04/01/2013 10:45 am ET

No Comments? Internet Trolls and Women Writers

Sheryl Sandberg advises women to "Lean In," to sit at the table and make their voices heard as they overcome the internal impediments that hold them back and that account for the gender imbalance in all sectors of our country's leadership. But what happens when you realize that "leaning in" puts you in somebody's face? Or worse yet, in somebody's interface? As COO for one of the largest tech firms in the world, Facebook, Sandberg has a curious blindspot: She portrays communication as interpersonal. The company she represents studiously upholds that illusion; after all, it is named "Facebook," not "Usernamescreen." But her book has precious little to offer on how to "lean in" to the digital age, and thereby ignores a significant obstacle that women face, but that changes to our Internet culture could address.

For the past few months, I have been a Public Voices Fellow and have "leaned in" to a series of workshops run for academics by the Op-Ed Project. As the publishing successes of participants began to mount, our group realized that when you lean in, you face Internet trolls. It quickly became clear that we need to develop the thicker skin of journalists. But even that would not be adequate protection from the kind of sustained personal attack to which Mary Beard was recently exposed.

Must trolls -- those posters of negativity and vitriol -- be part of the Internet public sphere? Must we accept them, or can we do something to improve Internet culture? How do we banish the trolls without closing off the dialogue that is so vital to our democracy?

Here are three options:

  • Post material WITHOUT including a comments section.
  • Leave it up to the author of a published piece whether s/he wants a comment section to accompany her/his work
  • Go the old-fashioned route, and make people who wish to comment write and mail, rather than e-mail, letters to the editor

Each one of these has distinct advantages and disadvantages. But adopting one or some combination of these approaches would improve our discourse and make it more civil. Here's why.

In a widely-reported study, researchers from George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have demonstrated that the comments section is a petri dish for breeding vitriol. Not only that, they have shown that this negativity fosters more negativity, and that negative comments alter readers' perceptions of the texts they have just read. If one of the goals in publishing materials is to offer information to readers, the comments section actively undercuts that aim. That negativity is disproportionately aimed at women, with Mary Beard putting a face on a larger problem of systemic gender assault.

Today, we are seeing a continuation of nineteenth-century gender norms, which proposed that the public sphere was reserved for men and women's proper place was the domestic realm. The battle for women's ability to speak in public is far from over. It is problematic to say that, therefore, women need special protections -- that would undercut the aim of gender equality in the public sphere. But surely, offering other options for readers who wish to provide comments would help address this problem.

Shifting the way in which people enter into debate in the digital age would have a number of significant potential benefits.

Trolls might themselves become writers. If they couldn't post responses on the fly, but had to take more time (say, in finding a stamp to post a letter), they might in turn put more craft into their own writing. As Chris Mooney pointed out in Mother Jones , trolls write before they think, and the speed of the Internet hinders the development of their thoughts. They might find that writing an opinion piece is difficult. They might develop more respect for people who put themselves through that effort -- and perhaps transform themselves from trolls into opinion piece writers. We would benefit if their voices became thoughtful organs of criticism that one cannot simply brush off, but rather engages with as commentators.

But that raises another question. Who already has a voice in the media landscape? As the Op-Ed project has documented, white men are the ones who write op-eds and dominate the media landscape, crowding out the voices of women and minorities.

Let me be very clear: I am NOT saying that white men should be silenced. But I am saying that we need a more diverse media landscape, and that trolls are a symptom of the larger problem of women and minority voices being drowned out.

There is much that I appreciate about Sheryl Sandberg's book. But "lean in" curiously reads like a relic from a previous era, before the arrival of the digital age that she has helped create.

Imagine if all writers published online could opt out of having a comment section attached to their work. How many more women and minorities might be writing pieces if they were being given the choice not to have all that vitriol attached to their work every time they posted a link to their published work on their Facebook page for friends and families to see? Wouldn't that transform the media landscape, and its demographics? Just imagine how many more women and minorities might be writing.

Better yet, let's stop imagining and find out! I'd like a status update as we lean in to that.