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Men, Misogyny and Multi-User-Dungeons: Twitter’s sexist origins

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Misogyny in social media is rooted in a male view of the internet as a space to be colonised, says Rory Olcayto

The past few weeks have seen a number of commentators describe Twitter as a place you go to, much like a pub, to meet your friends for a banter. Women, however, especially those with feminist outlook, are not especially welcome in this virtual boozer. In recent months there has been a wave of abuse directed at women in the public eye: historian Mary Beard, Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman and Evening Standard food writer Grace Dent, to name three. They have suffered bomb threats, rape threats and gender-specific taunts seemingly designed to discourage them from meeting in Twitter’s online ‘bar’. In response, sympathetic and high-profile users enacted a one-day Twitter boycott.

Neither the drinks saloon metaphor nor the boorish misogyny that sadly characterises such virtual ‘spaces’ are surprising: until the advent of social media in the early noughties, the internet was predominantly peopled by men eager to colonise this new ‘frontier’.

There has been a tendency to describe the internet in terms of three-dimensional space

There has always been a tendency to describe the internet in terms of three-dimensional space, as if it is a place you can actually go to, a realm you can inhabit, a venue where you can meet others and do things together – or to. Facebook’s ‘wall’, where friends can leave messages, is only the most recent example.

In its ’90s ad campaigns pushing the then-new web browser Explorer (a name again strongly suggestive of space, new realms, frontiers), Microsoft asked: ‘Where do you want to go today?’ Accessing web pages on your desktop computer would transport you to distant and exotic places, it seemed to say.

The origins both of this spatial phenomenology of the internet and of the misogyny which infects social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can be traced back to MUDs.

Multi User Dungeons are fantasy games run on large networks, with players spending hours logged into fantasy worlds based upon the likes of Star Trek or The Hobbit, and are usually filled with aliens, dragon-riders, wizards and so on. MUDs began in 1978 when Essex University student Roy Trubshaw wrote a computer role-playing game based on the Dungeons and Dragons board game. It rapidly grew into a networked dungeon and, by the mid-’90s, there were more than 200 similar multi-user games, each with thousands of locations.

In the hack’n’slash worlds of MUD, perversities of all kinds are played out. In his 1993 book, The Virtual Community, Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold writes: ‘[In MUDs] people use words and programming languages to improvise melodramas, build worlds and all the objects in them, solve puzzles, invent amusements and tools, compete for prestige and power, gain wisdom, seek revenge, indulge greed and lust and violent impulses. You can find disembodied sex in some MUDs. In the right kind of MUD, you can even kill – or die.’

MUDs have always been male-dominated. Some MUDders would even present online as female to coax other users into sexually explicit dialogue (called ‘tinysex’), a practice so common it was assumed most female-presenting users were in fact male. Consequently real female users were often challenged to prove their gender, while new users coaxed into tinysex might be humiliated by having their dialogues posted as textfiles for other MUDders to read. In the ’90s there were reports of ‘disembodied rape’ on MUDs and the use of ‘voodoo doll’ apps that caused new users to perform sexual acts beyond their will.

The problem is bound up in the male-centred view of the internet as a spatial realm to be colonised

The influence of MUDs, still in use today but less so, is strongly felt in social media platforms, which, despite large female audiences, are still aggressively male-centred online ‘spaces’. (Facebook’s origins lie in a program developed by young men rating the ‘hotness’ of women students). Clearly this problem runs deep and is partially bound up with the male-centred view of the internet as a spatial realm to be colonised. Forget one-day boycotts: understanding and unpicking the net’s macho origins and dropping the spatial metaphors is a better bet in the search for a more equal internet.

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