Women, the Internet, and Gaming

For about 2 months now, the gaming industry has been up in arms over a female game developer who has received some horrific threats to the point that she felt she needed to leave her home.  Another women in the industry felt the need to leave her home this past weekend after she, too, received threats.

I’ve seen this kind of stuff happen for years, both in gaming-related circles, and on the Internet in general.  I have been extremely lucky that I have not received anything close to what one might call harassment.   People disagree with me, sure, but I’ve never received an email or comment that I considered problematic, and I’ve been blogging for ten years.  But I’ve had friends who have, and I’ve seen other, more prominent women bloggers shut down their comments or switch to heavy moderation because they receive terrible comments.

I don’t think most men realize the difference between the kind of comments women get online vs. the kind of comments men get.  Mr. Geeky once had an article that made it to SlashDot.  The most threatening comments he got suggested that he be fired (for trying to make CS more appealing to women).  Contrast that to what many women get when someone disagrees with them.  Commenters often suggest that women with whom they disagree should be raped or killed (often both).  Descriptions of exactly how that should happen are common.  When Kathy Sierra was targeted back in 2006, people photoshopped pictures of her to show what they were going to do to her.  She shut down her blog and left the speaking circuit for a few years because she no longer felt safe.  And she just wrote about web design, not about women’s issues.  Ditto for the two women involved in this latest gaming controversy.

Some people are talking about why this happens and what’s to be done.  Many say that anonymity is part of the problem, that people feel free to say what they might really be thinking when they know they can’t be found out.  In the gaming industry, there’s certainly a locker room culture that includes putting down women, sometimes to the point of harassment and physical threats.  That culture is not just inherent in online games but carries over to blogs, online journals, YouTube, etc.  Despite more women being involved in games, both as players and developers, the industry still caters to 15 year old boys (either in real or emotional age), making it a petri dish for the kind of disgusting behavior one sees in this particular situation and elsewhere.

But not all of the blame can be place on the industry itself.  They’re working on making it better . . . slowly.  It’s also up to us, to not ignore the offhand sexist comment that maybe hasn’t crossed the line yet, but could.  If you’re in a comment thread where the conversation is about harming women, you have an obligation to step in and/or report it.  We create the community online, and if we allow the crazies to take it over, then it becomes a crazy, unsafe community.  Ideally, laws would be strengthened, so that the veil of anonymity cannot be a protection from hateful conduct.  The Internet is still (more than 20 years in) a bit like the Wild West still, and I think it can be tamed without it losing its spirit.  But that’s in part up to us.

Digital Connections: Reality, Addiction, or Something Else?

Over the last couple of days, I’ve spontaneously bumped into several conversations about “being online.” People are wondering, as they have since online was a thing, whether being online is a good thing or a bad thing. Is there such a thing as being online too much? What do we miss when we’re not online? What do we miss when we are? I’m writing this in bed, and both me and Mr. Geeky are online, as we often are, many hours of the day. Our kids are also online many hours of the day. We think about these things a lot. I don’t have any easy answers.

My first encounter this week was with an older post by Dean Shareski that was retweeted. Just the way I found it should tell you something. 🙂 Dean argued that there is no difference between being online and offline in terms of connecting with people. I mostly feel the same way, but as I said in a comment there, I think the whole thing is complicated. There is a slight difference in connecting online and offline. Right now, I think that connecting online in a deep way takes a lot more effort than face-to-face. In a short amount of time in a face-to-face conversation, you can get facial expressions, tone of voice, body language that you just can’t get in an online conversation (although hangouts and skype do come close, but I have very few of those). To capture that same depth online requires more than 140 characters and usually more back and forth. In fact, I would argue that in the days of just blogs (no FB, no Twitter), in depth was easier than it is today. We really did do what I’m doing right now–connecting blog posts together via another blog post–more often. Nowadays, we just tweet it. I do it too. I don’t take the time to comment on the article I tweeted. It’s worth reading the comments on Dean’s post. It is representative of the way a deep conversation/connection can happen online. I’d argue, however, that those are rarer than they should be.

My next encounter was with Rob Cottingham’s comic, which I’ve loved since I first found out about it through Northern Voice 6 years ago (where I presented a video and conversation about this very issue). He, too, thinks this idea that the online world doesn’t matter or isn’t real is a silly one.

Put the online world’s role in your life into perspective — not just where it distracts you from what matters, but where it connects you to it.

And that is where I think most people miss the point. It’s also not what everyone is doing online. Ever since I ventured online, I was doing so to find connections to people. I felt isolated, alone misunderstood, but through my online connections, I found meaning and connection, and eventually, a new career. But many people are online not to connect in a meaningful way but to promote, to stroke their ego, to get the shallow satisfaction of having thousands of “friends”. And these people bother me and they are bringing along with them a way of looking at the online world as a shallow place. Our students seem to start there, in the shallow end. In part, that’s about cognitive development. They’re all about the ego well into their young adulthood. But some will make meaningful connections and we, as educators, can help them do that.

My final encounter was a link from Rob’s site about a 25 day vacation from being online. Thurston sounds like someone who needed a break, who had lost that sense of balance between interacting offline and online, feeling the need to tweet, check in, or post to Facebook every moment of his life. In fact, if I’d seen Thurston online, I dare say I’d have categorized him as one of those people using online spaces just for promotion and not for real connection. And perhaps that’s why he burned out and needed the break. Twice in my life I’ve gotten to that point. The first is documented here. Here’s what I said then:

I just need to think about why I began blogging in the first place and what I really want to be writing here and how it fits into my life. I think in many ways, blogging has been a substitute for the lack of support and recognition I feel in other aspects of my life. That’s not to say that I think blogging is to blame for the imbalance I feel right now. It’s not. It’s just that what I do here has become something different from what I want it to be. . . . The connections I made here are real. I enjoyed reading about other people’s lives and sharing in births and deaths, tenure and job searches, struggles with children and parents. It felt like a community here, a virtual neighborhood where we did more than just wave at each other across the street.

That was one of the worst times in my life, and for whatever good I got out of having an online community, it could not support me enough to help me through my difficulties. There was a clear qualitative difference between the people I was connecting to there and the people around me physically. For a time, I gave the online community more of me and that broke the relationships I had with those around me. The damage from that, in fact, still lingers. I don’t blame the Internet for it. It was just what I happened to turn to.

So what am I trying to say? I will say that I value my connections online. I value that I can write here and people read it and comment and send me email. I value that other people write things that make me think, cry, laugh, etc. I value my connections on Twitter and that we can share resources, have brief chats and help each other there. But when I’m at dinner or in a meeting or sitting with friends talking, I don’t check my twitter feed or my email or my blog. When I go for a walk around town, my phone stays in my pocket except for the occasional photo. Being online is a huge part of my life and part of my work. But it can’t be everything. Here’s how Thurston put it:

I am still a creature of my technological time. I love my devices and services, and I love being connected to the global hive mind. I am neither a Luddite nor a hermit, but I am more aware of the price we pay: lack of depth, reduced accuracy, lower quality, impatience, selfishness, and mental exhaustion, to name but a few. In choosing to digitally enhance, hyperconnect, and constantly share our lives, we risk not living them. We have collectively colluded to take this journey, but we’ve done so inches at a time, not realizing that we have traveled leagues in the process.

We’re still figuring this stuff, individually and as a society. There’s a lot more thinking to do, a lot more connecting dots, wondering, critiquing. These are interesting times.

My ecosystem is dying

Nearly everyone in my online world is in a tizzy about Google reader going away. So much of my online work an cliff is tied up in google reader, I’m not sure how I’ll replace it. The larger issue is not reader itself, but RSS, which reader is built on. My dissertation focused on rss as a technology that binds the web together. RSS enabled me to forgo the tedious task of bookmarking things and checking them periodically for new stuff. I started with bloglines and moved to reader a couple of years later, mostly because the rest of my stuff was going Google. Through reader, I could easily read and share the blogs and other items I read. There’s nothing else out there that I’ve yet seen that does this so cleanly and seamlessly.

The argument has been that everyone is reading and sharing through Facebook and Twitter. Well, yes. And I use those, too, but those are like moseying up to the display table at a bookstore and seeing what the staff has picked out. Reader is like perusing a shelf of books in the library. There was order to it.

When blogs first came on the scene, I jumped in, reading and then writing. RSS was built for blogs, to capture an audience where none yet existed. Thanks to RSS, I had some 300 readers a day. friends of mine had more than that. we built a community around the connections we made. Newspapers and other online media were late to the rss game. I remember when the NYTimes finally got an RSS feed. But now, now there are those little buttons to like and tweet and pin, so no one needs rss anymore, or reader. I think maybe I know what the dawn of the automobile just have been like. One ecosystem faded, but another was built upon its remains. It’s at once sad and exhilarating. In case you’re wondering, I’m lamenting the passing of the old ecosystem. I’m standing around with my thumbs under my suspenders talking about the days when there were no browsers much less RSS. Yep, I’m the get off my lawn, back in my day, kids these days dude of the Internet.

I’m sure I will survive in the new ecosystem. It’s not like I’m totally unfamiliar with what else is out there, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to do the things I used to do with just twitter and Facebook. I’m going to drive my horse and buggy a little while longer.

Speaking out

This is somewhat related to my Joining post above.  These issues are on my mind a lot lately.  The Internet makes it at once easy to participate in something and easy not to.  One can watch a forum, blog, Facebook, Twitter, email thread go by and not say a thing.  Or one can jump in and participate in ways both positive or negative.  Too often, the participation leans to the negative.  Because it’s easy to spout off your opinion or inveigh against the person posting.  But increasingly, I think it’s important to find ways to jump in, and better yet, to do something about whatever issue is at hand.  I’ve seen a couple of these kinds of things happen recently.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick points to one, and Audrey Watters and I have discussed another.  I know these events and postings only in passing via my Twitter stream.

Mostly I am guilty of simply letting something go by, even if I’m disturbed by it, even if I feel my opinion might shape the conversation in positive ways.  And I think too many people do that.  Neither Audrey nor Kathleen did.  And I’m not talking about something super dramatic necessarily, just things in places where one might legitimately help things get better.  And I don’t mean feeding the trolls either.  I mean arguing with someone, or supporting someone, or even, in major cases, reporting someone.  Because if we just let stuff happen, then we can’t be surprised when things turn out in ways we didn’t expect. Increasingly our discourse and discussions are happening primarily online, and I think the tendency sometimes is to think that if it’s just online then it doesn’t affect the “real world.”  Well, online is the real world now and what happens there affects what happens in the real world.  So, for example, how women do or don’t participate in the tech world is hugely shaped by how they’re discussed online or by what happens when they post in tech forums (I’m looking at you, Slashdot and Reddit).  It’s not like Vegas. What happens there doesn’t stay there. It bleeds over into the real world.

I’ve started participating myself, more locally.  There are issues that matter to me.  And I really do believe in the saying that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  Basically, I think I’m done with letting others speak for me.  And I’m ready to do something about some of the issues I care about.  I may be beating my head against the wall, but hey, if you don’t try, you’ve already failed.

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Aaron Swartz and Mental Health

Yesterday, I wrote a post about this, and it disappeared in the ether before I could post it. I can’t recreate it, but I’m going to try.

When I heard about Swartz’s death, my first thought wasn’t about his activism or contributions to the web we’ve all turned to to share our lives, but that I could have been Swartz’s mother. I’m thankful that I’m not in her position, but I can’t help but think that I could be. On Sunday morning, Chris Hayes ended his show with a little bit about Swartz and his depression and encouraged people to get help. I would second that. Our family is living proof that you can get help, and that it works. For those suffering from suicidal thoughts or who know someone who has, the suicide hotline is a great place to turn (1-800-suicide). It saved my son.

Too often, people don’t seek help. For young men and teenage boys, I think there’s an element of feeling embarrassed. Being sad doesn’t fit the macho stereotype society still encourages our boys and men to live up to. Worse, once help is found, it often isn’t covered by insurance or isn’t covered enough. Sometimes patients are allowed only a few visits. And sometimes there’s no coverage for valuable outpatient programs or inpatient programs. Even when it’s covered, co-pays add up, especially when you’re visiting a psychiatrist once a week. Co-pays tend to assume you’re seeing a doctor two or three times a year, not 52 times.

It’s been interesting to me to watch the difference between how people have discussed Swartz’s mental health issues versus the Sandy Hook killer’s issues. There seems to be less sympathy for the latter person, and granted, it is terrible that he took others, young children, down with him, but he was clearly suffering from some kind of problem.

I don’t know. The whole thing is just sad, and I just wish we all treated each other a little better and were a little more understanding. I don’t know enough about either case to know what could have been done to intervene or what was tried. I do think that we ignore mental health issues too often, both in ourselves and others–to sometimes deadly effect.

Invisible friends

Yesterday afternoon, I dropped my son off at a total stranger’s house.  I don’t know too many parents who would do this, but I did it so that he could hang out in real life with a friend he has been Skyping and playing online games with for a couple of years.  I’ll admit to being apprehensive. What if they were scary people? What if something went wrong?  But when we walked in the door, his friend’s mom gave him a big hug, saying, “I feel like I already know you.”  They all couldn’t be nicer.  As I was leaving, the boys were headed out for an adventure.  Geeky Boy’s friend kept calling us while we were on the road, checking in with him about what he might like to do.  Geeky Boy was beyond excited. I don’t even know what they finally settled on. I could have stayed there myself, but I chose to have some time to myself, staying down the road at a hotel.

People are still squeamish about people on the Internet. I’m glad to see that not everyone is. Geeky Boy has always been careful online, but has made some real friends.  This is the first one he’s been able to meet.  I hope there are more.

Another kind of disconnection

I’m headed out for another short trip, and I’m not sure I’ll have Internet.   Mr. Geeky is panicking.  I’m looking at it as an opportunity.  I have books to read (thanks, everyone!).  I have work to do on my classes.  And, I have things to write, which will be more helpful without the distractions of the Internet.

The kids, too, have books to read and other things to read.  We’re bringing some board games.  It’s just funny how much we have to do, but we never do it anymore because we have the Internet.  We’d rather watch YouTube or read FailBlog than do things in physical space.  It’s not that we never play a game or (gasp) have a conversation, but it’s just that the computer trumps other things.  One week without it isn’t going to change everything, but it might shake things up a bit.

Could you live without the Internet?

I’m at a conference and my accommodations have no Internet and no tv.  In fact, there’s only one outlet.  When I’m on vacation, I expect to be disconnected, but this is a work-related trip.  I expect not only to be able to do work things, but also check in with family and friends via the Internet.  I felt a little antsy, I must admit.  Even most of my reading material is on either my computer or my Nook, and I couldn’t access either without the Internet.  Luckily, I’d brought some non-digital material to read.  But, as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what it might be like to forgo the Internet for a while.  I’m not sure I could do it.  I could give up aspects of the Internet–Twitter, Facebook, even WoW, I could live without.  But I download movies, books, read the news, even watch tv with the help of the Internet.

But maybe I should think more about how I use the Internet.  I tend to do so reflexively as its been part of my work now for about 15 years.  Here’s an example.  I’ve hopped on the Google+ bandwagon, and when I look at it, I don’t think it’s revolutionizing my social network.  It’s still a stream of random information from *mostly* random strangers.  And most of that is information I don’t really need.  One could argue I might need the connections to people, but I’m not sure that’s even true.  I’m not trying to sell something or promote myself, though I grant that my school actually likes the publicity, so there’s that.  There are people out there I want to stay connected to–former students, former classmates, colleagues in my field.  But do I need three different places to keep up with them?

I know this line of thinking is old hat, even for me.  But I think this is connected somewhat to my lamentations about summer.  It’s all too easy to spend hours on end on the Internet, whether it’s playing a game, watching funny videos, or reading blogs.  There’s nothing wrong, of course, with leisure, with just goofing around.  But I think I”m starting to agree with some critics who suggest that the Internet weakens our ties, and is generally shallow.  It doesn’t have to be, but it lends itself to being that way.  Witness the shift from blogs to Facebook and Twitter.  Where once people used to post a link and comment on it, now they just post it to Twitter, often without adding anything to it.   That can be seen as more efficient.  After all, who needs commentary from random people.  But that’s what I found interesting, actually.  What do “real” people think about this issue?  Much of that is gone.

Perhaps the real question is, what do we do with the Internet now?  Now that Twitter (and now Google+) are the media of choice.  Now that passive forms of entertainment like tv and movies have migrated from a box that sits in the living room to any box with an Internet connection.  And now that our data (via sites like Facebook) is out there for any marketer, government agent, or a nefarious person to get to.  While some of us have been thinking about this all along, most people have rushed headlong into putting everything out there, into connecting without thinking about what that means, into just getting lost in wires.

Thoughts on being online

Over the last year, I’ve noticed several blogs pass into oblivion, either with or without an announcement.  This week, Bitch, Ph.D. said goodbye.  Several of the blogs of people I’ve been reading for 5 or 6 years are either gone or on a very sporadic schedule.  Twitter and Facebook seem more popular, though I have no desire to spend much time there.  My WoW guild is having an existential crisis of sorts.  Several members have left, citing both a boredom with the way the game works now and an increase in the need to spend time with work or family.  I, too, have spent less time online than I once did.  At first I did so out of a feeling that I was spending too much time online and not giving enough attention to other things in my life.  But now, it’s because I literally don’t have time.

I have a couple of thoughts about what appears to me to be not a “death of blogs” or “death of the online world” moment, but certainly a moment of transition.  Some of the disappearance, especially of blogs is a factor of commercialization.  As corporations set up blogs or media outlets like the Huffington Post arise, the small-time blogger has a harder time keeping up.  It’s impossible to keep up volume-wise and there’s the inevitable loss of audience as a result.  There are exceptions, but I do think a lot of us liked blogging because it felt like a community.  We got comments.  We had conversations in the comment threads, between blogs, etc.  I see that happening much less now.  I used to comment a lot.  It’s much more rare now.

I also wonder if some of us who’ve been online a while are getting bored.  Honestly, I’ve been participating in online communities for twenty years.  Every four or five years, the world would shift and a new type of community would emerge.  Nothing new along those lines has really emerged for a while.  Yes, there’s Facebook (been there since 2004).  And there’s Twitter (been there since 2007).  Neither of those offer the in-depth reading I want, nor the community I’d like.

I also think the online world is being used for other things.  Gaming thrives, but older games like WoW are losing their appeal, especially for those who’ve been playing for a while.  All of my guildmates agree that it wouldn’t be fun for us without the community aspects of the game, but increasing games are not meant to build community.  We’re still waiting to see if the expansion brings that concept back, but even I feel kind of blah about it.  Video has exploded, bringing our tv mentalities to the web.  So we pull up video on Hulu and watch for a 1/2 hour or hour and then we feel like we’re done.  And then there’s our phones and other devices, like the iPad and the Kindle, which offer other kinds of activities, most of which are disconnected.

I realize there are some people out there just now discovering all the wonders of the Internet, but for me, it’s starting to lose its luster.  And that’s left me with a bit of gap, entertainment wise.  My family asked me why I wasn’t raiding last night.  And I said, essentially, “Meh.”  I told Geeky Girl I needed a new hobby.  She asked me what I liked to do, and it was hard to come up with anything.  When I was kid, my hobby was writing, thus the appeal of blogging.  As I got older, I picked up needlepoint, but that takes more time than I have and I’m not that interested in the results.  I’ve never been much of a gardener.  Most plants that come into my house don’t leave alive.  I have no artistic talent for painting or pottery or even jewelry making.  I’m interested in politics, but not enough to go out and volunteer a lot.  And even though I have some time for myself, between work and managing kids and the house, I’m not looking to fill a huge amount of time.

Don’t worry, I’m not shutting down Geeky Mom any time soon, but I am doing some thinking about my life online.  I think it’s fair to say that the Internet will always be a part of my life, but what I choose to do on it (with it?) may be transitioning, as, I think it is for many people.

Thinking more about the Internet

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the Internet and my own relationship to it, which is now 20 years in.  It began with email and newsgroups and talk and expanded with the web, IRC, blogging, and gaming.  It is a key way I communicate and interact with people.  Back in 1996, when I was at home with Geeky Boy, unemployed and mostly bored out of my mind, I logged onto the school-provided modem and started surfing the web for parenting information.  I landed at a site called “Parent Soup,” which I know some others of you out there participated in back in the day.  The best part about this site was it’s IRC chat.  In real time, I could carry on conversations with other parents.  It was a godsend.  I had no car and no real connections, being new to the neighborhood.  It staved off loneliness and boredom, and was something I participated in for several years.  I even met some of the people from those chats in real life.

But it was no substitute for face-to-face connections.  I still needed those, and still do.  For me, there’s just something that feels different about having face-to-face friends, people I can run into at the store or that hang out at my house for dinner.  Typically, when I lack those connections, I have turned to the Internet to fill in the gap.  And I think that can be a positive thing.  It can keep me from feeling too disconnected.  But one can also invest too much in those online connections.  Back in the Parent Soup days, I know there was a time when I got too involved and felt myself neglecting the people around me.  I did the same with blogging a few years ago.  While I know that real friendships can form online and many of the people I interact with online are people I’ve met, there’s something lacking, for me, in those online interactions.  And favoring those over the more immediate relationships with my family and friends has not always been a good thing for me.

The thing is, the Geeky family is relatively social, but we’re also prone to letting inertia set in rather than schedule time with friends and family (I’m talking to you Mr. Geeky).  As we’ve gotten better about that, I’ve felt my online interactions normalize.  It’s easy to step away from the computer when you have things to step away from the computer to.  I think that’s why gaming hasn’t led to the neglectful attitude that IRC and blogging did.  And, I think I learned something from those prior instances.  I recognize now when I’m starting to drift away.

There’s still the issue of the Internet as a source of stimulation, apart from the people.  Most of my work is done on the computer, some with some without the Internet.  But the Internet is there: email, twitter, Facebook.  It’s almost always in the background.  So, I think I’m going to challenge myself.  On Monday, I’m going Internet-free.  Mostly.  For business reasons, I still need to check email, but I will do that only 3 times–morning, noon, and 5 p.m.  Otherwise, no online newspaper, no Twitter, no Facebook, no gaming.  I asked Mr. Geeky if he could do it, and he said, sure, I’d go camping or something.  And I said, yes, but could you do it if you had access to it and chose not to access it.  And he said, Umm, why would I do that?

I’m not trying to say the Internet is bad, but I think it’s good to examine how much one relies on the Internet and for what purposes.  Is it to keep your brain occupied, to avoid housework (ahem), or because you can’t think of anything better to do?  And I think there are other things in our lives–cars, electricity–that are worth abstaining from in order to recognize how much we depend on them.  Of course I’ll be reporting on the experience.  And if you’d like to join in, feel free to!