The Internet is a Public Place – Act Like It

Working on other projects around the sonnet thing was one of the challenges I wanted to confront by doing the sonnet thing in the first place. It may not be obvious to others why this is challenging for me – my internal dialogue runs something like: “how come you can write this thirteen-thousand word post, but somehow writing two separate two-thousand word posts is too much for one day? Why is one accomplishment per day the limit of your capability?”

There are a lot of things that are hard for me that it seems like other people find easy, but I assume that I’m not alone in this, in part because I’ve been informed that I’m not. When I confess how difficult some ordinary things are for me, people respond with relief and gratitude. I voice my weariness, and all around me people set down their burdens. Making this kind of vulnerable connection with another human being is important to me, and in my opinion it’s vital to understanding other humans and living with them happily. In this endeavor, the internet has both helped and harmed our ability to interact. But that’s not the internet’s fault. It’s our fault.

Internet dating in particular is tough, in particular for men. There’s a supply-and-demand problem, for one – dick as a product is way over-stocked, and the demand just isn’t there. It’s clear that the best solution would be to periodically take dick off the menu, like the McRib, to get folks hankering for it, but unfortunately men seem totally unable to go their own way without making it all about obsessing over women anyway.

But there’s another reason men are having trouble, and it’s an issue that all of us, regardless of gender, struggle with: the internet is a weird fuckin’ place to approach people. It feels different from the real world, and we’re not sure if the same rules apply, and everyone you meet will tell you that you’re doin’ it wrong.

Long ago, in the wild, wild west…

The early internet was the province of dorks, early adopter tech-fetishists already involved in the tech community – in other words, primarily men. I’m about to piss on these people’s shoes a bit, so let me preface it by saying that I’m mostly intending it with love. As a femme-shaped person who plays videogames, I’ve been privileged to love a great many young, brilliant, geeky white boys; it’s like a sweet tooth for me. Unfortunately, my love often caused me to excuse their bad behavior, and that’s kind of how we got to this point as a society in the first place — decades of saying, “I know he said that horrible thing, but I can’t prove he meant it, so that makes saying it okay.”

These men were fostered by decades of the video game industry focusing on the young white male demographic to the exclusion of any other, decades of school and society teaching that “technology is for men, except sewing machines and food processors. Go back to your girl technology. Go back to your kitchen.

These young white males built communities that often were (and in some cases remain) aggressively hostile to non-white, non-male users. Usenet fed into Something Awful fed into 4chan and offshoot image boards and then into what’s become “the Manosphere.” While the internet expanded and user demographics changed, there were always a few communities that nurtured and fed pugnacious, vitriolic attitudes toward women, people of color, and anyone else who might fuck with the comfortable worldview of a middle-class white teenager.

Still, the internet feels like a refuge to all of us in some ways, not just white boys. Many of us who found the “real world” cruel and isolating have found communities online that make us feel seen, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes sense that we’ve felt like the internet was somehow separate from the rest of the world, not subject to the real world’s rules and dangers, not requiring you to gird yourself when logging in the way you would when going out.

But the internet has grown up now, and so have we, and that means it’s long past time we started dealing with reality:

The internet is public.
You are “in public” right now.
You might want to act like it.

You’ll find that when you truly internalize this, a lot of the confusing questions you have about how to interact online fall away. If you wouldn’t behave that way in public, you shouldn’t behave that way online, because the internet is public.

Should I send a picture of my dick to that woman?

Would you whip out your dick and show it to a woman on the street? Would that be a great way to get a date?

Should I stalk this person’s social media and constantly pester and monitor them wherever they go online?

Would you follow a person everywhere they went in the real world? Would you expect that to make them like you? Do we have a word for this in the real world?

Should I flirt with that girl while she’s running her video game stream on Twitch?

Should you flirt with people who are at work, especially when their work requires them to a) stick around and b) be nice to you? Or should you recognize that a person trying to earn a living online is at work, quietly make your interest known with a private approach (a note, a DM) and let them make the next move?

Should I message that person some more if they haven’t responded to the last ten messages?

Would you continue prodding someone in the shoulder and saying, “Hey” at them every hour on the hour if you were saying it to their face? Would you be surprised to get punched for that kind of behavior? Would you still be so confused about whether this person wants your company or not if you could see them physically struggling to avoid you?

Should I jump into this involved debate that I don’t know anything about?

Would you charge into the center of two people having a conversation on the street? Would you expect those people to praise you for doing that? Would you be outraged if they didn’t immediately include you in their conversation, explain context to you, educate you?

Should I take this information as accurate without checking the facts from another source?

Would you believe whatever you read on a flyer stuck to a light pole? Would you take that flyer home, print up more, and share them around your family while defending the reputation of whoever the fuck stapled it to the pole?

Drooling demagogues on every corner

The internet is a place where people work and transact business with strangers, just like the real world. In that context, you need to treat people and information the way you would treat them on a public street.

Say someone runs up to you, slavering and babbling about conspiracy theories – in public, you’d step around the dude and try not to make eye contact, right? But when we’re on the internet, suddenly it’s, “Hmm, that drooly gentleman seems to have some trenchant observations about immigrants; I’m sure he’s done his research. Let me just subscribe to his newsletter.”

I’m sorry to be the one to burst this bubble, but just because you’re not wearing pants while you’re browsing, that doesn’t mean everyone who talks to you online deserves to see you without pants. Just because their voice comes into your living room, that doesn’t mean they’re the kind of person you should let into your house.

A convenient boundary

These days we all seem to muddle around the internet acting like it’s kind of public, like when we choose to expose ourselves, it’s public then, but when we don’t want that, well then the internet is our backyard, and how dare a stranger tell us how to act in our own space! It’s a convenient boundary that allows us to hand our keys to any corporation that wants them, wave our naked asses and genitals about wherever we go with unsecured browsing, and then get outraged when other people comment on the stuff we just dropped all over the public street. This is an Emperor’s New Clothes thing – we’re going out naked and then accusing the person who pointed it out of exposing us.

Now let me be clear – this is not me blaming the victims of doxxing for being doxxed. Being secure on the internet requires a lot more technical knowhow than being reasonably safe in the real world, and the people who know how to secure your internet often have a vested interest in stealing your stuff. Corporations who sell your data, and jerks who steal it, don’t want you to take care of yourself, so it is in their best interests to tell you that there’s nothing concrete you can do to protect yourself, that the rules are fluid and you can never know if someone’s trying to hurt you. They want you to believe that in this thrilling new era of human interaction, they get to set your boundaries wherever they want them to be, and you don’t get to complain.

We actually do know how to act

But this is not actually a thrilling new era, not as far as social interaction is concerned. Humans interact roughly the same whether we’re doing it with our mouths or our thumbs. We rage, we cry, we cheer, we fuck and love and hate and share, and we establish rules for doing those things so that we can all do them in the same space without too much violence and destruction. Even more basic than the higher-level social rules that we think of as “etiquette” – which fork, hold the lady’s arm, etc. Those things are social constructs of the time. But the fundamental assumptions we make in social interaction transcend culture and generation, because they’re the fundamental assumptions you need to make to have a conversation at all. These are things like:

  • “Overtly hostile or intimidating behavior is threatening regardless of intent.”
  • “Telling strangers everything about you instantly is not a great idea.”
  • “If you talk at the same time as another person, neither of you will hear the other properly.”
  • “Vulnerable people are more vulnerable in public.”
  • “Not everyone always tells the truth, and you should apply your own intellectual and moral standards to what you see and hear before investing yourself in it.”

By the time we’re adults, we know these rules – the “social contract” – well enough to not cause problems most of the time, even those of us with brainweasels that make social interaction taxing or frightening. By the time we’re adults, even the assholes among us do know when they’re acting like assholes, if only by the looks on all the faces around them – they just keep pretending they don’t because it feels like doing something wrong innocently is… slightly less wrong. The truth we’re trying so hard to avoid acknowledging is that we are not innocent. We actually do know how to act in public.

Every single day, we follow the rules we’re pretending we don’t know.

We know that we shouldn’t expose our genitals, or harass others. We know that we should try to protect children, and not display people’s private info in public places, and not interrupt working people with our non-work needs. The only time we get “confused” about those things is when we think we might be able to get away with doing the thing we know is wrong while pretending we thought it was okay “this time.” We split hairs and equivocate to relieve our guilt, to make it not SO bad that we went ahead and trampled someone’s boundaries. But… we still did it. We still did the thing we all agreed not to, the thing we expect no one else will do to us. No amount of excuses will change that fact. We knew better, and we did it anyway when it seemed like we could get away with it.

It’s the same as men who say, “I don’t even know how to act around women anymore!” They do know, though, don’t they? They actually know exactly how they’re supposed to act around women, because they’re grown men who manage to hold down jobs and not get arrested at parent-teacher conferences. Every single day, they follow the rules they’re pretending they don’t know. Apparently they know how to act when dealing with their kid’s teacher, or their female boss, or the librarian at the university… but when they’re dealing with a woman they have social power over, suddenly the lines get blurry. Because the confusion is them trying to get away with something they already know is wrong, while blaming the people asking them to stop for not making the rules clear enough.

Internet hygiene: how to Act Like It

When in doubt, ask yourself: “how would this look if I did it out on the sidewalk? How would a person react if I did this to their face?”

Ask yourself: “how would I feel about this information if it was coming from a person I could see? How much would I trust them based on the actual data I know about them, not what they claim? Would I change my life or make a major decision based on their input alone?”

Ask yourself, “If I treated someone like this in person, would I feel embarrassed? Is this the kind of conversation that I’d want to take a person aside to have, rather than say it in a loud voice in a crowded room, and if so, why is it okay to say it in a world-spanning voice in a room that includes, potentially, everyone on earth?”

Ask yourself: “if I wanted to feel safe going out in public, what would I need to do first? What information do I need to protect in public? How much could strangers see of me if I go out? Is my informational ass hanging out of my pants?”

And, just to get prepped for the coming Data Wars…

Ask yourself: “how much would I value the data corporations harvest from me if they had to pay me for it? Would I be okay with someone making money off me this way if, say, a guy at McDonald’s took a photo of me and then put up a billboard flogging hamburgers with my face? If they make billions selling my data, shouldn’t I at least know which parts of it they sell? And let’s be real – shouldn’t I get a cut?”

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