Ageless, sexless, omnipresent

Published on 2024-01-18

When I was in my first year, I did an introductory course on gender and women's studies. For a while, I strongly suspected this (or maybe philosophy) would be my minor. There's a lot to be said about the interrelationship between gender and technology. It's something that fascinated me when I was in high school and still figuring things out, though I came at it from a slightly different angle at the time.

How I escaped longtermism

I wrote a paper--technically I think it was supposed to be an annotated bibliography but it felt more like a paper--that was broadly a meta-analysis on feminist researcher's reaction to the developments of embodiment in cyberspace. What really gotten me into gender and women's studies was, in fact, the hopefulness of 90s feminism looking ahead to what they imagined would be the transformative power of the internet. I wanted to know where they stood today, and I was kind of disappointed but not all that surprised by the outcome.

Embodiment is kind of an abstract idea. I'm not entirely sure how to explain it practically, but it literally means something like "placing into a body"--a human body. Our bodies signify something about us. White bodies in white supremacist societies signify purity and goodness. Fat bodies in fatphobic societies signify moral failing and unhealthiness. Importantly, the things that our bodies signify are created by the culture we live in. There's nothing intrinsic to a male body that signifies strength; there is a ton of variability in how strong men are. But still, we have this culturally produced idea that men are strong, and men will often go to great lengths, taking it upon themselves to embody that idea of a man, to become strong.

Many women abbreviate their names when publishing books to hide the fact that they're not men to readers who're less interested in reading books written by women. This is an example of women embodying men.

The internet was really interesting to a lot of feminists because it represented an opportunity to do this sort of thing, but on steroids. The internet was a new network for rapidly exchanging information that didn't necessarily need to carry with it any of the classic markers of gender, or really any markers of any particular bodies. The internet would free the pure, rational, cartesian mind from the prison of the human body and we would build a new world free of bias together.

Needless to say, this is not what happened.

The problem seems to be that while these markers are socially constructed, they're not "just" superficial. They go deeper. They're more psychological, and you usually don't leave them behind when getting out of the body; you take them with you. Men will treat you the way they treat women IRL if you have a feminine name. They might even pick up on the way you write. And if they really can't discern what you are to them offline from your virtual profile, they'll hit you with:


As though knowing your age, sex and location is a prerequisite to talking with them.

There's no escape. Certainly not in cyberspace. The real solution will always be to change attitudes in the real world.

A while back, I read an article about a person known pseudonymously as Charlotte Fang. maia crimew wrote a piece that covered her and the parts of the internet she comes from late last year:

we have reached rabbit hole rock bottom

Charlotte Fang is, as far as I can tell, a figure in at least one online suicide cult, an NFT grifter, an extremely racist shitposter, and an esoteric fascist. She's also not a real person.

We do know who created the Charlotte Fang persona. They're just some person, albeit perhaps a very dangerous person. They insist that everything they do is an elaborate joke, but obviously, it materializes in very dangerous ways.

I think this is where I've almost become skeptical about the verdict of the feminist authors I was reading in my first year. When engaging with something like Charlotte Fang, you get the sense that you're looking not at a particular person, but rather a loose network of identity. Charlotte is not a person but rather a story we're told; a story we share with each other, and one that we tell ourselves. A cautionary tale in the dangers of postirony and terminal online-ness when wielded by fascists. A case study in a gemlog entry about the nature of identity on the internet. When I think about Charlotte Fang, I can't help but invoke Jean Baudrillard's idea of hyperreality: the confusion between the world as it's represented in the form of images, and what's actually real as it can be experienced through our senses.

None of this is new. Stories have always been powerful tools for creating larger-than-life figures. I suppose what is new is that the Internet has "democratized" this power, in a sense. Through random chance (and usually a healthy amount of knowing how social media giants prioritize content), people can fashion their own stories to great or horrible consequences. The internet has greatly reduced the barrier of entry to controlling the narrative of ourselves as we project it into the world.

Of course, if everyone can be Lain Iwakura from popular anime Serial Experiments: Lain, then nobody can. But it seems like few are actually all that good at wielding this power. Or, less mystically: most people are kind of shit at telling good stories.

Charlotte Fang, for all the weird and horrible stuff she's associated with, is a really compelling story. There's a reason why people keep writing about her. There's a reason why I'm invoking her right now. She's a fucked up person who speaks a language that, for the better or worse, feels familiar, having grown up on the Internet and having had friends who were into 4chan. She's an example of how powerful the stories we tell online can be.

But that's enough about her.

When we tell our stories online, we bring ourselves with us. I'm one to believe that, on some level, all the stories we tell are intrinsically about ourselves. Your story is rather literally a piece of your mind. That means if you want to create a more equitable society on the web and you carry with you certain biases, you will need to actively reimagine who you are. On a fundamental level, the idea that we will naturally become pure, cartesian minds as soon as our signals hit the modem is lazy. It refuses to acknowledge the work we need to do to overcome those biases. Or perhaps worse, it assumes becoming a "pure, cartesian mind," whatever you think that means, is a good thing to begin with.

If you're going to tell your story online, then you ought to make it a good one, and that means nothing if you aren't actively working to embody it.

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