The day before Valentine’s Day, social media created a bizarro-world version of me. I have seen strange ideas about me online before, but this doppelgänger was so far from resembling me that I told friends and loved ones I didn’t want to even try to rebut it. It was a leading question turned into a human form. The net created a person with my name and face, but with so little relationship to me, she could have been an invader from an alternate universe.
It is strange to see such a version of yourself invented and destroyed by networked rage. It made me sad and angry, but even more, I think, it inspired a horrified confusion in myself and those familiar with my work and my character. A digital effigy of me was built and burned.
It started when The New York Times hired me for its editorial board. In January, the Times sought me out because, editorial leaders told me, the Times as an institution is struggling with understanding how technology is shifting society and politics. We talked for a while. I discussed my work, my beliefs, and my background.
I’ve studied online communities since 1995. I know how many underlying technologies work, and how they might relate to their historical antecedents. I have spent time with individuals in various groups—including hanging out in their spaces, witnessing their operations—and written about it. I have worked with Anonymous and other internet communities that dwell far from the Overton window, which describes what sort of public discourse is tolerable. I identify politically as an anarchist pacifist.
I was hesitant with the Times. They were far out of my comfort zone, but I felt that the people I was talking to had a sincerity greater than their confusion. Nothing that has happened since then has dissuaded me from that impression. I think it seemed like it could be a good match for all of us. They were trying something new, and I had experience and understanding of the internet that was hard to get elsewhere. The net is making the world strange. People shouldn’t be overcritical of the Times. The world has changed so fast and so much in the last 20 years. It is too much to ask that an entity that has been flowing and changing at the pace of society since the 1850s be up to date on what is probably the fastest shift in human history that didn’t involve a volcano. But what happens next isn’t only up to the institutions we inherited from the 20th century and before.
If you’re reading this, especially on the internet, you are the teacher for those institutions at a local, national, and global level. I understand that you didn’t ask for this position. Neither did I. History doesn’t ask you if you want to be born in a time of upheaval, it just tells you when you are. When the backlash began, I got the call from the person who had sought me out and recruited me. The fear I heard in that shaky voice coming through my mobile phone was unmistakable. It was the fear of a mob, of the unknown, and of the idea that maybe they had gotten it wrong and done something terrible. I have felt all of those things. Many of us have. It’s not a place of strength, even when it seems to be coming from someone standing in a place of power. The Times didn’t know what the internet was doing—tearing down a new hire, exposing a fraud, threatening them—everything seemed to be in the mix.
I have a teenage daughter, and I have told her all her life that all the grown-ups are making it up as they go along. I have also waggled my eyebrows suggestively while saying it, to make it clear to her that I mean me, too. In that moment, The New York Times and I, we were all making it up as we went along. I didn’t want to harm them, because I believed—and still do—that the better institution they had talked about becoming was something that could help the world. I didn’t particularly want them to harm me, but I also knew that I was tough in a way they aren’t. I have been through this before, and I know who I am, an advantage I have over most of the institutions currently entrusted with the care of our society.
I think if I’d gotten to write for the Times as part of their editorial board, this might have been different. I might have been in a position to show how our media doppelgängers get invented, and how we can unwind them. It takes time and patience. It doesn’t come from denying the doppelgänger—there’s nothing there to deny. I was accused of homophobia because of the in-group language I used with anons when I worked with them. (“Anons” refers to people who identify as part of the activist collective Anonymous.) I was accused of racism for use of taboo language, mainly in a nine-year-old retweet in support of Obama. Intentions aside, it wasn’t a great tweet, and I was probably overemotional when I retweeted it.
I was called a Nazi because of my friendship with the infamous neo-Nazi known on the internet as weev—his given name is Andrew Auernheimer; he helps run the anti-Semitic website The Daily Stormer. In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences. I have been doing this since before his brief time as a cause célèbre in 2012—I believe it’d be hypocritical for me to turn away from this obligation. weev is just one of many terrible people I’ve cared for in my life. I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself. I had what I now see as the advantage of coming from a family of terrible people. This taught me that not everyone worthy of love is worthy of emulation. It also taught me that being given terrible ideas is not a destiny, and that intervention can change lives.
Not everyone believes loving engagement is the best way to fight evil beliefs, but it has a good track record. Not everyone is in a position to engage safely with racists, sexists, anti-Semites, and homophobes, but for those who are, it’s a powerful tool. Engagement is not the one true answer to the societal problems destabilizing America today, but there is no one true answer. The way forward is as multifarious and diverse as America is, and a method of nonviolent confrontation and accountability, arising from my pacifism, is what I can bring to helping my society.
But this isn’t what the internet did with the idea of me that emerged from a scatter of tweets before Valentine’s Day. The internet lets people create and then interact with a character. Regardless of who I am and what I’ve done, there is now a Nazi-sympathizing and homophobic “Quinn Norton” out there: She was born into privilege, and in some versions of this story even attended two universities in California. She is an abusive and deceptive person, who lies about her family, her disabilities, and even her sexuality. She is also fictional, a creation of a collaborative writing process that took place on social-publishing platforms, over a matter of days, between countless people who had never met each other. That creativity, however much I believe it was misapplied in this case, is part of what makes our networks miraculous and wonderfully strange. I wish it hadn’t affected my life, but it also illustrates to me why my work is important, and why I must continue exploring and explaining these things.
I am not immune from these mistakes, for mistaking a limited snapshot of something for what it is in its entirety. I have been on the other side.
In late 2015 I woke up a little before 6 a.m., jet-lagged in New York, and started looking at Twitter. There was a hashtag, I don’t remember if it was trending or just in my timeline, called #whitegirlsaremagic. I clicked on it, and found it was racist and sexist dross. It was being promulgated in opposition to another hashtag, #blackgirlsaremagic. I clicked on that, and found a few model shots and borderline soft-core porn of black women. Armed with this impression, I set off to tweet in righteous anger about how much I disliked women being reduced to sex objects regardless of race. I was not just wrong in this moment, I was incoherently wrong. I had made my little mental model of what #blackgirlsaremagic was, and I had no clue that I had no clue what I was talking about. My 60-second impression of #whitegirlsaremagic was dead-on, but #blackgirlsaremagic didn’t fit in the last few tweets my browser had loaded.
It had a complicated history. It was founded by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the lives and achievements of black women, and had been written about by major media outlets. I didn’t know there was a story I could have gone and looked up to understand this. I later apologized in a post about all of this, but still too defensively. I realized I was wrong quickly in the torrent of feedback, but it felt unfair to me that I didn’t have a path to finding out what was going on in my bleary morning. I had been a victim of something the sociologists Alice Marwick and danah boyd call context collapse, where people create online culture meant for one in-group, but exposed to any number of out-groups without its original context by social-media platforms, where it can be recontextualized easily and accidentally.
Ignorant of the necessary context, and full of righteous anger, I victimized a community I didn’t even know existed. Amongst my many frustrations that morning was finding out that I’d caused harm at all. I woke up thinking I was the good guy. Over the course of the day, I was told that this was especially hurtful coming from me. I stamped my little foot, feeling trapped—I didn’t know what I didn’t know! I wanted someone—probably Twitter, the company—to have planted signposts that could have prevented my mistake. I wasn’t wrong to wish for that, but I was still just plain wrong that morning, and I had to sit with that contradiction for a while. It’s no fun at all.
I had even written about context collapse myself, but that hadn’t saved me from falling into it, and then hurting other people I didn’t mean to hurt. This particular collapse didn’t create much of a doppelgänger, but it did find me spending a morning as a defensive jerk. I’m very sorry for that dumb mistake. It helped me learn a lesson: Be damn sure when you make angry statements. Check them out long enough that, even if the statements themselves are still angry, you are not angry by the time you make them. Again and again, I have learned this: Don’t internet angry. If you’re angry, internet later.
Context collapse is our constant companion online. The openness of the web that has given us so much has given us this phenomenon, too, and it complicates things. It isn’t inherently dangerous, but it does require work and critical thought. The internet makes us telepathic, angry, and weird—but it also lets us collaborate, remix, and rapidly reconfigure one another’s ideas on a massive scale.
Around Valentine’s Day, people found some things I’ve said over the last decade upsetting. Some of those things I said, and the way that I said them, I stand by completely. They require context to understand, but that’s not a flaw—that’s part of what makes them complicated and useful thoughts. Some things I’ve said—mostly things not discovered by the mob, to be honest—are not so great, and I don’t agree with them now. But that’s a worthwhile part of my story. I’d hate to think I haven’t learned anything in the last 20 years. I used to think that color-blindness and not talking about race would fix racism. They won’t. I used to be too scared to let people know when I didn’t understand something, and just muddle through hoping I wouldn’t get caught. That was a terrible way of dealing with the world. I used to think that showing someone how wrong they were on the internet could fix the world. I said a lot of stupid things when I believed that.
I did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus, neither did you, nor did The New York Times. The growing process is always messy and often ugly, whether you’re a person or a caterpillar, or a global network, or the newspaper of record.
Here is your task, person on the internet, reader of journalism, speaker to the world on social media: You make the world now, in a way that you never did before. Your beliefs have a power they’ve never had in human history. You must learn to investigate with a scientific and loving mind not only what is true, but what is effective in the world. Right now we are a world of geniuses who constantly love to call each other idiots. But humanity is the most complicated thing we’ve found in the universe, and so far as we know, we’re the only thing even looking. We are miracles by the billions with powers and luxuries beyond the dreams of kings of old.
I am not, and will never be, a simple writer. I have sought to convict, accuse, comfort, and plead with my readers. I’m leaving the majority of my flaws online: Go for it, you can find them if you want. It’s a choice I made long ago.
If you look long enough you can find my early terrible writing. You can find blog posts in which I am an idiot. I’ve had a lot of uninformed and passionate opinions on geopolitical issues from Ireland to Israel. You can find tweets I thought were witty, but think are stupid now. You can find opinions I still hold that you disagree with. I’m going to leave most of that stuff up. In doing so, I’m telling you that you have to look for context if you are seeking to understand me. You don’t have to try, I’m not particularly important, but I am complicated. When I die, I’m going to instruct my executors to burn nothing. Leave the crap there, because it’s part of my journey, and that journey has a value. People who came from where I did, and who were given the thoughts I was given, should know that the future can be different from the past.
We are powerful creatures, but power must come with gentleness and responsibility. No one prepared us for this, no one trained us, no one came before us with an understanding of our world. There were hints, and wise people, and I lean on and cherish them. But their philosophies and imaginations can only take us so far. We have to build our own philosophies and imagine great futures for our world in order to have any futures at all. Let mercy guide us forward in these troubled times. Let yourself imagine, because imagination is the wellspring of hope. Here, in the beginning of the 21st century, hope is our duty to the future.