Homophobosphere

An environment created by antigay postings on Internet blogs that spreads hate, produces fear, and is still protected by free speech.

BY Will Doig

January 25 2008 12:00 AM ET

“Only a
stereotypical feces-eating faggot would get this emotional
over celebrity gossip,” reads comment number 57
under Chris Crocker’s emotive “Leave
Britney Alone!” YouTube clip. If nothing else,
you’ve got to give the writer credit for
fastidiousness. “Feces-eating”? How many
hatemongers properly hyphenate? Usually their syntax
resembles that of commenter number 83: “You
fucking queer ass, go stick a dick up ur ass,”
or number 12,064: “You truly a retarded dick sucking
mindless sheep. get aids and die!” Then
there’s the particularly miffed number 182,720:
“ALL you fucking fags should be killed by
terrorist! DIE FAGGOTS!!”

Crocker, the
androgynous performance artist who last year parlayed his
plea for Britney sympathy into 15 minutes of fame, clearly
struck a nerve. Within days of its upload on September
10, “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!” was bumping
Iraq coverage off ABC News’ website and spawning
dozens of YouTube parodies. Crocker gave interviews
from an undisclosed location, claiming he’d
received death threats. Ten days after he posted the clip
he reportedly signed a deal for his own reality TV show. His
video has been gawked at over 15 million times.

But what truly
set Crocker’s post apart from YouTube’s other
surreal megahits was the viewer feedback it sparked.
As of this writing it has generated over 209,000
comments—the second highest number for any single
video in YouTube history—and many comments echo the
antigay hostility quoted above. Tens of thousands have
logged on solely to voice their opinions on exactly
what horrific way Chris Crocker—and, by extension,
all gay people—should die: AIDS, terrorism,
bludgeoning, a bullet to the head.

You don’t
need to hop the A train or stroll through Golden Gate Park
to hear a crazy bigot ranting about sinners and Jesus
these days. Just fire up Internet Explorer and peruse
the comments sections on the country’s most
popular websites, which are aflame with homophobic hate
speech so descriptively violent they would shock the
members of Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist
Church. Reading through them, you begin to wonder
whether this hatred is representative of America. Does the
Internet’s cloak of anonymity reveal what
straights would really like to say to our faces?

“It’s called John Gabriel’s Greater
Internet Fuckwad Theory,” says Clay Shirky, a
journalist and New York University adjunct professor who
studies the social and economic effects of Internet
technologies. The theory is based on this simple
equation: Normal Person + Audience + Anonymity =
Fuckwad.

“There’s a large crowd,” says Shirky,
“and you can act out in front of it without
paying any personal price to your reputation,” which
creates conditions most likely to draw out the typical
Internet user’s worst impulses. The Fuckwad
theory is the modern-day equivalent of the dilemma
described by the late ecologist Garrett Hardin in his 1968
essay “Tragedy of the Commons”: How do
you manage a communal resource when everyone who uses
it has an interest in sustaining it but also the opportunity
and the incentive to abuse it?

William Sledd
lives in Lexington, Ky., where, he says “it’s
church, church, church, Wal-Mart, church.”
Sledd hosts the web series Ask a Gay Man, which
started out as a humble homemade YouTube project before
being picked up by the Bravo network and given an
online perch at OutZoneTV.com. With a title like that,
naturally, Sledd’s posts are magnets for
hateful comments. The feedback from his Halloween episode
ran the gamut, from an evocative “Someone drop
a piano on this fat ugly faggot” to a simple
and succinct “I hate gays.”

Sledd says the
antigay comments on his YouTube posts at first were few
and far between, but once his show blew up, “I
started getting lots of comments. It happened all at
once, and it really bothered me. I was like,
I’m just not going to make videos anymore.”

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