Irin Carmon is a journalist and commentator whose work has appeared in publications including Jezebel and Salon, where she's a staff writer. She was kind enough to take five minutes (give or take) to talk to me about the panel she moderated at SXSW, "Curing a Rage Headache: Internet Drama & Activism," as well as the general theme of changing the world in the age of trolls. Her most recent article for Salon, "White Male Nerd Culture's Last Stand," addresses the ways that the conference has tried to encourage diversity "in a still-segregated world." You can follow her on Twitter here.
So, what do you mean by "White male nerd culture's last stand?"
Well, my original headline was "Who is SXSW for?" As we discussed, sometimes the headline can become the focus of the story... and that wasn't my first choice.
I think that "nerd culture," broadly construed, is something that people of color and women also embrace, and I think this year it really felt like there was more of a concerted effort to have a bigger tent, to have more people involved. At the same time, I wondered whether everybody having the same conference experience that I was, which was a pretty dynamic and rich one.
How did this year compare to last year as far as diversity and "broadening the tent" is concerned?
This year there seems to be more and more momentum. When I talked to people about it for my story, they seemed to agree that in the years that they've been coming the tent's become bigger. And part of the reason for that is that the definition of SXSW has become more diverse: there are people that work in gaming, programming, progressives and culture producers, activists, and journalists. The less genre-specific it comes, the more possibility they can have a broad range of people represented.
Your panel featured two speakers who both took to the internet to draw attention to specific incidents. WBAI DJ Jay Smooth led a boycott against New York City radio station Hot 97 for airing a racist "parody" song about the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and Sady Doyle's #mooreandme action took Michael Moore to task for his comments regarding Julian Assange's rape allegation. Why discuss these events?
Being somebody that wrote about these controversies, and someone who directly experienced them, I wanted to see if we could step back from the immediate reactiveness and intensity of feeling and come to some larger conclusions about what we're talking about.
What sort of conclusions were reached?
From a strategic point of view, with issues that you care about, you can't really plan for these moments, for things to blow up. And one of the things I really want to get across the panel is, on the one hand [if you're organizing around an issue] you kind of have to roll with what you have, these incidents that have something to do with something long-standing; and on the other hand, things get left out. So I think these moments can be constructive, but they have to come along within a more thoughtful conversation. It isn't just about people getting really mad, or people feeling really hurt, so what comes after that in terms of a more thoughtful expression?
So, after the outrage — Michael Moore says something objectionable, people freak out on Twitter, and he apologizes — what happens next?
This is something I'm working on both in my thinking and the story I'm reporting out right now. My initial sense is that what happens next is capitalizing on that emotion with a more constructive approach that is less reactive — in the case of journalists, rigorous reporting about the underlying issues or thoughtful discussion of them, or in the case of activists and politicians, agenda-setting actions. Of course, the media always wants a good time peg (a major news event to justify discussion of the topic), but there's also conversation-starting.
I saw Nick Denton's interview at SXSW, where he sort of discussed how "conflict" is in the Gawker DNA. It's used to start a conversation, or to gin up pageviews, depending on the example.
"It's not ginning up pageviews, it's just part of an authentic feeling or phenomenon"
Well, I think that sometimes it's both. I worked for Nick for two years, and I have a lot of respect for him. I think that in the case of Jezebel there's a lot of moments where those things are not in conflict. People react with a lot of emotion because there's a really important issue. It's not ginning up pageviews, it's just part of an authentic feeling or phenomenon, or something you want to draw attention to. I agree it can be abused, I think it's a huge responsibility and it should not be abused. But drama doesn't always mean that it's being trumped up. It can often be a way in to talk about something that's been there for a long time. I would never advocate it for the sake of controversy, because you're going to betray the trust of your readers, and you can't get them back again.
The internet, of all media (newspaper, TV, radio) acts as a sort of "rage generator." There isn't the same feedback loop, with commenters commenting anonymously, and trollers trolling, when you read Newsweek. Do you think that activists have a responsibility to kind of quell that undisciplined rage, a little bit?
I think the feedback loop is a raw thing, it's volatile, and it can go against you as well. But on the other hand, I know that when I wrote for magazines about things that were important to me I'd get disappointed if they don't end up becoming part of the conversation. The conversation itself can get changed and distorted, but it can be a value-neutral thing if you figure out how to marshall it for what you're passionate about.
One discussion which often comes up when discussing people's behavior on the internet is the idea of "anonymous" commenting…
I tend to agree with Nick [Denton], I think that what's important is that people have a fixed identity. On Twitter, sometimes people will have a fixed identity that's the same as their real identity, but I think it's important to realize that [anonymity often gives people] an opportunity to be honest on the internet, where their name isn't so important. On Jezebel, for example, commenters on Open Thread, our message board, would really create community with each other because they felt safe, they felt distance from the identity they had in the physical world; they can talk about things they wouldn't talk about in the physical world. So I think [anonymity is] important not only from the point of view of people talking shit about each other, it's also because the reality is that people are held back from certain types of discussion. For example, about sexual health, abortion, coming out, things like that. Anonymity is not just a tool that can be used against people, it's also one that allows them to feel like they can honestly express themselves in a way that's not available to them in the physical world.
So, what is a "rage headache?"
"What happens after your head hurts because you're so mad?"
I was talking about the feeling that I get sometimes, looking at my Twitter feed in the morning. I think it's sort of that mounting feeling that you have… in my particular beat, I'm reading about reproductive rights and the profound misogyny that still exists across cultures and in our culture. On the other hand, what do you do with that visceral feeling? What happens after your head hurts because you're so mad? That's really what we wanted to talk about.
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