Surveillance Culture and (Not So) Digital Harrassment

Cyberspace is a place of visibility where producers lose control of their content at an viral rate. It is the stage of mass exhibitionism and mass voyeurism, a surveillance culture like those explored in We Live in Public, and that openness has given birth to cyberstalking.

Image by Paintedrose13

How easily can internet users separate their digital presences from “real life?” The web seems like the perfect place to escape from the oppression of a person’s physicality. It is a place where anyone can adopt any identity, regardless of their offline appearance—except that the digital and physical worlds often play off each other. We use email and Facebook to augment our IRL relationships, and friendships (and romances) formed online frequently lead to physical meetings. Even when we separate our online personas from our offline identities, we often talk about our lives: annoying coworkers or customers, family difficulties, funny stories about friends. Maybe we discuss romances and school, or mention the current weather or a local store offhand.

Our anonymous accounts begin to describe us. References to being female on Reddit are oft-met with comments announcing whether or not the woman has posted nude pictures on the site, and pictures of “attractive” (slim, White, clear-skinned, apparently close to the age of consent but on which side is dubious) women are met with sexually harassing private message and photographs of penises (“unattractive” women are harassed publicly and violently). Implicating oneself as female in FPSs inspires enemies and teammates alike to abandon strategy in favor of (team)killing the trespassing woman.

The digital realm, allegedly an escape from the inequality and danger that women face offline, is transformed into a minefield, where a single misstep can permanently destroy a persona. A single instance of revealed (or mistaken) identity results in days-weeks-months of harassment, depending on the victim’s continued use of a given persona and the location in cyberspace that the victim identified as: a woman/person of Color/ transgendered person/non-heteronormative/having a mental disorder or physical disability/a combination of any of these.

The harassment does not always end with the deletion of a given online persona. Woe betide the person who utilizes the same username for different webspaces. And if a harasser locates a victim’s Facebook, workplace, real name, telephone number, or address, the rest is relatively easy to discover. If the victim is unfortunate enough, isolated harassment becomes full-blown stalking, complete with cyberbullying across multiple websites, defacement and take-downs of their personal sites, and threatening phonecalls. Reddit is fond of financial attack by “pizza bomb.”

The digital is inextricably connected to the physical, because it is produced by people who exist offline. The internet enables instantaneous global communication, and can thus provide a safe space for people living in homogeneous environments, but also provides a record of its users’ activities and opens users to the threats of harassment and stalking. Prosumers do place not only their content, but also themselves, before the eyes of the online world—and all its offline users.

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