I’ve dedicated my life to studying the Internet. For over a quarter of a century now. Wow.
Truth is, in the early days I did it to get away from most of you. You didn’t get me. You teased me. You called me weird. You made me feel like I was a problem because I wouldn’t just take things on face value and had to be “difficult” (read: curious.). The Internet was my sanctuary. I existed in a space where I could be smart, imaginative and weird, with other smart, imaginative and weird people, who understood what it was like to be different, to want more, and to want to be free from the shackles and gravity of meat space, and just be… curious and see where our clicking took us.
On the Internet, I was not a teenage girl. I was not stuck in Perth. I was not poor. I was not motherless and effectively fatherless. I was not my abusive and neglectful upbringing. I was not a mother, nor an illness, nor a segment to sell to. I sure as shit was not an identity in which to pit me against my neighbour in a never-ending culture war. I was simply a head in a jar, on a level playing field with all the other heads in jars… with nothing but our stories, our curiosity and our wits at our disposal.
For a brief moment, we had the glimmers of meritocracy, before being reminded we were, and always would be, held captive by everything we thought we could escape.
Every day, I long for the space us weirdos briefly held for ourselves. Without the schoolyard bully or the teacher’s pet (who on Twitter are usually the same person), the grown-ups telling us to stop asking questions, and the corporate arseholes with their boring doublespeak, and that extra special brand of superficial, meaningless filler words that say absolutely nothing …and accomplish even less.
I have to keep reminding you that you moved in on my turf. A wave of mediocrity and banal evil in an eternal September where, over a decade, you carrot-and-sticked us with promises of happiness, connection, success, and saving the world. If we would just click “I agree”, or change the product a teeny bit, or pitch a little bit differently or add in this one little pixel. Don’t worry, it’ll just give you better insight into your customers so you can serve them better.
“Trust us”, you said.
Bit by bit, we signed away our spaces, our dreams and (in my case) our souls. The corporate numpties, choice architects and ‘advertiser friendly’ influencers took over our spaces. They pushed us weirdos to the fringes, gentrifying every part of the Internet, bit-by-bit with every nudge, every pop-up, every selfie and every thunkpiece and brand partnership, with zero understanding or respect for anything we’d built before you showed up and started bossing us around. You then kicked us out, conveniently forgetting that we built everything you take for granted.
At some point, it was decided that all of those structural barriers and limitations we had shed in order to feel free, and our collective and good-faith efforts to build something different were now simply yours to exploit. Our ‘identities’ became ‘content’ and content was King. Our stories, our ‘life events’, our words and even our Open Source code, suddenly became yours, with you having built nothing like the rent-seekers that you are. And, if you couldn’t exploit it, you could weaponise it.
All without our consent and most certainly not a choice.
Well, Corporate HR and Brand Managers can go get fucked, and I ain’t leaving.
In 2010, I was a panelist at a business networking event, talking about social media for business.
Ah, the olden days.
A lifetime ago.
As someone who has lived on the Internet for 28 years (!), I’m often in a state of time dilation, where the 90’s feels like ten years ago, yet 2015 feels like fifty. Where a flame war from 1998 seemingly goes on forever, but my first marriage is a blip I can barely remember. The Internet is funny like that. It is cyclical, it is predictable …and it is absolutely magnificent.
Anyway, in the before times (somewhere between five and fifty-thousand years ago), I was talking about Twitter and its possibilities for business. It was everything you would expect from that time: people not getting it, tactically-minded, too focused on tools, nobody wanting to pay for it, plus the inevitable questions about how to control negative feedback (haha), how to control employees (haha), every aspect of how to control the uncontrollable, put it in a box, constrain it, and either not let themselves get caught being human, or how to catch employees being human after hours.
And more importantly, how to exploit it for profit.
How about you just stay off the Internet if you want control, dickhead, I often thought to myself.
By ‘thought to myself’, I of course meant ‘sub-tweeted later’. Hey I’ve evolved. I’ve learned. I have the battle scars. Sort of.
I’ve evolved since. A little.
This event blends into many others I would do that year. The same faces, the same questions, the same banal not-getting-it nonsense from corporate types who were trying to invade my special place: the Internet, not only assuming they were welcome, but that they had the right to suddenly start bossing everyone around.
It wasn’t long until I fell into the role of contrarian, against what felt like a tsunami of corporate bullshit. But, as I tend to do, I made lemonade, and made it my mission to get them to understand that the power, beauty and chaos of the Internet was nothing to be afraid of, they would fall in love with it like I have, and we could do business differently and change the world.
The panel took questions. I can’t recall who asked, but if you try to picture a corporate fuckwit, you’ll be correct.
“Why do you swear so much? Especially the C-word. Don’t you know that word is offensive and unprofessional? Aren’t you concerned you will lose business?”
That was the first of many times I would turn red in front of 200 people (even though, in retrospect, I had nothing to be ashamed of and it was just a very early form of the corporate-backed public shaming that was refined over the years).
That few seconds – ears burning and cheeks flushed, ashamed of who I was in front of the popular kids – felt simultaneously like a year and time standing still.
Reminders that meat space people knew about my Internet and were reading my stuff had happened before, but only rarely. I’d had bad clients use “unprofessional” whenever I had the audacity to ask them to pay their bill, or said no to them, but this was the first time it had happened to me in public.
I wanted to crawl away and die in that moment, but somehow, managed to answer:
“I operate from the True Fans Theory online, and advise others to do the same. This means my focus is on finding people I want to work with, and leverage those who are not my fans to get mad and share my stuff. So, to answer your question, no, because my use of the word cunt [yes I did say the word] filters out the people who ask dumb questions about me using the word cunt, and their outrage attracts likeminded people who think you’re a bit uptight.”
I have evolved since. A little.
This week, the Bird App of Doom that I-used-to-love-and-desperately-want-to-love-again received an offer from Elon Musk to buy it for $44bn and take it private. Fellow geek. Fellow Maverick. Except, admittedly, quite a bit richer, a way bigger fuckwit, and much less prone to flushing cheeks and self-loathing.
Most people rejoiced. Or laughed. Or didn’t care.
But hoo boy, the normies were salty. It was funny. It’s still funny.
The people who seized control over my Internet (on the platform that I and millions of others had helped build) were now trying to impose their dogma and kick us out, had pretty much been told to go fuck themselves by the richest man on earth.
That 2010 panel was front of mind. That moment where I was gaslit by a room full of people who didn’t understand that I didn’t need or want their approval. I didn’t need for them to think I am “professional” or “responsible” or “authoritative”, because I already was, in my world, in my industry that didn’t even have a name yet, that I had built from scratch: not off the back of my identity, or my parents, or my networks or my gender or money; but off the back of my brain, my curiosity and a $450 computer. I simply wanted them to leave me (and people like me) the fuck alone and let me get on with my work.
That attitude worked, for a little while. I carved myself out a nice little career out of trailblazing. But the signs were there, early on, that corporates weren’t happy with not controlling the Internet, and especially not having control over people like me who told them to fuck off. They didn’t like that people like me could buy a computer, say what we want, make money, have access to knowledge and influence, and not be coerced by them and their caste.
They were the ones who decided who got to speak, who could progress up the ladder, and who got to control the record. Not me. Not poor kids with no networks or money. And especially not a lippy woman who didn’t know her place. It was simply not the natural order of things.
There was a brief window where “content” was organic. We had fun, and could even occasionally go viral. But over time, the agencies and “brand partnerships” seized control of all of it, replaced the unpredictable spontaneous creativity of the Internet with a Deep Faked version of Being Caught Being Human™️, cut us out of it, and replaced us all with perky young things who are offended by the word cunt and journalists who have no training in, or understanding of, the art of rhetoric.
Order was restored. The rightful owners had reclaimed what was theirs, and made it so that success on the Internet was only available if you had money, networks and were ‘advertiser friendly’.
Of course, that definition got narrower and narrower and stupider and stupider, as US Cultural Hegemony enforced its will onto all who dared try to participate.
Over the years, all the corporate ninny ‘concern trolls’, tattlers, dibber dobbers, bored and bitchy housewives, cancellers, BlueAnon, QAnon and MAGA hysterics in a never-ending Idol audition provided enough of a distraction, and ran enough interference, to fast forward us into a technofascist hellscape and turn Big Tech into the full time distractors and redactors on behalf of the United States military-industrial-academic complex.
Not a decade later, logging on and seeing where our clicks would take us was a relic of the past. We were not longer in control of that journey. They A/B tested and nudged us all, held us captive, with the primary goal of discouraging us from clicking anywhere else…. for own own good, of course. Not for the ad revenue. It’s Win-Win. Branded Content. Synergy between “content” creators and brands to create contextualised data-driven integrated omnichannel WOM experiences.
To add insult to injury, if we dared click on an unapproved no-no site like 4Chan (fun fact: the site where LOLCats and “Memes”/Macros came from) or build unapproved Subreddits or have unapproved thoughts or dare have in-jokes you midwits didn’t get or couldn’t control – or worse, were at your expense – congratulations… you are now a Nazi, and a criminal. Put on tech hit-lists without your consent, with no right of appeal.
I thought I just liked ceiling cat and jokes, man.
My only crime was answering, in good faith, the question in the box that asked me what I was thinking, what was up, and asked me to trust them, bro. I did that over 200,000 times. They asked how my day was, I answered them. I trusted them.
I didn’t know that by making fun of Americans and defending women’s right to define womanhood differently than an obviously astroturfed Pharma-backed campaign, that I was now an enemy of the US Government for filling out that box and being a political scientist focused on empiricism …and for being a bit of a smart-arse.
Woops. Silly me, thinking I could be left alone. I am out of control, will not be pulled into line, will not have my needle nudged on a ladder of engagement, and hoo boy are HR and the Brand Managers mad about it.
In response to Musk’s purchase, the corporate invaders are now flinging around words like “responsibility” (which sounds an awful lot to me like “professionalism” – cough), yet never seem to define what exactly “responsibility” means. Nor do they explain how kicking people off a platform they used in good faith, removing their voice and reach for being “irresponsible” or “unprofessional”, with no recourse or avenue of appeal, is a) not open for abuse and b) any different from censorship.
As authoritarians, and like every other coloniser before them, they insist that these things are defined, and that this is settled, simply because they said so.
Sorry, but that’s not how any of this works.
Maybe get off the Internet, dickhead.
This isn’t settled simply because you say so.
I have some follow-up questions.
What do you mean “responsibility”? To whom? You? Fuck off. You aren’t the boss of me. No, seriously. To whom are we responsible? Who do I report to? I thought I was my own boss.
Is social media a public space? Have you considered the broader implications of this, especially if it is the United States’ public space and we, the rest of the world have to be dragged into, and suffer though that oppressive fascist clusterfuck without our consent or a vote?
Who runs the public space that you are apparently in charge of now? How does it operate? Whose laws apply? Did you know it is illegal to swear in public in many places around the world? Are you aware that women aren’t allowed in public in parts of the world, including in Saudi Arabia (one of the original major shareholders of Twitter… fun fact)?
Is the entire Internet a public space? Whose public space? Whose rules? Whose norms? If it’s the United States running things, the word cunt is offensive. If it’s Australia or the United Kingdom, it’s less clear. And more importantly, if it is a public space, then who is a citizen? Corporations? That’s gone really well so far. Do we want every aspect of our society to be ‘brand safe’ (gag)? Fuck off. I am not your billboard without a cut.
If we do have responsibilities, what are they? And who are we accountable to, exactly? What process is in place for when there’s a mistake? How do we fix it or redeem ourselves from the invisible, untouchable, unaccountable Responsibility Police?
With responsibilities, aren’t there are also rights? Aren’t responsibilities a two-way street, such as not doing harm to users? Who is responsible when users are driven to suicide by tech companies deliberately making it so those in trouble can’t be seen because they are on the receiving end of an algorithm that feels justified in hiding them from their family and friends?
Who did we sign this contract with? Is there a contract at all? Hang on a sec, weren’t we promised emancipation and freedom and moving fast and breaking things and innovation and not being corporate?
Or, are we talking about a social contract? Which definition of the social contract? Are we talking Rousseau or Mill? Probably Hermann/Chomsky. Cough.
Isn’t it the courts’ job and isn’t there due process, if we’re talking about public spaces and social contracts? And, if that is the case, why am I, as an Australian citizen, suddenly signing a contract with United States Corporate HR departments, the Evangelical Right, Coca Cola, Raytheon, Inexplicably Sexy M&Ms and the CIA?
Do you have my consent? What is the nature of that consent? Is it tacit or explicit? I mean, you’d think I’d know, seeing as I am party to a contract and am free, it was transparent and not done under deception or coercion. The contract I thought I signed had a promise, which was that I was able to write what I was thinking, into a box, and others could read it, within the bounds of local laws. And that I am in user experience and Human-Centred Design, not Big Fucking Tobacco. I was promised that I would be free to interact, to explore and to create, and based on that contract I stopped writing those thoughts on my own website, and moved to theirs. Those words were sold to the highest bidder, again, without my consent.
What contract did we sign, and with whom? The Terms of Service that users don’t read, and if we were to subpoena the analytics, would show that you also know this? Or, have United States-based corporations unilaterally decided they have our tacit consent, because they can back it with unlimited resources, military force and a hegemonic empire, like they did with Julian Assange?
I didn’t sign that contract, fuck you very much.
These things are not settled. They are legally and politically significant definitions.
But of course, you know that, don’t you. When you refer to some fuzzy notion of “responsibility”, it’s never because you are uncomfortable and just want that icky feeling to stop. No, you’ve definitely thought this through. For you are the authority, and I am the problem. I mean, you have an iPhone and did it yourself with Wix, have nothing creative to say and therefore nothing to worry about. And I am out of line, and must be dealt with, because God forbid you be made to feel uncomfortable or a poor person become insubordinate.
Maybe get off the Internet, dickhead.
This is far from settled, and if you can’t see that, or have a problem with it, then maybe you should just get off the Internet, dickhead. I am no longer a curious child that you can punish and sideline simply because you are ill-equipped to deal with me. I am not a young woman who can be humiliated. I will not be punished for asking legitimate and tough questions. You are not my teacher, my client, nor my boss and you don’t control me. And this time, I won’t hide away or go red-faced. I shouldn’t have done it in 2010 and I will not do it in 2022.
This is not yours. This is everyone’s, and if you can’t respect that, then get off the Internet.
Sincerely, a “Responsible”, “Authoritative” Internet “Professional”.