April 21, 2022

When the journalist Leta Hong Fincher wrote about forced marriages in Xinjiang, she was bombarded with online abuse for weeks. Games designer Brianna Wu was driven from her home during an online campaign against sexism in her industry. The account of playwright and activist Van Badham was hacked and fake sexualised images of her were distributed to hundreds of thousands of people.

Nina Jankowicz’s trenchant short book How to Be a Woman Online is packed with similar examples of misogyny blooming on the internet, drawn not just from her personal experience but from her academic research. “To be a woman online,” she demonstrates, “is an inherently dangerous act.”

It would be easy to stop there. Instead, Jankowicz supplies a whole toolkit of ideas for protection. Get cyber secure. Invest in a password manager. Use governance. Employ ‘blocktivism’. Find the mute key. Establish a network of women allies. Amplify them. Be intersectional. Mentor. Be Mentored. Above all, get back out there. The internet is a public forum to which women ought to have equal access. It’s the job of any thinking woman to keep claiming it.

Nina Jankowicz is a committed, North American, second-wave feminist. She quotes Madeline Albright. Her examples are women “with a public presence online”, blue-tick Tweeters, up-and-out-there bloggers, leaners-in. Her enemies, by and large, are men: ‘reply guys’, @ProfessorEsq, @LazyLogan, @TrojanHorace. Her arguments centre on possession of the public sphere: authority, property, occupying space. Correspondingly, the inner sphere is of less interest: psychology is for solving individual pain. Getting out there, Jankowicz acknowledges, will hurt. Own it. Tell your family. Get a therapist.

It’s all admirable stuff: solidly researched, informative, grounded, gritty, practical; as is Jankowicz and the women she knows and champions. But staring at the Twitter feed in front of me, and my long unused account, I find it hard to apply her advice. My feed is of a particular sort: literary, lefty, education-heavy, and disproportionally written by people who also write the news. It’s not that there’s a shortage of misogyny or bullying on show: on the contrary, other than the odd picture of a sunlit cat, it is a cavalcade of images of women and dissections of power plays. But rather than the outer sphere, it seems mostly concerned with perceptions, identity, feelings and psychology. To put it another way, Twitter seems lately to be a psychodrama, much of it about itself.

Take, for example, the story of Sarah Moulds, a woman who kicked a horse on video in late 2021. A deluge of tweets rapidly ensured she lost her job and reputation and would be prosecuted by the RSPCA. There was unquestionably, too, a gendered element to her demonisation: a male hunter with a whip would have been treated to different metaphors. But Moulds’s persecutors weren’t male trolls or reply guys. Many of them were privileged, educated, middle-aged, and female: Jankowitz’s victims rather than persecutors.

They hated, though, with all the vigour of Van Badham’s pursuers. The condemnation went on for days after it became clear that Moulds had young children and had gone into hiding; that she had been punished up to and beyond our usual limits and must be in danger of her life. It went on with particular, almost religious righteousness. One user with “hates bullies” on their bio vowed to “keep hunting for her like she did foxes”. They would not be remonstrated with. “You’d think you’d be safe, wouldn’t you,” tweeted a member of the caring professions, “criticising someone for hitting and kicking an animal but app not”. ‘Safe’ in that sentence has evolved well past Jankowicz’s cyber security tips. Its means something uniquely Twitter.

Twitter evolves. Part of the brilliance of its model is that it mirrors the dynamics of sexual reproduction. A popular tweet doesn’t just acquire likes and retweets exponentially, a snowball rolling down a hill, but also inserts itself, like a thread of protein, into the feed of the people who retweet it. It becomes part of that tweeter’s billboard to the world, their bowerbird display, their DNA. It calls to other tweeters, and it begets new tweets marked by its style. All of which is dynamic, fun, and deeply human.

As Twitter the joint organism has evolved, and its potential for shaming has been revealed, so too has its underlying bias towards a particular quality: innocence. If what you retweet shows the world who you are, and the consequences of being the wrong sort of person are dire, then a need is created for something not just appealing and colourful to place in your feed, but for something that is guaranteed to be harmless, something that will bolster the retweeter’s safety: a neophyte’s plea, a child’s painting or hand-turned salad bowl. Emergency Kittens. A Quokka Every Hour. As I wrote this paragraph, for example, a pleasant-looking woman posted a photo with the caption “I was told by a date this week that he was disappointed when he saw me. So here I am with zero filters, or any photo enhancements” — and acquired 40,000 likes. It had no joke, no politics, no special cleverness: Twitter had selected solely it for its innocence, just as a peahen picks out the longest tailed peacock for its mate.

The problem with peahens fixating on tail length, though, as Darwin pointed out, is that selective breeding means the tails themselves grow to a useless length. On Twitter we have tweets, threads, and entire profiles which are peacocks’ tails of innocence: primarily performative. There is also a special problem with reproducing innocence: it cannot perform itself without becoming knowing. Nor can it plan its own appearance. It has to be always on its debut, forced into a new position by the force of its feelings, which is why so many tweets begin with statements of helplessness: “I can’t stop thinking about…”, “Can’t unsee this!”, “I had a cry!”

There is another particular problem with innocence: it’s disproportionately bad for women. It plays into enormous, basic, cross-cultural prejudices against women’s maturity, humour, experience, cleverness, overt sexuality and knowingness. It feeds into deep binaries about virgins and whores, good girls and bad girls, Cinderellas and ugly sisters, fairy godmothers and evil stepmothers. Behind that lurks our deepest binary, the one that any psychologist or two-year-old will tell you is often embodied in one person: good mother/bad mother.

Twitter, as we all know, loves binaries too. In the time I took to get this paragraph, the popular tweet with the unfiltered face had been rammed by a fleet of replies accusing it of lying and ugliness. The tweet was hidden, and the original tweeter had protected her account. (She later unlocked it.) Innocence and sweetness had to be accompanied by its opposite: design and corruption, as if we were all in a Jacobean drama.

The hatred of Sarah Moulds was also sharpened by a good mother/bad mother binary. She wasn’t the good carer of horses and children she was dressed to seem, therefore she was entirely evil and deserved to be hunted to death.

So I believe was the hatred of me. I once had a popular Twitter account where I put poems by my young students online. The poems were ‘safe’ to retweet because — as well as being good texts — they were innocent. I rarely, if ever, tweeted anything personal or even retweeted other peoples views. I tried, in fact, to have as little personality as possible: I thought it could only get in the way of the young people’s poems. But my face did float in the blue Madonna bubble, and I was aware that many people thought I was much better than I was, an angelic person who spent all her time among the disadvantaged. In fact, my teaching was only one of the strands of my work. I worked with lots of people and I was motivated by many things, including intellectual curiosity. But I was not the opposite of an angel either. I didn’t abuse anyone, or dox anyone, or run a cruel classroom, or force children to write poems or make money out of poems. (Actually, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to force children to write good poems, or possible to make money out of any poems.)

That dark opposite came from the Good Mother/Bad Mother binary, and from Twitter, just as the persecution of Sarah Moulds did, and the persecution of many other women, good, bad, but mostly indifferent, mostly just human. I’d very much like to be safe from all that, but I think we may be too far gone, and that even a book as thorough as Nina Jankowicz’s cannot take us there.

A new edition of Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I taught and What They Taught Me is available now from Swift Press.