Paulina Egle Pukyte

On commenting on the Internet texts as contemporary folklore and on the approach to gender in this space of total anonimity and fictitious identities

The phenomenon I am going to talk here about I would attribute to mass culture rather than popular culture, although those two areas largely overlap. Popular culture is created by institutions for mass consumption of the people. I, however, am going to talk about a certain expression of the culture created by the people, or, in other words, contemporary folklore.

My essays are published as a separate column on a well-known Internet news site. I write in my name and about what happens to and around me, but not exactly from my viewpoint. In other words, the character that uses my name has not only my features, but also those of other people, and reacts to the world around, or, more precisely, to a foreigner’s life in London – in a particular way. I describe different phenomena of popular culture, national character, etc. as seen through her eyes.

These newspaper-type Internet sites as well as newspapers in virtual electronic format gave birth to, in my opinion, totally new form of mass communication –
comments on articles posted on the Internet. (I am not speaking here about so called chat-rooms, those dedicated entirely to the communication between members of general public, as this is a separate phenomenon).

I don’t know who’s genius idea this was, but most likely the very nature of the Internet itself – from the one side mass-accessibility, from the other side total anonymity – determined the existence of this phenomenon. But, I believe, this is a new, never before experienced possibility for masses to express their views on things in writing; as well as a possibility for those, who actually create popular culture, to hear some direct, spontaneous opinion. To what extent this opinion is valid, meaningful, effective or interesting – that is another question (usually it is neither meaningful nor interesting, but daft and aggressive), but it exists now also in a written-virtual form, widely accessible to others, (even if non-permanent, and also censored – but only regarding swear-words), rather than only in oral/spoken form, as in the old times. Thus these comments, in my opinion, are important as much as they express a lot of certain symptoms and tendencies in the state of mind and the way of thinking of general public.

It is necessary to mention, that I can not rely here on some serious and methodical research of this phenomenon, and I can not say that I carried out a full and methodical research myself – although I might do it in the future – therefore I will return again back to myself and simply produce some examples of the reactions of the mass-user of the Internet to my essays. Of course, one cannot legitimately state that the readers of this site, and especially those who comment, represent all possible layers of society, but, nevertheless, they are the species of mass-user of the popular culture – and that is exactly what we are talking here about.

Neither am I going to examine here the fact, that the texts of writers, journalists and critics are only a pretext for those commentators to pour out their anger, inadequacies and so on (some of them do not even read the article properly, and, after mentioning it briefly then go on fighting amongst each other - sometimes about something completely irrelevant), and a chance to demonstrate the fact that they know everything “better”. I will keep only to the issues of gender.

On the Internet, where on one page I receive e-mail messages almost every day saying ‘pukyte, enlarge your manhood safely and painlessly’, on another page I am attacked on the basis of my gender.

Of course, in the first event it is partly a coincidence. Not in many languages (Lithuanian is one of them) that use Latin (that is, readable for Westerners) letters, gender is obvious from the spelling of the surname itself (not to mention marital status – about that later) – however, only for those who speak that language – therefore spam senders do not know and do not expect it. They aim at everybody in hope to hit the right target, so they do not distinguish between genders, as they know they do not have much basis for that. Besides, not everybody uses surname in his or her e-mail address.

However, the commentators that respond to my texts on the Internet are Lithuanian and can tell from my surname that I am a woman and, in addition to that, in their opinion, unmarried, therefore, in their opinion, – and thanks very much for that – I am more likely still immature and inexperienced, than already a hopeless spinster. However, on what basis are they so sure that I, who write, am a young girl rather than, for example, a middle-aged man? I believe, solely due to the suffix “-yte” in my name I get this kind of patronizing approach from my readers:

So what, Pukyte, you are still scribbling in Lithuanian? Why don’t you, kid, get a British passport, learn English, and become a normal English journalist instead?

(By the way, Lithuanian way of address ‘vaikeli’ is even more patronizing than English ‘kid’ that I use here due to the lack of a better substitute. It has no sexual connotations as in ‘baby’ for example.)

I could understand it if they were addressing my protagonist, but no, they attack me personally – the author; for example:

I read the article and tried to imagine the Author: munching on lard and potato salad, lonely half-professional dancer. Interesting picture... Anyway, I hope the Author finds a good, black Ukranian stal..., sorry, dancing partner.

At the same time the commentators themselves almost never give their real names, and their nicknames rarely reflect their gender, or any gender for that matter. But these people, called
XXL, Je, jo, AB, CD, cool, etc., make comments based on gender and gender related stereotypes, usually, of course, insulting. For example, somebody who calls him- or herself lyga, posts this reaction to my essay:

What is this hen jabbering about? She should go and lay eggs instead.

Of course, judging from the text, this person is a male rather than a female, but we cannot be 100% sure.

Internet can only partly be considered as “public” – due to its anonymity and lack of censorship, which is quite paradoxical. However, exactly because of that we can more or less judge about the level of consciousness of our general public.

Here is another example of comment made on my article about the exhibition of works by a Lithuanian photographer in Europarlament in Brussels, and about quite worrying inability of our representatives there (including interpreters) to express themselves in understandable English:

Poor Vilnius University philologist – she is suffering so much because of the incorrect usage of this half sacred English language, that she lost the point. We are talking about photography here, kitty. Believe you me, there are loads of artists in the world who speak dreadful English. So what? Nothing. Nobody cares except little kitties from the philology faculty, who are unable to grasp the essence. The power and potency of art is not in the English language. Relax…

I have to point out that I am not in any sense connected to faculty of Philology at the Vilnius University, nor to any faculty there for that matter. I am an artist and I am studying photography at the moment, about which the commentator claims he knows much more than I do. On what grounds? It is also not quite clear for me, if this person is using the phrase “Vilnius University philologist” as a response to me writing, apart from other things, about the usage of English language, or is he (it must be a “he”) using this very well known stereotype solely as a means of insult. In any case, he uses the stereotype consciously. But he suspects, that it might not be a sufficient insult, so he adds another stereotype, and I become ‘
a kitty from Philology department’.

I have received more commentaries like this expressing contempt for supposedly mine and supposedly feminine profession:

Looks like they didn’t accept Pukyte into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with her cushions, so she is bitter now.

And another example of commentary, I believe, aimed at me as a woman, so that I ‘know my place’, so to speak:

It is quite understandable desire of this madam to ‘stick out’ and be the center of attention, but my dear, if you don’t have an interesting subject, why write at all? Only to have your name in public and feel famous? Most likely you write these comments yourself (only positive ones, of course).

This brings us back almost to the point where we started, because I am now accused of something of which I have accused my commentators.

I read the articles by two other women on the same Internet page, and people’s commentary on them, but there were no sexist comments. That means this type of commentary is caused not only by my hypothetical gender, but also by something inside my texts. What exactly? The aforementioned essays by other girls were either quite objective travel impressions or, on the contrary, rather personal stories about boys, relationships, etc. – these themes are virtually nonexistent in my essays. I also know that women who write about gender equality and feminist problems receive even harsher and more openly insulting commentary; but my articles do not directly discuss these issues either. If we accept the presumption that the author of my essays is a woman, what in her writing annoys some of the readers so much? (I am not mentioning here the numerous admirers of my essays.) Could it be the fact that the texts are very personal – not in a conventional way (e.i. not based on relationships between a man and a woman – many people love that kind of “personal”), but rather in some androgynous way that can not be explained by gender stereotypes. They hate a woman having an independent and critical opinion on matters not directly related to women.