Cyber bullying. We all know that it happens. Unfortunately, we probably all have at some point in our lives played a part in its happening, whether we were aware of it or not. Yet, do we ever really feel the dangerous and hurtful consequences that arise from clicking ‘Like’ on a photo of a girl passed out in a gutter or from commenting on a viral video of some guy getting beaten up because he’s gay? Probably not.
The World Wide Web is a seemingly safe place where I go daily, just like any other person with access to a device that has the ability to connect to WiFi. I usually feel like I can be anonymous and that I can hide from my words when I’m online. When I go offline however, although a rare occurrence these days, I believe that I cease to exist in that space, and that my words and ideas float there without a care in the world. What I mean is, there is no consequence to what I’ve done that I feel in the physical world, especially if I never go to that particular site ever again. Although what is put online always stays online, the person attached to that content is not always there, and has the ability to move freely between accounts, pages, browsers and the like.
This is a very naïve and ignorant way to look at the Internet. We also now know that we are also being watched, intently, through the ever-glaring eye of analytics and data capture. The Internet is like a coin with two opposing sides; on the one hand we can view it as a great feat of humankind, a huge knowledge base that allows us to connect and share and learn like we could never have dreamed of. Yet on the other hand, it’s become a place where ignorance, stupidity, and hate can reign wide and free. We see both the good and the bad of humanity on the Internet, and there’s hardly anything we can do to rein this in. The online space is there, it’s there forever, and if we want to change something, we have to do it with a mighty stroke of the hand.
Last night, on a strangely cold and stormy spring evening in Sydney, I made my way from work to a small suburb nestled in the outer ring of the CBD. There, I joined a small audience which sat down to Laura Jackson’s one-woman play Handle It, a show presented as part of the 2015 Sydney Fringe Festival. Jackson is an incredibly talented singer, actor and writer who completed a Bachelor of Performance at the University of Wollongong in 2009 and then a Masters of Creative Writing in 2011. Although with the help of a director, Janys Hayes, and a technical and design team, Handle It really does present itself as the brainchild of Jackson.
The play is all about how the Internet can sometimes be a hostile place and shows us what can happen when girls and women venture into the online world. Jackson takes us through the story of Kelsey Armitage, a first year university student who goes out partying one night in mid-December only to end up the next day beaten, betrayed, and raped. Jackson portrays the characters and people in Kelsey’s life, such as her one-night stand hookup James, her older sister Alexa, her stepsister Jane, a policewoman, a sexologist, and a junior lawyer.
We follow Kelsey’s story as photos of her doing a strip tease for James are shared online and then go viral in a matter of days. Kelsey then tries to take James to court, claiming that he raped and abused her. We then find out that, although James did take photos of her and had sex with her, the person who raped her was her mother’s boyfriend, who was drunk off his face when Kelsey came home late that dreadful night. This is only revealed when Kelsey’s step-sister confesses to the police that she knows this is really what happened, and in the process, tells us that her father has done this to her many times before.
In a boldly creative move, we only actually come face-to-face with Kelsey herself until the very end of the play – amidst the aftermath of her photos going viral and with her case against James up in the air – we do not know whether her mother’s boyfriend will be charged or not. Kelsey does not speak to us, highlighting the loss of voice that women in these situations often experience, and stands before us hurt and afraid, yet keen to move on. She posts a Facebook status update, which we see on the projection behind her. She tells us that she’s going out partying because she’s had enough of the backlash. She leaves us, and the curtain closes.
Handle It evokes all sorts of questions – most of which are left unanswered for a good reason. Jackson forces us to think about the role we play in the story presented. She makes us wonder about those anonymous people that we post about and share online. She makes us ask whether we really think it was a good idea to ‘Like’ a certain photo, or to let the comments of cyber bullies go unreported. And most importantly, Jackson asks us to think long and hard about why women in particular are presented online in such humiliating ways, yet there’s little being done about it.
My answer to this is that the Internet itself is an utterly disconnected place. Sure, it seems heartless to comment on a video of a sexy girl and to say that you’d like her to come on round to your place, however many people do this on a daily basis, and sometimes, they do worse things. And even if you’ve never done it, you’ve definitely seen friends, family, or colleagues do it, and you’ve probably sat idly by. Why? Well, because we are desensitised to everything that we see online nowadays. We very rarely look at someone’s face and realise that they are a living, breathing person with feelings of their own. To us, they are just pixels on a screen, and so we can do with them what we like.
Watching Jackson on stage made me think about where I fit into all this. Although I’ve never had photos of me leaked anywhere or been a cyber bully myself (at least, I have never intentionally been one), I’ve been victim to an attack of bullies who actually turned out to be my own group of friends. I had posted poems online, something that I do everyday, and they didn’t like that the poems were sometimes about them. My friends then created accounts to the site and started leaving abusive messages on each of my poems, asking me to take them down because I had no right to talk about people behind their backs. The fact, however, was that writing poems was a healing activity that I did to cope with the stresses of puberty and depression, something which I still do to this day. When they finally confronted me in person about it, I can remember that the first thing I thought was; why didn’t they come to me in person about this sooner? Why put me through all that shame and confusion when it could have been solved with a simple conversation?
Because, again, the Internet is a disconnected place. You’ve got to laugh at this though, because humankind invented the World Wide Web to connect us to one another. How ironic that here we are, in the year 2015, with all the knowledge and the majority of people in the world available quite literally at our fingertips, yet we are more disconnected than ever. And in the midst of all this, people are every day being abused and bullied just because their online presence has gained an unwanted following or because they decided to share something personal in the hopes of connecting with someone else.
Kelsey had only one choice but to learn from what happened to her and to handle it as best she could. Yet I don’t think anyone should have to handle this sort of treatment. Something needs to change. Perhaps school curricula should teach kids how to ethically treat people online. Perhaps we need to find a deeper solution.
We need to step out of the bubble of the Internet and look within ourselves; we may be surprised to find that the problem is with us, and not with the easy-access, easy-share world of the Internet. The online sphere could be just adding fuel to a fire that is already burning.