More reflections on the Internet, thanks to Zoë Quinn’s new book

More reflections on the Internet, thanks to Zoë Quinn’s new book September 28, 2017

My copy of Zoë Quinn's Crash Override - photo by me
My copy of Zoë Quinn’s Crash Override – photo by me

I just finished reading Zoë Quinn’s very new book Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online HateReaders on Catholic and Orthodox Internet – which I suppose might be taken as the given cyber-location of this blog, about which I reflected in my previous post – might be forgiven for missing the reference, though I think that excuse is removed by the mainstreaming of the phenomenon of Gamergate, especially in the events of the 2016 United States election.

For those who need a brief recap of these events in 2014, Quinn – the very successful creator of the game Depression Quest, a simulation of how difficult everyday tasks become for those who are depressed – became the victim of a ‘Manifesto’ written by her ex-boyfriend accusing her of cheating on him with a number of people, including with a gaming journalist to write an article favorable to her (it turns out that no such article exists, giving the lie to the cheating as well). Framing what was actually stalking behavior that arose out of domestic abuse in the respectable terms of ‘ethics in journalism,’ this act precipitated a maelstrom of online mobbing of Quinn on message boards in some of the darkest corners of the Internet, and drawn into the vortex also included someone who had been targeted even longer than Quinn, Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian, as well as video game developer Brianna Wu (Quinn also names writer Tauriq Moosa, sociologist Katherine Cross, programmer Phil Fish, and her partner Alex as other victims). It got so big that even Law and Order: SVU tried to cash in on it; I watched the episode on Netflix, and I have to agree with Sarkeesian et al that it was pretty terrible (although I should admit, as Kristin Bezio does in The Learned Fan Girl, that SVU is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine; judge me).

That Gamergate has been and remains politically significant is virtually uncontestable, even for those who are spotty on the details. One character that was brought into the spotlight was Milo Yiannopoulos, who Quinn describes as riding the coattails of her misery into the far-right site Breitbart, and from there into the election of Donald Trump. Gamergaters also popularized the term SJW – ‘social justice warrior’ – as a pejorative description of Quinn, Sarkeesian, Wu, et al. – decrying them as feminists who were taking over their male-dominated gaming domain. As I reflected while reading (Quinn covers some of this too), this timing for the re-invention of ‘SJW’ as a term of derision was a little uncanny; 2011, Abby Ohlheiser wrote for the Washington Post in 2015, was the year that ‘SJW’ entered the Twitter and Urban Dictionary lexicon as a negative term, the same year of Occupy Wall Street’s attempt to mirror the event of the Arab Spring. In a few short years, it has become fashionable to portray student activists shutting down university campuses over acts of racism and the paucity of ethnic studies scholarship as ‘SJW’s; no longer was the old accusation of ‘political correctness’ the only term of mockery trotted out. At my own workplace at Northwestern University, all of these worlds – online gaming, feminism and the lexicon of misogynistic rape culture, and student activism – came together in the case of Peter Ludlow, a professor whose main research interest was Second Life who has been removed from the university over allegations of sexual assault through a Title IX process, along with campus protests, that has been criticized by journalism professor Laura Kipnis in her controversial book Unwanted Advances.

When I first joined Patheos, I was told that I’d get a little bit of an insider’s view of this kind of Internet culture. I was told that it would be good for me, that I’d realize that academia was a bit of an echo chamber. Patheos, of course, is no gaming site – at least I hope not – but nerds do meet each other online, and some of those people game too, not that I know much about that side of the web even now. However, I did come to understand that the way that I had been thinking about and using social media – which is a vital part of Internet culture – was all wrong. Before Patheos, I think I thought of myself a bit more as a researcher using social media; as an academic, I’d propagate news, but I wouldn’t really participate in the agon. I don’t think I’m a good participant even now, but I’ve come to see that I was a little bit naïve: social media is not really a tool for research because you don’t learn anything until you actually master the medium. This isn’t just cool stuff young people do online; it’s real life, the background noise to an already noisy world that will still be there and affect us all even if you purchase earplugs.

Part of mastering this Internet culture is what Quinn describes in this book. There are the well-worn trinkets of advice that are given by people in the institutions of which I know myself to be a part, academically and ecclesially: don’t feed the trolls and get off the Internet. Both items of advice, Quinn says – and I found myself agreeing as I read the book – are wrong. The presumption in both statements is that the Internet is not real life. Quinn disputes this, as do the other targets of Gamergate. For Quinn especially, the Internet was her home; it was what gave her a community when her familial life was breaking down, and it was through the world of gaming that she established her communal space online. To presume that the Internet is not real life would literally mean to give up her real life – not only affective ties to friends that she’s made and consider to be family, but also the very material means of sustenance: reputation, job, career. Even in remaking herself outside of designing games for a time, she and her partner Alex designed a hotline called Crisis Override which is designed to help other people who have been cyberbullied.

Quinn repeats time and time again that this space called the Internet – her home, her workplace – is important to understand because it is so difficult to regulate. It turns out that the traditional institutional gateways of law, academia, and journalism are ill-equipped to understand this cyber-world, partly because conventional regulatory practices don’t translate well online and also because the Internet doesn’t operate in terms of nation-states: one regulation that works for, say, the United States can be used to enhance the Great Firewall of China. This is especially bad, Quinn points out, for the harassment of people of color, especially sexual minorities, especially as this kind of free-for-all provides new avenues for sexual abuse (such as with revenge porn and cyberstalking). To pejoratively call the Internet activism in which Quinn and her colleagues engage hashtag activism is actually the delusion itself; it’s a lot of work, and real people with real material and psychological stakes are involved.

But for all the talk about the Internet being a kind of free-for-all Wild Wild West, what really struck me about Quinn’s description – and it struck me because it made a lot more sense after I read it – was that the Internet is a kind of ideology factory too. Gone are the days when it was easy for scholars, journalists, and policymakers to revel in the liberating power of social media, when the Internet could be used to organize occupy protests and dismantle oppression at multiple scales. It turns out that the Internet as things stand really do seem to favor the narratives of white, straight, and dare I say secular men seeking some kind of primal fantasy to fill a mythological hole in their selfhoods. Quinn points out that Gamergate started way before Gamergate; black transwomen got in touch with Quinn when all hell broke loose and pointed out that the mob that became called ‘Gamergate’ were composed of the same people who had terrorized them online a few short years ago. The same mob, Quinn notes, seemed to be behind much of the online activity of the now-infamous ‘alt-right’ that culminated in Trump’s presidential victory (no wonder the guy is always tweeting to his base). I have a friend who takes this narrative back even further: it turns out that some of those in these mobs, she says, have remade themselves from the white male atheists they were ten years ago who cast most Christians as fundamentalist creationists. If that’s true, then maybe the various Christian churches have been right to condemn atheism after all, sympathetic as I am to some of their negative claims: when atheism itself becomes ideology – as may well be the case here – the void left by God is filled with shit. The true wonder, one might say, is why some Christians from across the communions say similar things about ‘SJW’s, but perhaps strange times make for awkward bedfellows.

For the uninitiated, it would be easy to say that SJW’s are taking over the world, from gaming culture to college campuses where they are supposedly coddled; some have even referred to these social justice phenomena as a kind of new Cultural Revolution with neo-Maoists (an accusation that seems to offend both campus protesters and real Maoists alike). But if this account of ideological production on the supposedly free space of the Internet is any indication, then it sounds like any reference to revolution is overstated. Sure, there are phenomena that appear revolutionary – cities get shut down, dictators have been toppled, college administrators and presidents and faculty have resigned – but it really just sounds like the so-called ‘SJW’s are not really trying to create a new ideological society; they’re invested in making the commons truly common for all, from so-called ‘global cities’ to the World Wide Web.

And yet, for all of its complexity, Gamergate suggests that the Internet has parsed the world out into two camps: the nihilistic secular white men seeking some kind of primal mythology versus the SJWs – and if you are not for one, you are for the other. I have puzzled over this ever since I began blogging; three minutes after I published my first post, I was called a ‘joke’ by a white man, and the tenor of my conversations on Catholic and Orthodox Internet seems to frame me as an ‘SJW’ simply because I write for Patheos. This then gets blown out of proportion as specious links are drawn, say, to the very uncontroversial book by Fr James Martin SJ on ‘LGBT Catholics’ as well as to the supposedly ‘leftist’ agenda of the New Pro-Life Movement, creating conspiracy theories about alliances with bishops and religious orders that go all the way up to the Bishop of Rome. The same goes for Sister Vassa Larin’s recent comments on homosexuality in a public reply to a Byzantine Catholic mother asking for advice about her gay son; what ensued was not a debate about Sister Vassa – it was a dumpster fire that led to Larin’s bishops stepping in even though ‘it is not the norm to reply from the Office of the Holy Synod to materials posted on the internet’ (in the midst of this mess, Larin has also offered her own take on Internet culture in another public email). In this narrative, it’s the SJWs who are against church teaching, have an agenda for some kind of leftist revolution in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, etc. and the only extension from Gamergate is that it is not just online gaming that is the space at stake – it’s the church, which means that bishops get dragged into the mix as well. A popular term that seems to have taken hold in these conversations is metastasis, a word used both throughout Quinn’s book and in the rhetoric of the great exploiter of gaming culture Steve Bannon: this stuff spreads like cancer.

This is the real dangerous moment, and I think this is where Quinn’s book is particularly helpful. In being dialectically engaged, the true danger is for those accused of being ‘SJW’s to live into the stereotype that is set for them so that whatever the mob says, they are its opposite. Indeed, sometimes those being accused of being SJW’s can be their worst enemy; take Sarkeesian’s assertion in the Tropes versus Women series for which she was mobbed two years prior to Gamergate that misogyny has been embedded in primal mythology for time immemorial and is now played out in video games – one would hope instead for a more robust feminism might also be able to recover unexpected mythological gems that point to the equality of the sexes and the mystery of gender as even more primal than misogyny. Quinn’s book is a wake-up call, showing those of us who live and work on the Internet that cyberspace as a space has to be taken into account for what it is, how it is currently regulated, how community formation online actually works, and how the supposedly free space of the Internet is actively being policed not by SJW’s, but by their accusers. This is not an acceptance of the ‘end of history’ – oh, we have progressed to an Internet age, and all that requisite nonsense about the inevitability of technological advance in the flat landscape of liberal democratic capitalism with no alternatives (building technology requires action and motivation; it is not inevitable) – but a realization that the virtual reality of public spheres that aspire to be commons have long been with us and will outlast the Internet, if cyberspace should ever wane.

The truth, then, is that the Internet was meant to be a commons, but it is not, and the activity that goes on in the struggle to make the Internet a commons has spilled out into the material life of occupy protests in global cities, legal confusion about what constitutes rape and sexual assault, academic activism, presidential elections, and ecclesial life. As Quinn shows us, life on the Internet really is real life. The question she raises then is whether we are going to pretend that it isn’t or if we might accept that these realities demand our intellectual, political, and even theological attention.

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