From geek masculinity to Gamergate: The technological rationality of online abuse
Recommended citation: Salter, M. (2017) From geek masculinity to Gamergate: The
technological rationality of online abuse. Crime Media Culture, forthcoming.
This tweet from video game developer Zoe Quinn describes the ongoing effects of the
orchestrated abuse campaign that became known as “Gamergate”. Quinn satirically
nicknames herself “shitpost” (slang for an online comment or blog post deemed deliberately
offensive and without value) in recognition of how indelibly her name has been linked to a
defamatory article posted online by her ex-partner Eron Gjoni. Embittered by Quinn’s
decision to end their brief relationship, Gjoni, also a video game developer, circulated a long
article inferring that Quinn’s position in the video game industry was due to sexual favours.
While this allegation was demonstrably false, the article stoked outrage amongst a critical
mass of video game players who felt threatened by the growing presence and influence of
women as both players and industry participants. What followed was a semi-coordinated
campaign of online abuse and harassment of perhaps unprecedented scope. From late 2014
and throughout 2015, the topic of Gamergate dominated social media as well as the video
game industry, attracting attention from the international press and civil society. The lives of
those women targeted by Gamergate, as Quinn states above, were forever changed. Although
the peak of Gamergate harassment has now passed, “living differently” in its aftermath
means constant hyper-vigilance, heightened security at public appearances, and ongoing
threats against Quinn and others. The subsequent incorporation of Gamergate into the so-
called “alt right”, an online coalescence of misogynist and racist politics with links to hard-
right groups, underscores the significant role of online abuse in conflicts over public
participation and technological power.
Using the example of Gamergate, this paper emphasizes the emergence of online abuse from
within the dialectic relationship between reactionary formations of masculine identities and
computing technology. The paper begins with a brief gendered history of computing and its
links to “geek masculinity”, in which technological mastery forms the basis of masculine
esteem and status. In Gamergate, the masculine impulse to defend particular technologies,
such as video games and the internet, from perceived encroachment by women and more
diverse users illustrated the fragility of geek masculinity and its dependence on inequitable
forms of technological hegemony. However, it is not a coincidence that particular online
platforms, particularly 4chan, 8chan, Reddit and Twitter, proved so conducive to
Gamergate’s misogynist campaigns. This paper recognizes how “technological rationality”
(Marcuse, 1985), or the particular logics and values instantiated within technology, can
promote the instrumental attitudes and exploitative relations that naturalise gendered
inequalities and drive mass campaigns of online abuse. Amidst recurrent calls for law
enforcement and education in order to address misogynist online abuse, this paper suggests
that online abuse is symptomatic of the gendering of the technological base and its
amelioration requires cultural, technological and industry responses.
Western culture has long conflated masculinity with technology, giving rise to processes
whereby technological power accrues disproportionately to men and boys (Wajcman, 1991).
The widespread stereotype that men have a greater skill and affinity with technology than
women is so pervasive it “translates into everyday experiences of gender, historical
narratives, employment practices, education, the design of new technologies, and the
distribution of power across a global society in which technology is seen as the driving force
of progress” (Bray, 2013: 370). These stereotypes have been present since the early days of
electronic computing in the mid-20th century, albeit mediated by divisions of labour and
professional status in perhaps surprising ways. In the 1940s, one of the earliest electronic
computers, the University of Pennsylvania’s EANIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and
Computer) machine for ballistics calculation, was programmed by a group of six women
who are now recognized as the world’s first computer programmers (Light, 1999). Their
work had a significant effect on the design of EANIAC and subsequent computers, and some
went on to work at the highest level of electronic computing (Ensmenger, 2010). During the
same period, women also staffed Britain’s codebreaking Collosus computer, although their
career progression was more constrained by the secretive and highly regimented military
context of the project (Abbate, 2012).
The early recruitment of women as programmers was facilitated by a male labour shortage
during the war years, but also because (male) computer engineers underestimated the
complexity of programming, and saw it as a feminized “clerical” activity (Ensmenger, 2010).
As the intellectual sophistication and importance of programming was recognised in the
post-war period, there were concerted efforts to “masculinise” programming in order to
bolster its professional status and erase its origins as low-paid “women’s work”. For
instance, the promotion of the term “software engineering” from the 1960s was an attempt to
recategorise programming under the auspices of the male-dominated and more prestigious
field of engineering (Abbate, 2012). Nonetheless, the masculinisation of programming was
never complete or total. The dramatic growth of the programming workforce created a
demand for labour that included many female employees, with women constituting a quarter
of programmers in the United States in 1970, albeit with a gender distribution skewed
towards the lower end of the professional hierarchy (Abbate, 2012: 41).
During the 1980s, as computers and networked technology took center-stage as fulcrums of
globalization and macro-economic change, the conflation of masculinity with computing was
amplified. In advertising, in software design, in burgeoning fan cultures such as “hacking”
and video gaming, in pop culture, in educational and training contexts and in computing-
related professions, a singular message emanated: computers were for boys and men.
Femininity and computing were positioned as antithetical to one another across multiple
domains. Computer advertising depicted women’s relation to computing as primarily
administrative or as the “sex object” to be obtained by the technologically skillful man
(Ware and Stuck, 1985). The software and computer games of the 1980s were dominated by
themes of militarism and male violence, alongside highly sexualized depictions of women
(Lien, 2013). Representations of high technology in pop culture took on a fetishistic quality
as comics, movies and television depicted men overcoming obstacles and asserting their will
using sophisticated weaponry (Gibson, 1994). Computer science training and related
“hacking” subcultures idealized masculine norms of competitiveness and aggression in ways
that alienated girls and women (Turkle, 1984). From the mid-1980s, there was a significant
drop-off in female enrolment in computer science courses, and women’s participation in
computing industries fell around the world (Panteli et al., 2001; Wilson, 2003).
There is no single explanation for the dramatic reduction in women’s already low
participation in computing from this period. Instead, it points to the intensified gendering of
socio-technical arrangements, with significant implications for the gendering of technology
and the role of technology in gender identity. The masculinization of computing industries
and cultures has invited intense emotional investments and psychological identifications
from men and boys, to the point of generating technology-focused permutations of masculine
subjectivity and relations such as “geek masculinity” (Massanari, 2015; Taylor, 2012). Geek
masculinity describes a technologically-fused form of masculine subjectivity that requires,
for its coherence, the maintenance of gendered stereotypes about male technological skill
and female ineptitude (Murray, 1993). A need to protect the male exclusivity and control of
technology has been evident in geek spaces and activities from the “machismo” of 1980s
video arcades (Kaplan, 1983) to the male dominance of online communities of the 1990s
(Kendall, 2002) and the “griefing” and insults that characterize the online gameplay in the
new millennia (Higgin, 2015). While sometimes described as a subordinate or relatively
powerless masculine formation (Connell, 1995), geek masculinity has come to play a major
role in the design of new technologies, the formation of online communicative cultures and
the perpetration of gendered online abuse The following section examines how the
construction of masculine identities and relations grounded in technological control has
drawn geek masculinity into close affinity with organized misogyny as a method for the
perpetuation of gendered technological hegemony.
Geek masculinity and technological hegemony
Geek masculinity describes a formation of gendered subjectivity in which boys and men
claim technological knowledge and aptitude as an alternative basis for masculine identity
(Murray, 1993). The stereotype of the geek emerged out of early characterizations of
programmers and computer engineers as socially awkward but brilliant loners (Ensmenger,
2010) which were internalized and reclaimed by boys and men for whom technology offers
an alternative pathway to masculine identification (Bell, 2013). In geek masculinity,
masculine self-esteem and social capital are built through specialized technical knowledge
and skills, rather than through mainstream indices of masculinity such as athletic or
heterosexual prowess (Taylor, 2012: 111). Resistance to hyper-masculinity can facilitate an
appreciation of diversity and inclusivity in geek subcultures and identities, however the
“default” geek subject tends to be white, male, middle class and heterosexual (Kendall,
2011). Geek masculinity thus contains a contradictory construction, in which a victimized
“outsider” posture can obscure relations of dominance which are maintained through the
control and assertion of technological power. This power is exercised between and over
other men and boys in competitions for status and respect from which girls and women are
often excluded, or may only participate by acting like “one of the boys” (Kendall, 2002).
Kendall (2002) theorised geek masculinity as simultaneously resistant to and complicit in
gender inequality; a “not-quite hegemonic” formation of masculinity (p 272). However, as
technological skill has become recognized as a route to wealth and the kind of
“superstardom” exemplified by Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs, much of the stigma
surrounding geeks has faded to be replaced by an enthusiasm for their purported value within
a destabilized economic landscape (Bell, 2013). The development and rolling-out of “high”
or “cutting edge” technology in the service of capital has become integral to a class of
internationally mobile men with prominent roles in the global economy (Connell and Wood,
2005). Dyer-Witheford (1999: 97) describes this group as follows:
Highly paid, frenetically creative, technologically compulsive, often enjoying
substantial entrepreneurial activities, this elite workforce has been the subject of
innumerable adulatory media reports, making their exploits an important part of the
information revolution romantic mythology.
The “mythology” of the information revolution is grounded in ideals of individualism,
competitiveness and aggression that have been normative in geek masculinity since the early
days of networked computing (Turkle, 1984; Turner, 2010). This ethos continues to shape
the working conditions of technology industries in ways that reinforce the conflation of
masculinity with technical competence and innovation, limiting women’s professional
opportunities but also informing how technology is conceptualized and designed (Ranga and
Etzkowitz, 2010). For instance, the design of many online and social media platforms
reflects foundational “geek” conceptualisations of the internet as a “new frontier” to be
invaded and colonized through force and bravado (Phillips, 2015). These governing ideals
have encoded combatitive modes of communication and laissez faire approaches to platform
governance, facilitating online environments that are unfriendly if not hostile to female users
in particular (Author, 2017). This has, in turn, reinforced perceptions of the internet as the
privileged domain of “geeks” and tech-savvy young men. Similar feelings of ownership have
been extended to other technological fields such as video and computer gaming, where
games are primarily designed by and marketed for the presumptive straight, white, male
“geek” consumer (Condis, 2015).
Emotional investments in technology as the basis for masculine identity and esteem have
always been unstable and contested, due in no small part to the ongoing participation of girls
and women in technological pursuits and interests. However this instability has grown more
apparent in recent years as the near-ubiquity of computers, mobile phones and social media
has promulgated technological literacy well beyond the confines of “geek” specialization.
The influx of female and more diverse users into social media, video gaming and other
technology-related fields have made the masculinity-technology conflation upon which geek
masculinity rests increasingly untenable. This development has been met with notable
escalations in gendered abuse and harassment originating within, but also extending beyond,
geek-dominated spaces and subcultures. Geek efforts to preserve a sense of control over their
preferred technological domains have included online threats and insults against women and
other perceived “outsiders”, including racially and sexually diverse groups (Higgin, 2015),
sexual harassment in technology industries and fan cultures (Salter and Blodgett, 2012), and,
as this paper will argue, the formation of alliances with other reactionary male identity
movements, notably anti-feminist men’s rights activists and white supremacists . These
efforts to maintain gendered technological hegemony have been met with widespread
condemnation but they are privileged, in significant ways, by the instantiation of norms and
assumptions within a range of technologies which makes those technologies differentially
available as instruments of gendered abuse and control.
The online abuse campaign Gamergate is an important illustration of the sociotechnical
congruence between geek masculinity and online abuse. Gamergate describes an
unprecedented wave of online abuse that originated from within the video game industry and
gaming subcultures, facilitated by major online platforms, notably 4chan, 8chan, Reddit and
Twitter. Gamergate is the subject of a burgeoning scholarship, including Massanari’s (2015)
insightful analysis of the role of platform design, governance and culture in enabling the
formation of “toxic techno-cultures”. Braithwaite (2016) has analysed the particular narrative
dimensions of the Gamergate “techno-culture”, emphasizing how those feelings of
victimization and alienation common to geek masculinity informed the efforts of Gamergate
participants to preserve masculine technological control via online misogyny. In the analysis
presented by this paper, the cultural and technological aspects of Gamergate merge within
the “technological rationality” described by Marcuse (1985). Gamergate’s abuse campaign
became endemic because its underlying rationalities were evident in the design, governance
and communicative culture of a range of online platforms. This is no coincidence; the
architecture and administration of those online platforms emanate from the very same “geek”
cultures and related industries as Gamergate. In online abuse, this paper suggests, technology
is always already symbolically and strategically implicated in assertions of masculine
The catalyst for Gamergate occurred in August 2014, when video game developer Eron Gjoni
circulated a defamatory article about his ex-partner Zoe Quinn in retaliation after she ended
their brief relationship. In the rambling 9000+ word article, Gjoni accused Quinn of multiple
infidelities, alongside the false suggestion that her modest success in the video game
industries was due to sexual favours. He initially linked to the article on the discussion boards
of geek forums such as the websites Something Awful and Penny Arcade, however his posts
were quickly removed by moderators. Instead, Gjoni turned to the imageboard1 4chan, which
provided a much more receptive audience for his claims.
Since its launch in 2003, 4chan has been a major online hub for geek masculinity, drawing
millions of users each month into anarchic discussions of video games, cartoons and
pornography amongst other subjects (Phillips, 2015). Gjoni was aware that 4chan was host to
a critical mass of gamers already hostile to Quinn, since she had been the target of their
online abuse for over a year (Pless, 2014). In 2013, Quinn had become somewhat infamous in
gamer circles for her game Depression Quest, which is a relatively simple text-based game
that aimed to illustrate the experience of depression from a first-person point of view (Smith,
2013). Quinn’s game subverted the violent norms of gamers’ preferred game genres but also
articulated a female experience of depression that appeared to stir up incredulity amongst
geeks, particularly for those who blamed their own feelings of alienation and isolation on
women’s perceived sexual unavailability (Quinn identified that at least some of her abuse
originated on Wizardchan, an imageboard site for adult male virgins, see Smith 2013). Quinn
reportedly began receiving emails encouraging her to kill herself, as well as sexually
harassing phone calls and rape threats delivered to her home address (Kotzer, 2014; Smith,
This history of online victimization made Quinn particularly vulnerable to further abuse on a
geek and gamer-orientated forum such as 4chan. Throughout August 2014, Gjoni actively
participated in 4chan discussions about the online abuse of Quinn (Pless, 2014). The secretive
orchestration of hoaxes, pranks and abuse is a normal part of 4chan culture, facilitated by its
online architecture in which “old” posts are automatically deleted to make way for new posts,
giving rise to a sense of impunity and disinhibition amongst users (Auerbach, 2012). The
communicative culture of 4chan frequently crosses over from a libertarian insistence on
freedom of speech to a libertine “anything goes” ethos, such that users entering the boards are
“likely to witness a nonstop barrage of obscenity, abuse, hostility, and epithets related to race,
gender, and sexuality” (Auerbach, 2012). Some scholars argue that expressions of vulgarity
and prejudice on 4chan operate as “a discursively constructed border fence meant to keep the
uninitiated … far, far away” (Coleman, 2014: 40). While much of the verbiage on 4chan can
be read as a form of “anti-political correctness” and self-satire, “ironic” expression of
prejudice on 4chan can blur into organized harassment campaigns, as Gamergate would make
Gamer hostility to Quinn was animated by an escalating sense of defensiveness amongst
gamers who objected to growing criticisms of the excesses of their subculture and preferred
games. The presence of explicitly racist, imperialist and misogynist representations and
themes in video games, and the concomitant normalization of abuse and prejudice in gamer
subculture, has come under increased scrutiny over the last ten years (Consalvo, 2012; Dyer-
Witheford and De Peuter, 2009). The counter-response from gamers has been to claim that
women and their progressive allies (known pejoratively as “social justice warriors” or SJWs,
with male critics of Gamergate widely denounced as “white knights”) are colluding with
journalists and other critics to “politicize” video games and destroy “gamer” subculture
(Author, 2016). Within this febrile atmosphere, Gjoni’s article about Quinn appeared to be
the “smoking gun” that gamers had been looking for to prove that women were using their
sexual wiles to infiltrate and destroy gaming from within. Via 4chan, large numbers of
gamers began planning and rolling out a mass abuse campaign against Quinn and a range of
other targets, primarily women, as punishment for perceived infractions against video games
and gamer culture (Johnston, 2014).
Their cause received support from existing right wing figures, such as actor Adam Baldwin,
well-known for his vocal libertarian views. On August 27 2014, on the social media platform
Twitter, Baldwin tweeted a link to a Youtube video containing further slanderous claims
about Quinn, and coined the hashtag #Gamergate. The suffix “–gate” reinforced the
proposition that Gjoni’s post had uncovered some kind of mass conspiracy a la Watergate,
with Baldwin subsequently linking Quinn to the “authoritarian Left” who, he claimed, are
seeking to indoctrinate young people by politicizing video games (Kaufman, 2014).
Baldwin’s intervention gave momentum to the escalating abuse campaign against Quinn and
other women in the video game industry and press. The hashtag #Gamergate became viral
phenomenon on Twitter amongst tens of thousands of gamers who used it to focus abuse and
harassment on a number of select targets, under the banner of protecting “ethics in video
game journalism”2 amongst a number of evolving and often inscrutable rationales
(Mortensen, 2016). Gamergate rhetoric took an a grandiose quality as participants imagined
themselves as “crusaders” in a war against feminists and other perceived enemies, often
inflected with anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and transphobic invective (Braithwaite,
Within the veritable tsunami of Gamergate social media activity were recurrent patterns of
serious and likely criminal abuse, including online rape and death threats, doxing (gathering
and releasing personal information online) and SWATing (sending false tips to the police to
trigger a raid on someone’s home address). By the end of 2015, Quinn’s digital records of
online abuse were reportedly in excess of 16 gigabytes (Jason, 2015). She was forced to leave
her house and stay with friends when her home address and contact details were released
developers"were"swapping"sex"for"favourable"reviews, that there was a larger journalistic conspiracy afoot to
destroy gamer subculture, and that video games journalists were not declaring “conflicts of interest” when
reviewing video games. This last criticism is arguably justified, given that the mainstream video game press has
operated essentially the marketing arm of the industry to the point where journalists can be fired for writing a
negative review (Plunket, 2010). However this has not been a major point of concern for Gamergate participants
who were more focused on uncovering personal or romantic relations between games developers and journalists."
online (Jason, 2015). Those video games developers and journalists who spoke up in support
of her were also hacked and doxed (Romano, 2014). Games journalists and developers who
wrote articles critical of Gamergate were subject to a barrage of online abuse and threats of
such intensity that some left the video game industry altogether (Cox, 2014). Others were
forced to cancel public talks and appearances following threats of violence (Alberty, 2014).
Gamergate was the subject of considerable controversy in the video game industry and press,
and began to attract mass media criticism. In September 2014, 4chan administrators, who
rarely intervene on the site, took the unusual step of banning discussion of Gamergate.
Gamers then migrated in large numbers to 8chan, another imageboard site in which user
activity is entirely unregulated (to the point of enabling illegal activity such as the distribution
of child abuse material), where the organization of the abuse campaign continued (Howell
O'Neill, 2014) The discussion board Reddit also played an important role in the coordination
of Gamergate activity, albeit by providing a more “respectable” face to the campaign. While
there is considerable overlap in users and interests between 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, Reddit
offers a more accessible bulletin board system in which communication is clearer and easier
to follow in comparison to the imageboard sites (Massanari, 2015: 6). Reddit’s accessibility
seems to have facilitated a sense of transparency and accountability amongst gamers. While
gamers established a Gamergate discussion board on Reddit known as KotakuInAction
(KIA),3 it has generally avoided outright incitement of abuse, instead organising email
writing campaigns and boycotts of companies deemed to be too sympathetic to “social justice
While 4chan and 8chan provided the main “staging grounds” for the abuse campaign,
Gamergate primarily “played out” on social media, and Twitter in particular (Mortensen,
2016). Twitter is an influential “micro-blogging” social media site that recorded 304 million
monthly active users in 2015.4 Users can “follow” one another, and post or read “tweets”
containing short 140-character messages. Drawing on a range of sources, Mortensen (2016)
estimates that, at its peak, up to 10 000 Twitter users actively involved or linked to
Gamergate in some way. The hashtag #Gamergate was being tweeted hundreds of thousands
of times per month, with the majority in support of the abuse campaign (Baio, 2014). The
hashtag was closely policed by gamers, and Twitter users who included the hashtag in
“tweets” that criticized Gamergate were flooded with abusive and threatening responses. This
effectively shut down any potential dialogue between Gamergate and its critics, or proper
scrutiny of the movement on Twitter. As technology designer Caroline Sinders (2015) noted
Using the hashtag in a tweet became akin to saying “Bloody Mary” three times in a
mirror, except Bloody Mary actually showed up and she brought a bunch of friends.
People, particularly women in games, couldn’t talk about Gamergate publicly without
getting harassed, so they just stopped talking about it on Twitter.
Twitter proved highly conducive to the Gamergate movement for reasons that are pertinent to
both the cultural and technological dimensions of the platform. The culture of Twitter is
orientated towards a more public, broadcasting, “town hall” style of social media debate
between strangers, in contrast to other large platforms like Facebook that are more inwardly-
focused on networks of family, friends and acquaintances (Van Dijck, 2013). This culture is
underpinned by the platform design of Twitter, where the default setting of “tweets” is public
and accessible to anyone. Unlike other social media platforms, users cannot remove or delete
other user’s response to their tweets, which empowers users to directly contest (or abuse and
ridicule, a fine line on Twitter) each other in the knowledge that this contestation is highly
visible and unlikely to be censored or regulated in any way. This has, at times, enabled users
to confront and name injustices that might otherwise have gone unnoticed (Author, 2013)
although it has also promoted a culture in which individual users can be subject to mass
targeting and abuse on the platform in a way highly damaging to their reputation,
employment and psychological health.
Another tier of complexity was added to the Gamergate saga as individuals began
capitalizing upon the controversy for profit and professional advantage. For example, Milo
Yiannopolous, journalist for the far-right website Brietbart, was an obscure figure until he
began championing the cause of Gamergate. After disavowing his previous disparaging
remarks about gamers, he built a online following amongst Gamergate participants that he
has parlayed into a significant media presence (Author, 2017). Phil Mason (known online as
“thunderf00t”) was a modestly successful blogger who rose to prominence with a series of
Youtube videos insulting Anita Sarkeesian, video game critic and Gamergate target (Allen,
2015). Mason’s videos have become core Gamergate texts, and explicitly justified the online
abuse of Sarkeesian as “part of the public marketplace of ideas” (Allen, 2015). Some of these
videos have been watched hundreds of thousands of times, and since Youtube video creators
receive a portion of the revenue raised from advertising on their videos, they are likely to
have raised considerable sums of money for Mason (Pless, 2015). Mason also has a Patreon
crowdfunding account, in which individual “patrons” pledge typically small amounts of
money in exchange for content from their preferred creator. This enabled gamers to pledge
sums of money to Mason in order to finance further anti-feminist, pro-Gamergate videos.
From 2013 – 2015, Mason’s Patreon income varied from between a couple of thousand
dollars to almost seven thousand dollars (US) a month (Pless, 2015).
Mason is just one of a number of Gamergate figures who use Patreon to “crowdfund” their
ongoing participation in the abuse campaign. This included Gjoni, who used Patreon and
other crowdfunding options in order to fund his appeal against the restraining order that
Quinn filed against him, raising over US$50 000 (Romano, 2016). Quinn has complained
about Gjoni’s use of crowdfunding to counteract her legal efforts to prevent further abuse and
harassment, noting “every time something happened or the case was updated, he’d run back
to the mob and make promises and jokes and pleas for more money” (Quinn quoted in
Romano, 2016). Problematically, it was not only Gamergate instigators who generated
income from the abuse campaign. Since social media and crowdfunding sites also receive a
share of income from user activity, they profit directly from the major spikes in traffic
associated with controversies such as Gamergate (Massanari, 2015). This implicates
platforms financially in online abuse in disconcerting ways, raising unanswered questions
about their business model and their duty of care to users.
The ferocity of Gamergate has largely abated however it has left behind a legacy of fear
within gaming and social media. As game developer Elizabeth Sampat noted, “the truth about
Zoe Quinn is that every woman in the industry is one unhinged ex-partner away from being
Zoe Quinn” (quoted in Allen, 2015a). While media attention to Gamergate promoted
increased awareness of the seriousness of online abuse, the cultural and technological
conditions that gave rise to Gamergate remain intact. Gamergate’s core narrative that
treasured symbols of techno-masculinity, such as video games or the internet, are being
destroyed in a “culture war” waged by feminists and progressives has merged with other
reactionary masculine identity movements and taken on unexpectedly virulent forms. 4chan
and associated forms of geek masculinity have been prominent in mobilization for the
American president Donald Trump in ways that have blurred the boundaries between
mainstream politics, organised misogyny and white supremacy (Wilson, 2016). Gamergate’s
journalistic champion Milo Yiannopolous has become a significant figure in the resurgent
far-right politics of reactionary racist and misogynist sentiment known as the “alt right”. So
too has his former employer, Steve Bannon, who was the executive chair of Breitbart before
his appointment as chief strategist to President Donald Trump. Geek themes have been
opportunistically integrated into white supremacist recruitment strategies5 while the
Gamergate rhetoric of “social justice warriors” is now a regular part of the vocabulary of
right-wing politicians and pundits. Far from being a niche issue, the disproportionate role of
geek masculinity in online abuse and hate campaigns has become a matter of international
attention and concern.
The technological rationality of online abuse
Marcuse’s (1964) notion of “technological rationality” offers a way of understanding the
intersections of the cultural and the technological in online abuse. Technological rationality
describes those forms of reason that are embedded within technological design and practices.
Marcuse (1985) denies the independence of material technology from human beings “[f]or
they are themselves an integral part and factor of technology, not only as the men [sic] who
invent or attend to machinery but also as the social groups which direct its application and
utilization” (p 138). His conceptualization of technology extends beyond particular devices
and instruments to encompass technology as “a mode of production … a mode of organizing
and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and
behavior patterns, an instrument of control and domination” (p 139 – 139). In short, the
material aspects of technology embody and reproduce social relations and hierarchies to the
point of being inseparable from them, particularly in contemporary settings where
sophisticated technology has become central to social, political and economic relations. This
technological rationality is fundamentally individualistic, instrumental and competitive.
Marcuse (1985, p 139) explained that:
In the course of the technological process a new rationality and new standards of
individuality have spread over society … These changes are not the (direct or
derivative) effect of machinery on its users or of mass production on its consumers;
they are rather themselves determining factors in the development of machinery and
The theory of technological rationality suggests that neither technology nor users are the sole
origin of online abuse, but rather their interaction is mediated by the dominative and
instrumental rationality that characterizes the technological base; a rationality that is
gendered and deeply entrenched in technological cultures, industries and associated
subcultures. In this regard, the differential availability of platforms such as 4chan, 8chan,
Reddit and Twitter for mass abuse and harassment speaks to the underlying rationales that
informed their design and shaped their governance. Indeed, the sheer pandemic force of
Gamergate as it spread virally across these platforms suggests a fundamental alignment
between the structural design and administration of these platforms and the claims and
abusive conduct of gamers. The aggressive and competitive qualities of geek masculinity
emerge in this analysis as not only a mode of gendered subjectivity but also as a worldview
that is simultaneously encoded into, and privileged by, online platforms. This produces an
enclosed set of social and technical arrangements that mirror the other to normalize and
amplify online abuse and harassment.
It is not that geek masculinity is inherently abusive but rather than it draws together specific
configurations of masculine identification and technological practice that reproduces itself
through exclusionary and sexist tendencies. Combativeness, aggression and competition are
pronounced dimensions of masculine identity in gamer subculture (Consalvo, 2012) albeit
actively encouraged and facilitated by video game marketing and advertising (Der Derian,
2009). Hence misogyny has been a particular and long-standing challenge in the video game
industry and the fan cultures that it nurtures (Thornham, 2008). However the encoding of
these gender norms into online platforms has given these misogynist strands of geek culture a
position of technological hegemony. The communicative culture and interactive mechanics of
4chan, 8chan, Reddit and Twitter interact in ways that tend towards abusive or heated
exchanges while providing few, if any, mechanisms for users to protect themselves or others
from abuse. Male dominance on the imageboards and Reddit perhaps explains why they
featured so prominently in the orchestration phases of Gamergate, after which gamers then
shifted to the more gender-equal terrain of Twitter to launch attacks on women and other
“SJWs”. However, despite its more diverse user base, Twitter’s combative mechanics and
lack of content moderation contributed significantly to the success of these attacks. Indeed,
Twitter’s metrics of “likes” and “retweets” acted as a kind of “scorecard” in the
“gamification” of online abuse, and arguably encouraged gamers to accelerate the abuse
campaign as it accrued them “followers” and other indicators of popularity on the platform
(Author, 2017). The active commodification of Gamergate by some users through Youtube
advertising revenue and crowdfunding, and indeed the generation of profit from abuse and
harassment by various platforms, only underscores the congruence of the abuse campaign
with the underlying logics of online architecture and governance.
In this sense, online abuse is illustrative of the intersections of gender inequality with
capitalist values within technological rationality. Marcuse (1964) described how
technological rationality “predefines” the experience of the subject according to capitalist
imperatives and values, so that objects and people appear within an “a world of
instrumentalities” (p 218) to be assessed according to their utility within competitions for
status and accumulation. Technological systems structured according to such commodifying
and alienating logics reveal and reinforce specific forms of masculine aggression and
competition, often embodied in the ideal of the liberal “entrepreneur’: the competitive “self-
made” individual achieving success in an aggressive marketplace (Garlick, 2013: 235). This
subject position is not only idealized in the technology industries but evident in the extraction
of value from social media platforms by companies who treat their users as free-floating,
atomized and largely interchangeable agents to whom the platforms do not owe any particular
duty of care. Concerns about the corporate and social (ir)responsibility of social media
platforms have been heightened recently with revelations that “fake news” (that is,
deliberately misleading stories) are being promoted via Facebook and other sites in ways that
are directly impacting on political dialogue and democratic processes, notably the 2016
American election (see Lewis, 2016). However communication on social media platforms is
envisaged by their owners as an exchange within the “marketplace of ideas” rather than a
situated interaction vitiated by underlying inequalities or manipulated by vested interests.
Where communication is framed in such individualistic and competitive terms, the
aggression, prejudice and misinformation that animated Gamergate did not appear out of the
ordinary to many users. Despite the significant impact it was having on the lives of those
targeted, and the potential implications for video gaming as both a hobby and industry,
Gamergate could be rationalized on Twitter as just another heated disagreement rather than
an orchestrated hate campaign.
Indeed, this appeared to be the attitude of Twitter administrators as Gamergate gathered
steam. Users found that the platform’s safety team did not view explicit threats of rape, death
or blackmail as a violation of their terms of service (West, 2014). This mentality has, until
quite recently, been a point of pride for many online platforms, including Twitter. In 2012,
Tony Wang, then UK general manager of Twitter, described the company as the “free speech
wing of the free speech party” (Halliday, 2012). However Jeong (2015) suggests that this
libertarian ethos occludes the strong commercial interests of online platforms in insisting on
user self-regulation since it exculpates them from the costly responsibility of paying for
moderation and content regulation. User and content regulation is expensive and runs
contrary to the “Web 2.0” business models underpinning social media services in which
income is generated by encouraging and commodifying, rather than restricting, user
engagement and activity (Author, 2017). There are genuine practical and financial challenges
to content regulation on mass platforms. However the laissez faire approach of online
platforms to abuse and harassment to date, legitimized by appeals to the principles of
decentralization and user autonomy and responsibility, has largely ignored the active role of
platform design and administration in creating the conditions in which abuse can flourish.
The theory of technological rationality contradicts the oft-cited vanity of online platforms
such as Twitter that they aspire to be nothing more than neutral “utilities” (McCarthy, 2009).
Instead, this paper suggests that some platforms are effectively occupied by a gendered form
of technological domination which is enabled by platform design and administration. This
enabling process has included a high level of tolerance for online misogynist abuse, as
technology is shaped within a techno-masculine imaginary that has proven intolerant of
heterogeneity. For Murray (1993: 7), male resistance to women’s technological participation:
springs not just from a protection of power and privilege. I would suggest that it also
comes from a deeper motive to protect a masculine reality that has secured itself in
the symbolic and processual significance of science and technology.
Precisely how much was at stake in Gamergate – namely, the right of women to participate in
cultures and industries to which technology has become central – only came to be recognised
due to the active resistance of Quinn and other targets such as Sarkeesian. The women
targeted by Gamergate documented and publicised the intensity of the abuse and harassment,
circulating evidence on social media as well as engaging mass media journalists to cover the
abuse campaign. They have made active contributions to civil society, driving calls for the
criminalization of online threats and harassment (Merlan, 2015), as well as generating new
social infrastructure for responding to online abuse and supporting victims. Frustrated with
the inaction of online platforms and law enforcement, Quinn has founded the Crash Override
Network, a pro bono support, advice and referral service for victims of large-scale online
abuse.6 American software designer Randi Lee Harper, who has also been the target of mass
harassment, founded the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative to support research and advocacy
for victims of online abuse.7 Sarkeesian has been particularly outspoken about the ferocity of
online abuse and its impacts, and in recognition of her work was named as one of Time
Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2015.8 Women’s resistance to Gamergate also
appears to be leveraging change within the gaming industry, including improvements in
female representation in video games (Kubas-Meyer, 2015) and increased awareness about
sexism and misogyny in the gaming industry and fan cultures e (Mortensen, 2016). These
developments suggest that online platforms, technological industries and cultures are not
captured or predetermined by technological rationality, and that opportunities for critical
discourse exist in the very cultures and networks that facilitate abuse and harassment.
By any reasonable measure, Gjoni’s publication of a defamatory article about Quinn online
can be understood in terms of domestic violence. A woman’s decision to end a relationship is
a major risk period for the initiation or escalation of violence and abuse, increasingly
facilitated by online technologies as boys and men seek to publicise personal
(mis)information to humiliate and punish an ex-partner (Author, 2015). However
explanations for online abuse that take for granted the availability of online platforms and
websites for such conduct are arguably structured by the same technological rationality from
which the propensity for online abuse arises. The possibility of online abuse only appears
natural if it is seen as inevitable: the product of male aggression and the particular qualities
and capabilities of online technology. However, without the underlying misogyny of geek
masculinity and the technological rationality that sustains it, Gjoni’s article would likely have
been another obscure, if hurtful, blog post. It was the lifeworld of geek masculinity and its
correspondence with online technological architecture and administration that formed the
condition of possibility for the abuse campaign that followed. This suggests that assuring
women’s safety from online abuse and equality of access to technological power requires
more than cultural change or law reform, but a degendering of the technological base and
increased scrutiny of the gendered assumptions and worldviews embedded within, and
reproduced by, technology.
The analysis presented in this paper indicates that the efforts of women and others to
participate more equitably in technological cultures and industries faces an uphill battle due
to the masculinization of the technological base, which privileges male efforts to defend
gendered hegemonies. This should not be read as a functionalist account of the motives of
gamers and other perpetrators of online abuse. The notion that technology is being deployed
en masse in the maintenance of the status quo assumes an unlikely degree of intentionality
and collective coordination (Feenberg, 2002). Instead a more complex albeit powerful set of
socio-technical relations is at work, informed by the anxieties and fantasies that animate
gender identity against a shifting economic and technological backdrop. The consolations of
geekdom, such as technological mastery and obsessive knowledge of “lowbrow’” culture
such as video games, comics and cartoons, can become emotionally vital, if somewhat
fragile, props for masculine pride. Video games, in particular, produce spectacles that channel
and fulfill the sexual and aggressive drives of individuals, such that experiences of
psychological distress, social dislocation and relative deprivation are obscured within faux-
conflicts. The desperate attempts of gamers to drive women and other users from gaming and
social media can be understood, paradoxically, as a defence of their defence mechanisms,
demonstrating both the inherent fragility of geek masculinity in its fetishisation of technology
and the opportunism of gaming and marketing industries in tapping into and nurturing such
fetishism. This is suggestive of the complex co-imbrication of gender inequality with
capitalist alienation, and the displacement of inchoate masculine frustrations onto girls and
women within the phenomena of online abuse. As the so-called “alt right” becomes a force of
international significance, the role of technology in mediating and mobilizing sentiments of
masculine entitlement and aggression is an important area of future research.
While it is certainly true that technology can be misappropriated and misused, it is also the
case that the possible scope of technological use is predetermined, to a large degree, by the
assumptions embedded in their design. This is particularly the case with online technologies
and social media, in which the very possibility of interaction and communication must be
encoded and administered. There is increased attention being paid to the role of platform
architecture and governance in social media and internet research (Gillespie, 2015). However
the notion of technological rationality reaches beyond platform design and policy to question
underlying ideologies of socio-technical relations. It suggests that gendered capitalist values
are instantiated within online architecture in a way that promotes styles of communication
and interaction that naturalise treating others as instrumental means for the accumulation of
social, cultural and economic capital. Through this specific permutation of technological
rationality, the imperatives of gender inequality are expressed through online abuse. The
specific danger of leaving these logics unchallenged is that, as technology becomes integral
to cultural as well as material production, “it circumscribes an entire culture; it projects a
historical totality – a ‘world’” (Marcuse, 1964: 154). Internet and social media platforms
dominated by this technological rationality project a horizon within which masculine
technological control and aggression is normalized and expected, which in turn corresponds
with and reinforces broader structures and cultures of gender inequality. Demystifying the
dominant logics of technological rationality is integral to the transformation of
technologically-rationalised inequalities and domination (Marcuse, 1964).
Solutions to online abuse have generally focused on law reform and enforcement, and
education and social marketing programs, however by leaving technological rationality
unchanged these measures overlook how deeply gender inequality is intertwined with
technological power. Existing online mechanics and metrics tend to characterize
communication in certain ways: in effect, as a competition between users adjudicated by a
larger audience. The role of bystanders online is largely limited to “liking”, ignoring or
registering dislike for the content of other users, while the possibility of protective
intervention (which is now recognised as a central component of the prevention of abuse and
harassment, see Banyard et al., 2007) is almost entirely disenabled. Such rationalities are not
inherent to technology but rather, as this paper has shown, they are historically contingent;
other more liberatory forms of technological rationality are possible. There are examples of
interactive mechanics that facilitate bystander intervention in abuse and the formation of
protective communicative cultures as well as algorithmic detection and prevention of
harassment (Hess, 2014). The generation of safe and supportive online platforms is possible
but requires a broader view of communication as a socially situated accomplishment shaped
by underlying cultural or structural forces.
The generation of alternative technological rationalities cannot be accomplished in a vacuum.
Almost inevitably, they reflect the conditions of their emergence. This calls attention to
ongoing gender inequalities in women’s cultural and structural position vis a vis technology.
The representation of women’s engagement with technology in advertising, consumer culture
and the mass media offer opportunities for the disruption of simplistic gender binaries in
relation to technological skill and aptitude. Perhaps more crucially, the technology sector and
computer industries, and the gendered distribution of decision-making power in relation to
technological development more broadly, are key sites in the projection of technological
gender inequality and thus major fulcrum points of potential transformation. Assigning
appropriate culpability to perpetrators of online abuse and pursuing educative efforts to
prevent abuse should not detract from the need for cultural renewal and change within the
technological sectors and fan cultures from which much of the force of online abuse arises.
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