[Content note: excerpts from vicious online harassment, use of slurs.]

Much of the online harassment problem consists of things that are obviously unconscionable: for instance, doxxing someone, calling someone a ‘fat ugly cunt’, telling someone that they ought to kill themselves, telling someone that they deserve to be raped, etc. However, when I read articles about online harassment, I notice that a lot of the problem is things that aren’t so obviously wrong.

For instance, consider Justine Sacco, who made a dumb tweet about HIV intended for her 170 Twitter followers and accidentally wound up becoming a #1 trend on Twitter. A lot of the hate she got was, well, pretty much just expressions of people’s free speech:

Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

It seems to me that these tweets are mostly reasonable exercises of free speech. Sure, “disgusting” is a bit uncivil, but let they who have never called someone’s blog post disgusting cast the first stone. And “her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News” and “I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again” are just… statements. I am pretty certain you could not come up with any ethical rule that forbade “her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News” that didn’t wind up declaring every political argument that has ever happened or ever will happen to be unethical. Individually, the people were doing nothing wrong.

And yet Justine Sacco was caused tremendous pain. And she’s not alone: online harassment hurts people. At least one person has gotten PTSD.

I think this situation has three causes.

First, public figures wind up getting significantly more hate than they used to. In the old days, if you wrote an article many people disagreed with, they would respond in the form of letters to the editor, which you probably didn’t even read. Now, they email you, comment on your article, and send you messages on Twitter; it can be impossible to escape this while staying online.

Second, there’s a lot more middle ground between public figures and private figures. Consider Milo Yiannopoulos, who wrote an article [cw: misgendering] alleging that Gamergate critic Sarah Nyberg is a pedophile. Now, it is clearly not harassment for a magazine to publish an article alleging that Woody Allen is a pedophile; he’s a public figure and whether he has committed a crime is a matter of public interest. And it clearly would be wrong for a magazine to publish an article alleging that a random citizen who had never been prosecuted was a pedophile. But Sarah Nyberg is in this sort of odd intermediate space which really wasn’t a thing before the Internet. She is an anti-Gamergate activist and a writer, and in that sense is a public figure; on the other hand, approximately 99.99% of Internet-goers– including me– have never fucking heard of her.

Third, people wind up becoming public figures when they didn’t really mean to- that’s what happened to Justine Sacco. Her case is, fortunately, very rare. However, more moderate examples happen every day. For instance, a trans-exclusionary feminist said that she realized a woman was trans because the woman didn’t know how to make a quesadilla; the transgender Internet proceeded to make a bunch of jokes about quesadilla socialization and Assigned Cheesy At Birth and so on and so forth. To a certain extent, one can say “well, if you didn’t want hundreds of people mocking you, you shouldn’t have said that you can tell whether a woman is trans based on whether she knows how to cook quesadillas.” On the other hand, I personally have said a lot of dumb shit on my Tumblr, and I expected it to be commented on by maybe a dozen people, not by the entire transgender Internet.

Some people suggest that the solution is just not to participate in public social media unless you’re willing to become a public figure. I don’t think this makes sense.

In sociology, there’s a concept called the third place. The first place is home; the second place is work; the third place, traditionally, is a diner, a coffeeshop, a bowling alley, a YMCA, etc. Third places allow for community building, political involvement, and the development of social capital in a way that neither home nor work provides.

In the late twentieth century, we experienced a tremendous decline in third places, with a concomitant increase in loneliness, alienation, and anomie. In the twenty-first century, new third places developed: Twitter; Tumblr; Facebook; Instagram; Reddit. If we say “only tweet things that won’t make you a public figure, or you could dogpiled and hated!”, we are destroying their ability to function as third places and consigning people once again to a third-place-less society.

But on the other hand it is not realistic to expect people not to criticize things they read. And it wouldn’t even be desirable: we do want people to disagree with Tweets and Tumblr posts, criticize articles they don’t like, and whistleblow about pedophiliac public figures. That’s how the free marketplace of ideas works. And a rule about “civility” will inevitably be disproportionately enforced against unpopular ideas, no matter how politely expressed.