internet commenters

Earlier this week, XOJane ran an article in its popular first-person, confessional-style “It Happened To Me”series entitled “IHTM: I Live With My Abuser.” In what was clearly a blunder on the part of the editorial staff, the story was published along side the author’s real name and photo, opening her up to danger and retribution. The victim claimed that she had never reported the abuse, and that “given the opportunity, he would abuse [her] again.” Readers mobilized with a wildly coordinated and positive response, deciding to take their community elsewhere and to try to help the writer get out of her dangerous situation. Given commenters Internet-wide have a reputation for being somewhat lowest common denominator and extremely bloodthirsty, this is an extremely heartening spin on the usual Internet outrage.

When the post was published (it’s since been deleted, but you can get a sense of the comments on this post, or the subsequent and delayed post that addressed the matter), readers created a new forum for “Ex-Janers.” Multitudes of commenters said that they would not be returning to the site and would keep up with the community on the new forum, which is understandable when readers see mistakes like this as a betrayal of trust. Since the XOJane community was so important to their readers, I applaud them for setting up their own space once they decided to leave the site. If XOJ had made too many mistakes to keep their readers, at least their readers didn’t lose their community.

In one of the most impressive displays of positivity that I’ve seen from an Internet screw up, one reader started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, with the intention of helping the victim raise enough funds to move out of the home she shares with her abuser. With an initial goal of $500, the campaign has raised an astounding $4735, all of which will go to the victim. Given that financial constraints are what kept her living in the same home as her abuser, this is quantifiable good that will have a real effect on this woman’s life. This is what the internet can do, instead of raging in comment threads (that’s not to say that the XOJ readers didn’t have a completely valid reason to make their displeasure known to the XOJ editors).

At this point, it’s unclear if the writer asked to be kept anonymous and was ignored, or if the XOJane editors should have made the call on their own to not run her information even though she consented (there’s a decent argument there that she consented, given that she likely provided the photo of herself). That’s a nuance that seems to have gotten a bit buried in the debate, which is part of a greater conversation happening about survivor anonymity over the past few weeks. Rape and assault survivor visibility has been a topic of much debate recently, specifically stemming from the Buzzfeed/@steenfox incident, which involved survivor Christine Fox asking women to share what they were wearing when they were assaulted. Buzzfeed reporter Jessica Testa showed some pretty poor judgement by compiling the tweets of self-identified survivors into a well-intentioned but ultimately harmful post. The article broke the fairly cardinal rule of not naming victims of rape or sexual assault in the media without explicit permission. The issue as been debated to death, but the bottom line is this: naming rape victims or publishing their photos is something to be handled very, very delicately, with explicit permission and sensitivity to safety concerns.

XOJane readers are a pretty loyal bunch–just look at any article on that site and you’ll find multitudes of repeat commenters who seem to know each other and have relationships. They frequently allude to being former Jezebel readers who were turned off by the cutthroat commenting going on at the Gawker sites, and it seemed like nothing would deter them from being XOJ readers. But pushed hard enough, they reached a limit. Instead of raging with no real goal other than to rage, their response has been a fairly strong example of what good the internet can achieve out of a bad situation. Good for them.

While the initial screw up was awful, this should be looked as a win for the Internet. People stood up for what was right (instead of wasting time debating semantics or defending celebrity behavior with violent, toxic language) and mobilized in a positive way. At any given moment, millions of people on the Internet are outraged, composing expletive-laden, all-caps comments with no goal other than to stir up negativity. While critical debate and dissent are necessary and appreciated, there has to be a way besides vitriolic shouting to get the point across. The people who gave to that fund and set up their own community demonstrated a way. Imagine if all those people responded like this–it would be a completely different Internet, and a better one, too.

If you want to donate to the crowdfunding effort, click here.