Homophily, Intersectionality and Institutional Cultures as played out on Social Media

This has been a bad week for trust and humanity on the Interwebz. First Kathy Sierra left Twitter for reasons she gives in this article (having already been driven off social media and public engagements in 2007), then Julie Pagano who describes how she became a tech feminist killjoy from working in the tech industry.

Wikipedia defines a troll as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a serious and respected organisation that defends the Internet as a platform for free speech. There is a culture, visible but not universal in some gaming communities, technical forums and the tech community in general that is voluble about its defence of Internet free speech, seeing it as under threat from any attempt to curb what many of us might see as pathological behaviours.  In this culture, the word troll is used ambiguously, suggesting playfulness and defending anything that is done to combat those who are seen to challenge free speech.  This article, from its own particular slant , suggests a political link to free speech “To conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, it’s a welcome pushback against left-wing cultural diktat, particularly in the area of gender politics.”

EFF’s defence of anonymity is admirable when considered as a means of enabling whistle-blowers, say, but anonymity is experienced differently when short-lived anonymous Twitter accounts post obscene images and threats to their chosen targets.  Internet culture can be a culture of truth/ lies, right/wrong – no shades within the discourse, and some see trolling as a necessary part of free speech online.

“The trolls are the immune system of the internet, and if you have the immune system ganging up on you, then you need to fight back or give up, according to whether they are right or you are right.” Commenter on Kathy Sierra’s article in Wired

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence of women being abused online but social media may be exposing an existing epidemic rather than causing that abuse.  It’s tempting to see a gender split between male trolls and women victims but it’s much more complicated than that. There are trolls and victims of all genders and races, and ‘trolling’ is subjective – the same post being perceived very differently by different people.

For me, the death threats and intimidation that Kathy Sierra experienced were criminal harassment and such harassment should be pursued vigorously under the laws of the country in which it happened. But this extreme behaviour exists in the context of online networks where apparently rational people can disbelieve the existence of threats, or even condone them as being justifiable when the recipient is seen as challenging Internet free speech/ in favour of censorship (even when they haven’t ).

cathysierra When I searched for posts aimed at Kathy Sierra’s Twitter account, I came across these amongst the last sent to her stream.


I was struck by two aspects: first the characterisation of Kathy Sierra as a passive-aggressive troll; and secondly, the patronising way in which she was advised how to behave online.  The author of those tweets expressed himself in a rational manner, not appearing to be the sort of person who would harass anyone online.  But it seems to me that in the circles around the extreme harassers are rational people with strong views on freedom who lend support to the less rational who carry out the vile harassment.











What stories like Julie Pagano’s tell us is that this is a reflection of tech work culture played out in offices and online. Around this tech culture is yet another circle of ‘male allies’ whose existence I became aware of through #gchmanwatch, where a panel of ‘male allies’ lectured women on how to solve gender problems in the workplace – with no opportunity for questions.  I can recommend the viewing the storify for a rich view of what went on.


The silenced audience amused themselves by completing a bingo card with phrases the male allies used in their speeches.

The thing that it is supposed to come with freedom, responsibility, may help shed some light on what is going here. If the culture in which you live your life online tells you that it’s OK if harassment is collateral damage in the cause of freedom of speech on the Internet, then you are wanting that freedom without responsibility.  You may claim that you are not directly responsible. If you are a leader in technology who tells yourself that you are helping to solve gender discrimination in the workplace by telling women how to behave differently, then you are ducking your responsibility.

Homophily is the principle that a contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. On the Internet, (Alstyne & Brynjolfsson, 2004) characterised this as voluntary balkanisation with a loss of shared experiences that was damaging to the development of both democratic societies and de-centralised organisations.

So the same Internet that promised freedom and a Global Village is the one where we allow ourselves to reinforce our views by hanging around with people who think like us, and over time we lose trust in people who might think slightly differently. Surely we can do better than this?

I have been thinking recently about the (lack of )diversity in my own Twitter network, and I captured some of the ideas sparked by others in a storify that I concluded with

“But it is a good question – when we network across multiple channels how can we maintain the tension between diversity and drowning? If we pick “really great people” to connect to we are subject to their (lack of) diversity and to the Spiral of Silence.”

Maybe we can employ intersectionality that Wikipedia defines as “the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.”  So when we think about tech culture, we don’t just think about in terms of gender but also class, race and other categories. I am a practical person, and I am trying to extend my Twitter network to include people whose struggles I understand less well.

My last example is of institutional appropriation of social media and the ethics of anonymous monitoring. Sara Ryan blogged the experiences of her 18 year old son, who had learning disabilities, and was admitted to an Assessment Centre, where he later died, having had an epileptic seizure when unattended in the bath (fuller account here). An independent report found his death to have been preventable and Sara has been using social media to campaign for #justiceforLB.

Last week, Sara discovered that, despite assurances to the contrary from the Chair of the Health Board, her blog had been monitored and a briefing issued that seemed to be aimed at damage limitation and media management. Two worrying issues emerge from the briefing: first that monitoring of the blog revealed Sara’s concerns about the dangers of her son fitting unattended but were ignored; and secondly that the Trust saw itself as the victim of ‘trolling’ on Twitter.

I think that all of these examples show the balkanisation of social, organisational and extra-organisational cultures mediated through face to face and Internet communication.  The question is – what can we do about it?

  • We can look at how we can understand and appreciate the experiences of others by really listening
  • We can take a break like Kathy Sierra and Julie Pagano have done
  • We can challenge hostile and malignant cultures by mocking them like #ghcmanwatch did or when a grave injustice has occurred by campaigns like #justiceforLB

Note: These are complex ideas and this post is my first attempt to work through them. I welcome factual corrections/ constructive criticism


Thanks to:

Richard Hall for reminding me of the importance of love and the importance of producing our world collectively – you can watch/listen to his professorial inaugural at http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/10/09/on-my-inaugural/

My dear friends Jenny Mackness and Mariana Funes who have helped me think about the ethics of online learning and being and how things might be different
Trust and security in open networks

Victoria (best wishes with that PhD) who wrote a great post about trolling

My great Twitter network who help me reflect, look near and far, and cheer me up when I get grumpy

Alstyne, M. Van, & Brynjolfsson, E. (2004). Global Village or Cyber-Balkans ? Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities. Management Science, 1–37.