Academic Lauren Rosewarne pinpoints six on-screen characterisations that skew our perception of the internet & damage our world view.
Are you a developer? Do you work in a digital business? Are you just an everyday person?
Today, with the rise of the internet of things, smartphones and apps, technology is increasingly a part of everyone’s everyday lives. So why are the depictions of technology-users on screen always so embarrassing, awkward, and dislikable?
It’s a question Lauren Rosewarne explores in her new book Cyberbullies, Cyberactivists, Cyberpredators: Film, TV and Internet Stereotypes.
“Film and television predominantly depict the internet as a tool used by people who are scarier and less attractive than “normal” people,” the Australian academic told The Memo.
“The Internet is generally portrayed as a kind of badlands, populated by nefarious characters who use the tool to prey on the vulnerable.”
Rosewarne has been interested in the subject of internet stereotypes since the late 1990s when she saw the media coverage link the Columbine massacre with internet activities of the two young gunmen.
“News reports kept mentioning that they were “nerds” and that they gamed online,” she explains. “This isn’t a trend that has gone away: online dating or the reading of subversive materials online, for example, are also apparently contributing factors to a person’s guilt. I was interested in exploring some of the influences on the popular perception that the Internet is somehow a clue in or risk factor to a person’s danger.”
Through her research Rosewarne, who specialises in sexuality, gender, the media, and pop culture, identified six distinct ways internet-users are depicted on screen: the neckgeek, the cyberpredator, the neckbeard, the cyberperv, the cyberactivist and the cyberbully.
Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory: socially awkward, and while possessing many of the attributes of the old style nerd, is updated with an obsession with online gaming and an equally nerdy girlfriend.
The made-for-TV film The Craigslist Killer (2011) provides a perfect example of a cyberpredator: the character who goes online to find victims and then orchestrate an offline meet for murder.
Most crime-dramas – The Practice, Criminal Minds, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI: Cyber, The District – have had a cyberpredator storyline. In Strangeland (1998), two teen girls are lured to a party by a cyberpredator: one is then murdered – this is the same plot in Megan is Missing (2011) too.
The classic example is the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons: overweight, bearded, routinely dishevelled, and occupying his time writing scathing reviews online. Another example is the character of Jenkins from the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft” who is a classic “griefer”.
The cyberperv is a character defined by their use of the Internet for sexual gratification. This can manifest in a teenage boy masturbating to online pornography, to a married person engaged in cyberinfidelity, a pedophile grooming a child or someone with niche sexual interests sourcing a vicarious outlet for them.
Charlie in Californication is a good example of a character who was watching so much netporn – including at work – that he got fired (a plot that also happens in an episode of Queer as Folk), and so is the title character in Don Jon (2013), who picks netporn over a relationship with Scarlett Johansson.
Perhaps the best known hacker on screen is Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: she looks the part with her cybergoth aesthetic and toes that fine line between criminality and information-freedom-fighter.
Generally cyberbullying storylines are handled in made-for-television movies or one-off episodes; there was an American film Cyberbully released in 2011, and a British one in 2015.
In Disconnect (2012) and Trust (2010) the cyberbullying of teens led to suicide attempts, while in the 2013 Carrie remake, cyberbullying took the form of filmed harassment that was then uploaded online. The same thing happens in Girl Fight (2011) and Sexting in Suburbia (2012).
“Like all stereotypes and archetypes, these are, at least partly, grounded in reality: the neckbeard character – the fat, bearded, overweight guy who spends most of his time at the computer – is not an unfamiliar image to most people,” says Rosewarne.
Notably, with the exception of the ‘cyberbully’, most of the stereotypes are associated with men, she adds. This is partly because film and television “have long presented technology and machines as an extension of masculinity”, but also because some stereotypes are constructed “around poor treatment of women”, she explains.
“There are parallels with this screen stereotype and reality: in real life there is indeed a disproportionate amount of online activity – like trolling – that is perpetrated by men and directed towards women and which is grounded in attacks and threats based on appearance and sexuality.”
It is however, important to remember that stereotypes are just that.
“In film and TV, such presentations are rarely nuanced so the neckbeard is often just a caricature rather than a fully-fleshed out character as would transpire in real life. This is relevant for each of the stereotypes I discuss in my book.”
Having internet-users caricatured on-screen isn’t just shallow, it’s dangerous, says Rosewarne.
“Given, for example, that women are so severely under-represented in the tech industry in real life, I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that the deluge of negative presentations may help shape a disinclination towards pursue that kind of career.”
“The internet has changed the idea of what it means to be ‘normal’,” Rosewarne adds. “People can find solace and community there, whether you’re a teenager who thinks you might be gay in a small, isolated and rural town, or you’re a collector of obscure memorabilia.”
“These communities and subcultures may not be physical ones, but it doesn’t make it less real or less important. Yet film and TV keep invariably presenting internet users as somehow less normal, less desirable and less trustworthy than everyone else.”
“The danger lies not in the creation of new online groups, but rather that film and television keep presenting a fraudulent presentation of users of new technology,” says Rosewarne. “This impacts on wider perceptions about the role technology has in crime as well as people’s sense of safety and often overblown perceptions of distrust and vulnerability.”
“Such presentations serve as a manifestation of anxieties around new technology that are felt by the audience and which get channeled on screen into a type of bogeyman.”
While Rosewarne can clearly identify the problems with stereotyping internet users, finding a solution isn’t as easy.
“I don’t like to be prescriptive about how film and TV should do anything, but I do think we need diversity in representations,” she says. “Considering, for example, how common online dating is now, it is quite mind-boggling how on screen it is invariably presented as so negative.”
“Film and TV are important because their content helps to contribute to a viewer’s understanding of the world – they are an ongoing and informal educator that can feed perceptions and (mis)educate.”
Perhaps it’s time to shake up the industry and step away from well-worn stereotypes.
Buy Lauren Rosewarne’s Cyberbullies, Cyberactivists, Cyberpredators: Film, TV, and Internet Stereotypes on Amazon, £38.
Kitty Knowles is a Senior Features Writer at The Memo. Kitty previously worked as an online journalist for GQ. She can be found tweeting @KittyGKnowles.