“Limit your exposure,” my dad would always warn me. 13 years later, I grew up and dedicated my career to doing the exact opposite.
My obsession with the Internet started at a pretty young age – which is scary considering how much shit was on the Internet back then before the massive efforts to protect children online.
I had seen it and done it all. I flamed web forums, scammed n00bs on Runescape and Neopets (yes, even Neopets), had accounts banned, trolled friends with hidden links to “meatspin” and “you are an idiot,” fried many of my parents’ computers by exploring known virus-laden websites, wrote edgy and cryptic away message updates on AOL messenger hoping my crush would see them, programmed keyloggers I was too chicken to deploy on anything other than the home computer so I could break my parents’ password filters, talked to strangers, in chatrooms, way way way too old to be talking to me, and even stumbled upon the shocking world of Internet pornography all at the ripe age of way-too-fucking-young.
Needless to say, I grew up quickly thanks to the Internet, and developed the much needed digital thick skin I have today because of it.
All fights in the Miers household usually came down to one central issue, Jess did something stupid online.
At the age of 13, I created a secret MySpace account (sorry Mom and Dad!). All the teens were on it and I was told that I could really boost my popularity at school if I made it into the popular kids’ “top 8.” As a kid that often moved in the middle of the school year to different states throughout my school age years, I often found it difficult to drop and pick up new friends. MySpace was a dream come true for a basement dwelling nerd with no friends, like 13 year old me.
I thank God for MySpace’s recent data mishap because the chances of my page ever resurfacing today was the stuff of nightmares. I was a cringey kid which translated into my gothic black profile theme, Papa Roach profile songs, and emo status updates filled with Edgar Allan Poe and Great Gatsby quotes so the world knew just how deep and brooding I was. I never made it into anyone’s top 8, but I did get to know the cruel world of cyber bullying up close and personal.
Teenagers are mean, especially teenage girls. The girl who said I could be popular if I got on MySpace took my profile photos, edited them, and mocked them openly on her page. Others posted hateful comments, many of them overtly sexual and demeaning. And because online privacy was for nerds, my very public account started to receive incredibly inappropriate messages and comments from the real basement dwelling creeps.
I was 13.
Fast forward to the days of Facebook. New platform, same shit. We would bully each other via wall posts, write public “notes” that were pretty much modern day “burn book” equivalents. One girl even went as far as to hack my account and post my private messages to the public newsfeed.
Then Formspring entered the online ring and things got even meaner.
Formspring was a site for self-conscious teens with dismally low self-esteem to solicit anonymous questions from users that visited their Formspring page. The epitome of terrible Internet services for kids.
So of course I created a page.
As you can imagine, Formspring destroyed what little childhood innocence I could have possibly had left. Teens are cruel. But anonymous teens are ruthless. You see, Formspring marketed their site as a way to anonymously ask your friends who their crush was, or to spill the tea on their most embarrassing stories. Formspring even went as far as to suggest that their service could be used to deliver anonymous compliments. LOL. No, what I got was a mix of “why do post such slutty photos on Facebook?? You aren’t even cute” and “u shud fucking kill yourself.” Some, actually did.
But I can’t sit here and act like a victim in all of this because it takes two to tango, and man could I dance.
It didn’t stop with Formspring. In college I discovered Yik Yak, my next Internet harassment nightmare. At least Formspring allowed you to choose the anonymous messages to display on your public page so you could shield the world from your embarrassing asks. Yik Yak, however, was designed to promote anonymous, public, and localized bullying. And given my infamous past at GMU, I became an easy Yik Yak target.
“Who’s Jess Miers?”
“That ginger bitch from comp sci.”
“lol fuck her.”
“hahaha, I’d rather not.”
Some days it got to be too much. My parents would get angry at what they were seeing on my Facebook page and immediately shut it down. Groundings in my house didn’t mean “no going out”, it meant “no more Internet.”
I grew up listening to my dad plead with me to limit my exposure. Meaning, the more I put myself out there on the Internet, the more I reacted to the bullying and shaming, the worse it would get. My dad saw the Internet for what it was and did everything he could to shield me from it. Looking back now, he was right to do so. And I encourage today’s parents to do the same. Cyber-bullying isn’t dead, it’s just re-skinned. Take a look at Snapchat and Tik Tok.
I’m often asked how after everything I’ve experienced on the Internet and with what seemed like years of relentless cyber-torturing, I could dedicate my career to protecting the same Internet companies that did so little to protect me? More so, how could I, as a woman, support Section 230, a law that appears to allow misogynists to get away with some of the most heinous online acts towards women today?
It’s not an easy answer because it’s counter-intuitive, I recognize that.
The Internet has changed tremendously since its early days and a lot of that has to do with Section 230 and the technological strides made in the content moderation space. Today, because Section 230 affords Internet services the ability to moderate content as aggressively or passively as they see fit, a lot of the dangers I encountered growing up are not as prevalent for today’s users. For example, reporting and take-down has become an almost completely automated process among the big social media giants. Those heinous posts filled with nasty comments from my cyberbullies would last for months on Myspace. Now, I can report such content to Facebook and Twitter and know with confidence it will be removed in the matter of hours. Even better, most social media platforms proactively scan for such content and remove it before it even has the chance to go viral.
Formspring and Yik Yak collapsed under market and societal pressure for encouraging anti-social behavior. No amendment to Section 230 was necessary to bring them down. The same could be said for other anti-social websites, like Gab. We as a society dictate what stays and goes in the online world. We don’t need regulators to do that for us.
Women should absolutely support Section 230.
When it comes to revenge porn and sex trafficking, Section 230 serves as the necessary driving force for websites to proactively monitor and remove such content. Today, it’s nearly impossible to share revenge pornography on Facebook or Twitter without it coming down in a matter of seconds (us women can thank Section 230 for that). Even Backpage, Craigslist, and Switter implemented key word monitoring to proactively take down ads that could be affiliated with sex trafficking before regulators got FOSTA off the ground.
Of course now with FOSTA, a law ironically aimed at curbing sex trafficking online, such proactive monitoring has grown entirely difficult. FOSTA imposes a “knowingly” constraint on Internet companies, so in response, Internet companies have removed all monitoring efforts for such content. Because if they don’t monitor for it, they can’t ever
“know” about it. Which means harmful trafficking content proliferates with no one keeping an eye on it. And let’s not conflate sex work with trafficking. 230 protects the former, especially the women who create empowering careers out of it. The latter is illegal – and those that promote and engage with it cannot use 230 as a shield.
Right now, websites are more so inclined than ever to quickly remove anti-social content as needed which ultimately protects users like us from ever having to interact with it in the first place. Section 230 enables that inclination and any amendment to it, such as Senator Hawley’s proposal to mandate neutral political forums, throws off the balance and jeopardizes our own protections.
It’s 2019 and now my Internet hate comes in the form of disgusting DM’s, hateful quote tweets, and angry YouTube comments. I’m constantly accused of being an anti-feminist, a corporate shill, and “a naive little girl that got in bed with the wrong people,” Ew.
But I knew going into this field, it wouldn’t be easy especially given my gender (go figure – I’m a woman in tech). And honestly, if you’re reading this and considering a career as a 230 crusader, just do yourself a favor and don’t read the comments or your DM’s.
Internet hate is something I’m used to and, ironically, something I’m willing to get up and fight to protect every day because it’s what makes the Internet…the Internet. So yes, I’m okay. I will continue to live my life publicly and un-apologetically online until I die on this 230 shaped hill.
And though I may not have limited my exposure, I have limited the amount of fucks I give about butt-hurt trolls flaming me on the Internet.