The IRL Fallacy

I have no legitimate excuse for my willful delusions about there being boundaries between online and real life. Not only am I a sociologist who thinks about porous and imagined boundaries for three meals and a snack, but I am also a Black feminist who knows theoretically and empirically that identities cannot, and should not, be separated. Even pop star Beyoncé gave up her alter ego Sasha Fierce, albeit after she was married—perhaps the equivalent of waiting until tenure before rabble-rousing. But after a coordinated online attack against me in June, ostensibly for things I said on Twitter and my blog, it was the hate mail and threats from IP addresses near my home that compelled me to reckon with the online-versus-“in real life” fallacy. In the process, I developed a whole new line of perfectly wonderful “yo mama” jokes that I couldn’t use because after “don’t read the comments,” “don’t feed the trolls” is the first rule of the Internet.

Beyond individual social media platforms and blogs, there is a world wide web that connects these platforms to our residences and workplaces. Information readily available through public records and other free search platforms is collected and published online to threaten, intimidate, and silence. In my case, these attempts were crowd-sourced by conservative hit folks on social media, as well as alumni, students, and professors from my former institution, the University of Memphis, and my new one, Rhodes College.

Although anxieties about the policing of professors in this neoliberal academic moment put the broad public focus on my non-firing and what it said about academic freedom, “in real life” I was less concerned about my employment than my personal safety and that of my family. The University of Memphis posted on its Facebook and Twitter pages that I was no longer employed there (responding to the flood of calls it received demanding my firing) then housed actual and hinted rape and death threats toward me on its social media pages for several hours. I tracked IP addresses of comments on my blog and emails to my website, scrutinized unfamiliar cars and people on my street, and put my already ornery dog on special alert. Reporters who apparently misplaced their manners and showed up at my house without calling received the best southern talking-to I could muster without cursing. Police officers parked across the street from my house were rewarded with some lusty side-eyes, though when one gave me the head nod of admiration, I was chagrinned. Overall, I spent a significant amount of time wishing a mutha would and lamenting that I hadn’t gotten to debut those “yo mama” jokes.

This wasn’t a case of two worlds colliding. Instead, a fallacy to which we have become dangerously accustomed was unraveling with serious consequences for my safety in a moment of highly publicized violence against Black folks. When professors, especially professors on the margins, use our voices in ways that matter beyond narrow academic confines and convey uncomfortable truths, we will inevitably be targeted. And because academic institutions are invested in conjuring separate realms for online and real life, they will sometimes fail gloriously at protecting our right to academic freedom, freedom of expression, and even physical safety. They, along with some of our senior colleagues, will vigorously and illogically defend the boundary between “real” scholarship and whatever it is that happens online. Yet, when what happens online upsets trustees, donors, and alumni, they will allow the outside in to save their bottom line and maintain order. Nevertheless, if academics are to wrest some notion of liberal education from the rock-climbing walls of our shiny student recreation centers, then we will continue to work in the public sphere.

Online work, including blogging, is gratifying and life saving and beautiful in ways that increasingly elusive job security at institutions concerned with the availability of leather seating in luxury dorms is not. It is also labor for which we should be formally rewarded, because there is no divide between work done online and in real life. There is only Beyoncé. Sasha Fierce does not exist.