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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Data
  5. Resolution Strategies
  6. Discussion
  7. References

In this paper the concept of the “moral panic” is applied to computer-mediated communication through a qualitative examination of the case of a “troll” poster to the Usenet group alt.tv.melrose-place over a four month period. The notion of Internet identity construction is analyzed as a collaboration between participants, and the resolution strategies that the participants used in order to neutralize the moral panic are examined.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Data
  5. Resolution Strategies
  6. Discussion
  7. References

Usenet is an electronic forum for discussion of almost any subject, allowing access to millions of computer users who share similar (or very different) hobbies, interests and worldviews (McLaughlin, Osborne, & Smith, 1995). Characterized by its immediacy and sheer volume of traffic,1 Usenet groups based around the discussion of a particular topic afford a prime example of Internet communities. The main method of communication is text-based e-mail, although some groups permit the exchange of graphics, sound or video files. Many groups contain regular contributors, who often act as moderators, by creating FAQs (Moraes, 1994) or lists of frequently asked questions about the group. FAQs, among other things, can provide a list of the group's conventions and mores, which often act in conjunction with the more general “netiquette” - the informal guidelines which govern how Internet users should behave when interacting with others (Shea, 1994; Spafford, 1993; Von Rospach, 1993).

To a “newbie,”2 posting to Usenet can be a daunting experience. It is impossible to know who will read the message, or to determine how they will react. Also, unlike face-to-face interaction, gestural, facial or prosodic cues are absent, and so many posters rely on smilies (Elmer-Dewitt, 1994; Sanderson, 1993) to function as indicators of emotion.

Because of the anonymity of Usenet interactions, and the potential for reaching a diverse global audience, consisting of hundreds of cultures, it is unsurprising that conflict is a common phenomenon in Usenet. Consequently, a casual regard for FAQs and netiquette can often provoke conflict3 (Smith et al., 1997).

Antagonistic postings are known as flames (Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986) and prolonged, escalating conflicts are often referred to as flame wars. In flame wars flames can give rise to other flames, involving more and more posters, some who may be angry that the flame war is taking over the newsgroup. The tone of flames is intentionally aggressive and numerous methods of attack are used, ranging from intellectualized debate, through biting sarcasm to scatological abuse.

This paper analyses a single case of what appeared to be a “flame war,” in which one participant in a newsgroup was pitted against many other participants, over a prolonged period of time. In examining this flame war the concept of the “moral panic” (Johnson, 1999) is invoked to explain what happened, and then to focus on the construction of identities in the flame war.

Moral panics can be defined as the efforts of a particular group to exert collective moral control over another group or person. They are characterized by the identification of a “problem” perceived as a threat to a community or susbset of a community's values or interests (sometimes reflecting political or religious beliefs), e.g., pornography on television. There is a rapid build-up of public concern focused on the supposed problem, and often numerous solutions are proposed, until the panic recedes or results in social change (Thompson, 1998, p. 98).

The relationship between a moral panic and justification is complex. While the instigators of a moral panic normally feel that they are justified in publicizing an issue, it may also be the case that moral panics can have detractors, who suspect that the situation is not as clear-cut as is being made out, or that such an escalatory response is unnecessary. A distinctive feature of many moral panics is that they usually contain a hidden agenda. For example, during the “great grammar crusade” (Cameron, 1995) in the late-1980s and early-1990s in the U.K., declining standards in grammar were seen by “moral entrepreneurs” as being linked to supposedly declining societal standards (e.g., being related to crime and hygiene). Cohen (1972) theorises that moral panics orginate from the media or particular interest groups. However, Hall et al. (1978) and Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) claim that moral panics can be “elite-engineered” instruments of state control or occur as a result of a bottom-up “grassroots” manifestation of genuine public concern. Work on moral panics has, therefore, focused on social hierarchies containing thousands or millions of people. This paper hypothesizes that moral panics are potential features of all communities, however large or small, including Internet or “virtual communities” (Rheingold, 1993) where hierarchies may be less immediately recognizable.

The other strand of research this paper will pursue is related to Internet identity deception (Donath, 1999). Post-structuralist theory points to identity as constantly shifting, multi-faceted (Bornstein, 1994) and experienced in relation to communication with other human beings (O'Brien, 1999, p.78). The potential for constructing alternative identities is one of the most salient features of Internet use. In face-to-face interaction restrictions are placed on the identity a person is able or permitted to construct for themselves at that particular point in time; for example, people cannot instantly change their physical appearance at will. However, as Reid (1994) notes, the anonymity and physical separation of cyberspace enables social experimentation, as well as explorations of identity and self.

In her discussion of gender identity, Butler (1990, p. 33) describes gender as “performative”, a never-ending enactment which provides the appearance of substance. Leap's (1996, p. 160) view that performances are also dependent on audiences is relevant to the processes by which identity is constructed online. I wish to argue that online identity construction is a joint process between “performer” and an involved “audience.” The disembodiment of participants in virtual communities affords users a great deal of scope in contributing towards the online identities of others. The examination of the processes by which Internet identities are constructed helps shed light on how individuals and groups jointly help to create and maintain each other's identities, even when they are in conflict.

The Data

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Data
  5. Resolution Strategies
  6. Discussion
  7. References

The newsgroup alt.tv.melrose-place is used mainly by fans of the television soap-opera Melrose Place. During the data collection period, this group generated between 20–80 messages per day. A survey of the group4, taken a month before the data was gathered, revealed the following demographic information about the 280 respondents:

  • Age: almost two thirds of the respondents were were between the ages of 20 and 29. Of the other third, a sixth were younger than 20, and a sixth were older than 29.
  • Sex: Sixty-nine percent of the respondents were female, and thirty-one percent were male.
  • Location: Seventy-five percent of the respondents came from the United States of America. Nine percent were from Canada and six percent from Australia.
  • Education: Sixty-one percent of respondents were college-educated.
  • Political views: Thirty-five percent described themselves as liberal, forty-one percent moderate and seventeen percent conservative.
  • Sexual orientation: Eleven percent of respondents identified themselves as gay or bisexual, eighty-one percent as heterosexual, while three percent stated that they were unsure about giving their sexuality a definite label.

The data set consisted of a sample of 150 postings made to alt.tv.melrose-place between January and May of 1996, all of which were from, to, or about a poster who called himself “Macho Joe.”5 A small number of these postings were collected at the time they were first posted to the newsgroup; the rest were found at a later date via the Usenet archive DejaNews.com (now available from Google at http://groups.google.com/googlegroups/deja_announcement.html). It was not possible to trace all of the original postings via DejaNews, thus the data described here is a representative sample of the original data.

Melrose Place (1992–1999), a syndicated prime-time American soap opera set in Los Angeles, followed the lives of a group of 20- and 30-something characters who lived in a single apartment complex. The program became the subject of controversy when a storyline involving an onscreen “gay kiss” was leaked to the media. The kiss, although filmed, was never shown, prompting the American Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation group to respond angrily6. The excision of the kissing scene was also commented on by a number of subscribers to alt.tv.melrose-place, who complained about censorship. (Original spellings and grammar have been maintained in the quoted postings below).

Example 1

After seeing Matt's love thang vaccum the tonsils of his co-star on the soap, I'm wondering if FOX will ever get over the threats of the Christian Coalition and the rest of those yahoos and let us see Matt show some affection toward his honey.

Any guesses?

This posting elicited the following confrontational response from someone who had never posted to the group before:

Example 27

Oh BARF!!!! Last thing I want to see - a couple of *fags* making out on prime time! Why does the show need these weirdo characters anyway?

Within a few hours several enraged newsgroup “regulars” leapt to the defense of the original poster, by making insulting references to the new poster whom they deemed “stupid”, “ignorant,” and “bigoted:”

Example 3

Fortunately, nobody gives a damn what stupid ignorant bigots like you want to see on TV in the first place. And if you ask most of the people in this newsgroup, YOU are the one whose a weirdo, not the gay characters or viewers.

Example 4

“Oh BARF!!!!”? Mr. <anonymized>, maybe you don't realize it, but you come across a _lot_ like a prissy, spoiled 15-year-old girl. Care to share your little secret with us, sweetie?

The protagonist immediately responded:

Example 5

> If you don't like Melrose for whatever reason, don't watch it. Really, we > don't care!

Hey! Take a pill, Mary! Calm down… doesn't take much to make you come _queer_ all over, does it? Maybe I watch Melrose because my *girl*friend likes it, and I got kinda interested.

If I was alone, I might reach over and change the channel from sports to watch it, then again, I might not… I probably don't like playing with knobs as much as you do…

Bite me!

Over the next four months a sizeable proportion of the e-mails sent to alt.tv.melrose-place were about, from and to the new poster who referred to himself as “Macho Joe.” In the following sections an account is provided of how Joe constructed and criticized his main targets, and the escalating moral panic surrounding his postings is considered. The case of Macho Joe can be interpreted as “pernicious spamming” (Stivale, 1994) or “trolling” (Donath, 1999, p. 45), the act of “baiting” a newsgroup, and then enjoying the resulting conflict.

It should be noted that, on a surface level, Macho Joe was engaged in a one-man moral panic of his own. This panic took the form of a paranoid fear of a “gay agenda,” which he likened to a communist-style infiltration of western society:

Example 6

Homos are doing to western society what they did in ancient Rome: bringing it down. Showing Matt smooching with some other fag is putting the stamp of approval on decadence. Course, I guess you and your friend Joe Stalin don't see it the same way I do.

His main targets were constructed with reference to a number of negative “folk” stereotypes surrounding homosexuality:

  • Effeminate: (Example 7) Hey!!! Where are all you snippy fags coming from? A regular guy could really get seriously clawed in this newsgroup with all you screaming felines… and I thought being deballed was supposed to settle you boys down…
  • Unable to maintain long-term relationships: (Example 8) Gay “relationships” have the lifespan of a fruitfly.
  • Sadomasochistic: (Example 9) What, didn't your boyfriend get you a new dog collar and leash for St. Valentine's Day, Spike?
  • Cross-dressing: (Example 10) I'm allergic to ostrich feathers - I start to sneeze - so your feather boa would be a definite advantage.
  • Pretentious: (Example 11) Anyway, you fags always drop names to sound like your better'n everyone else.
  • Lisping: (Example 12) By the way… did you catch Tonya's pix in Penthouse? Sheesh, look who I'm askin'… thilly me!
  • Disease spreaders/proselytizers: (Example 13) Last year, according to the Red Cross, 65% of new AIDS cases were traced to male/male sex. If gays want to kill themselves with this sinful lifestyle, I think that they should keep their depraved behaviour behind closed doors, and not pollute the public airwaves with attempts to recruit followers into their chosen lifestyle.

In opposition to Joe's construction of “flawed homosexuality”, Joe presented himself as stereotypically masculine and heterosexual, presumably based on his own standards:

  • Irresistible to gay men: (Example 14) Hey Tinkerbelle! You _want_ me… you want me real bad…
  • Handsome and well-dressed: (Example 15) Macho Joe has a strong masculine chin, and broad shoulders, no padding! Macho Joe dresses COOL… Joe is really cool. He wears sunglasses at night.
  • Heterosexual: (Example 16) And real sorry to disappoint you hotlips, but I ain't interested in going down with, or on, anything I can see in my own mirror.
  • Ex-army: (Example 17) I saw “guys” like you in the service, who will use *any* opportunity for playing “grabass”
  • Plain-talking: (Example 18) What the fark does this mean? English spoken here! Are you the guy that said my outfit was “Chess King”? Still trying to figure that one out.
  • A “real” man: (Example 19) REAL MEN like Macho Joe don't need to talk dirty to prove they're butch.

Joe's dual gender stereotyping of masculinity with male heterosexuality, and effeminacy with male homosexuality was a theme common to almost all of his postings. By signing himself as “Macho Joe,” and sometimes talking about himself in the third person, he was able to constantly allude to his own “macho” identity. O'Brien (1999, 87) notes that the construction of hyper-gendered stereotypes in online communication is likely, as participants tend to draw on existing cultural gender codes. Gender is an embodied institution, and so in the disembodied environment of Usenet, participants perpetuate and exaggerate gender binaries, drawing on their own idealizations of gender, and using stereotypes to compress a large amount of information into a small space.

Resolution Strategies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Data
  5. Resolution Strategies
  6. Discussion
  7. References

Running parallel to Joe''s moral panic about the “gay agenda” was the panic of many of the other subscribers to alt.tv.melrose-place about Joe's homophobia. Considering the proliferation of Joe's postings, the number of detractors was large, involving about 40 participants. Although not all chose to reply to him in the same way, a number of response patterns began to emerge. These patterns can be classified into several resolution strategies. While it would over-simplify matters to state that these strategies occurred in a linear pattern over time, it was the apparent that the final two strategies occurred towards the end of the period of the moral panic, while the earlier ones tended to be utilized by individuals, before moving on to more aggressive strategies8.

Strategy I: Avocate “sympathy/understanding”

One of the least aggressive resolution strategies was to advocate understanding and sympathy, albeit with a patronizing and superior tone. This “sympathy” could be directed either towards Joe, or those close to him. In Examples 20 and 21 below, the posters did not appeal directly to Joe, but to the other members of the group. By not addressing the protagonist directly, the posters were not directly inviting a response. Joe tended not to acknowledge these postings in the group.

Example 20

For some reason Joe is obsessed with homosexuality - we have all laughed at his opinions, and in many ways his beliefs have united the people that he despises so much. In spite of how irritating Joe's postings are - spare some pity for him - it must be horrible for him to go around with that much hatred in his head.

Example 21

They're very insecure about their own sexuality and are going out of their way to cover up their fears about themselves being homosexual. I feel sorry for the guy's girlfriend, if indeed he has one.

Strategy II: Laissez faire

The second resolution strategy offered by e-mail posters was to “ignore him and he'll go away”. Again, posters tended not to appeal directly to Joe, but to other posters who had entered into correspondence with him. Like Example 20, Example 23 (below) uses the first person plural “we” in order to claim an association between the writer and everyone else in the group except Joe. By asking others to disregard another poster, this strategy functioned as a potential provocation.

Example 22

It's patently obvious he's flame baiting - as the gay thread dies down, he restirs the fire by attacking women. Let him have his fun and eventually he'll drift away.

Example 23

Thought I'd seen the last of Joe <anonymized> when I added him to my killfile9 for the Pittsburgh Steelers and SF 49ers newsgroups. Here's what we need to do: IGNORE HIM. He'll go away as soon as people stop responding to him.

Example 24

Honestly, guys. Attacking Joe will not do a single thing to help gay people. It'll just screw up this newsgroup even more. Please don't feel like you need to defend the honor of gay people. You don't. Just ignore Joe; he'll go away again. The only power he has is the power you give him.

Strategy III: Flame

By far the most common resolution strategy (occurring in about 90% of e-mail responses to the group) was to respond in kind. One tactic was to claim that Joe was a repressed homosexual:

Example 25

>You know Joe, you are just a *little* too obsessed with this >whole gay thing. And you know what they say: Sometimes the squeekiest >wheel….

I've read this “Joe's a Fag” lie a few times now. Like, when someone points out they don't like to see degenerates on t.v. doing disgusting things with each other, like kissing and worse stuff, one of the first things that happens is they get accused of being a closet fag and stupid. Well, I'm not a fag, and I'm not closet stupid!

Example 26

>I think this “Macho Joe” needs to get on Freud's couch in a hurry before he >puts on an Indian costume and starts singing “YMCA.”

You fags only wish! When I “hang out with all the boys” I keep my eyes above waist level… I don't leer like you gayboys do. Why are you all so interested in seeing Macho Joe in a Commanche headdress anyway? Is that the latest gay thing?

However, as the flame-war progressed, the focus on Joe began to move away from suggesting that he had repressed homosexual feelings, towards a perceived lack of intelligence, inadequate education and “low” social class on his part.

Example 27

I bet your one of those dumb homophobic guys that assumes that all gay men want you just cause your male.

Example 28

> 3/You said “circumscribed” and “misperceptions” - “puh-leez, > Mary!”

My apologies - I should have known that there wouldn't be any dictionaries handy in your trailer park. From now on I'll try to stick to one-syllable words so you can understand.

Example 29

Next time, just grab a dictionary. It's that book you're currently using as a coaster for your beer.

Example 30

And in case you didn't notice dumb ass, everyone is attacking you for your LACK of intelligence, education and so on. Give it up already.

Example 31

Your intelligence and education are being attacked because it is generally someone whose educuation has not advanced very far who holds these attitudes. People who have been exposed to higher forms of education tend to learn that most of the world consists of people/cultures very different from us and our own. We also learn to appreciate these differences rather than condemn them.

It appeared that Joe's opponents were actively contributing towards the construction of Joe's identity, which at times ran contrary to the identity that he was attempting to construct for himself. In response to Joe's presentation of himself as the epitome of Western masculine heterosexuality, his detractors responded in two ways. Some took Joe's claims about himself one stage further, by validating his masculinity, but suggesting that this gender performance (Butler, 1990, p. 33) was undesirable because it was uncultured and displayed ignorance, while others constructed Joe as homosexual, but too stupid to face/understand the truth. In this second scenario Joe was seen to need psychiatric help (Freud's couch) in order to resolve his own “true” sexual identity, something which, because of a lack of intelligence/education, he was unable to do single-handedly.

Since the only medium available for conflict resolution was language-based, it was unsurprising that the form as well as the content of Joe's language came under scrutiny. While spelling errors and typos in friendly Internet communication can elicit humorous teasing (Marvin, 1995), such errors can be much more critically evaluated in flame wars. Joe''s detractors implied that if someone is unable to express himself in a manner that indicates an adequate education, then what has been written is not worth reading. It was this philosophy that prompted a dissection of Joe's spelling and/or grammar.

Example 32

>Fag-loving dike!

If you're going to insult people you should at least know how to spell “dyke” correctly.

Example 33

>P.S. I got a brain.

You have shown no evidence to back that claim. By the way, “I got a brain” is not correct english. You may in fact *have* a brain, but you don't seem to know how to use it.

Example 34

>Well, I'm not a fag, and I'm not closet stupid!

no. you're quite open about being stupid.

One of the differences between Joe and his detractors was their use of language, something which both sides seized upon in order to emphasize the other's supposed inferiority. In Joe's case it was a dislike of “fancy,” pretentious language. In the example below he attacks a poster simply because he has used the word “horrid:”

Example 35

>> it. After a stressful day of work on a Monday (the most horrid day of the >> week IMHO) I totally enjoy losing myself to the unreality of the bizarre >> and weird situations that are written for the characters of our common >> interest … Melrose Place. >> >Well written piece, Tennessee Williams… you're obviously another of >those FAG types pushing your gay agenda down our throats… NO >STRAIGHT guy would use the word “horrid” in a sentence, Daffodil… > > Let's clean up Melrose Place and bounce the fags! > Macho Joe F.

So what you're saying Joe sugars, and actually sound proud of, is that straight men don't have the extensive vocabulary that gay people; how fortunate that you feel capable to acknowledge such a short-coming.

Joe attempted to create a distinction between the type of language that he used, and the type of language employed by gay people (which he referred to as “Faglish”). Although Joe claimed not to use such language, he in no way admitted that this marked him as inferior. In fact he portrayed it as a positive characteristic, a matter of choice rather than linguistic skill. However, his assertions were interpreted in a different light by other posters. Joe's supposed lack of an extensive vocabulary is viewed as a “shortcoming” (Example 35). So although Joe does not claim ignorance of the word “horrid,” he claims that heterosexual men would never use it, a point which is subtly altered by the person who replied to him, to imply that “Joe lacks of an extensive vocabulary”.

Strategy IV: The threat of physical violence

A less common, but more aggressive means of challenging Joe was the (probably facetious) threat of physical violence, either directly (Example 36) or indirectly (Example 37) in order to refute Joe's claims that gay men are effeminate.

Example 36

I'll tell ya what?. if yer so macho, … you.me… in the ring….

THEN we'll see who's macho.

Example 37

>The fact is, if you ever set foot in a gay dance club, you would probably be >surprised to find out that most of the guys are buff and shirtless and could >pound your face into the pavement if they wanted to. Is this what you are >soo damn insecure about Joe? Not enough of a man, eh?

Yeah, right. I'm likely to drop by a gay dance club… I'll see if I can get the dry cleaners to sew sequins on my jock strap…

You know, you're the one that seems to be promoting physical violence, on top of the “idiot”, “uneducated” and “trailer trash” talk. Pound my face into the pavement? That's the way Nazis used to talk… wasn't it?

Neither of these threats led to any confrontation beyond that of e-mail.

Strategy V: Censorship

Towards the end of the four-month exchange of e-mails, another solution was proposed, that of complaining to the postmaster in charge of Joe's e-mail account with the express intention of denying him e-mail access, in effect to censor him.10

Example 38

Does anybody know how I can contact the net-administrator of the address: <anonymised> ? I think it's about time that this person had his e-mail rights taken away from him.

Joe responded angrily, arguing for freedom of speech:

Example 39

Here we allow people to say what they choose, because we've discovered that it's a whole lot less dangerous than muzzling them; and if you muzzle me because you don't like what *I* say, who's next on your list? Catholics? Freemasons? Veterinarians?

Although nobody (openly) supported Joe's homophobia, one poster agreed with him that censorship was not an appropriate solution, citing the argument that permitting the free expression of the homophobic perspective exposes people with more moderate views to its dangers:

Example 40

My personal opinion is not to have your account yanked, because I do believe in free speech, and also because I believe in letting people with lame opinions like yours completely reveal themselves as the hate-obsessed creatures they are rather than the moralists they pretend to be. I imagine that there is more than one person on this group who was either fence-sitting or simply didn't think much about homophobia who has now come around to a realization of the sort of unwarranted abuse gay people face all the time–and who now finds such abuse vile.

In any case, the threat to have Joe's account closed never came to fruition: Joe continued to post to alt.tv.melrose-place.

Strategy VI: Exposure

After threatening to leave the newsgroup several times and returning several times, the following e-mail was posted to the newsgroup:

Example 41

I thought you guys might be interested in his Usenet profile, given the amount of queer-baiting he's apparently done here:

Author Profile:

71 articles posted between <anonymized> and <anonymized>. 84% followups.

Number of articles posted to individual newsgroups:   50 alt.tv.melrose-place   8 rec.arts.tv.soaps.abc   4 bit.listserv.gaynet   3 rec.music.country.western   3 alt.showbiz.gossip   1 rec.arts.sf.tv.quantum-leap   1 ncf.sigs.lifestyle.gay   1 alt.society.underwear

Joe's also a big “All My Children” fan, having watched it for about 15 years (according to a post of his). Yeah, real “macho” activity there, Joe.

… my favorite quote, from the bit.listserv.gaynet group…

“Sorry I missed the “Best of Cowboy Buttman, Vol. III” - I really haven't visited this group very much before - nor any other gay group too much. When I get the feeling that I HAVE too, (if you get my drift), I look into alt.sex.homosexual for a hot story, which I promptly trash guiltily after, er, reviewing…”

No, I'm not making any of this up. Apparently Joe is baiting queers even though he is one himself.

A “usenet profile” can be obtained from DejaNews (http://www.dejanews.com) which maintains records of e-mails sent to newsgroups. By accessing DejaNews it is possible to obtain a list of all of the postings to a Usenet group, about any subject, or by any poster. In this manner, Joe was exposed as making postings to gay-related newsgroups, where he had espoused a homosexual identity. Joe's “outing” caused a flurry of messages to be posted to alt.tv.melrose-place, including several by an outraged Macho Joe, who excused this alternative identity as an example of “role-playing”:

Example 42

Macho Joe ain't no… no…“chicken lollipop”. Macho may just like assuming roles in a MUD kind of way. You know, “Dungeons and Dragons”. Playing roles doesn't mean that a guy is a chicken-lollipop. I mean, Tom Hanks can play a faggot without being one…

The decision to “out” Joe became the subject of discussion in the newsgroup. Although the majority of people who actively followed the group agreed that Joe's homophobia was intolerable, this particular resolution strategy was deemed by some to have been too severe. The two postings below reveal opposing points of view on the matter:

Example 43

I know we all have the ability now to check up on other people and, thanks to “Usenet profiles,” we can tell that someone posted on alt.fetish.underwear, but it's really not a very good idea. As obnoxious as “Macho Joe” was while he was here, he still has a right to his personal life, whatever it may be, and I don't think it was a very nice thing to do to post his Usenet profile and postings he's made in other places. You would want other people to respect your privacy too. “Joe” is gone now. Just let it go.

Example 44

Joe has come back more times than Shirley MacLaine! No one resurrected that moron, he would have surfaced again regardless of what was posted. It's been going on for months now. Getting caught in any cycle is no fault but your own. Ever heard of skipping a thread if you don't like it? I agree that Joe should have been exposed for his ugly and hateful participation here.

With Joe's identity beyond the newsgroup exposed, his ability to harass the group had been diminished. With the credibility of his “macho” identity put into question, Joe refrained from posting. The moral panic surrounding Joe's homphobia was over.

In a personal e-mail a few weeks after his final posting to alt.tv.melrose-place, Joe told me that the creation of the “Macho Joe” identity was the result of being bored by the newsgroup. The onslaught of “political self-righteousness” that his original posting provoked was so funny to him that he continued to play out the homophobic identity, certain that intelligent readers would understand that Joe was either insane or a fake.

So although Joe's “targets” had been gay men, the people whom he had really intended to upset were the “politically correct,” merely because he found their angry responses amusing. The sexuality of Joe's real targets was, therefore, irrelevant to him.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Data
  5. Resolution Strategies
  6. Discussion
  7. References

It is debatable whether the postings of the Macho Joe episode are typical of a moral panic at all. It occurred on a small scale, with fewer than one hundred people actively engaged in its life-cycle (although arguably larger numbers of people could have been lurking during some or all of the debate). Furthermore, the panic has “artificial” qualities because Joe was pretending to be homophobic as a joke at others' expense. It is also unclear whether or not the victims of Joe's homophobic postings had a “hidden agenda” of the type which is generally associated with moral panics.

However, we could usefully regard these Usenet postings as a moral panic, at the micro level. In this case, a group believed that it held the moral high ground. Clearly, the moral panic emerged as a result of a debate concerning homophobia and censorship that was taking place in the media, and had reached a crisis point with the apparent censorship of the male-male kiss on Melrose Place. The moral panic in alt.tv.melrose-place was a small-scale reflection of one side of the media panic, albeit with an artificially created protagonist. However, this “micro” moral panic followed the same pattern as other moral panics: it began with a undesirable problem (homophobia) requiring a solution; it progressed through various stages, which were not ideally linear, but did have a sense of progression in that more stringent measures were applied as time passed. The strongest measure (“outing”) resulted in the end of the moral panic and a return to the status quo.

In common with other moral panics, underlying the fear of homophobia were deeper feelings relating to class and education. Why did so many of Joe's opponents choose to focus on his perceived inadequate education or low social status? Example 31 can be construed as revealing elitism.

Example 31

Your intelligence and education are being attacked because it is generally someone whose educuation has not advanced very far who holds these attitudes. People who have been exposed to higher forms of education tend to learn that most of the world consists of people/cultures very different from us and our own. We also learn to appreciate these differences rather than condemn them.

Joe's homophobic attitudes are seen as emerging directly from his putative lack of education. Another poster calls him ‘trailer-trash”, positioning both target and poster on different rungs of the social ladder. Just like moral panics which employ fears over people's spelling to maintain control over societies (Johnson, 1999), in this moral panic, the link between language use and class is also highlighted. It implies that poor language capacity is a result of low social class, which produces uneducated and, thus, homophobic people.

Although Joe''s alt.tv.melrose-place identity was at odds with his postings to other newsgroups, this should not lead us to reject this particular “moral panic.” The fact that nobody saw through Joe until his exposure suggests that people were prepared to accept him at face value. His Internet identity was accepted as real, because it was plausible. Joe was able to exploit folk myths about homosexuality in order to create a homophobic identity which was credible enough to garner enraged responses. However, the identity of Macho Joe should not be attributed to a single person. His detractors actively contributed to the construction of the Macho Joe identity, by posting remarks based on assumptive reasoning such as his using a dictionary for a beer-coaster (Example 29) and living in a trailer park (Example 28). They also constructed Joe as possessing a repressed homosexual identity (examples 25 and 26), which was only partly true. Joe appeared11 to be a homosexual man, pretending to be a heterosexual man, who was hiding a homosexual identity.12 Burkhalter (1999, p. 70) in his discussion of racial identity in Usenet, argues that a single respondent cannot recast the racial identity of another at will, especially when the subject has a long history of using a newsgroup. However, he also notes that the collaboration of participants is important for sustaining online racial identities. In the case of Macho Joe, the moral panic surrounding him enabled others in the newsgroup to challenge and reformulate the gender identity Joe presented, without dispute.

The fact that Internet interactions are virtual affords users the chance to flesh out the virtual identities of others, by participating in an ongoing, collective narrative that seems difficult to refute.

The willingness of the group to respond to Joe's postings shows how they actively participated, not only in a moral panic, but in the maintenance of Joe's homophobic identity. To an extent it was their labeling of Joe as “stupid”, “uneducated”, and “trailer-trash” which led Joe to take on these traits: he simply gave his audience what they expected. Even Joe's denial of his homosexuality was interpreted as repression.

The debate also shows how for some users of the newsgroup the flame-war led them to display attitudes which could be interpreted as patronizing or classist. The collective failure to silence Joe led to dozens of increasingly aggressive postings which changed the nature of the newsgroup for months. The disagreement within the ranks of Joe's detractors suggested that some of those involved felt that certain response strategies were too extreme (examples 40 and 43).

The attempts to censor Joe evoke a wider debate on Internet regulation. Lee (1996) points to the argument that the Internet is an arena which allows all forms of “silenced speech,” even hate speech. Did it make any difference that Joe was joking? It could be argued that censorship is a sticking-plaster solution, simply driving hate-speech underground, making it more difficult to detect and counter. In any case, Usenet regulation remains “a problematic venture since often there are no identifiable agents toward whom to direct regulatory actions” (Bilstad, 1996). As Joe noted in a personal e-mail, he never received any disciplinary action because of his postings, despite the fact that other posters had complained to his account administrator about him.

Finally, the decision to “out” Joe caused other Internet users to question the moral consequences of such an action. It might be argued that if someone posts an article to Usenet, however controversial the subject of the group or the message, then the sender ought to know the risks. Such “evidence” may be used against them at a later date. While the DejaNews archive is a fairly well-established Internet data corpus, for the present, the number of Internet newbies expands or remains constant as more people go online, suggesting that many users will not be aware of the potential for exposure the availability of such a database might pose.

Outing is one of the most effective means of rendering the hypocritical impotent (Miller, 1995, p. 461). While it is not the intention here to prolong a culpability debate by asking whether Joe deserved privacy (Example 43), or whether his exposure was justified (Example 44), it is interesting to note how outing can alter the identities of those involved. After initial reactions had died down, Joe appeared victimized while the person who exposed him was criticized.

Although moral panics are generally played out in the public eye, engineered by high-profile politicians or social commentators in the media, everyone has the potential to ignite or contribute towards moral panics. The Internet, with its potential for the exchange of ideologies between large numbers of diverse peoples and cultures, the construction of ambiguous alternative identities and the continuing debate over correct and incorrect usages of this technology is, therefore, a ripe source for the development and investigation of newer forms of moral panic.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Kollock and Smith (1999, p. 6) note that in 1998 there were “tens of thousands” of Usenet groups.

  • 2

    A “new” user, that is, one who is likely to be unfamiliar with Internet mores.

  • 3

    For a taxonomy of “reproachable conduct” see McLaughlin et al. (1995).

  • 4

    The survey was set via a message to the newsgroup. Users of the group were requested to respond if they wished, rather than receiving individual questionnaires. As a result, it is difficult to say what percentage of the people who read or posted to alt.tv.melrose-place actually answered the survey. However the number of respondents (280) was relatively large.

  • 5

    Names and e-mail addresses are expressed with the term <anonymized>. All of the posters who are quoted in this article were e-mailed about their inclusion in this paper, including “Macho Joe,” and none refused permission to have small parts of their postings reproduced.

  • 6

    See GLAAD online http://www.glaad.org/

  • 7

    As Joe often referred to himself in third person, his postings are in bold print so they can be differentiated from other postings.

  • 8

    It should be pointed out that this is not a definitive list. Other strategies such as “mail-bombing” can also occur as responses to trolls but were not used against Joe.

  • 9

    The “killfile” is a filter on incoming posts, which allows messages coming from a particular poster to be screened out by the news client. The posts remain available to others.

  • 10

    Nothing would have prevented Joe from acquiring a new e-mail account and continuing to post to the group.

  • 11

    Evidently, the true identity of Joe, as an educated gay man who was simply joking, is also open to question.

  • 12

    Donath (1999, p. 49) points out that online category deception frequently involves gender or age deception.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The Data
  5. Resolution Strategies
  6. Discussion
  7. References
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