Freedom to abuse

Freedom to abuse — choices in the African Blogosphere

Last weekend the number of blogs topped the 30 million mark, according to the UK Guardian (technology section).  In it’s leader entitled “In Praise of the Blogosphere it suggested that blogging “is graduating from being a minority sport to a mainstream activity”.  It listed three factors that had led to this huge spate in the growth of blogs:  the ease of setting one up; the functionality of blogs that has grown to include video and audio clips plus a wide range of social networking features particularly the use of “tags” for sharing music, bookmarks, books and photos; and most importantly  that “they are becoming politically and socially important as like-minded people around the world share thoughts and pictures and call decision-makers to task.”

The article like most on blogging presents a scene of harmony and freedom of speech as the economic and technological barriers to publishing are removed enabling of  the democratic grassroots  media (New Media Musing) to speak out as they choose.

Other articles on the blogosphere are written in a similar vein using phrases like “citizens media revolution” (Our Media) “social media” “grassroots media” “mavericks of the online world” (Rebecca’s Pocket) and so on.  Having blogged two years I cherish the technology that enables me to say what I like and how I like. I do not have to consider editorial constraints or advertising interests. The only standards I have to adhere to are my own. I am free as the wind to speak as I wish.   

But there is a dark side to the blogosphere as Rebecca Blood writes

“The weblog’s greatest strength – its uncensored, unmediated, uncontrolled voice – is also its greatest weakness…..

She argues that the editorial and adverting constraints, on the main stream media ensure that ethical standards are maintained. However, the lack of constraints on blogs which make them so vibrant at the same time compromises their integrity and therefore their value.

But blogging is not just about writing.  It is also about the interaction between the writer and the readers.  The writer is exhibiting their ego and the reader is engaging in overt voyeurism. We bloggers know when someone has been to our blogs, how long they spend there and what they read. After all that is why we are writing.  We created our online identities so others would take a look and watch and try to discover through out words who we are and what we think.

The African blogosphere is one sphere that has seen a huge growth of new blogs in the past 6 months.  For example in Nigeria the number of blogs has trebled in the last 9 months and each month new blogs are being created.  The majority of African bloggers are still men although the number of women is  slowly increasing.   African blogs tend to fall into three loose categories.  First, Journals or diary blogs, topic specific blogs such as technology or music blogs, and  current affairs and political blogs with commentary.

The African blogosphere is no more homogenous than Africa itself.  Each
blogosphere tends to have it’s own characteristic such as more
conversations between bloggers or less topic specific blogs and more
commentary and so on. For example the Nigerian blogosphere tends to be
equally divided between all three blog types but with more women
writing journal and diary type blogs than men. Some countries are not
as developed as others.   The Ethiopian blogosphere though relatively
quite small is very active and dominated by political commentary
blogs.  Kenya is the largest, followed closely by Nigeria.

Recently a number of Nigerian and Kenyan bloggers have been speaking out against homophobia and the abuse of women. These blogospheres have become the sight of much
intolerance expressed through homophobia  and misogyny.  The abuse of
women has been particularly disturbing.  Comments have been left on
womens’ blogs and posts, written using misogynist language against
women and lesbians.  What is interesting is that posts by gay men on their sexual fantasies are viewed as being entertaining and therefore OK.    Whereas writings by female bloggers on homophobia or the  rights of homosexuals results in threats of harassment against the blogger.

This is not to say that there is anything objectionable about someone
expressing opinions against homosexuality whether via a comment or
through a post on a blog.   However these are not simply rational
comments.   The comments and posts are personalised and the language
used is derogatory and misogynist, such as  “lesbos need a dick
whipping”  “bitches”, “menopausal bitches”.  In some instances
individual women have been stalked and intimidated even as far as names
being revealed.  Whilst individuals are entitled to their opinions,
when the conversation degenerates into offensive hate speech advocating
violence against women and homosexuals, this is not acceptable.

Because people see the blogosphere as a space where they can express
themselves freely and often anonymously, they feel they do not have to
adhere to the constraints in speech that they would in the non-cyber
world.  These issues become more apparent as the number of blogs grow
and as people from different backgrounds and countries are brought
together in one huge global blogosophere.  At any one time there are
thousands of conversations taking place. People who would not normally
have contact with each other whether because of geographical space or
just personal preference now have the possibility of sharing
conversations.  The blogosphere reflects the non-cyber world in that
the lack of shared values, ideological consensus and cultural
differences amongst people can and does result in conflicts and
confrontations betweens groups and individuals on their blogs.  Thus
the  dichotomies of gender — male and female; sexual preference —
heterosexual and homosexual; geographical location — Africa the
homeland and Africa the Diaspora; African and non-African all have the
possibility of being exacerbated because except in the case of gender
these pairs are not often thrown together within the same space.

are being abused when they do not conform to certain types of
behaviour.  The emerging female voice on for example, the Nigerian blogosphere is
often in contrast to the prescribed gender roles in Nigeria that do not
threaten existing patriarchal systems.  Women can and do use their
blogs to “speak” out against male oppression in ways they may not do in
their daily lives.  Blogging anonymously they feel free to express
their aspirations for a different Nigeria where women are not
subservient to male domination.  Many men find this problematic and
feel they are loosing control and power over women. This may be one reason why the gay male voice does not elicit so much venom as the female voice. The response to this perceived loss of power  is
to use misogynist and homophobic language to berate and intimidate the
women who speak out. 

Women in the Diaspora are exposed to a more sexually open environment
and one where sexism and homophobia are not so socially acceptable.
This is a further challenge for men in the “homeland” who may resent
and fear this freedom because it may influence “their” women at home.
It is common to berate those living abroad as having lost their
cultural traditions and become soiled by western society  which is
viewed as being morally inferior.  As I mentioned earlier the
blogosphere provides people with the opportunity to develop an
exaggerated ego and to engage in voyeurism. 

The sexual nature of the comments left by some men on women’s’ blogs
indicate the sexualisation of this voyeurism. Young men are able to
feed each other’s ego and sexuality by egging one another on as they
publicly engage in “male” chat about women much of which includes the
use of misogynist language.  Some women also participate in these
“conversations” cheering the men on as they act out their “machoness”
and collude in the abuse of their sisters.

It needs to be said that the numbers of men engaging in abusive
behaviour is relatively small.  In fact a number of male bloggers have
themselves been very outspoken against the abuse of women whether in
the blogosphere or in the non-cyber world but there are still many who
though not participating in abuse are silent. Despite the abuse, women
are determined to continue blogging, to expose misogyny where it
exists, and to find ways of supporting each other just as they have
always done and continue to do so offline. 

The sheer number of blogs and the global nature of the blogosphere
allows for the potential exchange of ideas, empathy and tolerance
across the numerous dichotomies that exist in an increasingly complex
and changing world.  For Africa, the rapidly developing blogosphere
provides the possibility of bringing about a much needed alternative
and progressive voice and cross continent collaboration through a
citizen’s media.  It is important that these possibilities are not side
tracked or diminished by a few destructive non progressive elements.
African bloggers of today are pioneers and as such it is the duty of
all of us to create a blogging environment where women are free to
express themselves without fear.

Human rights defenders and other progressive people in the
global blogging community also have a responsbility to support bloggers who
are being abused because of their sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion
or physical ability.  Here we have a technology that provides the possibility for a global alliance of progressive people yet this is not happening.  The question has to be asked is why?  Why have feminists,  the LGBT community and human rights defenders in the blogosphere  been largely silent on this issue?  Are people listening? if so why do they not speak? How can we change this and create a network of mutual support that  values freedom and diversity? We need to seize the time, find each other and work together.