The Opposing Trajectories of Zoe Quinn and Alex from Target

It is a strange thing, sharing the world with the Internet. Most of the time it makes life easier, better. It keeps us more connected, but it also exposes us. We could go to sleep one night, our lives seemingly normal, and wake up the next morning in another realm -- all because something we said or did got picked up and shared by someone and subsequently made its way, like the speed of light, onto the computers, cellphones and tablets of strangers around the world. As a feminist writer on the internet, this is a fact that excites and horrifies me all at once. The fact that something I write here at my kitchen table in Brooklyn could somehow touch a nerve and get shared countless times is at once empowering and paralyzing. Just ask Zoe Quinn.

By Zoe Quinn (@TheQuinnspiracy)
As a female videogame developer in a notoriously male-dominated industry, Quinn is no stranger to the dangers of being a woman online. She has been the target of sustained, anonymous online harassment since the release, in 2013, of her free interactive fiction game Depression Quest. Quinn, who has suffered from depression throughout her life, developed the game with two goals in mind: to show those who experience depression that they are not alone, and to educate non-sufferers about the depths of the illness. The backlash, according to Quinn, started "pretty much the same day" as the game's release. It escalated in severity and volume when an ex-boyfriend of Quinn's published a tirade on a blog, claiming that Quinn had a relationship with a journalist who wrote about the game. In reality, the journalist in question never actually wrote a review of the game, he simply mentioned that it existed. That was enough. The result was the birth of #gamergate and the doxxing of Zoe Quinn.

Over the past few months, #gamergate has spread like wildfire. The issue of women in gaming, which has historically been confined to industry and feminist websites, is now being covered by huge media outlets and countless personal blogs. This is, in many ways, great for women in the longterm both online and off. In the short term, however, the results are a little murkier. Brianna Wu, another female game developer, recently went into hiding after being doxxed and receiving threats such as "I've got a K-bar and I'm coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist c--t." Notable feminist and games critic Anita Sarkeesian also went into hiding and was forced to cancel a speech at the Utah State University after the school refused to check attendees for guns, despite the threats of violence made against Sarkeesian and speech-goers in advance of the event.

In general, being outspoken and female can be a dangerous proposition. When you are caught being outspoken while female online, the ramifications can be life-altering and, sadly, even life-threatening. The internet, it seems, hates women. It is as if allowing people to be online and anonymous only manages to magnify the misogynistic norms of our culture. And to think, one night when Zoe Quinn went to sleep things were more or less okay, but when she woke up in the morning she was, "the most hated person on the internet." And all she did was develop a game to try and educate people about the challenges of living with depression. And, she had the nerve to do this as a woman.

Let's compare this, briefly, to the recent appearance of Alex from Target, a kid from Texas who was photographed while bagging groceries at Target by a girl who thought he was cute. His photograph went viral. As of this writing, he has 727,000 followers on Twitter.  He recently appeared on The Ellen Show. What Alex from Target and Zoe Quinn have in common is that their celebrity happened by no fault of their own. Both of them were doing their jobs and were catapulted into the limelight by outside forces. For Alex, a photograph taken and published online without his consent has made him some sort of b-list teenage sex symbol. This sexualization, and his presence on The Ellen Show as a result of that, is highly problematic. As far as I know, however, Alex from Target is not being sent death and rape threats nor is he being driven from his home in fear of his life. For Zoe Quinn, the fact that she dared create a game in a male-dominated industry put her in harms way. And due to the fact that she is female, her subsequent sexualization, carried out in written as opposed to photographic form, made her the target of sustained harassment.

For me, there is something inherently wrong happening in both of these situations. In both cases, there was a complete disregard for the right to privacy and the need for consent before sharing photographs or personal information, true or fabricated, with a potential audience in the billions. That aside, the completely opposite trajectories that these two individuals experienced speaks volumes about our society. Don't get me wrong, our need to sexualize people, whether male or female, is incredibly dehumanizing. But that depending on the gender of the individual the result is either empowering or disempowering, that the internet either celebrates or threatens, is just incredible. And sickening.

I imagine that Alex from Target will end up being just a flash in the pan. The plight of Zoe Quinn, however, has staying power. But that also means that for the foreseeable future she, and many other women who dare to be opinionated on this misogynistic platform, will be in danger. It is a sad reality. Those women who keep speaking our minds and hoping that people listen have to live with the gnawing fear that one day we might wake up in the middle of a nightmare. Welcome to being female on the internet.

5 Things I Learned as the Internet's Most Hated Person []
'Alex From Target' and the Mess of Uncontrollable Fame [New York Magazine]
Anita Sarkeesian Cancels Speech After School Shooting Threat at Utah State []
Brianna Wu and the Human Cost of Gamergate: 'Every Woman I Know in the Industry is Scared' [The Guardian]
Eron Gjoni - Proof that Being a White, Hetero-Cis Male Will Get You Everywhere [The Daily Koz]
Gamergate: The Community is Eating Itself but There Should be Room for All [The Guardian]
Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest  [The New Yorker]
Zoe Quinn on Gamergate: 'We Need a Proper Discussion About Online Hate Mobs' [The Guardian]