Interwhatnow?

I’m one minor annoyance away from writing a booklet about how to behave on the ‘net. I don’t mean an etiquette guide (not an expert) or a cybersafety guide (ditto). What’s really starting to get my goat is how people treat cyberspace as if it were an alternative reality with its own rule, and cast aside their values, standards, and boundaries as a result.

I guess I got lucky, because I was born at the right time: I grew up without the internet, and particularly without social media, but I came to it all early enough to incorporate it usefully into my life. If you took the interwebs away from me, I’d be lost; I use them for all of my data gathering and approximately 90% of my communications. But I have lived almost two decades without them, so I entered the web with a well-developed set of personal values, rules, and habits governing how I run my interpersonal relationships. I wouldn’t do something on cyberspace that I wouldn’t do “in real life”; in fact, to me that distinction is meaningless, because I only have one life. The experiences I have on the internet may not have the potential to result in broken bones, but that doesn’t make them less real to me. If you wanna get technical, online interactions have been proven to affect our brain chemistry, but I personally don’t need scientific data to support my choices. I care about my happiness and well-being; and the quality of my interpersonal relationships and experiences has a huge impact on those, regardless of whether they take place in-person or on the web. A shitty half-hour of my time is a shitty half-hour of my time, regardless of where the shit came from; and, once that time is spent, I can never, ever get it back.

The interactions I have on social media use up my time and affect my mood. Hence, I’m going to make damn sure that they add to my life rather than take from it. Before embarking on a ‘net experience, I’m going to apply the same set of criteria I use to decide whether to give “irl” people or spaces my time and energy: is it useful? Is it going to educate me, entertain me, or enlighten me? Will it make me a better person, or help me live in a better world? If it won’t, then why do I want to give it my time? Once I’m in there, my usual values and boundaries still apply. This sounds like a giant case of “duh” to me, because why the hell would I behave any differently? However, recent experience has suggested that’s not the case, that many people legitimately apply much lower standards to their online interactions, or are willing to give up their standards altogether and embrace those of groups of virtual strangers. I am willing to bet that there is an increasing number of people for whom the transfer is happening the other way round: they are picking up social rules on the ‘net, and transferring them to their “irl” interactions. And that wouldn’t be a problem, except that the standards for behaviour on the ‘net suck so very badly and often entirely obliterate people’s consent, and do so by design.

I know that the principles of consent are usually only applied to sexual relations, but I firmly believe that’s bullshit. Hell, I believe that if we applied the principles of consent consistently throughout our daily life, that would ensure that they are firmly in place when we step into our bedrooms. If someone is trying to force me to put something into my body, it obviously makes a difference to me whether that’s a penis, rectally, or a chunk of marzipan, orally. I will be willing to use a different set of tools to prevent the former activity from taking place. However, it is just as important to me that both situations indicate that the people involved do not respect my agency; and, given that respecting my agency is one of my non-negotiables, I’m going to take steps to ensure that their participation in my life is either greatly curtailed, or ended altogether.

I apply the same criteria to my online interactions. There are things I do not want to do online; for instance, I don’t want to get pulled into fights with strangers, or to be pushed into providing counselling for at-risk people. The former isn’t my idea of fun, and the latter makes me responsible for situations I’m ill-equipped to deal with. I understand that those boundaries are utterly idiosyncratic, that other people may be perfectly happy to do that kind of thing; but they are still my boundaries. They are not negotiable. If I come up against individuals who don’t respect them, I will deal with them in the exact same way I deal with people ‘irl’: I will ask them to cut it out, because <insert reasons here>; if they don’t, I will tell them to cut it out, or <insert consequence here>; if they carry on, I will apply the consequence. As far as I’m concerned, this approach is both fair and effective, which is probably why it is also pretty much the industry-standard for boundary setting. You can also use it to train puppies. It’s simple. It’s nifty. It works.

It is also, increasingly, a giant internet no-no. It is treated as “flouncing” – a term originally designed to describe the act of leaving a group or thread with exaggerated drama – and often punished by public shaming or banning. Let me reiterate that: people on the internet are increasingly being punished for having standards as to what interactions they are willing to participate in, communicating those standards to other participants, and leaving interactions when those standards are not met. We are punishing people for doing on the ‘net what is a basic requirement for personal safety irl. If that’s not fucked up, then I don’t know what is.

The origin of the problem, as I see it, is threefold:

  • the term ‘flouncing’ is vague enough to open itself both to contrasting interpretations and to straight-up abuse;
  • ‘no-flouncing rules’, like all other rules, are tools, and only as good as the people who wield them;
  • and, perhaps most importantly, the people and communities most likely to require you to defend your boundaries are also the people and communities most likely to punish you afterwards.

Let me make this clear: The Venn diagram of the people who don’t believe you have a right to have boundaries that thwart their wishes and the people who will flip their shit at you for enforcing those boundaries is a circle. I don’t particularly have a problem with that; it’s shitty, but that’s just how the world works. But I do have a problem when those people are allowed to weaponize social rules to hurt people. I do have a problem when that kind of misuse is increasingly enshrined in our culture. And I really, really have a problem with subcultures that elevate the theory of sexual consent to a religious dogma on the one hand, and resort to kangaroo courts to punish people exercising their social consent on the other. It’s unfair, it trains people to put up with harmful behaviours, and it punishes the most vulnerable people while empowering the most heartless, or downright abusive. Dunno about you, but I’m not gonna have any truck with that.

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