As online harassment becomes increasingly graphic, ubiquitous, and detrimental to women’s participation in the digital world, journalist Amy Guth thinks we need to take a step back to truly tackle the crisis.
Guth, a celebrated radio host, is president of the Chicago Association for Women Journalists. She’s now also working on a documentary on women, online harassment and digital civility.
“By connecting past and present, I aim to find out how the conflict around who gets to have a public voice has (or, perhaps has not) changed over time, regardless of medium,” Guth writes. “By avoiding these conversations…we risk continuing to teach women and girls to limit their public voices.”
With 20 days to go, her crowdfunding campaign has amassed more than $13,000 in pledges. Guth’s project, a Kickstarter staff pick, has made it The Chicago Tribune, WGN Radio, Chicagoist and more.
The Tempest: Most women active online and in the media are struck by the issue of online harassment and the lack of systemic solutions. But we don’t all embark on ambitious projects to crack open the issue. What, for you, was the straw that broke the camel’s back?
I’ve covered social media and technology for a long time, so it’s been an issue I’ve been aware of for a while. And like many people, I have long fretted about the lack of solutions and how it’s getting worse by the day. But there were a couple of things that got me thinking about this project clearly and with urgency, both of which happened around the same time: I had a particularly acute experience with online harassment and abuse last winter and found my lack of options and support frustrating.
I also started hearing highly credentialed and intelligent people intentionally downplaying their voices in public conversations our of fear, while also hearing about young women shying away from online dialogues, and I knew something had to give.
And I have a rule in life: if you catch yourself saying, “someone really should do X” then that person should be you.
The Tempest: What’s your ultimate goal in producing this documentary project?
My ultimate goal is to bring this subject, and all of its nuances along the entire spectrum of it, into the public dialogue and create meaningful, impactful change. We get caught up a lot in the “right to say it” versus “right thing to say” cycle and that’s unproductive. What I want is real change so that we have a diversity of voices online, a move for more civil public discourse, and an online culture in which nobody feels fearful or is in danger to lift their voice when they have something important to say.
The Tempest: You wrote in your Kickstarter pitch that you’d like to open up a frank and contextualized discussion of the causes and solutions of our online harassment crisis. Do you have any hunches, any hypotheses, as to what these might be?
Part of the journey you take with a documentary is that you have an idea, but then you have to be maintain a hyper-openness to willingness to listen and really hear and to follow the nuances of the story openly as they unfold. If you go in with too tight of a focus it becomes an agenda and you really miss important moments and narratives. It would be like writing the book jacket before you write the book.
I’m going to talk with and listen to a lot of people about this topic, people on both sides of the conversation, people doing advocacy work for a more civil online experience and digital rights advocates, mental and social health professionals, lawmakers, law enforcement, and so on.
The Tempest: What would a utopian web look like to you, in a post-online harassment world?
A revival of civility and discourse would be a good start. An online culture where we acknowledge diverse perspectives, and even when we agree to disagree, we move forward respectfully, each party understanding the importance of multiple points of view. Lofty goal, no? An interim step would be the eradication of snark as a default intellectual setting online. That alone would go a long way. It’ll be step by step progress, as with anything.
It will be interesting to see what Generation Z does, the group behind Millennials who are just beginning to enter adulthood, since they are true digital natives. Up until now, we’re dealing with generations who didn’t grow up with social media and are perhaps hard-wired to treat it differently than IRL interaction. But Gen Z did, and as it grows up, I have high hopes about moving into a more civilized place.
The Tempest: How are you planning to cover the particular brands of harassment that women of color face online?
I also work with The Op-Ed Project and its Public Voice Fellowship, which is a social venture organization created to increase the range of voices in the public dialogue, with particular emphasis on helping underrepresented voices take an equal place in narrating the world’s conversations. Which is to say, it’s a high priority to me to examine this issue from as many perspectives as possible, both in the planning stages, behind the scenes, through the interview subjects I seek out, and in the conversations I have about the project.
As such, I have already begun creating an advisory panel to work with me throughout the documentary, who represent many different perspectives, identities, and schools of thought. It’s my belief that the more perspectives involved from the onset, the stronger and more impactful the end result will be.
The Tempest: How can we get involved and support your project?
There are three main ways. First, back the Kickstarter campaign – I have a base goal and two stretch goals for funding the project. Secondly, share the campaign on social media (and tag me so I can properly thank you, please!). Third, share your own stories and related projects with me. There is a wide berth for collaboration here, and I want to do that as much as possible.
I’ve been so deeply moved by the many reactions so far. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received in the form of Kickstarter backers, thoughtful notes of support and encouragement, introductions to others, and personal stories.
More information on Amy Guth’s project can be found on Kickstarter as well as on her website. This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.