Homophobosphere

By Will Doig

Originally published on Advocate.com January 25 2008 1:00 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.”

Though he says
getting gay-bashed on the street—something
he’s experienced often—can be withering,
being bashed in your comments section by dozens of
homophobes trying to outdo each other with vitriol causes a
unique form of shell shock. The frightening, mob-like,
torches-and-pitchforks effect can seem more personal than a
random public bashing. Says Sledd: “It really
took a toll on me.”

While growing
popularity can attract more homophobes, it also helps drown
them out, says Michael Buckley, host of a Talk
Soup–ish web series called What the Buck?
“You get ‘faggot’ all day,” he
says. “You get, ‘I’d like to put
a gun to this person’s head,’ things about
Jesus hating gay people, things about being an AIDS
chaser. There’s tons of hatred. But now that
I’m a bit more popular, I get so many more positive
comments, and people who write nice things about me
write mean things back to [the homophobes], so the
hate speech has really slowed down.”

Such is the crux
of the argument made by free-speech absolutists:
Unfiltered comments sections allow debate to flourish, and
other commentators will organically shut down
homophobes. Call it free-market tolerance.
“Comments sections of blogs, like blogs themselves,
offer a space where people can challenge stereotypes
and push others to exchange ideas rather than
slurs,” says Marc McCarthy, senior director of
communications for GLAAD. Aden Fine, a senior staff attorney
for the ACLU, an organization that sometimes finds
itself in the sticky position of defending hate
speech, agrees. “In traditional media like newspapers
or TV, if you’re offended, you can’t voice
your opinions very easily,” says Fine.
“People are now familiar with the Internet, and they
know that you have to take everything with a grain of
salt. But what makes the Internet a valuable place for
people to communicate is that ability to respond and
to voice opinions directly and without any cost.”

Traditional media
outlets are more likely to filter comments on their
websites. While YouTube doesn’t filter or edit
antigay feedback on William Sledd’s posts for
Ask a Gay Man, Bravo’s website does. “YouTube
is, and always has been, a forum for free
expression,” says YouTube spokesperson Kathleen
Fitzgerald. ”Our community is made up of millions
of people across the world and is diverse racially,
ethnically, politically, religiously, as well as in
terms of sexual orientation.” Bravo
didn’t respond to requests for details about its
online policies.

Perhaps
surprisingly, both Sledd and Michael Buckley said they
wouldn’t want their comments filtered, even if
YouTube offered. For one thing, YouTube users are able
to filter and delete the comments on their posts
themselves, and YouTube can terminate the accounts of
commentators who receive complaints (though Sledd
points out that offenders can set up a new account in
minutes). Still, “if you’re going to put
something out there on a blog or video,” says
Buckley, “you have to allow people to
comment.”

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.