The age of the social sonogram - where does the oversharing end?

The only way to cure the "too much information" epidemic is... too much information.

We all have different ways of breaking special news. Some of us get straight on the phone to our mums; some of us go for civilised dinners with other halves and best friends; some of us crack out the city’s best cornershop cava. However you want to share the news of that promotion, pregnancy or personal pride, you can be sure that the big bad world now offers a million and one ways to do it - and by the big bad world, we mean the internet.

There’s no denying that the internet is more real than reality these days: Facebook has more photos of you than your parents’ baby albums; hundreds of people on Twitter who you can socialise with daily will only ever exist for you in cyberspace; and the power of Skype has meant that many a long distance relationship has been brought closer by high-definition wanking. Problem is, what if the nature of your social network changes? Nothing illustrated this more than when reports started coming in that Facebook was showing private messages sent between friends from 2007 and 2008, prompting an (online) uproar about privacy. In fact, the issue was just that we’d all forgotten how candid we used to be when Facebook was merely a fledgling chick rather than a huge, gold-plated turkey. Back when you only had 15 friends, "got laid last night, lol" seemed totes fine to post on your best mate’s wall. But now your friend list is pushing 500, your relationship status links back to your boyfriend, and you’re applying for that ultra prestigious civil service job, that one night of WKD-fuelled passion (yep, you drank that back then) doesn’t feel like something you want recorded anymore. Reality bites.

We’ve found out about more than our fair share of weddings and baby-makings through social media, in increasingly crass ways (3D sonogram as a profile pic, anyone?) We were even fortunate to come across a T-shirt in a shop window the other day, surely a strong contender for "creepiest piece of attire in the world" (alongside lederhosen) which showed a blurry sonogram reproduction with the caption "Daddy’s little girl". We hadn’t realised that it was possible to act pervy about a foetus, but there you go.

So in this age of social sonograms and pregnancy apps, we come to the inevitable question: how much have we fucked up the kids this time? Jezebel concurred with the New York Times this week that we should take fewer pictures of our children, after journalist and psychologist David Zweig noticed that his 3-year-old daughter requested nonstop photos and was becoming constantly aware of her looks. By school age, we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that she’ll be pinning her own first paintings on a Pinterest board. Which would all be totally cool, if we weren’t using most of our imagery in the media nowadays for evil.

"Celebrity mag" culture has led us all to comment on K-Middy’s breasts, Lady Gaga’s arse in fishnets and Kylie’s sweat patches with startling regularity. And while men undoubtedly suffer from this scrutiny too, women are usually in the front line for a spraying of spite-filled glossy pink bullets. Constant awareness, a la Zweig’s 3-year-old, is necessary to survive in a world where an iPhone might be whipped out and used against you at any moment. Meanwhile, you must guard your online persona fiercely: as your finger hovers over a more truthful "like" on the page ("Lily likes Canesten" - the lifesaver of your Saturday thrush!), you turn regretfully towards something that will set you up for a bit more online kudos and social media approval ("Lily likes Neutral Milk Hotel.")

And yet, the rigidly guarded social media persona is giving way to a new kind of internet twattery: what the kids call TMI, or Too Much Information. It has to be a dystopian mash-up of celebrity culture and reality TV that’s done it - there is now an assumption that people give a toss about the insignificant minutiae of your everyday life: what you had for breakfast, and, by extension, the contents of your womb. In other words, Facebook has become like Heat magazine, the trash rag in which nothing is sacred, except now it’s comprised entirely of your mates, former colleagues, and people you once shared a fag with outside Revolution in Manchester, all telling you about their hangover poo.

What’s terrifying is that the TMI is getting worse. The vogue for scanned sonograms has by now given way to iPhone photos of pregnancy tests showing a positive result, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes commonplace to upload a birthing video or live tweet your girlfriend’s labour: "Stacey is 4cm dilated and just shat herself #epidural?"

We stand on the brink of this terrifying potential and there is only one solution. We have to beat these internet bellends at their own game. Whether it’s uploading a picture of your diaphragm alongside a winky emoticon ("getting lucky tonight!"), or posting the status update "not pregnant AGAIN! Woo!" alongside a smartphone photo of your Tampax Ultra, we need it to be (genital) warts and all oversharing. Just opened your clap clinic results? Get that chlamydia reaction video on YouTube, pronto. Recently had a colonoscopy? Excellent, whack it up there. Only once your online friends are confronted by the realities of your parasitic bowel will they take a step back and realise the implications of their behaviour. Before you know it you’ll be Mayor of the BPAS clinic on FourSquare, your repeat custom having ousted ring-wing fundamentalist nutjobs Fortydaysforlife, and your vagina will have its own Twitter account ("Just saw some tortellini shaped like Naomi Wolf and don’t think I’ll ever write again").

Meanwhile, your dullard acquaintances will resist papping their brunch and consign their baby photos to where they belong: offline, meaning the children of the future can be raised happy and free from constant monitoring. It’s high time their idiot parents learned their lessons - and only you, dear reader, can be the one to teach them.

Photograph: Geoff Livingston on Flickr

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.