norms and normativity: what constitutes bullying on the internet?

Paging Eszter Hargittai! And Bob Sutton! And any other sociologists who care!

There is currently a big debate/kerfuffle/brouhaha brewing in the legal blogosphere, or as we not-so-charmingly-and-quite-possibly-narcissistically call it, the “blawgosphere.” The long story not-so-short, in comments to this post, Prof. Ann Bartow of Feminist Law Professors* suggested that to re-post someone’s personally identifiable comment made on another blog to your own blog post without first notifying the author and giving them notice and opportunity to respond, constitutes bullying in the blogosphere. I interpret Prof. Bartow’s comment to be that if your intent is use someone else’s name and statement to solicit comments/discussion in a potentially critical or uncivil forum or to criticize them yourself, then the civil, collegial thing to do would be to notify that person and alert them to a new forum where they may respond to a discussion concerning themselves/their argument, and to do otherwise would constitute bullying. Indeed, we can all acknowledge without agreeing or disagreeing with Prof. Bartow’s comment that comment threads can indeed take nasty turns and turn into a pile-on of personality-based attacks rather than civil, substantive arguments.

This comment was immediately taken up by several law professors and law bloggers, many in disagreement with Prof. Bartow’s comment. Being law professors, some of the comments appeared to articulate legal-ish arguments about what constitutes real harassment and bullying (and whether arguments about incivility in the blogosphere detract from legitimate concerns about “real” bullying), and whether such behavior is best identified by intent or effect, and whether the perspective of the injured or the injuring was most pertinent. Indeed, that idea of “notice” and “opportunity to be heard” tracks arguments about the due process of law, and there of course is plenty of jurisprudence on what is a “fighting word” and what is “harassment,” and what is “bullying.” The idea of malicious intent of course belongs to criminal law, and there’s a world of literature on defamation. Further technological arguments were made about why notice must be formally given, as blogs have Technorati and Sitemeter referral devices to alert blog authors to other discussions carried on elsewhere so that they can respond and defend themselves, but commenters do not have those tools at their disposal and so must be given formal notice by the author using their name and words. Ah, but! Google alerts will tell you whenever you are mentioned anywhere, so formal due process-style notice is not required, not even for commenters! Comparisons were made to academic articles that are critical of another author’s paper/argument–it’s a good idea to make sure you’re characterizing their argument correctly and polite to inform them of your intent, but if it’s not required in the academy, why should it be required in the blogosphere? If you attribute, it’s fair use, as copyright law will tell us. Such comments, of course, are not on point and incredibly distracting from the real issue of norms in the blogosphere.

I much prefer Prof. Dave Hoffman’s** question, asking outright if merely mentioning another commenter by name and attributing to them their publicly made argument on another blog forum constitutes bullying. Well, does it? It never occurred to Prof. Hoffman that it would be considered bullying, so does he just have a wrong view of nettiquette? (I’m paraphrasing his post.) In the comments thread to the original post, Prof. Hoffman argued that comments/blog posts made under your own name are fair game to be re-posted and commented on elsewhere in the blogosphere, and you pretty much lose control over your words/name once you release them to the public. While I agree with Prof. Hoffman, and believe that this in effect answers the question of what claim one has over the subsequent use of one’s words, this doesn’t really address the heart of his question: what are the norms of the blogosphere? What is normal, “fair” use of another’s words , and what is “bullying” by collusion to assail another publicly or invite such by re-posting their words/name in a potentially hostile forum? Are there two competing sets of norms that control internet discussion? Can one be called bad, and the other good? Is there a gender divide on this, as Prof. Bartow suggests there is with respect to the perception of bullying? Some of the comments did discuss the idea of “civility,” and “norms particular to the blogosphere,” but none of them ever really discussed these questions.

So, my dear sociologists, I invite you to discuss them. In my last post on sociopathic trolling in the blogosphere, I asked, quite helplessly, what good are norms on the internet? That post was picked up by Paul Gowder***, a lawyer and political science graduate student, who locates the problem of internet trolls in the root causes of societal ills and human evil, and says that until we fix society as a whole, bad norms and bad people will persist. Amber Taylor****, a lawyer in DC, also followed up, and argued that what’s needed is a community with different norms and even stronger tactics–anti-troll crusaders of some sort. In this post, I am clearly not talking about behavior so egregious as the sociopathic trolls who hack into epilepsy sites or steal people’s credit card information. And yet, oddly, a lot of the discussion the aforementioned debate has tracked the discussion about trolls and competing norms. In my previous post, I posited that trolls and the troll community have an entirely different, bad set of norms that contravene the majority norms and are enacted against the majority in violent, harmful ways. This is an entirely different situation in terms of degrees of harm and norm difference, but there remains a significant difference, and perhaps the harm felt by the injured is significant, and should be subjectively weighed. In this case, Prof. Bartow argues for a certain norm that would encourage civility and give the potentially-bullied (my word, not hers, and I am using this rather than “victim,” since that assumes a harm) notice and opportunity to respond. This is her view, and one that perhaps many others share, and possibly many of them are women. This norm, however, has not (at least on the comment threads I have linked to) been received as “normative” (in the sociological sense of the word) by the legal blogosphere. So, I ask you, norm-investigating folks–which is the prevailing norm? I am not asking you which is the “right” norm–that’s asking you for the “normative” argument (in the legal sense of the word). I am asking you, what is “normal.” Not what should be the norm, but what is the norm. I do not ask you what is necessary or recommended for internet civility, but rather, what is common for internet use.

In her response to this current debate about notice-to-commenters, Amber Taylor remarks that this reminds her of internet message boards that are hosted at publicly accessible domains, but intended for only certain gender-specific or race-specific audiences in order to create a “safe space” for discussion, to exclusion of non-member readers (this is more a norm than a technologically enforced rule; one presumably does not have to prove a certain identity axis in order to obtain a site password). Thus, Amber asks, if a white person secretly reads one of the message boards, is that “bullying”? In one of the comments to that post, Sarah remarks that bullying can’t occur in a vacuum, and that “bullying depends on the victim being conscious of being subjected to the threat of force. The only potential bullying would come from the original poster’s feeling criticized, and that would come into play however the original poster learned of the criticism. In fact, depending on the circumstances, my sending you a personal email saying “I’m about to call you a total waste of space in my blog…”…might actually intensify your feelings of being under assault.” Further to this point, Paul Gowder suggests that we”ought to determine whether “bullying” has occurred, in any context, from a third-person perspective.”

I bring up their arguments not to detract from my questions about which is the prevailing internet norm (notice/no notice), but to further discuss the implications of whichever norm prevails. Norms must be 1) recognized by the community, and 2) the violation of those norms must be felt by the injured person in order to constitute the definition of that violation (“bullying”), and 3) there must be some form of censure for the violation of that norm. In this current debate, there is no clear recognition of the norm of notice-to-commenter, and it is possible that such a norm may be violated without the allegedly injured person’s awareness, and in the absence or presence of such awareness, what is the proper censure? Once the no-notice norm, if in effect, is violated, what would be the proper rebuke? I have suggested to others, and consoled myself, with the idea that trollish, vituperative remarks are best met with silence and disengagement, as there is no point telling someone that you would rather not get down on your knees and do that thing they suggest that you do. Occasionally, I will defend myself if it’s a substantive argument, but if it is not in any way substantive, I delete and ban by IP. In this case, assuming I accepted the notice-norm, what would my response/defense be? What would the community, if it adopted such a norm, say to the offender? I suppose that the value of such a norm would be that violations would impel the community to censure the act such that future violations would be discouraged and prevented. But that appears to me to potentially produce excessive chilling effect on speech, and while I endorse the idea of civility, the free flow of ideas, discussion, and spirited engagement are too valuable to me to endorse over-cautious, self-censoring behavior and rhetoric. That is, assuming I accepted the notice-norm, I would not endorse the method of norm-enforcement. And what good is a norm if there can’t be some effective enforcement of that norm?

For what it’s worth, I believe that once you release words to the wind, aether, blogosphere, you own them in the sense that your name is attached to them, but they are no longer completely yours. While I highly value civility and collegiality, I also greatly value the free and spirited engagement of ideas and debate. My pseudonym is but a thin veil, but I write under it to prevent Googability and to preserve a modicum of privacy, even though it is well known to most academics in my field and even to some of you. But I also often write under my real life name on other blogs on topics on which I have credible expertise, and so clearly I make a distinction between Pseudonymous Belle and Real Life Self, such that I would prefer to attach certain words to certain names. I have a personal blog, but enough people read it, and enough people who know me, such that I am relatively circumspect and do not discuss intensely personal matters.That I make a distinction makes it clear that I know my words could be picked up anywhere, so the words I attach to Belle are one type (usually to promote my blog, or discuss subjects on which I am not expert, e.g. this), and the words I attach to my Real Life Self quite another, and very limited.

Anyway, those are my two cents. What are yours?

*In the interest of disclosure, I am personally acquainted with Ann, and have guest blogged at Feminist Law Professors often in the past. I have obtained her permission to mention her by name and to take up this issue on this blog.

** I am also acquainted with Dave, with whom I also have corresponded on this topic prior to posting this.

*** I am good friends with Paul, and he is one of my co-bloggers at Law and Letters.

**** I am also good friends with Amber, with whom I have corresponded about this issue as well.

PS: Hell, I am acquainted with almost everyone I have quoted, paraphrased, linked to, and mentioned in this post. The legal academic community is not big. I have always strived for civility and collegiality, and it actually depressed me that so many of my colleagues and friends are embroiled in such a kerfuffle and that much of the discussion has been uncivil in tone or personality attacks rather than the substantive engagement of ideas. I was so unhappy and affected by this discordance that I could not manage a post until now. Please be civil in the comments, lest you want me to cry. And if you call me out for being an “emotional woman,” I swear I will smite you with the power of community norm enforcement.

9 thoughts on “norms and normativity: what constitutes bullying on the internet?”

  1. I have suggested to others, and consoled myself, with the idea that trollish, vituperative remarks are best met with silence and disengagement

    IME trollish, vituperative remarks are best met with a sharp warning, followed if necessary by aggressive disemvowelment or deletion without further engagement. Everyone should channel their inner Teresa Nielsen Hayden.


  2. I actually think the proposed norm might end up prolonging and exacerbating conflicts. If each time someone remarks on something you said they make a point of telling you, it’s going to feel awfully confrontational. So, while in theory this norm might increase civility, in practice I suspect it will have quite the opposite effect.

    Honestly, one of the things I love about the blogosphere is that it affords an opportunity for more free-form discussion and if you take a serious talk to the blogs, you should be prepared for the full gamut of responses.

    That said, given that I am often critical of others on my blog, I have a standing offer to post a rebuttal from someone I criticize. It’s only ever been used once, but nevertheless, that’s my own approach to maintaining some sort of accountability.


  3. Well I took a little time and read some of this stuff, and am amused. She was complaining about someone’s own words that they typed themselves and signed their names to being quoted by others. In responding to Andrew’s post the other day, those of us who talk to the media are worried about other people putting words into our mouths and attaching our names to them.
    There are a non-trivial number of people being haunted by repeated quotations in the media of stuff they never even said, but that someone said they said.

    And let’s consider our teaching. All those students write down what they THINK we said, but when we read their final exams/papers, we get a little sick about the mismatch between what we think we said and what they think we said. Now imagine that they did not erase their memory banks as soon as class was over, but went around telling all their friends and relations what you said.

    This is life. You do or say stuff, and it goes out there into the universe and takes on a life of its own. If you don’t want to take the risk of having your name associated with a blog comment, don’t put your name on it. You have a lot more control over that than over a lot of other stuff.


  4. How about this angle:

    Whether it is “bullying” or not is almost irrelevant.

    What I find interesting in the discussion is this notion of taking behavior that you might not like, or better yet, behavior that you tolerate until someone in opposition to you engages in it — then re-branding that with some negative term.

    Adult entertainment becomes “human trafficking” and “coerced sex.” Humor becomes the “ism” of the day. And, criticism becomes “bullying.” “Kidnapping” becomes “extreme rendition.” You see what I’m saying?

    I’m no sociologist… so perhaps this is a phenomenon that you’ve studied and observed in elementary sociology classes (or maybe it is advanced). Please… educate me.


  5. I am going to go make my critique of your post somewhere obscure. Like in the margin of one of your books in my university library! ;)


  6. I think talking about other people on your blog constitutes, at the worst, gossip.

    In fact, if we wanted to talk this sort of “gossip” as a form of bullying, we would be linking the person being criticized.

    Here’s my logic (let’s all transport ourselves back to middle school):

    -people talk about you when you’re not there.
    -sometimes this talk is quite negative
    -that is rude
    -HOWEVER, sometimes people talk about you while PRETENDING they don’t realize you’re there, but really they made quite sure you heard the negative things
    -NOT to give you a chance to defend yourself; the negative talk wasn’t academic criticism, but rather stuff along the lines of “that thing stinks, doesn’t it’s mother ever wash it?”

    The key here, and what would make this kind of talk about people bullying, is that it is intentionally trying to harm the other person. Bullying is an intentional act. It cannot be done accidentally. And it cannot be done without the “victim’s” knowledge. That would defy the purpose.

    Accidental “bullying” is really just rudeness. Also bad, but a different beast.


  7. marc: what you are talking about is rhetoric, a subject that has been studied since the Greeks, can be found in communication departments, and is really nothing new. In sociology, the broader phenomenon of which this is one specific kind of instance is called “framing,” and there is a lot of literature you can access if you search on that word. I’m guessing from your tone that you were not actually asking to be educated, but were rather deploying the request for education as a rhetorical technique in criticizing positions you disagree with, but perhaps I’m wrong.


  8. I was clearly criticizing positions I disagree with. I don’t even think that I was being subtle about it.

    On the other hand, I was seeking more information. I realize that rhetoric is one thing, but the only thing that I can think of to compare this form of to is Orwell’s concept of “newspeak.” But, I know that there must be something a bit more scholarly than that.


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