The Existential Crisis of Public Life Online

What Gamergate means for Twitter—and networked life

James Cridland/Flickr

This isn’t a story about Gamergate.

For maybe a month now, that pseudo-scandal has been unavoidable in certain thoroughfares of the Internet. ​Claiming to fight for “ethics in gaming journalism,” its adherents have succeeded only in driving successful female game developers and critics out of their homes.

“I have not been able to find a single explanation of a coherent Gamergate position,” wrote Frank Lantz, director of NYU’s Game Center, earlier this week. Here’s his definitive encapsulation of the movement’s emptiness:

It remains completely unclear what is being called for or denounced. As far as I can tell there are no useful ideas with which to engage here–only an inarticulate mess of confused feelings, uninformed opinions, and second- and third-order meta-arguments.

From this nothingness—this recursive, cult-like illogic—has sprung pain and exhaustion. On Twitter, where much of this misery has been on display, women have gotten rape threats, murder threats, and been “doxxed”—that is, their home address tweeted at them among all those promises of violence and rape. The abuse, too, has erupted with little warning. One hour the site seems normal; the next, there are promises of a mass shooting.

On Twitter, the sum effect has felt draining, disturbing, and pivotal.

The videogame industry borders countless other cultural communities that have strong online presences, including tech, science fiction, fantasy, comics, and film. That whole swath of allied arts gets labeled “nerd culture” like it’s a minority subculture, but it commands tremendous, unprecedented attention in the U.S. and around the world. Three of 2014’s four highest-grossing films, after all, were about superheroes, aliens, or giant robots—and the fourth was The Lego Movie.

So for hundreds of thousands of people, Gamergate has been just there for a month now, an enervating army that makes itself known as soon as the “#Gamergate” hashtag is tweeted. It’s an attentional brushfire that, even when it’s not being discussed, could flare up at any time. It’s a source of exhaustion even before it has done anything to exhaust.

The eloquent and humane film critic whose nom de blog is Film Crit Hulk recently wrote a long meditation on this. He pointed out that the scariest element of all this is that “pro-Gamergate” arguments follow the circular and meaningless patterns of the indoctrinated, yet its adherents seem to have absorbed this dogma exclusively through the Internet. In other words, Gamergate is a cult without geography.

But this isn’t about Gamergate. This is about what living with Gamergate has been like, and what it may do next. And here, Film Crit Hulk (henceforth abbreviated FCH) really shines:

(Like all good online Hulks, FCH follows Hulk House Style—that is, he writes in all caps and refers to himself only in the third-person. For the sake of readability, I’ve put his prose in sentence-case—honestly, it suffers a bit—but preserved the illeism.)

For the last four years or so, coming to Twitter was always something Hulk relished as a kind of escape. Even with the most troubling of social conversations, it was something Hulk swears to you could work in some ways. A place where you feel like you could facilitate a dialogue and do good if you were really, really trying... But for the last month it's been something that always ends up feeling disgusting. The same toxic wash of everything Hulk just illustrated. Day in. Day out. One person after another. It doesn't go away. It can't be blocked. For perhaps obvious reasons, as we are in the line-of-sight or something. And they [the adherents of Gamergate] are trying to take back their space with vigor and the sad part is that they are using an army of well-meaning people to inadvertently help them do it.

FCH is describing the constant mental cost of opening Twitter and not knowing what you’re going to see. That seems like it’s part of the fun of Twitter: the erratic juxtaposition of private and public, of mundane and world-historic, of somebody’s quiet moment with coffee next to someone’s revolution. But harassment has changed it. The world’s brushfires have leapt to the service.

This isn’t a new feeling for every user. In September, Slate’s Amanda Marcotte confessed that she’d stopped reading her Twitter mentions. They were too hateful, furious, personal, and just plain nonsensical. “What is most exhausting about the reaction, and most reactions I get these days, is how false it all is,” she wrote. When she summarized a study for her blog about how low-income mothers find it hard to cook for their kids, Twitter users accused of hating cooking, of loathing work, of playing the “perpetual victim.”

Marcotte’s story now feels like it could be anyone’s. And even among users less likely to encounter that grade of abuse—that is, men—there’s now an awareness that their friends could be up for it whenever. This is the big, sad lesson many people will take away from Gamergate, and it will be true.

Right now, in some creative industries, Twitter functions as a sort of public address on the open web. With a name or a username, anyone can contact you—which means anyone can threaten you.

To reduce these threats, Twitter could increase its moderation of content posted to the site. But the kind of moderating that would be required to reduce these threats—and especially to reduce the kind of astroturfed, en masse harassment attacks employed by Gamergate—will entail hours upon hours of human labor. That work is financially and emotionally costly. The journalist Adrian Chen spent time at a moderating center in the Philippines and wrote about it this week for Wired. “From the moment you see the first image, you will change for good,” a therapist who works with online moderators told him. Any mass-moderation scheme would increase the number of people who would see these images for good.

So Gamergate is an existential crisis for Twitter. (My colleague Adrienne LaFrance identified a different kind of existential crisis for the service—a loss of vibrancy—back in April.) If the current lack of moderation continues, some high-profile users will give up and log out, and their friends and fans will eventually follow. But all this is a further crisis for a type of online life, one where users are publicly findable and accessible.

Is living such a public life worth the trouble? Is such a life worth being constantly exposed to vitriol and rage and threats from strangers—especially when the patterns of that abuse seem so random? Is the kind of work that would be required to sustain a “good” public, online social network possible? Is asking people to perform that moderating work something we even want to do?