Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Sexism, Racism, and general Hatefulness Thrives in the Virtual World

There have been several incidents that show how the virtual world and social networking empower the ugliness in the human heart. There is the case of the message board, AutoAdmit (also known as XOXOXHTH). Anonymous messages there so slandered women, people of color and gays, often by name, that some of them saw problems getting jobs after stellar careers in law school. Two law school deans have sent a public letter to the owners of the board, complaining, and Google pulled its ads from the site noted in the Washington Post. Hiding behind the anonymity of the message board chat, disgruntled students made sexist, racist and homophobic comments about their fellows, some of whom had no idea they were featured on the site. The problem first came to light, in another Washington Post article here.

Another disturbing virtual attack was the mobbing of an avatar on Second Life. The largest landowner in Second Life, Ailin Graef, was being interviewed as her avatar on a virtual stage, by a real-life reporter for C-Net. Griefers began posting multiple images of giant penises, and so disrupted the interview that it was stopped. Then, they posted videos of the event on YouTube. Reports and here.

What disturbs me, looking at both the Second Life and the AutoAdmit stories, is the way that virtual networking enables such attackers to remain anonymous. They feel safe to say and do things that are socially unacceptable because nobody knows who they are. I think most of the people would not have the nerve or cruelty to make such attacks in person -- both because they would fear the censure for themselves, and perhaps because it is easier to attack when you don't see the shock and hurt look on the victim's face. I love the developments of virtual society in so many other ways -- you can be anybody online. That's very empowering. If only it just empowered the good parts!

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