Ulorin Vex, and living in a bell jar of relentless hate

This morning I woke up feeling like the mood in this shot of Ulorin Vex from her portfolio. I had yet another conversation with a respected news site editor about the awful comments SF Gate lets people leave on my column every week. I am depressed, tired and angry that SF Gate continues to allow commenters to put vile things on my column every week. No other major publication allows its writers to be treated like this. None. There is a lot of value in this edition of Randy Cohen’s The Ethicist (ethicist.blogs.nytimes.com) about major news outlets and their comment policies, and the direct impact on their writers. I am a pro-anonymous commenting, but here Cohen is right — and the Gate should listen, and listen hard:

Has anonymous posting, though generally protected by law, become so toxic that it should be discouraged?

It has. To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode. And that goes both for lofty political discourse and casual comments on Amazon. “Says who?” is not a trivial question. It deepens the reader’s understanding to know who is speaking, from what perspective, with what (nutty?) history, and with what personal stake in the matter. It encourages civility and integrity in the writer to stand behind her words. There are times when anonymous posting is necessary, when disclosure is apt to bring harsh retribution — I’ll come to that — but more often, anonymous posting sustains a culture, or at least a hideous subculture, of calumny and malice so caustic as to inhibit the very discourse the Web can so admirably enable. Writers should not do it, and Web site hosts should not allow it.

As the writer Katha Pollitt (who is also my ex-wife) puts it: “I get a ton of hostile, misogynous, idiotic comments from anonymous trolls when I blog at The Nation. Sometimes I feel like I am dancing on the table for an audience of drunks. Not only is it dispiriting — and let’s not forget that women writers on the Internet receive vastly more hateful comments than male writers — it has nothing to do with the brisk and vigorous exchange of ideas often said to be the reason for anonymity. Because there are no ideas and no exchange.”

My own experience has been marked by greater cordiality, but then again, I have a virtual bodyguard. The Times employs moderated comments, declining, according to its policy, to post those that include “personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence and SHOUTING.” But the very necessity of filtering such vitriol points up the consequences of anonymous posting. (more)

Every time I have a conversation with anyone about my column, from fans to industry power players, someone states one way or another just how reprehensible the Gate is to let this continue. It’s now making them look worse than the haters are trying to make me look. And it’s turning into people now talking to me about wanting to do presentations, papers and studies on hatred toward women being allowed to blossom and cultivate unfettered — based purely on the comments allowed to hang off my writing. It’s as if I make a modest piece of art (as a writer), and then the most pathologically hateful people available are given a red carpet to smear shit on it, and laugh. Thanks, SF Gate. Thanks for making a playful, innocent weekly column about sex into a pack-mentality, banality-of-evil behavioral experiment centered on hating one girl. Every week it’s a glimpse into the darkness of human nature, with a single female target. I can’t help but wonder if SF Gate just wants to see how far it goes until someone really gets hurt. That would be me.

Anyway, Ulorin Vex is hot. If you’re not familiar with her, you should be. She’s yummy.

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  1. Yes, they’re disgusting, trollish and they’re doing it to everyone. No one likes to read that they’re a big fat poo head when they could be reading constructive commentary on a column, but that’s life.

    There’s only one thing you can really honestly do about it, and that’s not let it get to you (especially not visibly).
    These are like the bullies on they playground. They probably don’t even read the columns, they certainly don’t actually know anything about you or your material. They are posting just hoping to get a rise out of you and your commenters. They get a rise out of it.

    And I’ll keep using the ‘report this comment’ function quietly and hope they moderate the comments out, but even with moderators, the trolls always find a way. Frankly, I pity them, that this is their big thrill in life.

  2. Hey Violet – I popped over to The Gate and checked out some comments, and they really depressed me (one of the reasons I avoid Youtube etc is that they are haunts for racist/sexist/homophobic trolling, so it shocks me that a “legitimate” publication fosters the same behavior). Perhaps I made a mistake picking the April Flores article to read the comments – someone I admire, and an article that raises issues very important to me. Naturally, the “cow” and other hateful comments really got to me. A brief perusal of the comments and some other things written here reconfirmed my doubts and anxieties about my own decision to try to make a career out of writing about sexuality, women, and media. But I digress.

    I have a question: there were a couple of comments that were deleted, with a note saying they breached SF Gate terms and conditions. Which terms and conditions are these? Apparently they have some “limit” but not one that protects its writers.

  3. Hey Violet,

    Haven’t read the Gate until today (I live in Perth, Western Australia, so I’m not reeealy in their demographic) but your post moved to.

    I agree with your stance on this, I am often shocked on many of our local online news sites at the hurtful and often incorrect garbage allowed to be spilled. Despite repeatedly seeing the same commenters able to troll time and time again, I have been banned from commenting on any page linked to our main national news blog because I firstly posted a response noting a article stating that a girl who had died after being given the cervical cancer vaccine died of an underlying health condition, not the vaccination, in response to a large anti-vaccination movement, and asking another commenter responding to an article about public funding for IVF why she felt she was more entitled to public funds than same sex couples.

    I often think the filtering of posts is done to move comments the direction the moderators wish, which is why trolls are left to draw more attention to posts, and people with legitimate comments are booted off for lowering the mood.

    (P.S. excuse my gush, <3 your blog)

  4. nice try, Dane. your evidence shows me being angry on a website that’s written multiple smear articles about me (print and web, one with such egregious falsities that legal stepped in) — and I did not leave that comment anonymously.

  5. Anthony, I agree – the problem I see that the Gate has with (their version of) that system is that the trolls clear their cookies, refresh and ‘thumbs-up’ their own comments. what would be great is a system that is more trouble to spoof than makes it worth it for trolls to push themselves to the top of the shit pile. know what I mean?

  6. I’m fond of the system that some sites have, where comments may be given ‘thumbs ups’ or ‘thumbs downs’ with a single click. If you have enough ‘thumbs downs’, then that comment is hidden. You can click to see it, but don’t have to read through off-topic or senseless bile, and return the favor by giving thumbs down to newer comments that are unrelated to the topic at hand.

  7. this feedback — and support — is so fantastic. what a great discussion; it’s giving me so much to think about. I can only hope that entities like the people who control comments at SF Gate truly understand what you’ve all said. my ideal would be that they would, and then create a real, functional and productive model for comment community management, with the aim of thoughtful discussion and discovery of new ideas and relevant personal stories and further facts on a topic. I believe this could be possible. however, I am not delusional, and I think the Gate’s toxic comment circus on my column has gone too far.

    I admit I have had some very dark personal moments with those comments; but I am still here. to me, those comments have come to represent our online culture’s new form of reckless, volatile, harmful and negligent behavior from media entities who have the power to behave responsibly — but do not. somewhere, I hope some good comes of this.

    and @Kiala — I’m not sure who you’re asking but if you’re asking me personally I have two policies. one is that I allow anonymous comments on my blogs and various outlets because of the reasons stated by “#17 Anonymous” above, and because I believe sexual privacy is the cornerstone of sexual freedom (and personal safety in some cases). and two, I do not comment anonymously anywhere. it’s my preference. also, I know that people with the right skills can peel back the layers of web anonymity with relative ease — you have to be *really good at it* to truly be anonymous online. but moreso, I want people to know it’s me commenting, and doing what I do with sex ed and cultural criticism, I have strong value sets around transparency, accountability and the importance of putting a face on my beliefs about sexuality and humanity. I’ll be that face, because I know many other people can’t.

  8. Personally, I believe anonymous comments are generally harmful. Ironically, there are limited cases (like this one) where a public figure may not want to publicly associate his comments with his name, for no reason other than avoiding publicity. There is not yet a good solution to this problem, but I suggest that you ignore this particular edge case.

    As has been written many times before: studies have shown that there is a significant disinhibiting effect when commenting online. The result is poisonous to substantive discussion of controversial topics. If people want to allow anonymous contributions, they really should be moderated.

  9. Throughout time, those that engage in an honest and frank discussion about controversial topics have always been shouted down. Women usually bear the brunt of this. Ask yourself where women would be in medicine, if the witch trials hadn’t declared a (for lack of better word) jihad against midwives.

    Anonymous comments are necessary in that, you shape frank and honest discussions on topics that most people haven’t had frank and honest discussions about. More than that, most people have been shamed away from the honesty of sex in our repressive culture. Until they’re more comfortable with their own sexuality, anonymous comments are necessary to make people feel comfortable enough to contribute, in my opinion.

    With all of that said, however, comments of ALL types should be moderated for appropriateness. People can hide behind fake email accounts and fake names just as easily as anonymous comments. The problem with that is most people don’t understand the weight of their words or the consequences in using them. It’s not okay to attack someone verbally, because you don’t agree with them. In a public setting, your verbal confrontations often leads to other people witnessing those attacks as thinking that they can go one step further. That leads to violence more often than not.

    More importantly, though, Violet, is the fact that you are a strong, opinionated, and honest woman. While I hope that your (hopeful) appearance on a legendary talk show’s stage will help take some of the hatred away from you, a bigger spotlight will only bring more crazies out of the woodwork. Try to remember that you are a talented woman, who is honest. You do so much good – more good than those that sit in judgment of you could ever conceive of in their miniscule minds. There is a price to pay for opening minds and educating people. I wish there wasn’t, and I wish I could ease that for you, because you are a good person.

  10. I don’t usually read the Chronicle, certainly not after the vile things they printed about the BDSM community and how it’s all about the torture. I’ll probably skip over there and see what nastiness has been added in the comments, but I saw some of the comments people wrote about the BDSM community and those were pretty bad.

    I am also a writer, although I don’t do a column, and my policy has been to accept anonymous emails. Usually, they’re just people who don’t want to register, but I have found, more often than not, that most of my really unpleasant email comes from anonymous sources. I don’t have the audience Violet does, so I don’t get as much email, but I can understand all the negativity — especially since in America, anything sexual is considered evil by the masses.

    All I can say, Violet, is that I’m sorry you have to put up with it. Hopefully there’s some way you can move away from the Chronicle, into an actual news outlet. Try not to let it get you down.


  11. Hard to add anything not already here, but remember when we were (still are, I guess) trying to explain to Mainstream Media that it’s the sense of community that websites bring that’s so important, no matter how indefinable? I would posit that more than one community has formed at SFGate Commentland, just as it does for every message board pertaining to comics, teledildonics or underwater macrame.

    They’re not trying to affect you, Violet. They are entertaining Each Other, and that’s all that matters to them. They are playing to their own crowd, preaching to their own choir. And they are self-sustaining.

    I abandoned message boards early on because I didn’t care for the Snark Olympics. But you’re made of sterner stuff. You put so much of yourself out there, insisting on talking about a hot-button topic–which is really the point, I think: you’re not hiding when it comes to sex, why should anyone else–and you take it until you can’t take anymore. Then you reboot, and the cycle starts all over again. Until everyone gets so good at fucking that it’s not a big deal anymore, and we attack it with as much verve and matter-of-fact-ness as our favorite meal, it’s not going to change.

    Your mood may not always agree with it, but you’re our most capable warrior.

  12. Here’s a bit from a letter I ultimately decided not to send to The Chronicle publisher after Chronicle editors wouldn’t allow her to link to Comstock Films in her “Five Under-reported Sex Stories of 2008” column:

    “Yet somehow, when the topic is sex, your newspaper can’t seem to locate its journalistic ethics, or even common decency.”

    Common decency indeed. If Violet was writing on the subject of politics, or sports, or food, or anything else, would The Chronicle brook the sorts of behavior that goes on in the comments section of her column? I don’t think so.

    Over and over again those of us who explore the topic of sexuality are forced to measure our principles against the value of column inches; we are asked to distinguish between “half a loaf is better than no loaf” situations and when we are being asked to eat shit.

    Shame on The Chronicle. And good for you, Violet, for calling them out! For pushing the plate back and saying, “No, thanks.”

  13. Chin up girl.

    I’m not going to repeat what the people above said, because by and large they’re correct.

    The fact of the matter is you are in the business of challenging and reshaping peoples values and beliefs. Some people don’t want their minds broadened, and moreover, don’t want you to have an influence on others. They disagree with your (our) value system, which in particular values diversity _itself_. These people place no value on the person that they percieve to be you, and some of them even “hate” the fact that people like you (us) exist.

    In my experience (which comes from dealing with racism), people need to accept that as a fact, and understood that there is _nothing you can do_ to nullify the existance of such people (presently. at least). Once that is done, these haters become background noise. Their words are like water off a ducks back.

    I, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people like me, have a debt of gratidute to you, because you’ve educated us and broadened our minds. I am a different, and better, person now, compared to before I started reading your blog.


  14. Wow, just been over to SFG and that is some serious bile. Frankly, I’m appalled by the behaviour of both the readers and the site. Human morality aside, it doesn’t make any sense to treat your contributors in that way and it certainly doesn’t make good marketing sense to display such poison on your pages! Disgusting.

  15. There are contexts in which unmoderated comments are useful, interesting, or valuable; there are contexts in which anonymous comments are useful, interesting or valuable. Neither, I think, should be deemed useless or a failure in toto.

    However, I am increasingly of the opinion that there is very little chance of finding a context in which anonymous and unmoderated comments have any broad utility, interest, or value to anyone. Maybe there’s a bit of lulz at sites like 4chan for people who consume asshattery as an art form, but I wonder about even that.

    I’d say, if you have a strong need to allow anonymous comments, then you’ll need a robust moderation system; and if you have a strong need to allow every voice to be heard, you’re going to need at least some persistent psuedonymity. Otherwise, all is filth and chaos and a terrible waste of pixels.

  16. It’s funny that you should be posting about this: I was actually going to comment about this earlier when I read your last column on the Chron and then waded through through the muck in the comments. I was going to ask how you put up with some of that stuff. I think you must be made from sterner stuff than I am.

    In general, I have come to the conclusion that this whole “wisdom of the crowds” thing is a lot of bunk. With a few exceptions, I have stopped looking at people’s comments on blogs, online news sites, and the like. The combination of insipid commentary (I’m looking at you, Slashdot) and knee-jerk hate is just destroyed whatever benefit commentary had. The comments made to your column are the worst I think I’ve ever seen in that regard (seriously, that stuff is off the map)… there isn’t discourse there, just the spewing of bile.

    I’m coming to the conclusion that this web 2.0 thing really only works if you must stake a bit of your reputation whenever you speak. Open commenting was an interesting experiment; but in my opinion, it has been a dismal failure. I don’t think we necessarily need to know a person’s name and address, but we need to have enough to have an online reputation that can be risked by saying something stupid, hateful, or worthless. On a lighter note, as you might imagine, I am a great believer in John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/).

    Anyway, don’t let the bastards get you down. You are one of a very few people on my RSS list mainly because you write about stuff that is new to me or gets me thinking.

  17. Reading the comments they let stay on your page would be really fantastIcally useful if I wanted to lose weight; I could just stay nauseously ill every time I started to feel hungry.

    Anonymous contribution is great if it’s, yanno, contribution — it enables people to speak and share ideas without fear of retribution, social or physical or otherwise, and that’s awesome — you get a level playing field. But what’s being done here isn’t contribution, it’s just destruction, and it’s not just, I think, due to the anonymity of readership; I think it’s also due to you, the content *producer* not being equally treated as an anonymous figure. You see some serious noise being thrown around on 4chan and the other anonymous imgbb’s, but it doesn’t seem to hurt or harm or degrade — unless that cloak of anonymity is removed, and then all of a sudden you have these immensely polarizing and mistreated people: the moots or boxxys of the world, and then everything kinda falls apart. It’s inequality. It’s abuse of a system, and it sucks.

    Love ya,

  18. Having worked for mainstream media, including rolling out blog networks in these environments, I’ve been a massive fan of allowing the common to comment on what is otherwise often perceived as “what the establishment says” (certainly the case in the BBC, where I worked).

    From my many experiences in this area I’ve come to the conclusion that the sad truth is 90% of what people have to say is simply uninteresting/unengaging/factually incorrect/defamatory or otherwise of little or no value. That’s regardless of whether it’s anonymous, pseudo-anonymous (nicknamed) or fully attributed.

    It’s the reason why radio talk shows and newspaper letters pages are usually edited.

    I continue to be a champion of the equalization of the media, giving everyone a platform to comment. But I also find myself using the term “tragedy of the commons” more and more.

    Defamatory comments on Violet’s column aside, check out the comments on any article on TechCrunch (a leading internet blog). 90% of the comments fail to move the conversation forward and simply present as noise. It’s v sad.

    (disclaimer: Violet is my partner)

  19. I, too, am completely befuddled about why SF Gate allows that, not only on your column, but others as well. In fact, I just stopped posting comments altogether because there was so much hate and stupidity for me to stomach.

    I truly feel sorry for you for having to deal with it, Violet. *hugs*

  20. Or are they simply too lazy/cheap to set a pair of eyeballs on moderating comments?

    SF Gate sounds like the kind of old media that can’t die off soon enough. Employees aren’t people to management, just expendable sources of content.

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