nasty, brutish, and short

Lately, when I think about the internet, I keep circling around to the idea of the social contract.

I dallied with it in a quick video I made for MOOCMOOC back in August, where I talked about how MOOCS – especially distributed, connectivist-style MOOCS where you participate as you want – are disorienting in part because they challenge the implicit social contract we’re all schooled in. I’ll take that idea further, soon, as part of the thinking aloud process.

But more and more, I’m thinking the idea of the social contract has value way beyond shedding light on MOOCs and higher ed. I think it’s a framework that may be useful for talking about some of the things we most desperately need to talk about as a culture right now.

The idea of the social contract originates with political philosophy. Philosophy’s finer points aren’t exactly experiencing what you’d call a cultural heyday, at the moment, but suffice to say the idea’s a relic of the Enlightenment, with earlier origins in the Biblical covenant and in Greece and Rome. It connotes the relationship we all have to the structures of power and order in our societies.

The social contract, at its simplest, is about what we expect from others and ourselves: the deal we believe we’re in regarding the give and take of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Most forms of the social contract, historically, argue for the giving over of certain freedoms – though what these are and how they are expressed can vary – in exchange for protections of the state or the civilizing influence of society.

We used to, in short, make those deals with some kind of monolithic power – a God or a state or what have you. That was the old school social contract. At some level, most of us are still kind of inclined or trained in this direction, and the divide between God and state – or least interpretations of what ‘state’ means and what rights and freedoms are involved – may serve to explain the increasing partisanship and vitriol in contemporary postmodern politics. Red states and blue states aren’t necessarily in the same social contract.

But it’s even more complex than that. We now live in some crazy kind of incarnation of McLuhan’s global village: the world’s biggest small town. Most of us are wired into some kind of relationship with our capitalist, consumerist, media society, by our bank cards and our status as citizens of postmodern globalized nation states. Our society operates – as do an increasing number of us at the individual level – more on network logic than on the one-to-many logic of hierarchical monoliths like religion and the state.

So we are, in our day to day interactions as humans in the 21st century, constantly trying to establish and operate within the terms of unspoken and often hugely divergent social contracts. We are no longer just entering into an implicit deal with the powers-that-be. We are each others’ powers-that-be.

And we need to learn to navigate those negotiations openly and explicitly; to own the power we have and not wait for the big and mighty to make it all better for us.

Two stories all over the news this week brought that home to me with a couple of unsettling parallels.

One is the story of Amanda Todd, the BC teen who committed suicide. It keeps being tagged as a cyberbullying story, but that seems to have more to do with the fact that she was young and Facebook was an instrument in her torment and we are, culturally, in the habit of making the equation of teen + FB + suicide = cyberbullying!!! than because we’ve actually heard and digested the lessons of her story.

Make no mistake, Amanda Todd was cyber-bullied. Her network of peers appear to have contributed to her shaming via Facebook. But if a kid were stalked by a pimp on a school playground and the pimp then manipulated the playground gang into participating in the abuse, we wouldn’t frame the story as a bullying story, first and foremost.

This is a story about abuse of the power of the internet, first and foremost. It’s about the ways in which anonymity enables people to prey on the vulnerable, and about the ways in which our social contract has not yet worked out the lines between the right to free speech and the ways in which anonymous speech *can* bring out the absolute worst in those who want to exercise more power than their embodied lives necessarily afford them.

Amanda Todd’s stalker took advantage not just of Amanda, and of teens’ willingness to ‘pile on’ to someone singled out for shaming, but also of our culture of spectacle and bystander silence; of our willingness to blame people for stepping outside the boundaries of our social contracts.

We have been told for generations in small-town cultures that people must bear the consequences of stepping outside the approved social contract of behaviour and decorum. This is one of the few places in society where ‘people’ has traditionally mostly meant young women and the marginalized. Exploitation followed by slut-shaming preserves power.

But when you translate this old patriarchal model of the social contract to a network society, it gets really messy.

The second story works the same. It’s the story of ViolentAcrez, the Reddit moderator and notorious troll who was outed by Gawker as a middle-aged white man. Violentacrez spent vast swaths of his life creating and managing subreddits full of upskirt shots of young girls, sexually exploitative stuff about women more generally, and inflammatory and defamatory crap about other marginalized people. That kind of baiting was his brand. He functioned as a bastion of that old-school patriarchal model of power and social contract exposed at its most base by its anonymity in the network: his small-town was the whole world and he didn’t even have to wear the public face of upstanding citizen.

His exploitation and slut-shaming – “you shouldn’t wear a bikini in public if you don’t want your picture taken,” went the logic – went hand in hand with his embedded role in the structure of Reddit: he was acknowledged openly as a troll and a baiter, but also embraced as an insider. He was a keeper of the keys, and his insider status overtly legitimized misogyny and exploitation and general dehumanizing behaviour as a part – not the whole, but a real and accepted part – of the culture of Reddit.

The fallout in the two cases is illustrative. In Amanda Todd’s case, memorial sites to the teen were deluged with nastiness blaming her for the topless pictures she took as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old that enabled her cyber-stalker to continue to blackmail and shame her. In ViolentAcrez’case, Reddit – the self-styled ‘front page of the Internet’ – exploded with outrage about the outing, and (initially) banned all Gawker links from the site in protest.

That’s the old-school social contract in operation.

Then the networks – or the vigilantes, or the community, all depending on how you look at it – got involved. And the effects – which were of course already very real for Amanda Todd and her family – began to filter offline and point out the ways in which both these stories depend on the false idea that somehow the online world is separate from the offline, and governed by a different social contract.

ViolentAcrez lost his real life job, and with it his health insurance. One of the more vicious commenters shaming Amanda Todd after her death was tracked down by a Calgary mom and lost his job after the mom sent his boss an email detailing his commentary. Amanda Todd’s reported cyberstalker was tracked down and outed by Anonymous, and death threats and sites have ensued.

I don’t find any of those people particularly sympathetic, and yet I do wonder about them today…how they feel, suddenly exposed as real and vulnerable themselves.

In truth, we are all bodies somewhere. When we utilize the internet anonymously as if it will never touch our so-called real life, we’re making a terrible mistake. And we’re threatening the social contract of both the old school and our networked society.

Because in a real small town, people don’t get to forget that there are always limits to what they can get away with. Depending on whether they’re powerful or vulnerable, those limits may be very different, but they exist.

They exist online, too. We are traceable, as Anonymous reminds us. But we are also accountable – or we can be, if the majority of us networked into each others’ worlds hold each other to that social contract. In the fifteen or twenty years since we began discovering ways to be together online, we’ve allowed internet anonymity to operate as if it were simply free speech incarnate, beyond the boundaries of any kind of social contract. And in doing so we’ve given power to the worst angels of our natures.

Will this be a tipping point for us as a culture? Will Amanda Todd’s death help us realize that, online, there really are no innocent bystanders when something goes wrong?

Thomas Hobbes said, a long time ago, that without the social contract our lives would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a world where our contracts are in part to each other, we need to step up and speak against cruelty and bullying and exploitation where we see it: no deus ex machina is going to step in and stop it for us.

This giant small town is where we all live. Let’s make it liveable.


22 Comments nasty, brutish, and short

  1. Neil

    In my ideal online world, there would be no anonymous writing, even when it is used for self-protection. If one is going to enter the public arena, one should put a name to it. If you need privacy, keep a diary or go private. I know this is an unpopular stance and many of my friends don’t use their real names, but it is exactly this type of excessive approval of anonymity that contributes to this atmosphere of hatred online. We cannot “own our words” if we don’t put a name to it. Without a signature, there is no social contract.

    1. bon

      there are a lot of things that would never get said if no form of anonymity were possible, though.

      we all have many facets and if you think back to the last post on context collapse, some of us are more vulnerable than others when those facets are collapsed. if i come out as gay and my mom never talks to me again? that may be a higher price than i’m willing to pay. but my writing about identity may be really valuable to other gay youth.

      so i don’t think it’s as simple as “real names” but i do think the idea that we need spaces – real estate – almost, that we’re accountable for and that’s traceable to our pseudonym, whatever it might be, would help.

      i’ve noticed the blogosphere tends to be more civilized, in the trolling and baiting sense, than say Reddit or other forum sites where all a person is responsible for is their site persona. having a blog of your own that people can come to and critique you for your performances elsewhere might help?

  2. bkwyrm

    Neil, the problem is that there’s lots of things people talk about online that they don’t want associated with their real name. “Well everyone should just use their real names!” shows an astonishing lack of understanding of just how privileged you are to be ABLE to use your real name online, without worrying about repercussions.
    How do you get support for addition, for domestic violence, for sexual abuse, how do you discuss your unwillingness to “come out” as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, under your legal name without immediately negating the reason you’re talking about this online and not in your “real life?”
    I’ve been a member of the online community – such as it is – since 1995, on Usenet. I’ve seen LOTS of arguments about anonymity online. Maybe if you post something under your legal name and your boss doesn’t like it, they’ll fire you. Maybe if you post in a support forum for abuse victims, your abuser will find it and retaliate. Maybe you’re involved in a hobby that you’re not all that chuffed about your family finding out about, or you’re a member of a minority religion, or you’re a member of a minority sexual orientation, or whatever.
    Choosing to remain anonymous online is often done for some very good reasons that have NOTHING TO DO with trolling. I’m glad you feel safe commenting under your legal name.
    I don’t.

    1. bon

      i agree with the content of everything you say, bkwyrm.

      and i welcome you to comment here anytime.

      but, since i’m keen on civil discourse and standing up not just for people being right but for people having a chance to learn new things and feel respected in the process, i would add that part of getting to some kind of civil discourse – online as off – involves treating people like…well…people. and so even if people do show ‘an astonishing lack of understanding of their privilege,’ tone of response has a big effect on the conversation.

      someone not recognizing their privilege doesn’t make them a jerk, necessarily. slapping them down verbally MAY make them a jerk next time.

      Neil, tho, probably not. give him a chance. Neil, whadda you think? privilege is a big part of having voice. if we make a real names policy online, only those with voices that have nothing to lose will be able to participate.


      this is part of my effort to try to make the small town liveable, for all of us. ;)

  3. Bryan

    This is a thorough and articulate look at the last week’s news in light of the tradition of the social contract. Amanda was a student in our school district, and her mother is one of our teachers, making conversations about this vital topic very… raw, at the moment. That the story has gone stratospheric in the global press and turned into something of a Kony-esque meme with Twibbons and the like, there are layers of online culture and our evolving sense of ‘real’ that I have been struggling to put my finger on in the last week that this post goes a long way in helping out.

    I’m teaching a Philosophy 12 ( course presently with a group of highly intelligent and online youths who will no doubt find what you’ve written here very helpful as we approach our political and social philosophy units later in the semester. The framing of the social contract as an evolving sensibility as we live more and more digitally is especially enlightening for me.

    I’ll keep you posted to those conversations, as many of us would be keen to have you along in that dialogue if you were available.

    Thanks for sharing. Cheers.

    1. bon

      whoa. i’ve tried, a few times in the last couple of days, to imagine what this shitstorm of media must be like for Amanda’s family. i’d seen that her mom works in education. they have my deepest empathy and condolences, and that doesn’t even barely begin to say anything, really. raw, indeed, for all of you within those circles and networks.

      i don’t know if there is any contemporary work on the evolving social contract…i’d love to read any if you find it and i welcome the philosophy 12 crew here for hashing out ideas on this if they’re interested, for sure.

      keep me posted about the rest.

  4. Neil

    Bkwyrn, I actually agree with everything you said. Of course, in the real world, anonymity is important to many for all sorts of personal reasons. I have many friends who blog about their abuse or addictions using aliases, and I am so happy that they found an outlet for their voices. What I said in my comment was “in my ideal world, IDEAL meaning that I don’t expect it ever to exist. It’s just that the anonymity that allows many of us to speak freely ALSO allow haters to hide, using the same technique. In my IDEAL world, there would be no repercussions for being open about your personal life and everyone would take responsibility for what they say online, good or bad, at least in an open society such as ours.

    1. bon

      still thinking about this, Neil. i realized the hardest piece for me to get my mind around was that your ideal world involves there being no power differential between different identities…which actually blew mind in a John Lennon’s Imagine kinda way.


  5. Annie @ PhD in Parenting

    Most days I like the space I’m in. I have partial anonymity (meaning I don’t use my full real name online, don’t use my kids real names online, don’t post my phone number or address), but there are also other people online who know me, who’ve been to my house, and met my kids and done business with me.

    This gives me enough anonymity to feel somewhat safe from random attacks or abuse by someone who doesn’t like something I said (e.g. taking a picture of my kid and sending it to me as a threat, putting bombs in my mailbox), while also holding me accountable enough that people feel like they are dealing with a real person who is taking some responsibility for what I say.

    Ultimately, I trust a lot of people. I just don’t trust everyone enough to be fully open online.

    1. bon

      i think i’ve been really lucky with my openness thus far, but yes, being somewhat anonymous or private does allow more freedom, in one sense, to take responsibility for what we say. because we don’t need to protect those affiliated with us quite so much from consequences.

      it’s complicated. and an important conversation to be having. thanks so much for joining in.

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  7. Mary Ann Reilly

    Social contracts are an expression of power. Perhaps we might even say they oddly make transparent the limits of the relationship. We’ve known how to live within such limits and now it feels as if we who have existed in flatland, are confronting our own dimensionality. And it isn’t comfortable, or safe, or certain. A response is to become polarized, as a polarize position offers a similar sense of non-responsibility for self as established hierarchy might do. We get to be part of someone’s camp.

    Appreciate this post so much. It signals disequilibrium, alongside response(ability).

  8. Casey

    There is a lot to think about here, so I am just skimming the surface and hope to find more time to spend with this post and thoughts.

    My initial thoughts are:
    I don’t want to be anonymous, as it’s not why I am here. I want to be accountable and real and try to do so with my writing. Sometimes that means just talking about my kid’s lunch because that’s all the real I have to offer the world that day, but that works really well for me.

    I think there are all kinds of great reasons that people are anonymous or semi-anonymous online, but what you say here “When we utilize the internet anonymously as if it will never touch our so-called real lives, we are making a terrible mistake,” I think you’re right. There is always a chance that the world will discover. I had a tiny little post go locally viral and suddenly we were doing a press conference, were picked up by the Associated Press, were on every tv station, the national news, and in all the newspapers. There goes whatever anonomity or smallness we had to hide against. For us, that was fine. Though I never expected it, I’ve been online long enough to be ready in case and only be there if you want to.

    I do worry about those who trust in the privacy settings of facebook though, those who believe that what they do online can be totally private.

    I worry about those who are anonymous, for good reason (on blogs and message boards and in communities), and what could happen. I also am so thankful for their stories, their connections to all of us, their bravery to be there in the capacity that they can and hope that they can maintain the safety they require online.

    Great writing. Great thinking. Thank you.

  9. KeAnne

    Great post. I’m stunned at the amount of naivete and foolishness I see in people thinking there is some magical, firm division between their offline and online lives and personas. If you are online whether anonymously or not, you have to prepare yourself and expect that at some point, there may offline repercussions.

    When I’m not feeling cynical, I like to remind myself that our online opportunities are still very new and we are, if not infants then maybe toddlers in how we navigate in that space. I hope that as we mature in our usage of these spaces, our behavior will as well and that the social contract will be restored AND enforced.

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  11. Kate

    Your post yesterday sent me off finally to watch Amanda Todd’s video, which I’d avoided out of the sheer exhausting sadness of it all. I watched it with one of my daughters, who’s right at the age, thinking hard about the lives my kids lead both online and in their small town.

    Here in Australia (a continent-sized small town, really) we’re also reflecting nationally on the invective and name-calling that shapes our public and political life, since the video of our Prime Minister calling out her opposite number for the misogyny of his comments became a bit of a global affair. And our kids are watching the standards we all bring to this debate, especially in the way we use online forums to shame others with the force of indignant consensus, this way and that.

    Putting these two things together I agree with you completely that we need time to reflect on the social contract that we might now author amongst ourselves, for these circumstances, given the chance. In the absence of such a conversation we’re too quick to fall back on a kind of triumphalist stand-upness that’s only a heartbeat from vigilantism. And so it will go on.

    Thanks for what you’re doing here.

    The question is really how to enable that contract to take shape, in

  12. ozm

    To nitpick: No one ever made a social contract with God. As far as I know, the social contract is always made by members of a society with one another to submit to a particular type of authority. The social contract is with one another.

    I’m not sure if this is what you are arguing but many people have thought of the internet as a state of nature (where life is ‘nasty brutish and short) and so getting people to use their real identities is one way to make sure that people are covered by the ordinary social contract in the 3D world when the engage on the internet (or at least the laws and moral rules of the world).

    So this is an interesting issue you raise because there are always going to be people who require consequences that are enforced in some way to behave themselves.

    But there are millions and millions more who have internalized moral rules and don’t require that.

    And people behave badly in all sorts of non-internet contextsl. What does that mean?

    Anonymous is doing some kind of vigilante action–but it amounts to law enforcement in their eyes because there is no one to enforce a social code on the internet–or at least they think they are. But this vigilantism is also troubling, even if most of the times they do it, I approve of their reasons.

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  14. Keith Hamon

    What a wonderful conversation, Bon. Thanks so much.

    I particularly like your call for a new social contract, and I’m wondering if it helps to think in terms of boundary issues. It seems to me that the old social contract—the one from Locke, Jefferson, and the Enlightenment—emerged from a view of boundaries that no longer functions in a networked society. The old social contract was developed to manage the boundaries between discrete entities (political, social, and economic individuals) separated by well-defined boundaries that could be codified in social and legal terms to manage the exchanges across that boundary. This is a very mechanistic, reductionist definition of individuals and society that works from the outside in to demarcate clear lines in the sand to manage relationships among more-or-less interchangeable parts in the machinery of society.

    A complex network view of society demonstrates that no such clear boundary exists between individuals and certainly not among individuals. Rather than being a clear line of separation which can be negotiated rationally, our boundaries are zones of engagement which emerge as we live (as we interact with our ecosystems). Now we must define our boundaries from the inside out rather than the outside in, and we really don’t have the necessary language and resources to do that. We are still locked into being defined from the outside—too often by family, social, state, and economic bullies (too often with the best intentions)—who assume the authority to tell us where our lines are and what we can exchange across those lines (the old social contract). We don’t have the outlines of a social contract that allows us to negotiate from our centers. Contract is even the wrong word/concept/meme for this affordance. A contract itself is too mechanistic and idea. We need a new word.

    I’m confident, though, that out of just such conversations as this the new words will emerge. It gives me great hope for my children.

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