Loud and clear

Housewives’ chats are not all cosy, mumsy, girly surf­ing.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN - By ZOE WIL­LIAMS

IWOULD never open my boyfriend’s post. He wouldn’t let me, for one thing. I’m not even al­lowed to open his copy of Paws – the lo­cal dogs home news­let­ter – un­til he gets home. And I’d never open his e-mail ei­ther, but I don’t have the same pri­vacy taboo about e-mail that have al­ready been opened.

When you walk up be­hind some­body, and they’re in the mid­dle of an e-con­ver­sa­tion, they hunch. It doesn’t mean they’re cheat­ing on you, it just means it’s per­sonal. But this ten­sion, the e-mail that isn’t a be­trayal but is nev­er­the­less pri­vate, is a mi­cro-ver­sion of the sur­veil­lance de­bate – “Why do you want pri­vacy, if not to com­mit crime?”

Back to this hy­po­thet­i­cal boyfriend who, if I’m hon­est, was ac­tu­ally a real boyfriend. He hunch- es when I walk past. So I want to see what he’s writ­ing. I can’t, he’s closed his browser. It does not feel evil to go into his in­box af­ter­wards, al­though I would strongly not rec­om­mend that ini­tial breach of cou­ple-pro­to­col.

Of course, it’s an e-mail to a woman. What are the odds? Fifty­fifty, un­less he’s a math­e­ma­ti­cian, or a nitwit. Say it’s some­one you know (it was), it’s prob­a­bly an ex (it was). Say it’s some­one you don’t know, then it’s a strange woman. This is a mug’s game; now I’m check­ing all the time. My nearly ex and his ex chat in­ter­mit­tently.

Noth­ing in­crim­i­nat­ing hap­pens, but the easy fa­mil­iar­ity is an­noy­ing. And I’m read­ing ev­ery­thing I can get away with now, so nat­u­rally I catch stuff I’d rather not have seen. It’s phys­i­o­log­i­cally com­pelling (high risk, sweaty palms) and in­tel­lec­tu­ally bor­ing, like read­ing a Dan Brown novel. Un­like a Dan Brown novel, noth­ing hap­pens, ex­cept I can’t stop.

I never got caught do­ing it. But we did split up, for maybe 1,000 rea­sons, some of which were: well, most ob­vi­ously, this is an act of war. It also cre­ates con­fu­sion – you’re hav­ing your reg­u­lar re­la­tion­ship with your reg­u­lar boyfriend, and a se­cret, an­tag­o­nis­tic re­la­tion­ship with the boyfriend as expressed in his cor­re­spon­dence. Those are two dif­fer­ent peo­ple, not least be­cause one of them doesn’t know you’re there.

Women snoop a lot more than men – a joint study by the London School of Eco­nom­ics (LSE) and Not­ting­ham Trent Uni­ver­sity found that 14% of wives read their hus­bands’ e-mail, and 10% checked their brows­ing his­tory (for men, those fig­ures are 8% and 7%, re­spec­tively). I know what you’re go­ing to say, you’ll say, “That’s be­cause men look at porn all the time. Women are just look­ing for ev­i­dence of porn, and maybe if they spent more time look­ing at their own porn in­stead of spying on their hus­band’s, these fig­ures might be re­versed.” That’s what I’d say.

Still, we of­ten talk about the ne­far­i­ous things men get up to on the In­ter­net. You hear about porn ad­dicts. The things you hear about men make them sound so pro­foundly prim­i­tive, you won­der how they hit the space bar with­out an op­pos­able thumb.

There’s no doubt the In­ter­net cre­ates a new ter­ri­tory of mis­de­meanour, but not all of it par­tic­u­larly male. When peo­ple talk about preda­tory men, or naive and/or bul­ly­ing teenagers, they miss the ma­jor Bri­tish de­mo­graphic, the one in which we out­strip In­ter­net us­age any­where else in the world, which is among housewives. That def­i­ni­tion is pretty loose, these days; you don’t have to be mar­ried, and you’re al­lowed to have a job. It just means women of a cer­tain age. Any given woman who, 10 years ago, would have been out binge drink­ing: women like me, and pos­si­bly you.

Bri­tish housewives spend 47% of their leisure time on­line (ac­cord­ing to a study by global mar­ket in­for­ma­tion group TNS), which is higher than the Chi­nese na­tional av­er­age (over­all theirs is the high­est in the world). Some of this is en­tre­pre­neur­ial (al­most half of all Bri­tish housewives make some money on­line – one in 20 “mousewives” makes over £200/RM975 a week), but a lot of it is point­less mess­ing about.

And be­cause we’re women, and many of us have chil­dren, this mess­ing about is billed as an in­cred­i­bly pos­i­tive, co­op­er­a­tive force. In­deed, Mum­snet has be­come the by­word for moth­ers on the In­ter­net, as if all we do is have warm, help­ful con­ver­sa­tions. It’s true that Mum­snet has a lot of users (20 mil­lion monthly page im­pres­sions), and ev­ery­thing its founder, Jus­tine Roberts, says about it makes per­fect sense: “It’s be­come a very handy, con­ve­nient and ef­fi­cient re­place­ment for real-life com­mu­ni­ties. Peo­ple just don’t have time for leisurely con­ver­sa­tions over the gar­den fence any more. Women and par­ents in gen­eral don’t have time to have a lot of so­cial en­gage­ments in the tra­di­tional sense and Mum­snet fills that void.”

Not hav­ing time for so­cial en­gage­ments is the same as be­ing lonely. Vir­tual con­ver­sa­tions are con­di­tional, so easy to pick up and drop, they don’t carry the weight of a con­crete con­nec­tion in the world. It’s sus­pended be­tween life and a com­puter game.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar pre­sen­ta­tion, Mum­snet is not the only site women visit. There are acres of girly chat. Check out the Face­book groups for a flavour of how un­pleas­ant some of the sup­pos­edly mumsy stuff is. There’s a pro­lif­er­a­tion of vigilante rage di­rected at child would just chance upon one an­other on a main­stream net­work­ing site. It cer­tainly pushes the bound­aries of credulity that there are pae­dophiles am­bling the cor­ri­dors of Face­book, wait­ing to meet one an­other to scale up their per­ver­sion. But if you look at the Face­book ap­pli­ca­tion these three met on, Are YOU In­ter­ested?, you would have no trou­ble be­liev­ing it to be just heav­ing with in­cred­i­bly lonely, vi­o­lently an­gry peo­ple, just sit­ting there, ripe for a toxic re­la­tion­ship with other in­cred­i­bly lonely, vi­o­lently an­gry peo­ple.

It’s a Hon­ey­moon Killers cliche: if you want to find a lonely per­son, look at the lone­ly­hearts ads. But the mod­ern ver­sion is so blunt, the dis­ap­point­ment and vul­ner­a­bil­ity so poorly dis­guised, it’s a con-artist’s fair­ground. There’s cer­tainly a small-time crim­i­nal el­e­ment, recog­nis­ing this lonely con­stituency and tap­ping them for cash.

The Ji­had Jane case in Amer­ica, by con­trast, could hap­pen only now, with this timely con­flu­ence of global com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a ter­ror­ist move­ment whose tar­gets are in­ter­na­tional. Ji­had Jane, whose real name is Colleen LaRose, was ar­rested last year over her plan “to do some­thing, some­how, to help suf­fer­ing Mus­lims”: it stretched, in abusers: “jamie bul­ger’s killers should never have been re­leased!”; “Don’t for­get about Mad­die”; “Jus­tice for Baby P”. The num­bers of sig­na­to­ries are enor­mous.

There are 245 groups call­ing for the death/life sen­tence/dis­mem­ber­ment of Vanessa Ge­orge, the nurs­ery worker who took porno­graphic pho­to­graphs of her charges and ex­changed them with a man and woman she’d met on Face­book. It is taken as a para­dox of Ge­orge’s case that, when you track her Face­book his­tory, be­fore she got in­volved in on­line pae­dophilia, she would sign up to groups like Ac­tion Against Abuse.

The first time she and her code­fen­dants met was in the court­room. In her first po­lice in­ter­view, Ge­orge tells how she went from Face­book bud­dies with the man to shar­ing im­ages of pae­dophilia. “I was, like, What would you do for me, if I done that for you? You’d have to put a ring on my fin­ger to make me do things like that.” The fact she al­ready had a hus­band of 20 years stand­ing is the least bizarre el­e­ment of this self-pre­sen­ta­tion – as just an­other young woman, look­ing for love ever af­ter, who’ll do any­thing for a ring on her fin­ger.

Ap­par­ently, mem­bers of the in­ves­tiga­tive team pri­vately doubted all three when they claimed to have met on Face­book, think­ing it too much of a co­in­ci­dence that peo­ple with such de­praved tastes the end, to a con­spir­acy to murder the Swedish car­toon­ist Lars Vilks. The 46-year-old has been ac­cused of con­spir­ing to pro­vide ma­te­rial sup­port to ter­ror­ists, and kill a per­son in a for­eign coun­try. She is also sus­pected of hav­ing trawled the In­ter­net look­ing for other women with US pass­ports who could more eas­ily go about the skir­mishes of Ji­had un­de­tected. Her boyfriend of five years had no idea of these ac­tiv­i­ties. “She was a good­hearted per­son. She pretty much stayed around the house,” Kurt Gor­man told the press. She was ac­tive on the site revo­lu­tionmus­lim. com, and this is not a place you’d stum­ble into.

What led her there is un­known, but be­hind the sud­den veil-wear­ing and talk about eter­nal bliss, this looks like a sad story about grief. In 2005, fol­low­ing the death of her fa­ther, LaRose tried to com­mit sui­cide. Ob­vi­ously the causal links are com­pli­cated, but she wasn’t try­ing to kill car­toon­ists be­fore then. If LaRose had con­ceived an ir­ra­tional ha­tred against a neigh­bour, this would have been a con­tain­able af­fair. But there’s an Alice In Won­der­land ef­fect on the In­ter­net, where a per­son taken out of his or her con­text can take on epic pro­por­tions in an un­fa­mil­iar land­scape, usu­ally not in a good way. When phys­i­cal space is col­lapsed, peo­ple can find them­selves a long way from home. – Guardian News & Me­dia 2010

Profitable pur­suit: In Bri­tain, one in 20 ‘mousewives’ makes over £200 a week.

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