This week’s This American Life deals with one of the most squalid forms of verbal expression: Internet comments. Why would anyone voluntarily listen to a radio story about the anonymous dogmatism, abuse, ignorance, and solicitousness that we spend much of our days trying to avoid?
Comments sections run a wide gamut, depending on the sort of website you’re browsing. This episode, which originally aired last January, is like an exceptionally well-moderated comments section, the kind you’d find on The New York Times or on the Facebook profile of that image-conscious entrepreneur you sat next to in economics class: split between inoffensive banalities and the occasional jewel.
Act one, with its humor, emotional candor, and originality, transcends anything that could conceivably appear in an online forum. Lindy West is a writer whose main topics of interest—feminism and fatness—are those that tend to attract digital ire, mostly from anonymous men. One day, an online troll goes unprecedentedly far in his abuse of West. He set up a Twitter account pretending to be West’s father, who had recently died. The troll included an authentic photo and accurate information about West’s siblings. West, needless to say, was devastated. She wrote a post for jezebel.com about the incident.
The day after the post went up, she got an email—from her troll. He apologized for what he’d done. He even donated $50 to a charity in her father’s memory. The troll had emerged from under the bridge full of remorse.
So, with the help of This American Life, West interviewed him.
Her conversation with her reformed online harasser is psychologically bracing and yields insights about what leads people to harass others online. And West is a marvel, both as an entertainer and, frankly, as a model of generosity and empathy. Without discounting or forgetting the pain her former troll caused her, she explores what led him to behave as he did—and what led him to stop.
The case of West’s troll is not easily replicable as a path for troll reform: her harasser recognized things had gone too far when he began attacking her with images of her dead dad. Many trolls restrain themselves to more predictable forms of abuse and thereby persuade themselves that their behavior is decent, that they are simply abusing people who somehow deserve that abuse.
Act two covers one area where the line between abuse and legitimate criticism seems hazy. The act discusses the phenomenon of vocal fry—as exhibited by This American Life reporters.
Vocal fry, according to Stanford linguist Penny Eckert—who Ira Glass interviews for the segment—appears to be a generational phenomenon. Speech patterns change over time, and people of older generations tend to get worked up over tics that younger people find normal, such as vocal fry, uptalk, and the use of the word “like”. But women, especially young women, tend to receive disproportionate blame for these linguistic practices, despite the fact that men (including Glass) exhibit vocal fry as well. And what happens if you’re a woman—like This American Life reporter Chana Joffe-Walt, whose voice one listener described as unbearable—who speaks for a living? Policing these women’s voices is, perhaps, the latest manifestation of a long tradition in many Western cultures of acting against women who dare to speak at all.
This inside look into the special burdens of being a female radio reporter is sensitive and smart. The segment, however, is disadvantaged from the start. Vocal fry is not an interesting subject, except as a barometer of generational norms and implicit sexism. Listeners who are annoyed by vocal fry are unlikely to change their habitual view. Listeners like me, on the other hand, who don’t see what the fuss is about, are tired of hearing about it.
Act three tells the story of the Woods Hole Osprey Cam, a live feed of osprey nests located at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. On camera, a mother osprey begins neglecting, and even attacking, her young. Osprey fanatics, clustered on message boards, begin demanding that the oceanographic institution take action, against the recommendations of osprey experts to leave the birds put. This story of avian-inspired annoyance feels too long, even at 14 minutes.
Act four offers a bizarre tale of a man who sets up a website to send him abusive mail. Paul Ford, a programmer, decided to personify his anxieties by creating a program that would send him computer-generated emails—signed by his anxieties. His idea was to externalize his sources of stress. Instead of nagging voices inside his head, he would get a robot sending him hate mail.
The implications of this analogy between cognition and a Gmail inbox are a source of anxiety itself: have we really attached ourselves to such a reductive view of the brain, a view shaped by the commercial digital infrastructure available to us? More worry-inducing still: the website he created, AnxietyBox, is temporarily broken.
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