Extreme Mean

By Paula Todd

When the Supreme Court of Canada recently struck down part of the federal government’s “cyberbullying” bill in a decision defending online privacy it was just one more example of the conflict among the different visions and values that the Internet embodies. In particular, while the Internet is ideally seen as a medium of free and open communication, enabling the sharing of information in a digital commons, it can just as often become an instrument of state and corporate control, secrecy, spying, and predation.

In Extreme Mean Paul Todd addresses the social problem of “cyberabuse.” This is a label Todd adopts both to signal her exasperation with the inability to clearly define “cyberbullying” as well as to emphasize the seriousness of such behaviour. Unfortunately the term remains vague, covering everything from the broadcasting of practical jokes and “trolling” to pathological and criminal behaviour. It remains unclear just how much cyberabuse is actually occurring (and why), who is doing it, who is enabling it, and who is being victimized.

On the matter of victimhood, for example, there are clear cases of the sexual exploitation of the young and the innocent, but also muddier areas like the use of YouTube as a public pillory for prospective celebrities. Rebecca Black is Todd’s poster child for the latter, but despite becoming “the most hated person on the Internet” at the tender age of thirteen when her music video “Friday” was cybermobbed, she is not a sympathetic case. Black was a celebrity wannabe following a script that, after all, had made a global star out of Justin Beiber. But fame is a harsh game — as many a talent-show contestant taken from the stage in tears can testify – and this is as it should be. Our attention comes at a price.

Todd is a crusading spirit, her passions ignited by such tragic Canadian cases as the suicides of Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons, as well as a vision of the great good that the Internet could be if we were to “rise up,” and “take back the Internet” by resisting cyberabuse and encouraging compassion and empathy online.

That this is a position most people will find it hard to disagree with is, however, one of the book’s problems. Little time is spent putting forth counterarguments and other points of view. A fierce booster of the Internet, Todd doesn’t seem receptive to the idea (held by many) that less Internet, especially for young people, would be a good thing. Calls to “take back the Internet” make me suspicious of who is doing the taking. And finally I was left wondering if her attack on the upswing in incivility encompasses much more than just the Internet. It’s not clear whether Todd sees the Internet as a symptom, cause, mirror, or amplifier of what are other social dysfunctions.

These caveats aside, the best antidote to the culture of mean online is still education. The Internet’s age of innocence is over, and people have to be made aware of its many political, economic, and psychological hazards. Todd’s book is part of that process, and helps us in particular to better understand the threats to the most vulnerable among us.

Review first published June 28, 2014. For a journalist investigating the dark side of the Internet, I found Todd to be a bit shaky on several minor points relating to the Internet generally and discussions of sex. Her glossary, for example, defines a “dick pic” (one hardly thinks this needed explanation) as a “photograph, video, or capture of male junk.” Junk? Luckily, this term also has an entry in the glossary as “slang for sex organs, typically male.” Elsewhere in the glossary “URL” is said to be pronounced as “YOU-ARE-ELLE,” which is just telling us how the letters are pronounced, or else “Yur-el.” I have never heard anyone pronounce URL as Yur-el. Another bizarre moment comes when she tells us that “pussy” was a pet name for female sexual organs coined by one online couple “just for themselves.” I think that term is now generic.