On Social Media

We are social creatures. No doubt there are evolutionary reasons why this is so and why it persists, although I’m not qualified to do more than speculate. However, it seems self evident that there are advantages to acting as a group, from care and feeding of young all the way up to coping with environmental challenges and defending against predators, meteorites and space aliens.

Being social has its own challenges. Members of a family, tribe or other social unit will need to absorb the mores of that unit in order to survive. As any parent might tell you, this necessary learning occurs through a mix of formal instruction and a kind of behavioural osmosis—monkey see, monkey do, if you like.

Those who for whatever reason fail to learn these mores can not only fail to fit in but also become actively excluded. Sociopaths and outcasts.

People with Aspergers, who find it difficult to pick up on and interpret cultural osmosis cues, can end up incredibly isolated and vulnerable. Everyday communication, with all its nonverbal subtext, is a nightmare. Then came the Internet: from email and BBSs and USENET right up to Twitter; the ability to communicate without worrying about subtleties in body language, without even having to know that such things exist, must have been a godsend. The Internet became a family. (This, by the way, is part of the reason I refuse to make a serious distinction between Internet-related social activity and ‘real life’. It is very real, and real relationships are made and broken.)

Unfortunately, while this family brought a sense of belonging, much of the instructional imperative of a more immediate, physical family was lost. As in physical families there were fights and arguments, but precious little of the guidance and instruction that a mother or father (should!) give their children to equip them to function in society.

The sort of example I mean? Letting them know they are standing too close to someone, or that the other person’s facial expression is showing discomfort; maybe change the subject. It isn’t appropriate to say those things in public. It isn’t appropriate to say those things to a young woman in public OR private.

Or maybe, perhaps more pertinently: those things might have been ok when you were all peers, but now you are a supervisor/boss/have authority, and so the whole game has changed.

And this is a problem because we have ended up with a situation where somebody has behaved badly, and continued to behave badly, because nobody in the online community said “wait, this is wrong, and you need to stop.” Rather, the online community that should have been teaching, instructing, supporting ended up braying for his blood.

I’ve been exchanging DMs with somebody with professional psychological experience. Their take is that this man—through no fault of his own—is clueless about boundaries: “He was like a kid in a candy store shoplifting, and people let him because he’s oh, so cute”. He didn’t get that it was wrong, which is no defence, but not one of us told him, or tried to make him stop. As my psychologist contact says, “Everyone in the science community enabled that shit to continue because no one ever said STOP… every one of us encouraged it to a degree, with the #ihuggedBora thing, the Blogfather, cuddle, cuddle, don’t we heart him… He was just going along, hunky-dory, enjoying life, and meanwhile, women were traumatized.”

Don’t misunderstand me. Bora did wrong, and is paying for that. But the blame is not his alone. Somebody told me on Twitter that many of the incidents happened one-on-one, that we didn’t know it was happening.


We knew, didn’t we? Which one of us really didn’t think the #ihuggedBora thing was just a little bit creepy? And we remained silent. I have seen conversations on social media which made me, as an observer, uncomfortable. The victim didn’t seem to mind, and I didn’t say anything. In retrospect they did mind; they just didn’t have anyone to turn to. I could have, should have said something. And I bet I’m not the only one.

We, as a community, let Bora down—and as a consequence we have allowed women to be hurt. We let them, the victims, down, too. For what it’s worth, I am sorry for that.

Let’s not leave it there. Let us own that culpability, and figure out not just how we can rehabilitate Bora (because the man is only human and is really hurting right now), but how we can support his victims, as well as STOP IT THE FUCK HAPPENING AGAIN.

Because if we are to participate in this rather bizarre online community, we have a responsibility to our fellow human beings to watch out for them, to prevent inappropriate behaviour, to talk to just one trusted person if we think we are witnessing harassment or abuse or anything that makes us itchy. It is just as real as the physical world, and it’s our responsibility to make it better.

Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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4 Responses to On Social Media

  1. steffi suhr says:

    I was worried where you were going with this at first, but after reading it all I agree you have a point – *if* everyone saw what was going on. I didn’t, not even remotely, but then I’m not plugged in most of the time/don’t see what’s going on. (I just found the #ihuggedbora thing stupid).

  2. I completely missed this, but like Steffi I am not paying attention to Twitter and other social media most of the time. I do like your reasoned argument toward community involvement, even though that community may be electronic, though.

  3. Kaye says:

    Richard, I’m looking at this as an observer from outside the science blogging community – a reader but not a writer of blogs so I was previously unaware of the situation.

    I was shocked and dismayed to read about the abuse of power (intentional or otherwise) exemplified in these cases, and the shattering effect it had on the victims. I applaud the women who have been brave enough to speak out. However, people are complex and a few misdemeanours don’t negate the good things a person has accomplished, or make that person beyond redemption. You write about Bora’s rehabilitation – I like that choice of word – but whatever happens to him next must be a deterrent. Not only to Bora-I wish to believe he is a smart enough and nice enough guy to have learnt not to repeat his actions-but to all the other people in positions of trust who are carrying out this kind of intolerable behavour right now and just haven’t been called out yet.

  4. rpg says:

    Kaye, thanks for this. There are many things we have to balance and get right now, including the chance of redemption (and not just for him).

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