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 1:00 AM ET

Andrew Sullivan,
the well-known gay blogger who writes The Daily Dish
blog for The Atlantic, is a fierce defender of
everyone’s right to insult him, homophobes
included. “I don’t have a comments section,
but my e-mail in-tray is often full of antigay
abuse,” he says. “There should be no
attempts to protect gays from bigotry, and no attempts to
protect bigots or even gay bloggers from gay hate
speech either. Free speech is nonnegotiable.”

The First
Amendment may be a worthy defense, but it’s hard to
take seriously the rationale that feedback sections
are valuable spaces for earnest debate when most of
the comments are drive-by drivel with no follow-up
response. Many comments chains read something like this:
“I’m gonna kill all you goddamn homos
with my truck,” followed by “OMG I
LOOOOVE THIS VIDEO!!!” and then “Cheap Vi@gra
fast delivery, never here her complane about your $ize
again!”

“Having
unmoderated comments on your blog is like painting a big
‘kick me’ sign on your backside,”
says Xeni Jardin, coeditor at the heavily trafficked
blog BoingBoing.net. For years BoingBoing let its readers
comment with impunity. But the hatred and hostility that
began to appear— much of it directed at
Jardin’s ambiguous sexual orientation—began to
take over. She says, “When it gets so jarring that
you don’t even want to blog anymore, you need
to deal with it.”

So BoingBoing
hired a moderator who reads many of the comments as they go
up, particularly the ones written anonymously, since
that’s where most of the hate speech occurs. If
she decides a comment is too nasty and unconstructive,
she “disemvowels” it. “If
there’s a comment that says ‘Xeni is a
transgender Lebanese terrorist, and her butt is big,’
she can just hit a button, and it removes all the
vowels from that comment,” says Jardin.
“So instead of deleting it, you have a record that
some asshole was part of the conversation, but it
removes a lot of the emotional impact. It’s
like they’re flinging poo at you—you still let
them fling it, but the poo doesn’t stick
anymore.” And it seems to work; when skimming
through dozens of comments, “Xn’s trnsgndr
Lbns trrrst nd hr btt s bg” hardly registers.

“The
design of most feedback sections— a linear annotation
with the option to comment
anonymously—encourages these kind of drive-by
comments,” says Shirky. “We’ve been
designing social software for 30 years now, but
we’re still stuck in this paradigm of the personal
computer. The software is often designed to increase the
freedom of the individual without regard for what
happens to the group.” His solution? Indicate
that people who post anonymous hatred aren’t welcome
on the site. “This is analogous to the way
anti-Semitism and misogyny and homophobia have decayed
in society,” he explains, “not as a general,
even decay throughout the whole country, but instead
you get these pockets of acceptance [for gays] that
spread out.

The real
question, Shirky adds, is whether “what’s
going on in the network is making it worse, or just
allowing what’s already there to be expressed
in public?”

Even if the hate
speech isn’t an entirely accurate barometer of our
society’s true feelings about gays, it’s a
reminder to those of us safely nestled in blue-state
America. There are, after all, large swaths of the
country that remain staunchly ignorant and bigoted. And
being able to view this so clearly is both a benefit
and drawback of our hyperconnected world.

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