Like any ecosystem the Internet has it’s own distinct flora and fauna. You don’t even have to go on a prolonged safari to encounter some of the wilder indigenous species, they will sneak right into your living room if you don’t keep your wits about you. In fact some of these ferocious beasties have such prodigious bites that national governments have attempted to muzzle them for the public safety. But this post isn’t really about trolls. Not really.
I’m not here to talk about online defamation or cyber bullying. Those are the kind of trollish activities carried out by the big diamond-encrusted trolls with the massive clubs that block out the sun when they’re raised high – or a nasty bully hiding under a rock. The people I’m talking about would probably never think of themselves as a large silicon-based creature who beats the defenceless with a big stick. They probably don’t even realise that words can have the same effect as a big stick. Sure ,they’re not saying anything personal. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion after all.
Opinion is king in the Internet. Everyone’s got one and no-one’s afraid to use it – and yes, I know that I’m also shouting my ha’penny’s worth into the ether with this post. But I’m talking about a creature that existed long before it could crawl into the cyberspace. Anyone who’s edited the letters page on almost any kind of publication will recognise that green-inked plumage. Those who’ve worked the late shift on a news desk will flinch at the raucous cry. The rest of us them know this almost mythical beast by many names, many faces. There is “Man in Pub”, or “Dublin Taxi Driver”. In these more straightened times there have been increasing sightings of the progenitor of this species, “Man on the Street”.
But I don’t want to give the impression of a sterile single sex organism. There is a female of the species, although it’s not always necessary for procreation. Males do seem to outnumber their female counterparts but in the dim lighting of the Internet it can be hard to tell them apart. The species is most easily recognised by highly developed speaking apparatus, which is frequently not attached to the actual brain, and tiny ears that have great difficulty in hearing anything apart from their own booming voice. Here in Ireland there’s something of an infestation, although there are marauding bands roaming through most of the planet.
It’s easy to poke fun but the relentless booming and pontificating can get wearing. I’ve seen it time and again on message boards and forums and in the comments on news sites and blogs, even once or twice on this one. A point is made, a discussion gets going and then someone comes along booming their point of view and drowning out everything else. Often people get so distracted correcting wilful ignorance or blatant bigotry that the discussion often doesn’t really get going again. I know we’re back to the silicate beasties but these are usually a lesser species with a softer shell and a less devastating bite. The standard advice of not feeding the trolls doesn’t always apply. They don’t always come looking for food, sometimes they’re just hanging onto the underside of the bridge grabbing at your hooves.
Of course if you walk over bridges that have trolls hanging on the underside the very least they’re going to do is grab at your legs. We all know where we’re headed when we go online. But increasingly it’s not an optional expedition. Life is moving online. We’re constantly connected these days, from the computer we sit in front of all day to the smart phone that’s a constant companion for so many of us. As we interact more often and more widely in an increasingly social world we encounter the Internet’s wildlife with rather depressing monotony. As a woman, it’s a bit like having a time machine sitting on your desk or in your pocket that will take you back to the 1970s whether you want to go or not, and as tends to happen with malfunctioning time portals, some of that dystopian 70s stuff is finding it’s way back here.
To all those young women who think they don’t need to be a feminist any more or guys who think we’re just making a fuss when we have it so easy now, read this story from the UK and this one from our own fair Dublin. Yesterday Women’s Aid, the domestic violence charity here in Ireland announced their figures for 2011 – they make depressing reading. But when The Journal, the on-line Irish news site, wrote about the 20% rise in child abuse detailed in the report the first comment was one of our booming friends. They often come out for stories on the site that deal with women’s issues or matters of race and it makes depressing reading. Which is rather my point. I refer to the Journal, by the way, simply because they had an example in the last 24 hours or so but this kind of browbeating is all too common. Whereas once you could simply sidestep “Man in Pub” or cross the road to avoid “Man in the Street” online they come to you.
I know that there’s not much you can do about these indigenous species, they will find a corner to breed even if you put down traps, but merely putting up Don’t Feed the Trolls signs doesn’t strike me as enough. Zoos put up those notices for animals they are keeping safe. Most of the time I wear thick boots when I’ve a bridge to cross so I can stamp on clinging claws but that’s not much good either in the long run. The problem with trolls, whether they’re bullies or single issue head-the-balls who insist that if we’re having a discussion on artichokes we should actually be joining them in a discussion on aardvarks, is that it’s easier to turn away than engage. But that doesn’t shift them in the long run. The only way to get rid of trolls on the bridge who are threatening to eat you is to lower your horns and run at them them.
So I’ve ended up talking about trolls after all. But honestly it’s not really these soft little under-rock dwellers that are the problem. It’s the fact we don’t always charge them off the bridge without a second thought. I’m all for a zero tolerance broken windows theory approach (with thanks to Caitlin Moran and Rudi Giuliani). The Guardian newspaper yesterday asked Why Women Have No Opinions and here in Ireland Margaret E. Ward and her team of Women on Air have been championing more female voices on the Irish airwaves for some time now. There have definitely been some results but there’s a lot more to do. It would be very nice to say, as it says in the story.
“Snip, snap snout
This tale’s told out”