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The Internet Underbelly

Sometimes, when I tell people about the community I’ve met online, they respond that the Internet freaks them out.  They ask the usual questions — how do I know that I’m speaking to an actual infertile woman and not a 14-year-old boy living in Kansas?  And I tell them that I don’t know beyond a gut sense that my internal radar usually rings when something doesn’t sound quite right (and yes, I have encountered people online that my gut tells me not to believe or trust).

These people talk about cyberbullying and people oversharing and all of the arguments people have against the Internet, and while I know from years of teaching that this underbelly exists, it is so not a part of the online world I inhabit that I can forget as I sit here on my neat and supportive suburban online street (with well-manicured blogs and friendly emails being sent over our white picket fences) that there are dark and strange back alleys.

And then you read an article like this one on Kiki Kannibal and you suddenly shudder as you see the complete inverse of our ALI community.  It’s a long, horrifying read.

I had never heard of Kiki Kannibal prior to Jenna telling me about her when she emailed me someone’s post about the situation.  The gist of it is that this Florida girl named Kirsten Ostrenga started a MySpace page and created an online persona for herself; a more outspoken, bolder, sexier version of herself named Kiki Kannibal.  She posted pictures of herself in provocative outfits and poses.  She videotaped herself nattering on about whatever comes to mind… in other words, minus the sexy pictures (unless you are massively turned on by a greying-haired woman in Batman t-shirts) what we all sort of do on our blogs.

She turned to the Internet because she wasn’t finding support in her face-to-face world.  She had trouble finding peers who understood her (sound familiar?)  I mean, isn’t that why so many of us went online — to connect with like-minded others?  I had friends in my face-to-face world who were infertile — some who even went to the same clinic.  But I still wanted to surround myself with others who said “me too” when I stated how I saw the world.

Kiki found other teens like her online and enjoyed the social aspect that comes from being with your own.  And then it turned ugly.  The Rolling Stone article states:

She didn’t realize the Web can be a portal for people’s cruelest impulses, or that it allows those forces to assemble into a mob. She didn’t know that her life was about to become an extreme parable about connection and celebrity in the digital age — that the next four years would be fraught with danger, threats to her family, and a violent death. She had yet to understand what a lot of us don’t comprehend: that our virtual lives can take on their own momentum, rippling outward with real-life consequences we can neither predict nor control.

It is difficult to imagine something like this playing out in our community, but I can say that one of the only comments I’ve ever deleted (beyond spam) was one that said how thrilled the commenter was about another blogger’s miscarriage.  That incident made me feel ill — I can’t really imagine Kiki’s world.

Nor can I really fathom her reaction to all of it, her desire to stay online.  Or the decisions her parents’ made.  But, then again, I’ve never walked in their shoes so I don’t truly know the decisions I’d make in the moment without the gift of retrospection.  It’s easy for all of us to sit back and judge as we see the story that has already happened unfold on paper.

And, at the same time, I’ve never completely understood why the Internet is held up as a different playing field since all the negativity that we see on the Internet could play out without the Internet.  People can still bully, still humiliate, still have dumb-ass moments archived for posterity.  You don’t need a computer to do all that.  Part of me sees the futility in leaving the Internet as well.  In a world where any person can technically torment any other person, how in the world do you actually run?  How in the world do you ever stop running?

It is hard to imagine that the very same tool that brings me enormous comfort and support is the very same tool that brought all this destruction to this family’s life.


1 Wordgirl { 04.28.11 at 11:27 am }

I’ll have to read more on this Mel — but I just wanted to say that sometimes we are so on the same wave length it freaks me out — I saw some trash t.v. murder/mystery show the other night — and it largely featured the internet/social media — and I panicked and thought about that underbelly — thought about what I suspected might be my own naivete and willingness to believe in the goodness of people — wondered, really, for the first time — if I shouldn’t shutter my virtual spaces…I know that’s not what you’re suggesting — really the opposite — to stay open, to have these portals of light rather than darkness…but still…this has been on my mind too…xoxox

2 HereWeGoAJen { 04.28.11 at 11:32 am }

Most people are good and kind and most people on the internet are the same way. But the internet gives people this anonymity that they have a hard time getting anywhere else and that is what makes the internet such an easy tool for these horrible things.

But since I moved my blog last year, I’ve had 4,845 comments that were nice and one that I’ve deleted for being hurtful.

3 Kristi { 04.28.11 at 12:12 pm }

I just read this Kiki article and it’s so scary. Scary in the way others have reacted to her and her family. Scary in the parents vast amount of trust and freedom they allowed to continue. My heart is so scared for this yound woman and hope she finds true friendship and love.

We had a speaker come in a few weeks ago to talk to our company about internet safety. It was very eye opening and a scary subject for parents. The speaker inspired alot of parents to talk with their kids and monitor more closely the things that happen online.

4 a { 04.28.11 at 12:18 pm }

Oh. I really, really, really, REALLY want to judge those parents. Really. But I’m restraining myself.

Anonymity is the danger of the internet that allows people to behave outside the bounds of normal polite society. I suspect that we will see more of this carry over into face to face confrontations before it peaks. Then, I hope it will trend back the other way – where people are just as civilized when you can’t see their face as they are when you can.

5 Esperanza { 04.28.11 at 12:20 pm }

I think the anonymity really is what can make the difference in the online world. I belong to a kind of chi chi, well to do, mother’s group listserv in SF and recently some women were posting things anonymously and the responses were getting pretty ugly. So another person posted imploring people to be supportive and careful with their words. One women responded to that post saying that it seemed people were more willing to say things on a message board forum that they’d NEVER say to someone’s face and they were even more willing to do so when that person posted anonymously. I thought this was interesting; I usually felt that anonymity was a tool most used for responding facelessly to others, I had never thought of it as being something that emboldened people to say hurtful things to the faceless. In these cases, they were responding under their own names but saying things to someone they couldn’t identify, thing that maybe they wouldn’t have said if they saw a profile picture or a username.

I think the internet can create that kind of space, one where people feel free to let out their darkest impulses because either no one knows it’s them or they don’t know who they are doing it to (or possibly both).

Luckily our community is not like that (generally) though, as you said, people have their moments (very rarely). I loved your suburban, picket fence blogging community image. It’s really a perfect description of what we have here. And I think it does make me feel safe enough to post pictures of my daughter, something other bloggers choose not to do and something I am constantly wondering if I should stop doing (and undo in the limited way that I can).

The truth is we don’t know what this huge movement to an internet society will do for us. It’s all a big experiment and we’re a part of it. By the time people have discovered the findings and made the conclusions it will be too late for us to change our part in it. We can only make decisions that feel best for us here and now, with what we currently know.

Thanks for yet another thought provoking post!

6 Sharon { 04.28.11 at 12:52 pm }

I read this article in Rolling Stone and found it very disturbing, for several reasons. I do think that, for the most part, this ALI community embodies all of what is good about the internet with little of the bad I see in other areas.

7 kateanon { 04.28.11 at 1:06 pm }

It was an internet stalker that made me take my blog to open and personal to anonymous and personal. I didn’t want my name and other identifying information out there anymore. It hit too close for home, and I filed a restraining order and spent a few nights out of the house.

I know the majority of the people I interact with are kind, honest and genuine. Still, I wonder when I read things like this, just what else lurks out there.

8 Car { 04.28.11 at 1:17 pm }

That article is terrifying, on so many levels. Apparently at some point in the future, I will have to give up my own internet activities to spend time monitoring my child’s because I don’t want her to be anywhere near things like this. Heck, I’m looking at my computer a lot more warily right now.

9 Kristin { 04.28.11 at 2:55 pm }

What a terribly sad and absolutely horrific story.

10 Marianne { 04.28.11 at 4:39 pm }

Thanks for sharing the article – very disturbing. Her poor family! It makes me sick that the world has people in it that enjoy tormenting others.

11 jjiraffe { 04.28.11 at 7:40 pm }

That article was terribly upsetting and distressing. Maybe I’m clutching my pearls, but I don’t remember this kind of bullying, predation and hate when I was a pre-teen and teen. I’m watching “Glee”, and my husband and I have been discussing how we didn’t remember much bullying in high school. (Although I had “the shunning” experience in junior high.)

I’ve had to stop reading Eonline because of the evil comments about celebrity babies being “ugly”, teens who have publicly divulged their struggles with eating disorders being called “fat” and other horrors.

This story makes me want to take my kids to a comfortable cave with only leather-bound classic books, a globe and an abacus for entertainment. They can exit said cave when they’re 18.

12 Barb { 04.28.11 at 9:13 pm }

I feel like just as the online community allows some to be anonymously hurtful and hurtful because they can’t see directly how it affects another, our divergence into a more and more scattered populace (relationship wise) is also making it easier to be more hurtful. When most people grew up in some sort of community, rural or urban, in which their families had resided for years and most people knew the others, gossip might have abounded, but it was harder to be so directly hateful without serious social repercussions. I think it was also harder because most of the time, you knew that person, knew there history, and saw them as human rather than an object or amusement. Of course truly disturbed people still existed, but those who could have gone either way, or those that could more easily disconnect had less opportunity to do so. That’s my belief anyway. It makes me yearn sometimes for my home where most people still do know one another and look out for one another’s families simply because it’s a highly depressed area that not many move into or out of.

13 Barb { 04.28.11 at 9:17 pm }

Oh.. and this is one of the reasons I remain anonymous. I’m private even in person except with those I know well and trust. It makes me feel wrong to be “out” on the internet. Also, I’m not willing to take the chance on the small percentage finding me or my family. I met my husband through an internet community way back when it was very eyebrow raising to do so. (i was 19) And even in that tiny community of book lovers, I had very uncomfortable brushes with 3 actual criminals and a few of pretty suspect moral integrity. One of the criminals I met in person at a group meet up while I was in college. Another took an online “friend” for a ride, took all her money, stole her identity and was later captured by the FBI. (she was wanted while she stayed with her). Yet another raped an online “friend” in much the way the guy in this story did. And these were all people in our little “circle.” Granted, some of them did seem a little “off” even via the internet, and I was never open with any of them as to where I lived or my personal info, but scary nonetheless. Hub and I knew each other for quite a long time before we dated. We got lucky. 🙂

14 Missy { 04.29.11 at 1:07 am }

It is scary. When I was young and dumb (17) I ‘met’ some guy on the internet and he was a hell of a lot older than he let on and I found out he was married with kids too. He was all about sending him photographs and once I learned he was married he tried to convince me to come to his home because he was involved in an open marriage and well you get the rest. Gross! I often worry, but it would take a real sick individual to fake ALI. Of course a couple of weeks back a mom told Carly Marie of ‘to write their names in the sand’ that she had had 8 miscarriages only for Carly to find out all of the children were living after she spent a sunset writing all the names. Disgusting!

15 Missy { 04.29.11 at 1:32 am }

Holy moly I had to come back after finishing the article and browsing through the comment section (always a good time!) where people are discussing the inside scoop.. interesting!

16 Wordgirl { 04.29.11 at 8:47 am }

Hi Mel,

I’m back after reading the article *inserts deep sigh here* There’s so much that these connections have brought me — I’ve been so lucky I think — really — but I have to say that the bits of filler in the article disturbed me as much as the rest of it — the little asides of what teenagers were up to online … honestly, I had to read it with one eye closed (sort of like peeking through your hands at a horror movie) — as a mother of an 11 year old son I’m terrified — especially given our blended family situation which allows for more leeway in media rules than I’d like…we monitor and protect him, of course — but I don’t think we adults (and I grudgingly realize I am almost forty after all — eek) truly ‘get’ what’s going on in the virtual world for some teenagers.

How do we protect our children when we know the internet is also a wondrous tool?

Thanks for this Mel, as always — thought-provoking. I find your space, more than any other of the places I visit on the web, a consistently warm and safe space — I may not have been raised on that suburban street with the picket fence — but I certainly yearned for it — thank you for bringing that kindness, optimism, earnestness, stability, and integrity into the virtual world for those of us lucky enough to have found our way here.



17 Rebecca { 04.29.11 at 10:49 am }

Over on LiveJournal there’s always stuff like this. There’s enough drama in my real life without making it up!

18 Battynurse { 04.29.11 at 8:38 pm }

Wow. So sad about that girl and what all she went through. Also so sad about all the others you hear about who have been bullied through the internet.
I actually had a blog I used to read that eventually closed down her blog due to all of the negative comments she was receiving and that she couldn’t handle them. I understand that a lot because with only a couple of negative comments I find myself lately having a very hard time being honest about what is happening in my life on my blog. Things that I used to have no problem with discussing now is very hard for me to discuss.

19 Alexandra { 05.06.11 at 10:18 am }

Anytime you go public, right?

That’s the sad, sad reality.

Followed you here from the Ann Imig post you did.

I love your posts on blogging.

And, now going to get your book, Life From Scratch.

You’re an easy read for me: I like the instant friendly style.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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