own survival actually prevents boredom. It also means that the motivation behind my work, as an entertainer, was sometimes more basic than the motivation that these people, used as entertainers for each other, had. And my experience did teach me something very important: Sometimes, you don’t want to be an entertainer. There were times when I wasn’t into my work. Sometimes, I had to turn off the camera, because I needed time for myself. Sometimes, I had to hang up the phone, because I needed time for myself. I never had to feel like that option didn’t exist.

Part of the the message that we get from the documentary on Harris is that he felt that our technology forces us to abandon our sense of privacy. Indeed, many people have expressed that same concern. In a World where people seem to think that we’re always public with everything, now, privacy is the white space in-between. Much like how we make our lives very public, we also need to make our lives very private. As humans, we need social interactions, but we also need the ability to withdraw and make decisions, especially when we’re uncomfortable.

That’s where Harris’ predictions are not as prophetic as people seem to think. He considered people’s desire for exhibitionism and played out his own exhibitionist fantasies, but he didn’t understand the behaviors we have surrounding that. Harris didn’t account for social media to naturally fit into people’s needs for both social interactions and attention and love, but also to fit into people’s needs for privacy, for control and for some sort of sense of security.

Harris was also misguided in how the internet is controlled by us and controls us. He seemed to believe that the internet would somehow shape us in some homogenizing fashion, and his animation, that depicted people with TV sets for heads, being all uniform and such, saying “Come form with me, conform with me,” suggested this very thing. But, that doesn’t appear to be what the internet is doing. Perhaps this is part of my life that is colored by my activist work, but the internet seems to share information so rapidly, that people are beginning to more efficiently create social change and create environments of greater acceptance for those who used to be rejected by society for not conforming. The internet seems to also foster creativity, so that new things are being invented and introduced to us, constantly. Acceptance of diversity is not a conformist stance, and neither is the drive to create new and exciting things. So, while Harris may have been right that the internet would drive our social lives, he was wrong about the degree to which it would and the directions it would take. He was wrong about how we would adapt to it.

Mar 012013

In my Social Media class, and in many places where I’ve seen people go over the topic of trolling and harassment, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in the approach to the topic. Trolls, in their discussion, are seen as one of the “others.” Much like the ingroup/outgroup approach to other aspects of life, trolls are easier for us to think about when trolls are not us, or are not our peers. But, the reality is, the subject is not so simple.

Trolls, harassment, and other maladaptive traits we see on the internet are related. They aren’t necessarily always seen together, nor are they the same thing. They are overlapping categories of behavior. These categories of behavior, though, have a few things in common. For one, most of them ignore the basic needs of the other, and tend to be more about what the individual wants or does not want, from the other. Sometimes, the individual lacks an understanding about boundaries online. They also tend to be intimately tied to personal biases. Lastly, there is also often a lack of self control, involved, in harmful actions associated with them.

Ignoring the basic needs of other people isn’t really that unusual, by itself. When you go about your day, it is actually pretty rare for you to consider what other people need from you unless their needs are somehow tied to yours. From the person who validates your parking, to the person who washed your dishes after you ate at a restaurant, your brain is too preoccupied with whatever’s going on in your immediate vicinity to worry about them. Sometimes, this tendency involves people much closer to us, too. The needs of an employee, for example, often don’t take priority over the needs of their boss. Many people even behave this way to their direct peers, like their classmates or co-workers. When they’re hungry, the fact that their co-worker hasn’t eaten all day doesn’t really concern them, unless they’ve become emotionally invested in that person’s well-being.

And, not to sound too cynical about human behavior, but this self-interest often involves people requiring those who’s needs they don’t consider to do things to meet their needs. So that person A, who wants a bagel, has no problem demanding that person B, who needs a 15 minute break from their job at the bakery, sell them a bagel with all of their own personal demands being met, instead of waiting thirty seconds for the other bakery employee (I’ve seen that exact thing happen, and similar things, countless times). On the internet, this behavior can translate into some very self-serving forms of trolling. For example, the webcomic XKCD doesn’t just have a huge fanbase, it also has a huge anti-fanbase that revolves around the idea that XKCD should serve to meet their own needs and opinions. This particular group of people don’t seem to be doing it to do any real, actual harm to anyone. Instead, they’ve decided that since XKCD doesn’t meet their own standard, it is worth the effort of maintaining a regular blog on the topic. Said regular blog maintenance seems to even include complaining about the author’s dealing with his wife having cancer through his expression in his own publication. It is as if this community believes that their own need for satisfaction over this comic is more important than another human being’s self-expression about their own experiences, even a very personal and painful one. Their intent may not be malicious, overall, but the effect of it still can cause harm.

Most people are familiar with what stalking looks like in the offline World. If someone shows up, unwelcome, to someone’s home, after following them around, most people understand that is not appropriate behavior. It crosses personal boundaries. Invading people’s privacy is understood to be a personal violation. From the guy who sailed for thousands of miles to stalk a waitress, in an attempt to get her to marry him to the guy who became famous for stalking Jodie Foster and trying to assasinate a president in order to gain her affection, we seem to have an idea of what it looks like when people are uncertain of real-life boundaries. Still, those boundaries get crossed by people who don’t understand boundaries and perspectives. So, in a place where we can’t actually interact with people in a way that shows boundaries, those boundaries might seem even more complicated and are easier to cross, online. When it comes to stalking, many say it feels or seems harmless, because who’s going to know? But stalking your ex-boyfriend might have consequences, and so might stalking a stranger that you think you love.

Many instances of internet trolling seem to involve the crossing of boundaries, online. This can often evolve into stalking. They try to get information about the victim, they follow the victim around in various aspects of their online life and they sometimes encourage others to harass them. In many ways, online harassment is much like harassment that happens in-person. If the person doing the harassing can follow their victim, they will. Just as in the offline world, this doesn’t have to be about animosity toward the victim, either. Sometimes, it is affection. One of my own experiences with stalking involved a man who felt so attracted to me, when I performed on webcam, that he tried to get me to show up to a shop, that he decided on, with a list of items that one might need if they were going on a trip. He didn’t ask me to do this, he told me to, with some sort of expectation that I would do as he said, without question. The man had checked all of my online profiles to learn about where I lived, he accumulated information from my Facebook page, OKCupid, Twitter and places where I had published my writing so that he could try to lure me to one place. While it was pretty scary that he did those things, it was clear that he didn’t do them to be cruel or mean or with any intent to harm. He did them because he thought he loved me and he was confused at why I wouldn’t love him back (I barely knew him, while his online stalking led to him knowing me very well).

Since the internet is a relatively new element of our culture, we haven’t yet developed a system of boundaries that is as clear as those we understand and apply to our everyday, in-the-flesh lives. Ideas like not hanging out where you’re not wanted are not easily translated from real life onto the internet. We more easily understand that, in real life, forcing people into social situations that they may or may not enjoy is inappropriate. But, on Facebook, for example, adding people to groups without asking them is a regular, every day thing. Boundaries, online, should exist as much as they exist in the corporeal world, but because we’ve yet to establish clear ideas about them, many people accidentally cross personal boundaries, all of the time.

Personal biases also play a huge role in motivating trolling behavior. Not only are we reinforced by trying to teach other people how right we are with our biases, when we’re told we’re wrong, our stance may be reinforced. While it is still unknown what motivates internet arguing or trolling, it is quite possible that the reinforcement that people get from pursuing interests, online, is not unlike what they do in-person, but with fewer immediate consequences. Because of the lack of immediate consequences and the reinforcement of personal beliefs, trolls involved in debates and conversations may not think of themselves as trolls, but may think they’re actually trying to educate you or do something positive. Just as most people don’t think that they’re bad people and don’t think they’re wrong. Trolls often don’t think they’re wrong or bad.

Most of the time, when people call out a troll, it is because of something that person did that was so extreme, more people can acknowledge the misbehavior as misbehavior. The behavior often has been ongoing for some time, but then it is suddenly highlighted as a problem. People often get obsessive about some things. This can happen to the point that the initial problem that the individual was trying to focus on might be forgotten and replaced with something else. An obsession about being right about a specific topic can sometimes turn into an obsession about the person the individual is arguing against. There is even some self-awareness about this problem. We, as a culture, have acknowledged our inability to leave debates we get involved in (see, again, XKCD’s “Duty Calls”).

Many of these behaviors, if not most, might be found in the average person, to some degree. They aren’t isolated behaviors, so that means that harassment, trolling and stalking can easily overlap and even be linked in a single person’s behavior. But, at what point is it trolling and not normal behavior? When is it harmful?

Well, that all depends on perspective. People can have long, drawn out, healthy relationships that might involve some of the behaviors that I’ve described in this article, but because each party is being polite or accepts the way the conversation has gone, it may not be seen as an unhealthy conversation and each person involved likely don’t see others as trolls. However, if a line has been crossed where there is something that can be harmful, that is done, it is quite possible that the person who did it was actually trolling. The reason is, it doesn’t matter if the person who did it didn’t intend harm. It matters how the person who had to deal with it felt.

If you’re standing in a coffee shop and the person standing a foot in front of you says you’re standing too close. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’re standing too close. The reality is, the person in front of you set a boundary and you’re violating it. You’re standing too close, no matter if you think so or not. This topic is usually not really about the person perpetuating the problem. Instead, it is about the kind of human hurt they might be causing. It is about how they might be harming others.

In light of these things, perhaps it is a good plan to build an understanding of how boundaries might work, online. Here’s a general (possibly incomplete) guideline:

  1. If it involves insults, with the intent to harm, it is probably trolling.
  2. Don’t follow people around the internet, or even an individual website, unless they’ve given you permission to. It is better to ask permission, than to force that person to deal with feeling like you’re invading their privacy. It is one thing if the person has very public spaces for you to read, like a blog, or an unprotected twitter account. It is implied that since such spaces are public, the public is welcome to view them. But, ask them before friending them on Facebook, or entering any other personal online space, of theirs.
  3. Try to consider how other people see you. Just because you’ve read everything a person has ever written online, doesn’t mean that they know who you are. Our experience online makes it easy for one person to get to know another, without their person of interest getting to know them. If you learn a lot about someone, it helps if you assume that you are completely new, to them.
  4. Don’t ignore criticism. While someone may be very emotional when they criticize something you’ve done, don’t ignore it. They may be right that a bias is showing that you didn’t know was there.
  5. While it is unlikely that everyone you meet on the internet will know everything that you do, you have to assume that other people know stuff. This stuff that they know could help you to understand them. So, ask questions.
  6. Don’t assume that other people online are there for your entertainment or that they have time to spend interacting with you. Nobody is obligated to do anything for you, online.
  7. Don’t depend on your friends to tell you that you are right or wrong. It is your responsibility, all by yourself, to determine if you might be causing harm to others. Take a moment and decide how you would feel if you were the target of your own actions. (For this point, I give a nod to the blog, whatever, as I modified it from their creeper article).
  8. Don’t expect others to share your sense of humor.
  9. Don’t expect others to cater to your desired level of sexual conversation. If they are in their own internet space, it is their right to talk about sex at the level they wish. If you are in their space, though, you don’t get to set that level. Also, don’t expect someone who does express themselves, sexually, somewhere to want to discuss sex with you. Just because someone is sexual doesn’t mean they don’t want to choose how, when, and with whom they are sexual. Being sexual doesn’t make a person less picky about their sexuality.
  10. If you’re interacting with people in their space, on the internet, and they make it clear that they don’t want you around. Leave.
  11. Never contact someone in the flesh-world unless you’ve asked them for permission and they gave it.
© 2014 Sex and Science Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha