Aphrodite Refused

“I would calmly ask, is it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should at present be so degraded,” wrote Judith Sargent Murray in her landmark 1790 essay On the Equality of the Sexes.

Judith Sargent Murray, as painted by John Singleton Copley
Portrait of Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

One might also calmly ask to what extent our digital culture has become reliant upon a landscape of degradation, albeit one in which immortality is defined as the distance between an immediate impression and a regrettable decision. For women who deign to utilize the Internet as a social tool, that threshold has long been surpassed.

Such was the experience of Kristen Parisi, an unmarried, socially active woman who happens to have a disability. She joined Tinder with much the same expectations as any other user: a low-commitment method of exploring potential dating partners, quickly, without making a significant emotional investment. Ms. Parisi consciously chose to conceal her wheelchair in her profile photos, mostly to protect herself from hurtful comments made by users with whom she had no intention of connecting.

Since Ms. Parisi understood that she would not be able to keep her wheelchair a secret indefinitely to potential suitors, she typically disclosed her disability sometime within the first few minutes of messaging. What she did not anticipate was how quickly the perception of her would change upon discovery:

Even if I had great messaging chemistry with a guy, I would instantly go from being the “sexy redhead” he’s planning to go out with to the “girl in a wheelchair” — and that chair would define me … One guy I told responded, “So why are you on here? Shouldn’t you be dating someone in a wheelchair?” The men on Tinder apparently thought this was an okay thing to say to a woman.

Although the comments Ms. Parisi received only worsened over time (one user responded with an insensitive remark about her imagined sexual habits; another simply called her “gross” and deleted her profile from his list of matches), this story has a relatively happy ending. Eventually, Ms. Parisi pursued a short-term dating relationship and reaffirmed her faith in the male species.

Venu de MiloWhat is of interest here, though, is the steep slide into self-doubt that results from a handful of unfortunate encounters. Ms. Parisi acknowledges the blow she took to her self-esteem, to the point where she questioned whether her disability should disqualify her from the joys of modern sexuality to which she is rightfully entitled.

It’s not only the digital realm where this unhealthy form of self-reflection occurs; according to a study conducted at the University of Chicago, it’s actually a part of our psychological makeup. Researchers at the University’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that the lonelier we become, the more our attention is drawn toward negative social information. As a result, lonely people tend to be hypersenstive to threatening behavior—a scientific tidbit that explains but does not excuse perpetrators of abuse upon those they target.

Clementine Ford
Clementine Ford, Australian writer who fought back against a man who called her a “slut” on her public Facebook page.

Some of those targets are fighting back. Australian writer Clementine Ford discovered that vigilance comes with a price, even if the outcome is conducted in the spirit of support. When a male commenter called Ms. Ford a “slut” on her public Facebook, she openly wondered what the gentleman’s employers would think of his behavior. After being alerted, the company (a hotel chain called Meriton Apartments) promptly fired the commenter and offered Ms. Ford a public apology.

This should have been the end of it, but the tsunami of vitriol that followed led some to accuse Ms. Ford of overreacting to “mean words on the Internet” and “trawling the Internet looking to be offended.” The reaction was severe enough that Ms. Ford felt compelled to explain what freedom of speech really means in terms of personal responsibility, especially within a digital landscape where it’s not always possible to identify one’s attackers:

[Freedom of speech] is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free. It has mainly served to support abusive trolls who, despite the frequency with which they appear to be pictured with families, seem to have nothing better to do than stalk women online to try and scare them into shutting up.

Despite the tendency to attribute these case studies as simply two more examples of why the Internet hates women, the reality is that de-identifying behavior regarding female roles in society has manifested since the inception of modern civilization. Whether worshipped spiritually as divine bringers of life or castigated as second-class citizens, women have traditionally been co-opted to an idealized, largely masculine-influenced archetype of domination, exultation and (ultimately) control.

Lizzie Velasquez as a child
Lizzie Velasquez as a child. “Why would her parents keep her?!” read one of the comments on a YouTube video about her; “kill it with fire” said another. One commenter said people would go blind if they saw her on the street.

Humankind has always had an uneasy relationship with customs of etiquette, especially with regard to women’s place in the ecosystem. What makes Internet unique is how rapidly this decoupling takes place. We see it today in the form of cyberbullying against a woman with Marfan syndrom and a professional violinist who posts messages she receives from anonymous fetishists on Instagram. Perhaps the most appropriate response, such as in the case of Ms. Ford, is to simply fight fire with fire and accept that someone, somewhere is going to bring a bigger torch.

Or maybe, to again quote Judith Sargent Murray, it’s best to just hide away from it all. Once wonders if Ms. Murray were alive to see what today’s Internet subculture has wrought from “the low manners of an injurious multitude,” as she wrote in 1793, she might be compelled to further revisit a desire to “shield [her]self in the fair asylum of conscious innocence” in order to escape it. And who could blame her?

I Spy

History TableclothIn 2007, researchers at the University of London developed a flexible screen-printed tabletop called the History Tablecloth. When objects were placed on the Tabletop surface, its electroluminescent material formed a grid of glowing, lace-like patterns. The longer an object sat on the table, the further the halo expanded; upon removing the object, the halo would slowly fade to nothing.

Scientists create inventions like the History Tablecloth in order to evoke a higher level of interpretive recognition. Traditional roles in human-to-object interaction are always in flux; if we can better understand the social dynamics of ubiquitous computing, we might gain insight into the use of such technologies to enhance our person-to-person relationships.

The opinion here is that the History Tablecloth has greater metaphorical significance in the marks that remain after something has been removed. We suspect this is why people carve their initials into trees and public park benches. Everyone wants to gain a small degree of immortality by leaving some sort of imprint on the world. The temptation to commit is irresistible, for some people, even if they know the act itself is fundamentally wrong.

Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook). From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take Part.
Brett Nelson posted this picture to Facebook after confronting the family pictured above as they carved their initials into federal property at Tumalo Falls Park in Oregon. (Photo: Facebook. From an article written by Liz Dwyer for Take PartTake Part).

Last week, a family vacationing in Oregon were publicly shamed on social media for carving their names into a metal railing overlooking Tumalo Falls Park. Hiker Brett Nelson documented the incident on his Instagram account and Facebook page, getting more than 53,000 people to share the image. This was enough to gain the attention of the U.S. Forest Service, who as of this writing have threatened the alleged vandals with steep penalties (a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in jail).

child in dunce cap

The past few years have produced a number of studies to determine whether we are born with a fundamental understanding of moral ethics. Abigail Tucker writes that the factors influencing our cognitive bias between right and wrong can seem quite arbitrary, and they fluctuate wildly under observation:

“Day to day, babies can seem unfeeling and primitive, or at the very least unfathomably bizarre, afraid of donkeys one minute and the moon the next, their prismatic minds beaming nonsense and non sequiturs instead of the secrets of our higher nature. No seasoned parent can believe that nurture doesn’t make a difference, or that nature trumps all. The question is where the balance lies.”

One thing we do know: the digital realm has fully encroached into our personal space. We no longer have to make a conscious decision to interact with transmitted data, and much of it is received via nondeliberate events. Computers are increasingly part of our environments: toys, home appliances, books, clothing, furniture, jewelry, shopping malls, airports, hospitals, schools, office buildings. Devices are carried, sensors are worn, chips are implanted.

It’s possible that one day, the act of carving one’s initials on a metal railing will initialize a virtual network of national park activists. Whether that delights or frightens us probably has a lot to do with how we feel about Nelson’s conviction in doing what he felt was right, as well as the ease by which a transgression can be catastrophized by 53,000 people.

To be fair, it’s difficult to generate much sympathy for someone who intentionally vandalizes public property (especially in full view of a parent) and justifies the act by petulantly claiming “We can do what we want.” At the same time, moral imperatives are fleeting, like those haloes in the History Tablecloth, but their digital footprints remain long after the event that inspired them is forgotten.

Growing Up in Public

Two years ago, a letter writer to the Sunday New York Times Magazine submitted the following question to a column called The Ethicist:

“Many of my friends on Facebook are having babies. Nearly every time I log on, I see (in my news feed) many pictures of these babies, almost to the point of oversharing. Now, I love babies and feel it’s acceptable to post a photo from a holiday gathering or a first picture of a newborn. But when this happens every day from a specific acquaintance, is it a violation of the baby’s privacy?”

The relevant question here isn’t whether an infant has a legal right to prevent her/his likeness from appearing online (that’s another story for another post). Of interest here is our compulsion to telegraph ourselves through the Internet, which remains one of the most polarizing aspects of social technology. How much information is too much information?

May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it to be on Facebook.This is not a diatribe against Facebook. There is nothing more wonderful than catching up with old friends or enjoying the kindness of our extended network. It’s digital cross-pollination at its best. However, there is also something disconcerting about our weirdly obsessive tendency to document the self-measured events of our lives. We want the world to know what’s happening because the events that we report are uniquely ours. And yet, what we choose to reveal creates an interesting dynamic regarding the amount of tolerance we assume to have among our personal relationships.

It’s not uncommon to use social media to celebrate our personal successes or milestones. Facebook, in particular, is an easy jumping-off point for others who want to find us online, so we naturally want to put forward our best image. In a sense, the fairy-tale digital marketing that one does is not that different from other behaviors conducted offline, such as when we put on our best clothes for a job interview. The everyday anxieties that plague our self-esteem and performance retreat into the background; up front, we are confident and successful.

George Costanza in Seinfeld clearly oversharing his worst assets.
George Costanza in a famous Seinfeld bit, clearly oversharing his worst assets.

In many ways, the Facebook post has become a sort of interstitial greeting to confirm our continued relevance on the planet. If we don’t hear anything from a friend or follower after a period of time, Facebook allows us to “poke” that user into providing us an update. Perhaps we’re genuinely concerned by the silence and just want to be reassured that everything is fine. Or it could be that we’re seeking some sort of balance: I posted seven updates this week, so the least my friends could do is let me know that they’re still alive.

Facebook status saying "Our marriage is over"Sometimes, though, the tendency to reveal too much creates an uncomfortable blurring of social boundaries. Consider the case of Michael Ellsberg. At the end of July 2014, Ellsberg posted to his 25,000 followers that his marriage was breaking up. His former wife, Jena la Flamme, posted the same message on her wall. Publicly breaking the news about their divorce represented what journalist Hannah Seligson called “managing the marital brand, even after its dissolution, creating and honing their message much like a corporate news release.”

The psychological motivation behind this behavior, according to a team of researchers in North Carolina, is the predictably narcissistic desire for acceptance. Among 515 college undergraduates and 669 adults profiled, the study showed that the rate at which a person tweets or updates a Facebook status can be tied to one’s self-image. According to the results of this survey, older users (who did not grow up with the Internet and often need a calculated reason for updating one’s status) preferred Facebook as their vehicle of choice.

The age demarcation between social media platforms is notable. Although it’s mistakenly thought to be a young person’s game, the use of Facebook has now been declining steadily among teenage users for nearly three years. At the same time, a Pew Research report confirms that more than half of Facebook’s users are aged 65 and older. Most Facebook users typically log on least once per day, and some resort to drastic means if they are unable to access their accounts for any length of time.

Cover of Craig Brod's 1984 book TechnostressAll that being said, the tendency to overshare is not necessarily (or even fundamentally) a bad thing. One could even argue that technology has made us more social, not less. Rather than close us off from the world, social media provides a vehicle for us to find companionship during times of personal turbulence, often exposing us to support resources that would otherwise be unavailable. This wasn’t always the case with the digital world. As a point of comparison, here’s an excerpt from Craig Brod’s 1984 book Technostress about one mother’s frustration after buying a computer for her introverted eleven-year-old son, Bill:

“I thought I was doing something good when I bought the computer. I figured Bill would like it and watch TV less. The problem is now it’s the thing he likes to do most. He always had difficulty playing with other kids, but now he doesn’t even make an attempt. I’m sorry I ever brought it home.”