The Online Culture of 'Niceness' Doesn't Extend to the Ladies


Do you really think everyone is super nice to each other on the internet these days? Why don’t you try asking a woman.

“When did the Internet get so nice?” Nathan Heller wonders in a new piece for New York Magazine, in which he describes the web’s general atmosphere as akin to a “Zumba session and the fellow-feeling of a neighborhood café”:

“For those of us who learned to love the web best as a hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted place, this kindness is startling — but not as startling as it might once have been. These days, life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet. Everyone is on his or her very best behavior — and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation.”

Wow, have we really achieved a post-nice internet, where we’re already nostalgic for the “predatory” days of yore? Depends on who constitutes “we,” I guess. As I read Heller’s version of ancient internet history — once “an unpleasant place even when death didn’t loom…message-board and comment-section debates could devolve into something like hate speech” — and his question of whether we still have to protect ourselves with “that old armor” now that everyone is so incredibly wonderful and loving and nice, even if they’re being fake-nice — I started to feel resentful, in a not-so-nice kind of way.

Yes, there’s definitely a “new niceness” phenomenon, one which writers have been covering for years. But just because celebrities and media moguls (and plenty of regular people, too) are sharing their successes and sucking up to their idols online doesn’t mean that the internet is suddenly this safe space full of rainbows and butterflies. Not everyone benefits from the “new niceness,” and for some subsets of people — women, in particular — the question of whether “armor” is still necessary is actually offensive.

If you’re a woman with an internet presence, you need skin as thick as a redwood trunk to deal with the barrage of insults and threats that you’ll unquestionably receive from misogynist trolls who want you to stop writing about topics that men also like to write about, or stop writing about feminism, or just stop writing, period. This has always been the case, but it’s not getting better for most women I know. In fact, it seems to be getting worse.

Ask any woman with an email address or commenter handle, from Anita Sarkeesian to any 12-year-old with a Formspring; I’ve never met a single one who wasn’t somehow affected by negative feedback that focused specifically on her gender, not her work. Women are edged out of practically every popular internet forum that isn’t specifically “for women,” from Reddit to the skeptic community. High school girls kill themselves because of cyber-bullying. Facebook refuses to delete photos glorifying rape culture even though they’ll censor, say, tribal women in Senegal or breastfeeding moms. For every Creepshots or “Is Anyone Up?” that finally gets shut down, another one pops up.

When I was a 22-year-old editorial assistant at a newspaper, I pitched a column idea about investigating city fix-it issues — potholes, abandoned buildings, etc. — for the paper’s website. The editors liked it, and asked me for a small black and white head shot to accompany the column every week. I received such a startling amount of creepy, angry, stalkerish emails thanks to that innocuous photo — they certainly weren’t due to my thoughts on bike lanes — that I stopped writing the column. It wasn’t worth it. A few years later, when I wrote about r/CreepShots, a redditor put a photo of my face on a new similar subreddit, clearly with the express purpose of making me feel vulnerable and exposed.

A new niceness? More like the same old bullshit.

I no longer care all that much when people tell me I’m a cunt who deserves to die or any subsequent variations thereof. I’m used to it. And I’ve stopped writing about it, because, honestly, I don’t want to seem weak, or be thought of as a whiner — it’s possible that’s why men like Heller don’t realize that not everyone is oh-so-nice online. But it still frustrates me that talented writers for respected magazines can get away with writing lengthy pieces about the “new niceness” without even setting aside a single paragraph to document how women are generally treated online when they dare to speak up, or speak at all. Which is: like shit.

It’s dangerous to rewrite women out of the history of the internet just because they don’t fit neatly into the “new niceness” narrative. The virtual world isn’t really separate from the “real” one, in which, to reference just one depressing statistic, one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. We can’t ask “when did the internet get so nice?” without also asking to whom, exactly, the internet is nice — and why?

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