Online Harassment Is As Old As The Internet: My Story

Cross-posted from Medium

Back in the early days of the Internet era I started a tiny little ISP / web hosting company in New York. As part of that work, I got active in various online mailing lists and other places where technical folks gathered, like IRC. I wasn’t the only woman in the community but I was one of a very small number. Overall, it was great. We were all figuring out something new together in a brand-new and rapidly expanding environment. It wasn’t easy but it was fun.

And then something funny happened. A small group decided I didn’t “belong” on IRC. And the harassment began. I would log into IRC and get barraged with messages calling me all sorts of ugly names. I would join a channel and that channel would get flooded with attacks on me.

I was fortunate that I knew the people who ran the channels I frequented, and that they were supportive of me, so they set up scripts to keep that crap off those channels. Those quickly became my only safe spaces on IRC. Anywhere else, I’d get flooded again.

Eventually I just stopped logging into IRC at all. Problem solved? No. Then it escalated.

First it was sending pornographic pictures to a professional discussion list I belonged to. Again, luckily, the list moderator was a friend of mine (and another woman to boot) so those never made it onto the list.

I was running my own ISP at the time, so they couldn’t go after me at work, but the guys harassing me quickly figured out where my husband worked and started sending email to his employer accusing him of all sorts of things. It impacted his job.

Eventually the harassers found other things to do with their time – maybe gaming? – and I changed career focus. I haven’t been harassed since. As a woman in marketing, I am not the “threat” that a more technical woman is, I suspect.

I consider myself lucky. I was never stalked or threatened the way women like Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Kathy Sierra are today. Reddit, 4chan, Google, social media – none of those things existed when I was getting harassed online. What happened to me was much more limited. And I have no regrets about changing my career focus. I love what I do.

I hate that being a woman in technology means having to know about and be prepared to deal with harassment. I can’t do much to impact it, but what little I can do is to stand up, share my story, and say what I believe:

  • Online harassment was wrong then, and it is wrong today.
  • We all need to do what we can to change the environment so that it cannot continue.