Friday, January 11, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Anita Sarkeesian on online harrassment

So many women tell me they hesitate to speak publicly for fear of negative reactions. Here's a young speaker who turns that notion on its head, and uses a TEDxWomen talk to defy a tidal wave of critics. In Anita Sarkeesian's case, her work and this speech are famous because of the vast number and the violence of attackers she faces. And she did it, anyway.

Sarkeesian, a media critic, created Feminist Frequency to provide a series of commentaries about how women are portrayed and viewed in pop culture, including video games. It's a big issue for an industry that says it wants to recruit more female developers and provide more games for female users. The trouble kicked in with a Kickstarter campaign she launched to raise money for her efforts. Despite the fact that she's a gamer herself, Sarkeesian became the target of a hateful barrage of online harrassment:
I'm a pop culture critic, I'm a feminist and I'm a woman, and I'm all of these things openly on the Internet, so I'm no stranger to some level of sexist backlash....But what happened this time was a little bit different....All of my social media sites were flooded with threats of rape, violence and sexual assault, and you'll notice that these threats and comments were simply targeting my gender....there were pornographic images made in my likeness being raped by video game characters, and sent to me again and again....There was even a game made where players were invited to "beat the bitch up" in which, upon clicking on the screen, an image of me would get increasingly battered and bruised.
The attacks helped raise the visibility of her efforts and she wound up raising 25 times more money than she'd requested, but the attacks haven't stopped. In her own post on this talk, Sarkeesian writes about her "strategic decision" to turn the attacks into a teachable moment on online harrassment--a decision that means putting herself out there even more in talks and media interviews. "There have been many inspirational women speaking out about online and gaming harassment issues for a long time and my hope has been that I can use my personal story to contribute to this important and critical conversation," she writes. Perhaps by now it is no surprise that her TEDxWomen speech became a target of the harrassers, so comments were turned off, an unusual step for a TED talk, but one that underscores her point. For every social media strategist, myself included, who counsels clients to leave the comments open on their posts, she's the exception, for good reason.

What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Use both sides of that double-edged sword: Speaking for women is full of double-edged swords, none more powerful than the effort to keep them from speaking up and speaking out in the first place. Just by showing up for this talk and all her other talks and interviews, Sarkeesian keeps them from succeeding. The attacks continue every time she speaks out, but an ever-increasing audience is learning about them each time. Consider the alternative: Would being silent advance her cause or would it help her attackers?
  • Publish your own speech: In her blog post, Sarkeesian shares the video and a full transcript of her speech, which makes me want to stand up and cheer, knowing as I do that too many women don't take the time to publish their speeches. Posting a video is a good start, but it isn't enough, folks: You need a published text if you want the search engines to find your speech and make it easily found by others.
  • On technology topics, juxtapose the online with reality: There's something haunting and uncomfortable about watching this real person standing in front of a slide full of hate speech and violent photographs depicting what the harrassers wanted to do to her, from rape to battery. Without having to say more, the visual juxtaposition takes these invisible harrassers out of the shadows and gives form to the object of the harrassment, making their goal all too clear and concrete for the audience.
I've been advised to turn comments off on this post, but hope you will watch and share it to keep the discussion going.


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