Whether you think the internet is a great or terrible place is partly a reflection of which parts of the internet you choose to visit. It's also a reflection of who you are, and how people online react to you. Mikki Kendall is a writer who deals with an extraordinary amount of trolling and vitriol online. Mikki is a black woman in real life, and she created an experiment to see how her online life would change if she were a white man.
PJ Vogt: So Alex and I were talking about the show recently, and we were talking about how the vision that we tend to have of the Internet is a pretty optimistic one. Bad things happen, but people are mostly well intentioned. But talking about the Internet as a monolith doesn't actually make a lot of sense, like there are various Internet's within the Internet. And a lot of times when people say "The Internet's terrible" or "The Internet's wonderful" what they mean is their Internet is terrible, their Internet is wonderful. The things that they choose to expose themselves to are good or bad.
Part of that's not just what you're looking at, it's who you are. One of the reasons that Alex and I think the Internet is generally is a nice place is because we're white dudes, and the Internet is not very terrible to white dudes.
Mikki Kendall's a writer who writes a lot on the Internet. She's also black and a woman and her Internet is wildly different from our Internet. Not because of what she's choosing to look at or where she's choosing to go, but because people sling vitriol at her because they can look at her avatar and see her race and her gender.
Every morning Mikki wakes up, opens her phone, looks at Twitter, and just sees tweet after tweet of personal invective and vitriol hurled at her. This isn't "you're an idiot" or "I disagree with your ideas," these are death threats and rape threats and threats against her family from people who just disagree with things she's written online.
Mikki Kendall: I'm like open Twitter when I first wake up, 'cause yes I check Twitter like people check the morning paper, I admit it. I would have these really angry trolls, right? And they weren't just trolls, some of them were people who when you click through were theoretically reasonable human beings, but not on the topic of the tweet they responded to.
PJ: A lot of people will tell you that if you're getting spam or abuse to just block it out. She knows that. When she blocks it out the trolls find a way around the blocks.
MK: I also will have people who create new accounts, because they'll have their account blocked, and they'll just keep creating. There's a guy whose up to I think 40 plus accounts now, and that's all he does. He just keeps making a new account — he actually sticks a number on it, so I know where we are in this number of accounts — to tell me that if I were raped I would deserve and any one of a dozen other things.
PJ: A few months ago one of Mikki's friends, a writer named Jamie Nesbitt Golden, tried an experiment where she changed her Twitter avatar so that it was the face of a white guy. Just to see what would happen. And the results were so interesting that Mikki started this thing called the race swap experiment, where everybody was encouraged to change their race and gender online so that everybody got to see what it was like to experience the Internet, and the world, as somebody other than themselves.
So to understand how this unfolded the best place to start is with Jamie's experience.
MK: One of the things she kept talking about was how little trolling she got. People would either engage with her genuinely, or she just didn't even get the comments in the first place.
PJ: Her avatar is a white dude, but she's still talking about the stuff that she's interested in. Like the content is the same, it's just the face that she's slapping on it?
MK: Yes, it's literally the exact same jokes, the exact same tweets about race, the exact same tweets about being a black woman. It was actually so ridiculous that she would talk about being a black woman and get responses from people who somehow decided she was a white guy.
PJ: What would people say then?
MK: Oh they would start - she would talk about. Let's say she talks about abortion and...abortion access. And, versus, other aspects of reproductive healthcare and the focus. And you would get the same people who would be telling someone else that they knew was a black female in that conversation, y'know, they were a terrible person just wanted to have abortions blah blah blah. They would approach her as though here is a reasonable man talking about this problem. Let's really discuss these things with you. And would ask her why it was so important and what were the other factors and where was the evidence about this and all of these things. And it was bizarre to watch because she wasn't saying anything different.
PJ: I think that's insane. Like I feel like if I were in that situation I would have two conflicting feelings, one is like "Jesus Christ that's horrifying" and two is like, that it would almost be a relief. Like everyone's always like, doesn't see this thing, here's an example of this thing that literally you can change the face, the same words, totally different response. It's just so clear cut.
MK: It was essentially. When I tried it I was talking about abortion, and this guy who came to tell me that abortion clinics where only in black neighborhoods and this and that and the other, like he and I have had interactions before. He was reasonable. He was calm, he was curious. You should remember my name, since you've been in my mentions to troll me three times before now, but now you are looking at the stats from the Guttmacher Institute about where abortion clinics are and all of these things. And you just, "I had no idea, I'd always been told, and blah blah blah." I have shown him that same information in the past, with my real face.
I still got the occasional angry comment, but none were gendered, none were racialized. It was actually more, more likely to be something like "oh you're a jerk, or you're an asshole." That kind of thing.
PJ: Was there any part of you that didn't wanna go back?
MK: Kinda. So it felt very strange to see someone else's face looking at me. But I'll be honest, I think I'm going to start rotating through flowers or cats or I don't know, something, because one of the things that's really nice is not waking up to see 62 comments calling me everything but a child of god.
PJ: Part of the experiment was also white writers, like white male writers, using avatars of women or people of color, right?
MK: Right. And so there were a couple of people I know of who switched over, at least one of whom I think said they lasted about 2 hours.
MK: And then. Ya. Well he did it on more than one place, and so once it was on Twitter and I think it was...was it Facebook or Tumblr, it may have been Tumblr. And I'm trying to remember who it was, 'cause it wasn't someone I knew well, but I saw the retweets circulating around in the hashtag. And basically said I've been called 14 names in like 2 hours, I don't know how you all do this.
PJ: Like how do you do it, you just get used to it?
MK: I have a very ornery disposition, we will put it that way. I refuse to be driven off the Internet because they want me to be driven off the Internet. You want me to be quiet. Just because you want that now I'm not gonna give it to you. It has meant that I had to make some changes. I wrote about having to have a second trimester abortion procedure and I wound up with a real stalker. And the pro-life, the far fringe pro-life crowd really harassing me, so I don't live where I used to live, and my last name on the bell and on the phone and things is not the last name that I write under. We moved not only back to Chicago, but very specifically into dense urban areas, because when you live in the inner city the chances of a white guy who wants to come shoot at you 'cause you talk about abortion drop.
PJ: Why is this, I guess I'm so literally privileged in that I get to, I just don't have to worry, I don't have to think about my safety on the Internet. I can put my phone number out, I can put my address out, I, it doesn't even occur to me. And because of that I think I have an idea, I think the Internet that I see is like an artificially nice Internet. Like I think a lot of the ugliness is hidden from me. And it's not for you, but you also still choose to live a ton of you life online, like why is it still worth it?
MK: So, and this is a thing I think that people don't realize, is that often when I am stopped on the street — I've been recognized on the street and I've been recognized at cons — very young woman of color, and young white women too, come up and they thank me for speaking. And the day they stop thanking me for speaking is probably they day I'll stop talking. But they are so happy someone is saying these things and talking about these things. And they maybe can't or won't be the one facing all of this noise, but I would rather the people yell at me than yell at them.
PJ: TLDR was produced this week by me, PJ Vogt, with Alex Goldman. Our Executive Producer is Kat Rogers, our Engineer is Jen Munson, our Intern is Ethan Chiel, and our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. You can find more TLDR at tldr.onthemedia.org, and you can subscribe to our podcast in iTunes. If you're hearing us on the On The Media feed, you should check us out on our feed as well, where our episodes come out a bit earlier. We tweet @tldr, as well as at our personal accounts, @pjvogt and @agoldmund, we are TLDR.