“American Homeowner”

I’m on my break between classes right now, so I’ve been feeling especially reflective, leading me to get this site back up again, catch up some on my reading, lose my train of thought on a couple of other projects, and of course start re-watching all of Boston Legal.

If you haven’t seen it, Boston Legal is a really fun and usually gripping show, somewhere between farce and melodrama. William Shatner plays the head honcho lawyer at a Boston firm, and in one episode his character Denny Crane opts to represent a man who equipped his home with a security system that electrocuted a prospective invader to the point that he became paralyzed from the waist down. The show is too inane to get into all of the details, but the case winds up being tried in the media, and Denny taints the jury pool by working with a marketing firm to brand the man as an “American homeowner”— a phrase subsequently on the lips of every member up for selection to the jury. So they settle.

I’m not a homeowner myself, although I have been having some landlord troubles lately which have gotten thinking quite a bit about what it means to have a safe space to call a home, whether owned or not. As is so often the case on Boston Legal, the show starts us off feeling indignant about the very idea of someone rigging their home to electrocute an intruder, seeps us even further in that indignation by making the man clearly racist and small-minded, and then hits us with a montage of prospective jury members who we can relate to: “I’m a renter, but I still consider myself an American homeowner;” “If it were me, I’d have done the same thing.”

Why am I even thinking about this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and safe spaces when it comes to the internet lately, mostly from reading about other people’s experiences with online attacks through some of the web’s more prominent current “social” platforms, like Twitter and Tumblr. The evidence is too exhaustive to detail, but here’s a bit from a recent talk given by Audrey Watters:

I started to make a list of all the women I know who’ve experienced online harassment in the last year or so. Adria. Sarah. Another Sarah. A different Sarah. Brianna. Shanley. Suey. Tressie. Julie. Another Julie. Rose. Ariel. Anita. Kathy. Zoe. Amanda. Ashe. Catherine. Felicia. Mikki. Mia. Molly. Lauren. Jenn. A different Jen. Jessica. Jessie. Jess. Caroline. Katie. Sadie. Bridget. Alyssa. Lyndy. Rebecca. Roxane. I could go on, but I have to stop. I should be clear: for many of these women, this harassment has moved offline as well. They’ve been doxxed, for example — that is where your address and phone number and other identifiable information are posted online in forums like 4chan for the specific purpose to offline harassment.

I mean, it’s just crazy and sad, really, how common it is for women in particular to be harassed online.

So I’ve been asking myself, where are the safe spaces? Where can we make homes that protect ourselves against this kind of abuse?

Well, Mandy has been trying an interesting approach to this with her newsletter1, which has been a fantastic read. I know many other people have been experimenting with email newsletters as well, but Mandy’s sticks out as being motivated by a desire to carve out a safer space to share ideas in.

I think in some ways it comes down to control versus access: a newsletter offers a way to give potentially anyone access to what you have to say, but offers control over how readers can respond—by email. Readers who abuse their ability to write back can be blocked, even removed from the list, all out of the public eye. When the content is in an email and not on the web, there’s not the same kind of public record to link to.

For me, for now, I am privileged enough to feel safe to stick to the web, as I am here. But I don’t like giving up as much control as posting my own thoughts to someplace like Facebook or Twitter or even Tumblr would entail. I control the conversation here, and anyone else can set up their own little homestead on the web to respond if they like.

We’ll see how this goes.

  1. You can sign up in the footer of the A Working Library website. ↩︎