The week of September 21, 2014

How to detoxify the Web

By Leah Reich

In 2000, as an advice columnist in San Francisco, I was a guest on Opie and Anthony—an easy mark for the two most famous assholes in the heyday of shock-jock radio.

At multiple stages in the show’s history, Anthony Cumia and Gregg “Opie” Hughes were suspended from various stations, or fired altogether. That year, they were still on broadcast radio in New York. I worked at My columns, which were about dating, love, relationships, and sex, were based almost exclusively around the letters of teenage boys who were really into video games.

I’d gone on a few shows, but nothing—not even our publicist—had prepared me for Opie and Anthony. I knew very little about them before I went on the air. I was across the country from their broadcast and had very little information on the still-young Internet.

Only moments into the show, they began their attack. They hounded me, asking outrageous sex questions, and then asked their listeners to call in and do the same. For 72 minutes, I endured live on-the-air calls about things like “donkey punching”: “If you’re having sex with a girl from behind, and you punch her, does she really ‘tighten up’?”

Seventy-two minutes of anything is a long time. Seventy-two minutes of this was actual torture. I could have hung up at any time and ended my segment. I could have told them all to go to hell and walked off the show. The week before I was on, the Rock had done just that, and he was a male movie star. I was a 24-year-old female writer.

As I sat on the line, taking the abuse and listening to male voice after male voice call in with hateful, sexist, and nasty questions, I thought about my options. I wanted to end the segment more than anything, but Opie and Anthony had my email address. So did their legions of loyal listeners who would do anything for them, including have sex in public places. I knew if I hung up, it would open the abuse floodgates and my inbox would never be the same. There was no guarantee it wouldn’t happen even if I did stay on, but I couldn’t take the risk.

When my “hosts” realized I wouldn’t be giving up, they brought the segment to a close, thanking me for being such a good sport. That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be getting hateful email: Opie and Anthony had given their listeners the sign that I was worthy—no longer a target. They’d forced me into silence, and I’d been a good girl to take it and not make a fuss.

The Internet may have allowed all of us to find each other, but the same set of tools has allowed these angry, ugly colonies to connect just the same.

A day or two later, the emails from the listeners started to trickle in. They laughed, thought the segment had been so funny—and then each one shifted, quietly, to see if I could help him with his own personal problem.

I didn’t answer their questions. I was focused on my existing readership and the community we’d created, and anyway, I was understandably angry at the way they’d treated me. But I thought about those questions. I thought about the ugliness that made them think it was OK to abuse me—although they probably call it joking or hazing—and then come to me for help.

But if I’m going to be honest, underneath it all I wondered: Those guys who asked for help—what if they’d found me before Opie and Anthony? What if I’d gotten to them first?

A few weeks ago I had an ant infestation. One night my kitchen was peaceful and calm. The next morning I strolled in to find a seething black torrent, an attack of tiny like-minded soldiers that were impossible to stop. It turned out the ants living in the wall of my house aren’t just an isolated colony of regular ants but instead a vast horrible supercolony, one that stretches from Mexico to Oregon, full of hardier ants that are even more difficult to kill. My only recourse was to set out sugar solution with Borax, and to wait.

Fifteen years after my Opie appearance, we no longer have to be a guest on a shock-radio show to take abuse of that kind—or far, far worse. And you no longer have to pick up the phone and use your speaking voice to spew it. That colony of listeners and its ilk have metastasized into a supercolony of YouTube commenters and the scary, hateful, threatening voices with which far too many of us are familiar. The Internet may have allowed all of us to find each other, but the same set of tools has allowed these angry, ugly colonies to connect just the same.

If I’m the first person to inform you that something is very wrong with the Internet, or at least with vast swaths of it, you either spend zero time online or have never read anything down to the comment section. From the abuse heaped on Anita Sarkeesian and countless others in gaming, to the flow of vicious racist and sexist invective in comment sections and on Twitter, to the increasingly scary invasions of privacy and identity takeovers foisted on celebrities and non-celebrities alike, we have entered a remarkably ugly time in the Internet’s existence.

I’m wondering if it all comes back to men.

There are times I want to abandon it altogether and decamp for happier shores, and times when I think maybe there’s hope, like after reading Erin Kissane on how we can make Twitter better, Casey Cep on the power of the direct message, or Laura Hudson on curbing online abuse by giving users control over what they do and don’t see and by creating repercussions for online offenders.

As much as we want to, we can’t create a whole new Internet. It’s hard to give up existing communities and create whole new ones, especially if everyone isn’t committed to doing it. Even if we did, how could we ensure that what’s happened to this one wouldn’t happen again?

I’m wondering if it all comes back to men. Not about banning or about even banishing them, but about the spaces men have carved out for themselves on the Internet, and the spaces they lack.

When I look around the Web, I think about the teenagers who used to write me letters and read my columns, and I wonder where they’d go. Would they end up on 4chan or Reddit or at Barstool Sports? They were all gamers, so what would their online gaming experience have been like if chatting during games was as widespread and vicious as it is today?

These were guys who were 13, 14, 15, maybe a little older. They didn’t have anyone to talk to, not really. No way would any of them talk to their moms, and most probably didn’t have girlfriends or even girl friends. Their buddies were just as clueless as they were, but everyone pretended otherwise. But the problems they had were very real and very worrisome: How do I talk to girls? How do I ask one out? How do I know what’s an STD? What happens if I’m 15 and I think my girlfriend is pregnant? How can I stop people from bullying me? What if I’m gay? What do I do if I’m suicidal? How do I stop feeling so lonely all the time?

There are a few great places on the Internet for guys to find answers to those questions, like Ask Women and TwoXChromosomes on Reddit. But I wonder how protected they are from the toxicity of other subreddits, or whether the protection, like with Ask Leah, came from inside the community. Men’s community platform the Good Men Project had potential but lost its way. Amazing, soul-healing pop-up experiences like Lily Benson’s #dudetime bring everyone together and allow guys to share in a way they otherwise don’t normally. Seeing a stream of self-portraits taken and shared by guys—and appreciated by guys and girls alike—highlights how many guys do want to share in ways normally reserved for women.

A lot has changed in the world and online, but being 14 still sucks. Plenty of times, just being human sucks. Without someone to talk to or to help you figure out which end is up, it’s easy to push it down—like a man, right?—or fall for advice that doesn’t have your best interest at heart. Those readers still message me sometimes to tell me the impact my advice columns had on their lives. As much as I’d like to think it was because of my fantastic writing, I know it’s because of the community we created together.

The Internet was a smaller place when I was on Opie and Anthony. There wasn’t so much toxicity to combat and there wasn’t such a wealth of communities to get involved in. Even so, getting teenage boys to trust you and the advice you might give them wasn’t about what else was out there or how ugly it was. It was about creating a space where trust and respect were the currency that really mattered.

Maybe we can’t stamp out the supercolony ourselves. We need help taking the sugar-and-borax solution back. We need to get rid of the poison that’s sure to affect future generations.


Photo via Andrew Magill/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed