How to Create Safe Spaces Online

NAMA Masque esclave"Safe spaces" is a term that has generated some controversy among atheists and freethinkers because of some of the ways it has been misapplied. But in at least one respect, everybody needs safe spaces. We all need to be able to get away from the stresses and strains of our daily lives, even if only for a moment, to regroup and get our heads together. Of course, there is a vast difference between cultivating one's personal safe space and attempting to turn shared public spaces into "safe spaces" where one expects to be completely free from hurt feelings of any sort.

In this post, I am going to offer some tips for those who wish the Internet was more of a safe space. It occurs to me that there are many things one can do to to increase feelings of safety online that do not involve trying to make the Internet into something it is not and will probably never be.

Two Critical Offline Safe Spaces

Before addressing safe spaces online, I'd like to touch on two important offline safe spaces you should have. First, you need a safe space inside your own mind. Think of this as a place you can visit by refocusing your attention away from whatever is troubling you in life. It is your most important safe space, and it can help give you a moment of respite when things get tough. If you do not have such a safe space, it is important that you cultivate one. And if the inside of your own mind does not feel safe, it is time to take steps to improve your mental health. I'm not being flippant here; I recognize that this can be a struggle for some. Fortunately, there are a number of effective therapeutic approaches to help people improve their mental health. Some can be learned through self-help resources; others might require professional assistance. This is not something that should be neglected.

The second offline safe space you need to have is a physical space. You need a house, apartment, or room in which you can feel safe, even if only for a few minutes at a time. You need a physical place you can enter with a door that will close and lock. In a pinch, a private bathroom will suffice. It certainly wasn't ideal, but I made do with a car for awhile. It doesn't have to be a luxurious space; it just needs to be a place where you can go in, shut the door, gather your thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and have an opportunity for some quiet reflection without being disturbed. This is an important part of self-care, and we all need such a space. If you do not have such a space, I recommend that you make finding one a priority. Take a break from your online activities, if necessary, to work on your offline safety. Again, this is not something you should be neglecting.

Online Safe Spaces

The reality is that there are no completely safe spaces online. At least, there are no completely safe spaces online that are publicly accessible to everyone. If you are active online and especially if you contribute content of any sort (e.g., blog posts, podcasts, videos, social media posts) in publicly accessible areas, you are going to face criticism, harassment, threats, condemnation, and all sorts of name calling. There are many assholes out there, and some of them are going to find you. This is the state of the Internet in 2015, and it is unlikely to change in the near future.

The good news is that there are a few things you can do to create safer spaces online and improve your experience generally. These include:
  1. Model the sort of calm and rational behavior you would like to see more of online from others.
  2. Give up the need to have the last word; be willing to walk away when interactions deteriorate.
  3. Moderate comments.
  4. Unfollow, unfriend, and/or block the assholes without broadcasting that you are doing so.
  5. If necessary, make your blog and/or social media accounts private.
  6. Think before you post, especially on social media.
I'll share a few quick thoughts on some of these suggestions. I have observed many of those publicly complaining about the lack of safe spaces on the Internet treating others poorly. Instead of behaving in a calm and rational manner, some are extremely antagonistic and could fairly be described as going out of their way to provoke others. This is a bit like spraying the nest of hornets with a hose while standing too close to it and then complaining when one gets stung. Behave like you wish others would behave regardless of how they behave, and be willing to walk away from online interactions when you begin to feel unsafe.

Feel free to unfollow, unfriend, and/or block anyone you want. If you would prefer not to be exposed to ideas with which you might disagree, you have that right. I may personally think you are making a mistake by depriving yourself of ideas that might broaden your worldview, but it is your call. But if you are going to unfollow, unfriend, block, or whatever, just do it. By announcing it to the world, you will just make yourself more of a target. You see, some of the people you believe are harassing you are doing it because they want to provoke emotional responses from you. Deprive them of this opportunity, and they will tend to lose interest quickly.

Above all else, think before you send that snarky tweet or other social media post. Are you deliberately antagonizing others? If so, how can you reasonably expect them not to respond? If I were to tweet something like "Conservatives are racist morons who are destroying America," I'd have to expect that someone who strongly disagrees with this is going to react. And because of the ridiculous and over-the-top nature of this statement, I'd also have to expect that some of the reactions I receive may be harshly worded.

Taking Responsibility

But why should you have to watch what you say, walk away, moderate, and/or take your accounts private? The assholes are to blame! It is their problem! No, it really isn't. They are not the ones feeling distressed. Some of them are probably enjoying pushing your buttons. The sad truth of the matter is that it is your problem. You are the one who is complaining about not feeling safe. I get it. Life isn't fair, and people are assholes. The point is that there are things you can do to feel safer and to improve your experience online.

And what if you do some of these things and find that they do not make enough of a difference? Or what if you refuse to do any of this because you are unwilling to accept any responsibility for how you contribute to the sort of experience you have online? You still feel unsafe. What then? At this point, I'd suggest that you utilize the most powerful method of all: reduce the amount of time you spend online. Take a break and work on improving aspects of your offline existence. You know, the part of life that really matters.

Instead of framing this as "letting them win" or as you being "chased of the Internet by harassers," there is much more accurate way you can think about what you are doing. You are acting like a rational adult and utilizing healthy self-care skills. You are reducing your online activity because it is healthy for you to do so. You've let the bastards grind you down, and so it is time to give yourself a break. Take a vacation from the Internet, refresh yourself, and return when you are ready. And when you return, see if changing your behavior just might improve your experience online.

The goal here isn't one of "winning" against some imagined enemy; the goal is one of feeling better and improving your experience. Take better care of yourself. You deserve it.