Making safer spaces online

This text is a response to ‘Round the Virtual Table,’ an event that took place on May 6th aas part of this year’s Wired Women* programme for NEoN. 

Making safer spaces online 

For the past 10 years of my adulthood, I’ve been trapped in the mainstream tides of the Internet. I have been stuck with Instagram and Twitter, two hard waves I’ve been caught under (with Facebook somewhere in the background, remaining there only for boring work reasons and occasional birthday reminders). I have floated in these tides, largely unthinking… and I haven’t really tried to get out, even though there have been times I’ve felt as though I was drowning. Someone else’s place, someone else’s rules. And it hasn’t been all bad. Sometimes I might pop above the water and see the sun and the sky and other happy-looking people. But mostly I have felt an unnecessary pressure to perform as a user; to stay here as a user and participate. Sign up, follow people, post things; be visible, accessible, consistent, funny, charming, not ugly, and clever. When I was younger, I cared less. When I was younger, the waves of these digital institutions did not feel so big. 

I have a very tangible relationship with social media because it’s my workplace. I write about video games online, and think more broadly about the creative industries. I have a website where I post my thoughts about all this, and run it with my partner in crime, Zarina. So, my real workplace is the couch, the desk, or the bed where I write. But in order to get readers over to our website, thewhitepube.com, we have to pop over to Instagram and Twitter to let our audience know there’s a new thing they can read. We feel the need to stay on Instagram and Twitter because that’s where everybody else is hanging out; it’s where we need to cut our tributaries from. And the scale of our audience on those two sites is now so significant that it has become a major, fixed part of our business. Plus, in terms of the institutional critique we produce, it has been handing having tens of thousands of followers in order to apply pressure on the art world’s enemies to do better. So, we stay. It is just a shame that our staying there has such a big cost. 

Stiff places. Instagram and Twitter are vast rooms with all the lights on, filled with strangers who have tired eyes. Content, advert, content. Self, performance, self. The name we work under has been a magnet for abusive attention, due in part to the fact we are two young women with a big audience. In spite of a deep hatred for the police, we have had to report two different white men to cover our own backs. One for a death threat, and another for persistent harassment that continues to this day — harassment we fear could tip over into violence. We have also had anonymous emails sent to us with racial abuse directed at Zarina and fatphobic messages for myself. Lots of misogyny and classism. People have tried to steal our accounts from us. And that’s the hate on full volume. There is a constant buzz of something else that has been almost as grating over the years: one-sided parasocial relationships in which people feel like they have a say in who we are, what we think, and what we do. It’s difficult when all you want to do is write! I just want to talk about an exhibition I went to, or think out loud about the way the art world works. This constant threat of abuse has become a framework of barbed wire that we need to overcome, ignore, or write around. 

We used to engage the trolls once upon a time in an attempt to troll them back, but it’s easier now to mute or restrict permissions, and block if the person seems unhinged. I’m glad we have persisted all these years. I’m glad we have not let them silence us. But it is boring, and it’s a sad thing to still have to write about. And so, I wonder, if there are alternatives we should be thinking about — safer spaces we could be championing instead. 

Over the pandemic, I have grown to enjoy Discord more than anywhere else on the internet. I now spend so much less time on the two titans, Instagram and Twitter. Of course, I still have to work as that’s where our audiences remain. Nowadays though, I mostly post via third-party scheduler Buffer. It means I’m still on there, just at a safe distance. Discord is made up of different servers created by its users. In those servers, people can chat using text messaging, voice and video calls. They can send media and files to one another too. Plus, you can organise chats within a server by category and channels, and those channels can be text channels or voice channels depending on what they’re used for. If you haven’t used Discord before, a few of the servers I’m in might help paint a picture of how the platform is utilised. 

Game Club: I made my own server in September 2020. I made it so I could play Among Us with some different people online using the voice channel settings. It has since grown into a community of just over one hundred people who enjoying discussing specific games and game news in general. We still play Among Us, but there’s also a book club, writing club, and a craft channel too. We post pictures of pets, we talk about life. It’s invite-only and I send those invites to people who show interest in the game reviews I publish because I wonder if they’re also feeling unfulfilled by Instagram and Twitter and might prefer the space we’ve built here. 

The White Pube: Zarina made a private server for the two of us so we can keep track of a big project we are working on. In this way, Discord can be a bit like Slack. It just feels a lot smoother than Slack, and we can hop in and out of voice channels at any point throughout the day. This is great for us because we’re apart from one another in London and Liverpool, and it means we can keep track of what we’re doing and feel closer for it too. 

Mundaun: This is a server for one specific game, and I know I’m mentioning a lot of game-related stuff but I bring it up so you have an idea how Discord allows a community to form around specific things: TV shows, films, books and so on. The Mundaun server is ran by the game’s publisher and it is a place for players to talk about the game, ask questions, find out news, see behind the scenes content, and also share fan creations. 

I spend more time on Discord now than anything else on the internet and that’s for a few reasons. First, there are no adverts robbing me of my attention. I’m only in the servers I want to be in — there’s no constant stream of things I don’t want to read or see. It isn’t a central timeline with a mess of different subjects, everything’s organised. It’s text-first over pictures-first so I feel person-first in a sense, and less like a content creator trying to do their best. And I feel hidden because of that, in a good way — protected. 

On top of those reasons, I feel safer here than anywhere else. Obviously, in the servers I’ve created, accompanied by people I’ve invited, I’m going to feel safer. I get to be the security guard at the gate for my own private party. If anything goes wrong, I can send people packing. Luckily, that’s not something I’ve had to do yet but I feel prepared if it ever happens. 

I do think about the exclusivity of all of this and feel a little moment of confused guilt, as though I’m going against my own populist politics in preferring these new, smaller spaces. I haven’t shared a public invite link to Game Club for example out of fear that the man who has been harassing me will find his way in there and terror me some more. I lament the fact that not everyone will even know this server exists, and yeah, I feel guilty for that in some way. But not everything has to be for everyone, especially when my experience of ‘everyone’ has been marred. It feels good to be in a place these men can’t get to me; it feels good to be doing something they don’t get to be a part of. It feels a little bit like I’ve won… or rather, like I’ve come home. I’m torn about it, but ultimately I am happier. 

Instagram and Twitter are huge capitalist frameworks where money and business have shaped the way we socialise, as well as the way we present ourselves within those social spaces. I imagine them like a huge field in the park where big cinema screens and food stands have been set up, and you have to pay to go the toilet. Other people are in charge, and we have entered their area. In the same park, Discord exists in treehouses out of sight. People have climbed up into the canopies to do their secret activities; whether that’s around a hobby, straight up work, or socialising. If we need to piss, we can do so out the treehouse windows and no one below will know where it’s coming from. It is not without risk but for me, so far, it has been safer and more creative. It is less pressure too. It’s a relief. 

I wish I could travel back to my 2015 self and tell her about this new cool thing called Discord, but at least I’m here now. I wonder if more people will withdraw from the other platforms and climb up into the trees. I think we would all be better off for it.


Text by Gabrielle de la Puente, The White Pube

NEoN are working with The White Pube as part of its Wired Women* programme. They are writing responses on the different public outcomes of the programme.Find out more here.
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