Digital media and the everyday abuse of working adults
I live a lot of my professional life online. I’ve been running a personal research blog for over 5 years now, where I often post quite frank discussions of my experiences as a new academic. I have active scholarly Twitter, Youtube and Google Plus accounts. I teach my students to use Twitter, YouTube, Blogger, Google Hangouts (among other social media) in class, and I run workshops where I teach my colleagues and other professionals to use these same tools effectively in their working lives.
So not only is my own professional identity quite exposed, but I’m also engaged in training others to make their identities equally—if not more—exposed. I do this because I am very familiar with the productivity of digitally-mediated communication. These media make possible relationships, idea sharing, knowledge making and forms of epistemological change that are exceptional. And yet they can also be deeply dangerous—something that I’ve become intimately familiar with over the last two years.
In 2011, just as I was finishing my PhD, I began to receive a series of private messages focused on my sexuality and appearance sent to my email and other personal online accounts direct from professional acquaintances of mine based at various institutions around the world. These tended to be detailed, fantasy-like descriptions, sometimes accompanied by photographs. There was no debate about the inappropriateness of such messages: they were explicit, sometimes verging on the perverted, often concerned with my physique and dress, or with asking me for certain favours which ranged from ‘cuddling’ with them to baking them cakes in recompense for their paid professional contribution to my academic projects.
I was so embarrassed about these communications and so confused about how to reply that I ignored them for nearly two years. However, when the fifth professional acquaintance of mine began to do the same to me in 2012, but this time on a more aggressive and persistent level, I responded by doing what I know best: investing in research on the topic.
I began to study other women who had been subjected to harassment via digital media. Some of these women will be familiar – Anita Sarkeesian, Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez – because their harassment has been incredibly public and often quite faceless. But I, in contrast, had virtually no public visibility, and I knew all of my harassers. More than this, all of my experiences had happened privately – through direct messaging – so the content was witnessable only to me.
The dynamics of such abuse got me thinking about issues of gender, offline identity, status, career, age, and of course the anonymity of the perpetrator. And I started to look for tools (or, as it turns out, lack of tools) to mitigate the abuse. With the help of my colleague Graeme Earl and some funding from the Digital Humanities wing of my alma mater, the University of Southampton, I recruited two outstanding research assistants, Lucy Shipley and Jim Osborne, to work with me in adding some empirical evidence on professional experiences with digital media to the substantial literature on cyber-bullying, sexual predation and online anonymity.
In specific, our Gender and Digital Culture Project consists of multiple parts, including an online, 24-question survey (which closed last month), a blog and a series of in-person events, the first of which is scheduled on Friday 8 November at both the University of York (UK) and the University of Southampton (UK). At that event, which we hope to live-stream through my Youtube account, we will present some of the very rich data that we managed to gather through our survey, and link these to a critical conversation with professionals from human resources, IT, counselling, law, the academic and professional sectors about the construction and patrolling of models of response to online workplace abuse.
This is clearly an issue close to my heart, not only because of my own personal experiences, but because of the increasing professional demand and expectation to engage with wider and wider audiences. Concern for the ‘public intellectual’ and, in the UK academic sector in particular, the real public ‘impact’ of one’s work, means that many employers now require their staff to open themselves up more and more to exposure and scrutiny through digital media. To my mind, then, adequate mechanisms must be in place to protect these staff as they take on such visibility.
Our survey population consisted of over 400 professionals from 245 unique fields of practice, 60% linked to the higher education sector. Nearly 42% of these individuals spoke of experiencing at least one instance of inappropriate or uncomfortable communication via digital media in their working lives, with the proportions being nearly identical for both men and women, and with 40% of the perpetrators being known to our respondents offline. 130 respondents provided qualitative detail on their experiences, which ranged from overt stalking and physical threats, to sexual harassment and personal and professional character attacks, among other—sometimes very extreme—behaviours.
Disturbingly, the most common reaction to these incidents was to ignore them completely. But most worrisomely, where they were reported, a not insignificant number of respondents saw no support whatsoever from their institution. It is this latter predicament that I want to see attended to, because especially if that same institution mandates forms of public and private digital engagement from their employees, then it also has the obligation to defend and safeguard those employees when they’re doing such work.
Just this week I attended another university-required training session which entailed a talk on the importance of the public intellectual. When I asked the session leader for his thoughts on how we can protect ourselves in the course of pursuing this kind of public intellectualism, his reply was—as per all of my previous experiences on training sessions of this nature—“who knows.” Perturbingly, such training seems to be directed primarily at making people more public-facing, without any consideration at all for how to deal with the risks of this publicity.
One of my other colleagues, Audra Mitchell, has reported on her own frustrations in seeking out institutional guidance in response to the online, gender-specific harassment she’d seen after a very brief appearance on the BBC programme The Big Questions. And, as we will report on 8 Nov, Audra’s experiences are not unique. In fact, even as I’ve been preparing this blog post, another germane incident has manifested itself; namely, the denouncement of the biologist Danielle Lee as an “urban whore” when she declined to write a piece for an online science resource, Biology Online. In typical fashion, when Lee reported this behaviour through Scientific American (as part of her regular blogging work for Sci Am), her post was deleted by the editors for verging “into the personal.” (But read her original post here.) Let’s be clear, Lee was approached in a professional capacity to write for Biology Online, and it was not her, but their staff, who turned the experience into a personal one the moment that they asked her, firstly, to work for free, and then labelled her a whore when she declined. And rather than confront these problems head-on, with the degree of visibility and sense of public responsibility that Lee herself demonstrated, the larger institutions affiliated with her ignored or purposefully silenced her. (*Although see the editor-in-chief of Scientific American’s reply that has just been posted to blogs.scientificamerican.com. As is customary, meaningful institutional reaction seems only to come after there is sufficient public outcry. This predicament means that those of us with less celebrity are likely never to see a reaction.)
Our research suggests that at least 2 out of every 5 professionals are subjected to inappropriate digitally-mediated communication in their everyday working lives. Yet most of them have recourse to few, if any, means to keep themselves safe. There are models of response (e.g., from policies on workplace bullying and cyberstalking) that might usefully be applied here—and it’s time to see these models extended to those of us who open ourselves up to public consumption in the name of our jobs.
Sara Perry is the Director of Studies of Digital Heritage and Lecturer in Cultural Heritage Management in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York (York, UK). Sara blogs about her academic life at The Archaeological Eye and tweets at @archaeologistsp.