Tits or GTFO: The Aggressive Architecture of the Internet
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

The image of computer scientist Katie Bouman’s joyful expression was circulated widely with the announcement of the first picture produced of a black hole

The image of computer scientist Katie Bouman’s joyful expression was circulated widely with the announcement of the first picture produced of a black hole

The breaking news on April 10, 2019 was the unveiling of the first photo of a black hole ever created, but within a few short days reporting shifted to focus on the consequences of this story for the young female fellow who contributed a significant algorithm to the collaboration. Katie Bouman, who was frequently used as the face of the Event Horizon Telescope project in media stories, took to social media to situate her work within the international scope of the collaboration. Still she became the target of vitriolic sexist and misogynist harassment focused on discrediting and diminishing her input into the project.

As The Guardian article reporting on the attacks notes, such practices are “par for the course for women“, a now-familiar pattern of toxic speech, doxxing, account spamming, and assorted hatred documented across many domains. This includes politics, journalism, and popular culture, and is particularly intense for women of colour. GamerGate, the coordinated campaign of harassment against visible and vocal women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color in games, was perhaps the moment where these tactics of exclusion garnered mainstream media attention, but as Emma Jane [ ((Jane, E. 2014. “‘You’re a Ugly, Whorish, Slut’: Understanding E-Bile.” Feminist Media Studies 14(4): 531-546.))] notes there is a long history of incivility online that has not been adequately documented.

Game designer Zoe Quinn was targeted by the GamerGate harassment campaign in an attempt to discredit her work through accusations of corruption in games journalism

Game designer Zoe Quinn was targeted by the GamerGate harassment campaign in an attempt to discredit her work through accusations of corruption in games journalism

This is partly because the mediation of misogyny, racism, and hate is easily dismissed as the work of ‘trolls’, anonymous online entities easily distinguished and distanced from one’s colleagues, friends, and family members. Digital culture scholarship has begun to address the gaps identified by Jane, with researchers including Adrienne Massanari [ ((Massanari, A. 2017. “#GamerGate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s Algorithm, Governance, and Culture Support Toxic Technocultures.” New Media & Society 19(3): 329-346.))] and Caitlin Lawson [ ((Lawson, C. 2018. “Platform vulnerabilities: harassment and misogynoir in the digital attack on Leslie Jones.” Information, Communication & Society 21(6): 818-833.))] exploring the persistence and potency of online hate and incivility from the perspective of platform politics. This work draws from Tarleton Gillespie’s [ ((Gillespie, T.L. 2010. “The Politics of Platforms.” New Media & Society 12(3): 347-364.))] foundational intervention into discourses celebrating the neutrality and progressiveness of online intermediaries such as YouTube via recourse to the metaphor of ‘platform’. In tandem with a growing body of research into networked media infrastructures [ ((Parks L. & Starosielski, N. (Eds.) 2015. Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.))], these analyses highlight the importance of considering the interplay of the social and the technical when examining online norms and practices, as networked communication technologies both shape and are shaped by economic and political interests as well as ideological values.

These perspectives are informed by science and technology studies, which provides a critical vocabulary for understanding the politics of technologies that captures the mutually shaping relationship between social actors and technological systems, including within media culture. In ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’, Langdon Winner observes that technologies can embody political properties in two ways, as “forms of order” or “inherently political technologies” [ ((Winner, L. 1980. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus 10 (1): 121-136, 123))]. Whereas the latter indicates systems ordaining particular political relationships, the former refers to technologies that “favor certain social interests” with “some people…bound to receive a better hand than others” [ ((Winner, 125-126))]. When the harassment of women, people of colour, and LGBTQ groups online becomes normalized as part of everyday life, it becomes clear that the deck is not stacked in their favour in the design, governance, or regulation of networked media technologies.

Massanari’s research into Reddit and Lawson’s multiplatform analysis indicate that there are designed elements of online spaces enabling the generation and circulation of toxic speech and harassing activity just as much as the celebrated practices of information seeking, community building, and social play. Increasingly, blue-sky perspectives about the promises of digital life are tested by research on in-built technological biases, such as Safiya Noble’s [ ((Noble, S. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.))] damning revelations of Google’s racist algorithms and Katherine Cross’ [ ((Cross, K. 2014. “Ethics for Cyborgs: On Real Harassment in an ‘Unreal’ Place.” Loading… The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association 8(13): 4-21.))] work on structures supporting toxicity in online games. In their challenges to long-held notions of freedom, democratization, and progress associated with digital environments, such critiques are met with ferocious defences of freedom of speech in particular. This is but one example of the social norms framing these technologies and practices around them, for as Danielle Citron [ ((Citron, D.K. 2014. Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.))] notes civil rights legislation is an equally applicable legal framework to deal with abuse though is it rarely invoked, to the detriment of women and young people specifically.

League of Legends is a game widely cited when discussing toxic game communities

League of Legends is a game widely cited when discussing toxic game communities

When taken on the whole, growing evidence suggests that the designed technological systems and artefacts constituting our digital life serve to discriminate, marginalize, and exclude some publics in an increasingly naturalized but largely invisible fashion. This is neither intended nor deterministic as online feminist and anti-racist activism indicates, and of course the Internet is not the origin or sole site of hate or discrimination in everyday life. However, inattention and indifference to how participation may be inhibited by designed affordances and functionality, likely due to how these interactions are linked to platform profitability, is what makes the Internet’s built environment one that is increasingly an ‘aggressive architecture’.

This concept is derived from critical architecture and urban studies, which tackles those Othered by invisible systems through the rise of what is called ‘defensive’ or ‘hostile’ architecture [ ((Petty, J. 2016. “The London spikes controversy: Homelessness, urban securitization and the question of ‘hostile architecture’.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 5(1): 67- 81.))] aimed at discouraging or deterring certain kinds of activity in public spaces. For example, spikes as well as specially designed benches in outdoor spaces are implemented by local councils to deter homeless people from lying down. These forms of silent, repellent design are documented as examples of ‘unpleasant design‘, a moniker indicating how such structural obstructions pervert the ideals of architecture- to design spaces that improve people’s lives. For this reason, it is more accurate to refer to these types of hostile innovations within built environments not as defensive but aggressive, as they invisibly enshrine a desirable public and systematically disadvantage those not valued within this vision.

The Camden Bench is an exemplary case of hostile architecture discouraging a range of behaviours and publics

The Camden Bench is an exemplary case of hostile architecture discouraging a range of behaviours and publics

While it would be fallacious to suggest that an architecture built on open communication is inherently hostile, I argue that ‘active inactivity’ in dealing with toxic and hateful speech and action in the regulation of these sites is what becomes aggressive architecture as the concerns, needs, and well-being of publics continue to go unaddressed despite their visibility. The value of this framing is that it highlights the necessity of social-technical approaches and analysis to account for the political nature of designed spaces of digital life, enabling a broad view of these exclusions as structural, systemic, and interlocking rather than about individual high-profile cases or specific sites.

The expression Tits or GTFO (Get the Fuck Out) likely originated on 4chan in the mid-2000s and became common in a range of imageboards, game communities, and BBS sites as a challenge to the genuineness of female participants in those spaces.

The expression Tits or GTFO (Get the Fuck Out) likely originated on 4chan in the mid-2000s and became common in a range of imageboards, game communities, and BBS sites as a challenge to the genuineness of female participants in those spaces.

For instance, digital gaming and anti-social networks such as 4chan have long been infamous for incivility towards women, LGBTQ individuals, and people of colour, generating memes such as ‘Tits or GTFO’ that encapsulate how some are not acknowledged as legitimate or credible publics within these spaces. As this kind of harassment, hate, and abuse spreads more broadly across the Internet, socio-technical approaches that tackle the systems and artefacts enabling this become vitally necessary. Fortunately, thinking about aggressive architecture equally affords opportunities for addressing constraints and designing for a more equitable, safe, and inclusive online environment, important and exciting work that has already begun with various projects engaging with the vision of a feminist Internet. Social justice-oriented work into networked technologies, considering the injustices embedded in digital data and design as well as more consentful approaches to technology provide innovative socio-technical approaches to dealing with exploitation and exclusion. Support and adoption of these principles and tactics is urgently needed, and so too is resistance against the growing naturalization of harassment as part and parcel of engaging in everyday life.

Image Credits:

1. Katie Bouman
2. Zoe Quinn
3. League of Legends and toxicity (author’s screen grab)
4. Camden Bench
5. Tits or GTFO meme

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Doing Nothing: The Pleasure and Power of Idle Media
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada

Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada

A man slouches on a stylish grey sofa, looking at his phone. A woman enters the spacious living room and asks him if he’s eaten. Awhile later they and a few others congregate in a modern white kitchen to eat curry and discuss whether they are working the next day. In the evening some of them sit on the same couch, drinking, napping, and talking a little about their days before shuffling off to bed. This riveting content is the norm for the Japanese reality television franchise Terrace House, co-produced by Netflix with four seasons in and another in the works, where three women and three men cohabitate while going about their everyday working and personal lives in a distinctly undramatic fashion.

Terrace House has been lauded as a fix and an antidote to contemporary reality TV. While it follows many of the conceits and conventions of the genre—casting is primarily focused on attractive young single people with aspirations for or jobs in creative industries such as fashion design, music, modelling, acting, and dance for instance—it breaks with some of the most routinized customs related to maximizing conflict and confrontation. Instead, the pleasures taken in watching the show—its tranquillity and slow burning emotional tension, its meditative and muted style, its mundanity and relatability and politeness and nothing too much of anything—give its designation as a sleeper hit a double meaning.

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State

With these attributes in mind, Terrace House is reminiscent not so much of other reality programming such as The Hills and The Bachelor but of an entirely different divergence from media-specific conventions, the ‘idle’ video game genre. Also known as incremental or clicker games, this type of play experience differs dramatically from the frenetic action and speed of the first-person shooters and battle royale games that make up the mainstream fare of contemporary digital gaming. Instead, in titles such as Cookie Clicker and Clicker Heroes 2 the player is asked to occasionally interact with the virtual environment via the act of a click, but for the most part to leave the game running to play itself. In other words, players progress by allowing the game to idle. The minimal interactivity of these titles, particularly within the subgenre of ‘background games’ entailing zero input from the player, sit uneasily alongside the conventional understanding of what constitutes a game [ ((Purkiss, Blair & Khaliq, Imran. (2015.) “A Study of Interaction in Idle Games and Perceptions on the Definition of a Game.” Proceedings of IEEE Games, Entertainment, Media Conference, pp. 1-6.))] . Popular reception of this genre describes such play experiences as “dumb”, “weird”, and “addictive” but also “intoxicating”, “alluring”, and “delightful”, a “progress treadmill without the accompanying nastiness” of prompts for microtransactions or push notifications bombarding your social networks. Idle games challenge the emphasis in not only games but many of the forms of participatory culture on user interactivity and agency [ ((Fizek, Sonia. (2018.) “Interpassivity and the Joy of Delegated Play in Idle Games.” Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, 3(3), pp. 137-163.))], and the normalized valuation within the culture of digital play on meritocratic challenge and achievement, typically via combat. And yet these games have also been surprisingly popular, indicating that they fulfill a desire for slowed-down, less active play experiences.

How might we conceptualize this desire? The mediated pleasures of these unique media types are not passive per se—idle games do require player action, however minimal, while framing the viewing of Terrace House as passive evokes troubling and unwanted associations with media effects traditions. And though they engage their audiences in more languid experiences than their rapidly edited and highly reactive associates, they do not quite fit with the mindful and sustainable practices Jennifer Raugh explores under the umbrella of Slow Media. Idle games, including Ian Bogost’s massively successful parodic 2011 title Cow Clicker, originated as a critique of the exploitative practices of social networking games, but despite their decelerated pace they do not offer a straightforward challenge to the vicissitudes of fast capitalism.

Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker

Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker

This is because at their core neither Terrace House nor games in the idle genre offer a challenge to capitalist logics. Cast members come to their shared living situations in pursuit of a goal, which as frequently entails launching a brand as it does finding a romantic partner. They encourage each other with warm calls to “do your best” and earnest injunctions to “work hard”. Arman, a cast member in the second season, is the subject of confusion with his relaxed Hawaiian ‘go with the flow’ ethos, though he is ultimately praised for embracing his unique self. Idle games in turn operate on logics of ravenous accumulation and expansion, with infinite progress the result of a player’s minimal input and the ultimate objective of the genre, which some have interpreted as a way for players to optimize their time in multitasking. There is therefore on one hand valuation of a highly disciplined and goal-oriented work ethic and on the other a simulated embrace of the growth imperative.

But what is both pleasurable and ultimately powerful about these mediated experiences is how they extricate these aims completely from the ethos of competition. Terrace House contains no challenges or games and has no ultimate winner; it ends as it begins with warm conversations between housemates in a peaceable setting. Idle games have no ending at all. In the elimination of the competitive impetus as the core driver of action, these media create something unique—spaces of leisure for their audiences. Idle media ask you only to sit back, relax, and take it easy, an enjoyment that Fizek (2018) describes as a “delegated pleasure… lead[ing] to a momentary escape from the responsibility of active play” [ ((Fizek, 2018, 6))], which we can also extrapolate to spectating idleness. The joy of idle media harkens not to its synonymous associations with laziness or pointlessness but in the act of doing nothing, ticking along, resting on your oars, and twiddling your thumbs, calm experiences increasingly rare in the escalating intensities of contemporary life.

Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

The leisurely approach to engagement that these playing and viewing experiences share is quite distinct from that elicited by the hyper-visible high-achieving practices normalized across the activities of neoliberal capitalism and digital culture. In contrast to the increasingly performative practices of self-care online—advanced yoga poses in luxury sportswear, beautifully made-up faces blissfully meditating—these media create spaces for audiences to loaf, let go, and escape the fetishization of working, playing, and self-actualizing hard. Their power lies with this atmosphere of ease. As Alharthi et. al (2018) [ ((Alharthi, Sultan A., Alsaedi, Olaa, Toups, Zachary O., Tanenbaum, Joshua, & Hammer, Jessica. (2018.) “Playing to Wait: A Taxonomy of Idle Games.” CHI 2018. DOI: 10.1145/3173574.3174195))] suggest, idle games provoke different approaches to what activities are valued in the design of play experiences as well as the ecological and human resources demanded by digital games. What might this entail when we look at the idling entailed in other media? Its popularity—and the pockets of quiet, slow, and sedate experiences designed into the most mainstream of games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Uncharted 2, however contentious—suggest the need to take seriously the possibilities of doing nothing or very little with media.

Image Credits:

1. Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City cast member Minori Nakada
2. Original cast members of Terrace House: Aloha State
3. Ian Bogost’s Runaway hit idle game parody, Cow Clicker (author’s screen grab)
4. Red Dead Redemption 2 contains many long, slow journeys by horseback

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Just Saying No: Labour, Gender, and Refusal in Twitch Streaming
Alison Harvey / University of Leicester

Twitch streamer Tyler 'Ninja' Blevins

Twitch streamer Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins

Streaming on Twitch.tv is a massive popular culture phenomena, with top (broad)casters garnering massive fanbases and incomes. One of the best-known of these is Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who shot from obscurity to the position of most followed Twitch caster when he began streaming his Fortnite play. In 2018, he briefly courted media fire when he professed to not playing with female gamers in order to avoid harassment on the basis of suspicions about flirtation and infidelity in his marriage to fellow streamer and manager Jessica “JGhosty” Blevins.

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja

Ninja’s motives and methods were controversial for a number of reasons, not least of which being the historical and ongoing exclusion of women in gaming culture, including within the emerging and lucrative sectors of streaming and e-Sports. The decision to not play with women was also framed as a possible hindrance to their gaining the same degree of prominence as male streamers. A less examined element of Ninja’s strategy is the question of responsibility for addressing what Sarah Jeong dubs “the Internet of Garbage“, or the normalization of sexist, racist, and otherwise hateful speech and interaction in online spaces including but not limited to gaming. When Ninja abdicated from his position to address harassment, he affirmed yet again that it is the work of already marginalized people to deal with the trash and engage in the social and affective labour of creating positive change. By shutting down harassment through the mechanism of refusing to work with women, he exemplified the gendered nature of what Sarah Sharma has called ‘sEXIT‘- who has the ability to walk away from societal problems, and who is left to engage in care work for themselves and others just to be able to participate in public life. Female streamers already face a double-standard in terms of their appearance AND their sexual availability; for instance popular streamer Amouranth was harassed after a viewer claimed to have found evidence that she was not single and that she gained an unfair advantage by not disclosing her marital status. Ninja’s solution for harassment therefore sets a dangerous precedent, particular given that he has an audience of over 20 million YouTube subscribers and 12.5 million Twitch viewers. Rather than drawing on his influence and power to make an intervention into the increasingly expected harassment of streamers as they go about their activities, the superstar steamer simply shut the door on his female contemporaries, leaving them to negotiate the incivility and abuse alone.

Streamer Amouranth

Streamer Amouranth

Ninja’s decision needs to be contextualized in both digital culture practices and historically gendered patterns of labour. The Internet’s functionality is maintained by the work of a range of people focused on ensuring and promoting specific kinds of affect, defined in local and contextual ways. Some of this is compensated work, for instance in the case of online content management teams screening out child porn on YouTube or the community managers ensuring that the relationships between game players and developers remain positive. But a great deal of this is unpaid labour, for instance in the case of activists on social media platforms raising awareness and advocating for inclusion for those disproportionately impacted by online harassment. And this already tends to be the labour of women and people of colour, who have historically been responsible for often uncompensated and unrecognized social reproduction work [ ((Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “From Servitude to Service Work: Historical Continuities in the Racial Division of Paid Reproductive Labor,” Signs 1992, 18(1), 1-43))].

While online harassment is widespread across platforms and targets, streamers like other kinds of social media influencers are in a particularly vulnerable position because their primary task is to engage an audience, typically from the setting of their bedrooms. A plethora of tutorials online highlight that the success of a Twitch broadcaster is based not on their set-up and even necessarily their gameplay prowess but on their skills as an entertainer. Engagement is a complex, messy, and yet rarely interrogated concept in these tutorials, but tends in practice to entail tremendous scrutiny about all elements of a streamer’s life, including their appearance and their romantic relationships, and how authentic their persona is deemed to be by viewers. The pace of production for successful streaming is hyper-intense, with expectations for daily content updates and immediate response to feedback. Metrics of success are also highly granular, with the clear signalling of dissatisfaction indicated by even the slightest dip in viewer and subscription numbers directly impacting on ad revenue and status on a given platform. The overwhelming personal costs of audience engagement has resulted in mental health issues for social media influencers and streamers including burnout, leading YouTube to produce a self-care video for content producers.

YouTube's self-care video

YouTube’s self-care video

The broader picture, then, indicates that the costs of engagement for streamers like Ninja are neither gendered nor racialized per se. Indeed, invisible and affective labour is widespread in streaming as well as other forms of online community management as Kat Lo’s research highlights. But Ninja’s refusal to stream with women indicates that there remain important nuances in how this kind of work is negotiated based on privilege. Women in technology broadly have been offered the choice to ‘lean in’—a plethora of neoliberal individualized actions that communicate acceptance of exclusionary sectors or to ‘lean out‘—leaving these toxic spaces behind and starting something outside them. Both of these options have costs for those who stay and those who go, financial and otherwise, and leave unchanged the culture that marginalized women and other groups to begin with. Ninja’s withdrawal—from women rather than the toxicity of streaming and its norms—further serves to reify this marginalization and imply the inevitability of harassment and other abusive and exploitative practices in digital culture. And to add another double-standard- his decision was not even critiqued as sexist separatism in the way that women-only groups and safe spaces have been, particularly in games. As this indicates, while the affective elements of new forms of work imply forms of invisible and emotional labour for all involved, the broader structures underpinning these practices highlight the ongoing relevance of considering power and its stratifications therein.

Image Credits:

1. Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins
2. Married streamers JGhosty and Ninja
3. Streamer Amouranth
4. YouTube’s self-care video (author’s screen grab)

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