Can you imagine a scenario in which your male colleague posts photos to a porn site, falsely claiming that they’re of you, and after you bring this news to the proper workplace authorities, you are eventually suspended for a year? Yeah, neither can I.
This stupifying chain of events actually happened to a female Wikipedia editor who goes by the username Lightbreather. In 2015. In America.
Wikipedia, a “live collaboration” online encyclopedia, is written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. About 73,000 editors—from expert scholars to casual readers—regularly edit Wikipedia, all of whom are subject to upholding the five pillars that compose the site’s fundamental principles. After discovering the pornographic images that her fellow Wiki editor had falsely claimed to be of her, Lightbreather felt that the pillar detailing how “editors should treat each other with respect and civility” had been violated. The elected board that handles such matters apparently did not agree.
What’s worse, this wasn’t the first time that Lightbreather had faced a curious Wikipedia culture when it comes to women. Consider that Lightbreather had previously attempted to create a discussion group dedicated to Wikipedia’s civility policy. That attempt was denied but not before a discussion ensued, including the suggestion that “the best way to avoid being called a c**t is not to act like one.” (Wait, what?) Following that, Lightbreather briefly participated in the site’s Gender Gap Task Force, which she opted to quit after male editors started questioning the point of the task force, asking for proof that a gender gap even existed within the site (Wikipedia self-reports that 84 to 91 percent of its editors are male).
It’s a tumultuous time to be a woman with a presence on the Internet. I was recently on the local news being interviewed about an essay I wrote detailing a commitment I made in 2012 not to purchase a single new item. Want to know what the feedback on the news segment consisted of? Mostly remarks about my appearance. I was baffled. Here I had voluntarily taken on a meaningful and challenging personal experiment and agreed to let a reporter into my home to discuss how the endeavor had transformed me. And someone’s reaction was to take to message boards and say that I look like Bruce Jenner.
I was so stunned by the comments on the news interview, in large part because I’ve never encountered that kind of feedback in real life. I’ve worked in sales and marketing for a decade, from a Fortune 500 company to a homegrown law firm, and I’ve been fortunate to have generally always felt respected in my work. In the instances where I’ve made mistakes, my coworkers and bosses have been fair and civilized, keeping any criticism constructive and relevant. Using my own experience as a gauge, it has seemed to me that the gender gap in workplace hierarchy might not be so big after all.
But in an ironic sleight of hand, the Internet—the shining beacon of the future—has created the exact scenario that we couldn’t imagine at the beginning of this article, in which it is Lightbreather who gets suspended, not the guy who harassed her. The dynamics of interacting with each other remotely, facelessly, and, in the case of many Wikipedia editors, namelessly, creates fertile ground for a kind of decades-old misogyny that would never fly in most professional settings in 2015. The trick, of course, is anonymity.
Would Lightbreather’s co-editor have ever dared to post fraudulent pornographic images of her if he had to see her in the office break room? Would my Bruce Jenner hater have ever made that comment if it had been a remark at the lunch table instead of just text on a screen?
Not only does anonymity give some Internet users the evil courage to spew vitriol, but it can sometimes lead to victim blaming as well. Lightbreather’s photo-posting coworker was not reprimanded because Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee feared that addressing the matter would publicly expose the user’s real name. In the end, the conflict is over before it was ever allowed to begin, and the victim is the one who paid a price.
Remember 2014’s “Celebgate,” when Jennifer Lawrence and a host of other starlets got hacked by an anonymous troll, and their racy photos were revealed? One common response to the scandal was to blame celebrities, faulting them for taking the photos in the first place or not having tighter security. While it’s not unreasonable for everyone to protect themselves, the focus should be first and foremost on the wrongdoing of the hackers. The conflict has largely died down, yet without a hacker to blame, we still question J. Law’s choices.
It’s not just Wikipedia’s editor demographics that point to a gender gap at the company. Perhaps the fact that it’s a company that is comprised, in part, by anonymous users on the Internet makes a gender gap impossible to avoid. Despite all the progress that women in the workplace have made over the past century, the Internet is still largely a new frontier. And with that comes a new fight for equality. Lightbreather and the countless other women who have fought to have their voices heard over the cowardly typed text of sexist Internet trolls are representatives for our generation’s fight for equality online.
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