Over the last week, 'Twitter trolls' have targeted high profile women with repeated online threats of rape, murder and bomb attacks, most notably Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy MP, and the academic Mary Beard. In response, many users boycotted Twitter on Sunday, and a petition was started to make reporting abuse easier. It's not just the celebrity females that get the abuse: recent research has found that women are more likely to be cyber bullied than men across the board.
It's terrible behaviour, of course. Just because it's a feature of internet culture doesn't mean it's ok. But anyone remotely surprised that the internet is full of trolls and misogynists hasn't really been paying much attention for the last 20 years or so.
From its earliest days as a tiny elite academic network, through to bulletin boards, forums and now social media, the internet has always been male dominated, and often a pretty hostile place for women.
One glaring example is the 'Rules of the Internet', a set of spoofy user generated rules posted on Encylopedia Dramatica by users of the meme-generator and petri-dish of internet weirdness, 4Chan. It includes the following:
30. There are no girls on the Internet
31. Tits or GTFO* - the choice is yours
*Get The Fuck Out
Rule 30 refers to the fact that it was widely known that many female users were in fact masquerading men. Such was the dearth of women that 1980s Bulletin Board users had a special emoticon: O>-<|= which meant: 'messages of interest to women.' Thus, many women in chat rooms were subjected to rule 31 to prove their gender.
Journalists and researchers that have studied hacker and hacktavist culture have long remarked that there are very few women (although there are some notable exceptions). For whatever reason - and many have been proposed - computer hacking and coding is dominated by young men. One infamous hacker, the 16-year-old 'Kayla' from Lulzsec turned out to be two men in their mid-20s. In fact the earliest hackers of all, the geniuses at the model railway club group at MIT who more or less created modern computing were all men, as were the architects of the ARPA-net, the forerunner of the modern internet.
Trolling too, has been around from the off. The earliest known mention of the word "troll" on record is from a Usenet newsgroup discussion alt.folklore.urban in 1992. However, rarefied academics using the Arpa-net to discuss the finer points of network computing in the 1970s were already involved in 'flaming': provocative, aggressive arguments mixed in with healthy doses personal abuse.
While a troll was originally a term of abuse for anyone intentionally disrupting online conversations, it became something of an art form in the 90s - with some trolls claiming it to be an elaborate critique of conventional morality. Again, 4Chan helped it become about the lols (or lulz - the joy of disrupting another's emotional equilibrium). There are 9 rules dedicated to trolling in the Rules of Interent, the most important being don't argue back: because then they win. But it's hard to play by those rules when you're not initiated into 4Chan's thick skinned culture. In some cases, trolling (and broader cyber bullying) causes serious distress - there have even been suicides as a direct result of sustained troll abuse.
I realise this blog offers no solutions. There are some aspects of this story which, to me at least, are quite clear: offline laws should apply online too. If you threaten to rape someone you should be arrested whether it's on Twitter or not (the director of public prosecutions' guidelines on this are actually very good). But beyond this is a darker story: what happens when the norms and behaviour of an unregulated, sometimes quite dark and offensive space - with a long history of trolling and misogyny before we all joined Facebook and Twitter - slams into the mainstream. Last week's Twitter story will die down, but it won't be long before the next installment. Just read Internet rule number 36.