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Hockey Twitter: At times toxic, misogynistic, and cruel, how can we make it better?

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The hockey community on twitter has struggled with how best to deal with the marginalization of women, and the general abusive nature of social media, but is there a way to change it for the better?

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The All-Star break is officially behind us, and we're less than a month away from the trade deadline. And, as most of our attention becomes focused on whether our teams are rounding into shape for a serious playoff run, I figured that this also is an opportune time to reflect on the current state of hockey media.

Leading up to the current season, we devoted a lot of attention to the new Rogers TV deal in Canada. We wondered, for example, if Sportsnet would have enough talent. They don’t. We debated how Strombo would do as the new host of Hockey Night in Canada. He’s ok. And, as the season got rolling, we’ve been annoyed by what, at times, has appeared to be a continuing under-valuing of our Montreal Canadiens by the new team of producers and broadcasters. Plus ça change…

Rather than thinking about corporate media, however, my attention in recent months has been riveted to developments that have been brewing in a different media platform—that which people refer to as hockey Twitter.

In an age of convergence between ‘old’ media and ‘new’, Twitter is the ultimate go-to digital platform for sports fans to follow their teams, to socialize with fellow fans, and even to trash talk fans of enemy teams. But, Twitter’s not a place for fans alone. It’s where they, bloggers, and writers for mainstream media publications all have the opportunity to mingle together. And, while the results of this co-existence can certainly be rewarding, the interactions between folks from these different backgrounds can also become highly uncomfortable and destructive.

While some hockey Twitter tensions have simmered and boiled over into public and intense real-time conflicts in recent months, others play out in a relatively quiet manner. So, given Twitter’s importance to the day-to-day life of many in the hockey community, here’s my effort to go beyond instant analysis, and to chronicle some of the issues and interactions that are dismissed by many as excessive and unneeded expressions of personal ‘outrage.’

Hostility

It's likely that almost everyone in the hockey community has heard about the high-profile events that resulted in the firing of Harrison Mooney, Steve Lepore, and Adrian Dater from their media jobs, yet there are also a frequent number of daily, arguably more mundane, interactions on hockey Twitter that make it challenging for some of its members.

"I actually believe that, in a lot of instances, the bloggers I’ve met are the ones that are really busting their ass, because they love it, and they’re really giving us amazing material." -Brian Wilde

Brian Wilde covers the Montreal Canadiens for CTV Montreal. Respected by fans for his coverage of the team, Wilde has earned extra adoration in recent years for maintaining an active, and highly inclusive, presence on Twitter. Despite its risks and uncertainties, Wilde’s been a clear proponent of hockey Twitter, and of the wider blogger world that makes Twitter its home. Wilde describes how he admires the contributions that are being made to hockey media and to the hockey community by the dedication of non-professionals in social media networks.

"I’ve had some awesome exchanges [on Twitter], and I’ve met some wonderful people who I really appreciate," Wilde said. "I actually believe that, in a lot of instances, the bloggers I’ve met are the ones that are really busting their ass, because they love it, and they’re really giving us amazing material. I’ve developed a ton of respect for people doing what they do in this business that I wouldn’t have even known before [Twitter]."

Though he defends hockey Twitter, and argues that some mainstream journalists’ criticism of hockey bloggers and their popularity on social media emerges out of insecurity, Wilde also has reservations. Acknowledging that part of Twitter’s initial appeal was to be able to receive feedback on his work, Wilde nevertheless explains how that very open avenue for access, and the criticism that comes through it, can be a little intense.

"You get worn down a bit," Wilde said. "Sometimes you say the simplest comment, and you’ll have 15 aggressive replies. At first you’re a little surprised by criticism, and probably hurt. Then, the more it happens, like anything, it stops stinging, it stops hurting, and it stops impacting."

Though he says that he’s not too bothered by the moderately confrontational interactions he may have with some of his more critical followers, Wilde also admits that the constant openness to challenges has led him to approach hockey Twitter differently this hockey season.

"It’s not a big deal, my Twitter use is obviously down," Wilde said. "I find it a bit tiresome, and I don’t feel like engaging in that fatigue a lot of times. The impact [of criticism] has changed dramatically, and now it’s just, whatever, but at the same time, you say to yourself, ‘if you feel so whatever about it, why engage in it?’"

Though he anticipates that some of his critics will see his comments as a sign that he’s only interested in receiving feedback from those who agree with him, Wilde, possibly similar to other public personalities, has lessened his involvement on Twitter out of the realization that its basic dynamics are less-than-positive for him at this time in his career.

Gender Troubles

Running parallel to the routine hostilities that can be directed against established members of the hockey media on Twitter have been the more extraordinary incidents that have played out in interactions involving younger, newer hockey media people and bloggers. The common, and most uncomfortable, thread in these cases is the role played by gender inequalities in hockey Twitter and in the wider society.

One young media personality, also from Montreal, who has firsthand experience receiving unwanted attention on Twitter is Robyn Flynn. Starting out as a Habs blogger and Twitter junkie, Flynn’s networking eventually landed her an internship at TSN 690 radio. Shortly after the Bell-Astral merger, an opportunity arose for Flynn to take her current job as Technical Producer on TSN 690’s sister station, CJAD 800, a position that allows the avid hockey fan to play a role on Habs-related programming. While her day job at CJAD mostly keeps her engaged with current affairs, it’s Flynn’s sports talk on TSN 690, as well as her presence on social media, that consistently draws the ire of a segment of male fans on hockey Twitter.

Growing up in a family in which it was no problem for women to be involved in sports, and not having experienced any negativity in her early days as a hockey blogger, Flynn was quite surprised to see the responses she started to get as her on-air sports roles began to increase.

"It’s par for the course in media that you’re going to get negative reaction," Flynn said. "[Male] co-workers will get, ‘oh, you’re an idiot,’ or some swear words, but I found all the negativity directed towards me had a really sexist undertone, and sometimes a threatening undertone. I’ve received rape threats. I’ve been called really sexist names. I’d get misogynistic texts, tweets, e-mails, and even hand-written letters. It’s never just, ‘you’re an idiot!’ It’s always, ‘you’re an idiot because you’re a girl!’"

Flynn believes the harassment comes because she’s a young woman in a traditionally male sports media who doesn’t hesitate to state strong opinions on the games, coaches, and players. And, while she’s received a lot of support from female and male colleagues in the business, she also states that being the target of anti-woman sentiment on Twitter woke her up about sexism today.

"I became almost a gender, equal rights advocate after I got into media," Flynn said. "I guess I was blissfully ignorant, I had no idea that people were still stereotyping women, and still holding them back, until I immersed myself in a male dominated field. I started getting really frustrated, so that’s why I started reading up on gender rights and speaking up."

Experiencing abuse and seeing that others are going through the same thing can push people to develop awareness that what they go through is more than an individual problem, but is something bigger. This consciousness-raising dynamic that Flynn describes is similar to what a number of others have been living on hockey Twitter in the last several months.

"Sexism was there from the get go, but the best way to make friends was not to rock the boat and stay in on the joke." -Toni MacIntyre

For Toni McIntyre, an ad agency Junior Copywriter in Philadelphia and a former hockey blogger, a turning point in her consciousness about women in hockey Twitter came as she witnessed the events last August that led to Harrison Mooney being fired from Yahoo Sports Puck Daddy for having used his professional Twitter account to direct unwanted attention to female hockey fans. McIntyre, a proud Pittsburgh Penguins fan, explains how observing the Mooney incident started to get her thinking more directly about gender politics.

"In a weird way, I’m glad I got to witness it [the Mooney incident]," McIntyre said. "I had never seen before up close, people that you’re friendly with on Twitter, suddenly find any reason not to believe the women [with whom Mooney communicated]. And, I really just saw the sheer amount of fervor that some people whipped themselves into when it came to latching on to any information that they could use to poke a hole in these women’s stories. That was really distressing to see.

"The more I got semi-involved in the debates, and I tried to present my arguments as delicately as possible, they didn't listen to me, they turned on me, too. Then I realized, it doesn't matter how you tell people they're being sexist, they don't want to acknowledge that sexism is common."

In her earlier days as a hockey blogger, long before the Mooney incident, McIntyre had seen some of the same kinds of sexist comments on hockey Twitter that had been directed at Robyn Flynn, but she avoided speaking up. McIntyre explains how the Mooney incident led her to start thinking about taking a different approach.

"In the beginning, I would very much play by the rules of hockey Twitter. I wanted to make friends, and I was just trying to play nice with everyone," McIntyre said. "Sexism was there from the get go, but the best way to make friends was not to rock the boat and stay in on the joke. When the Harrison Mooney thing happened, that was a start of changing my Twitter presence.

"By realizing that we can say something behind an egg on Twitter, and have no repercussions in our lives, we can bring out our worst personalities. Just to watch it, I have found that really sad." -Brian Wilde

"I was compartmentalizing [my concerns] at the beginning. And, Twitter is such a weird thing, you start seeing that number [of followers] climb up, you want to keep the number high, and rocking the boat potentially loses people. So, I didn't want to see sexism for a very long time, and I just didn't want to get involved. I watched, after Mooney, things not improving, and I wasn’t sure what I was gaining by not saying anything."

If McIntyre had any remaining doubts about bringing gender consciousness to her Twitter identity after Mooney, they were further eroded by her own personal experience with receiving unwanted advances on Twitter by a member of the hockey media. When Steve Lepore, a hockey blogger for Awful Announcing, crossed the line in Direct Message (DM) communications, McIntyre had a decision to make about whether to share what happened. Similar Robyn Flynn, McIntyre’s move to publicize the contents of the DMs was motivated by a negative personal experience, and by the recognition that other women were encountering similar mistreatment on hockey Twitter.

"With the Mooney thing I really wanted to be more vocal, but I held myself back," McIntyre said. "After the Mooney situation, I started following a lot of women who were directly connected to what happened, and they were my support network when Lepore messaged me. All these people were so wonderful to me after [Lepore], and that really helped me make that decision [to speak up]. It had kind of been building, and when the Lepore thing happened, the floodgates opened."

Resulting from their interactions with women hockey fans, Mooney, Lepore, and Adrian Dater were all fired from their jobs in hockey. While their missteps have been condemned in the hockey community, the publicizing of private DMs, ongoing contentious public debates about women’s place in hockey media, and even the fact that popular media members had to pay for their crimes by losing their jobs have left some wondering if hockey Twitter isn’t falling apart.

What’s It All About?

What to make, then, of the hostilities that lead respected media members like Brian Wilde to take a mini sabbatical from hockey Twitter? Are gender-based harassments, like the ones experienced by Robyn Flynn and Toni McIntyre, more out of control in the hockey community on Twitter than in the wider society?

According to Brian Wilde, hockey Twitter tensions are reflective of trends that are enabled and unleashed by the features of social media itself, namely the possibilities for anonymity. Ever thoughtful in his expression, Wilde gives his impressions of the factors that lead people on Twitter to perceive they have a license to attack.

"I’ve learned how social media works," Wilde said. "We have a completely tinted car window life [in which we can] experiment with ‘I can honk at you, I will never relate to you again, fuck you’ moments. By social media’s very nature, an avenue that so many people choose is to really be judgmental of people they don’t really know. By realizing that we can say something behind an egg on Twitter, and have no repercussions in our lives, we can bring out our worst personalities. Just to watch it, I have found that really sad."

"I’m a huge Puck Daddy fan, I read it religiously, but Greg Wyshynski, a while back, said he wouldn’t be able to listen to a hockey game if it was called by a woman. He couldn’t grasp how that was a sexist thing to say. What, you can discount every single woman because the voice is a little more high pitched? He legitimately saw no issue with this statement." -Robyn Flynn

For women on hockey Twitter who’ve chosen to speak up against demeaning talk rather than take time away from Twitter, the ‘fuck you’ moments they’ve seen or faced stem from more than just the unique features of a social media platform. They see them as expressive of traditional sexist attitudes and practices that continue to characterize both the wider society and the organizations of the hockey community itself.

For Robyn Flynn, sexism in hockey media is fairly common, and she says it’s not unusual for her to hear sexist stereotypes being expressed by some of her older male colleagues whom she otherwise respects for their outstanding work on sports. Yet, Flynn also describes how even well-known and respected younger media personalities can express harmful ideas without even realizing they’re doing it.

"I’m a huge Puck Daddy fan, I read it religiously," Flynn said. "But, Greg Wyshynski, a while back, said he wouldn’t be able to listen to a hockey game if it was called by a woman. He couldn’t grasp how that was a sexist thing to say. What, you can discount every single woman because the voice is a little more high pitched? He legitimately saw no issue with this statement."

Toni McIntyre thinks the experiences like the one she had with Lepore, and the more casual sexism described by Flynn, are partially reflective of gender relations in the wider society, and partially unique to the traditionally male culture in hockey.

"I don’t want to paint anything with too broad a brush," McIntyre said. "I work in advertising, which is very traditionally a man’s universe, and I’ve never felt uncomfortable in my job in a way that I have been made to feel in hockey. Mooney, Lepore, and Dater are the result of a system that’s got problems and has let shitty behavior slide for too long. I think there are some figures in hockey Twitter who are very socially conscious, and that individual sports organizations are beginning to try to address some of these issues in their players. But, I think they’re in the minority. They’re fighting against years and years of machismo nonsense."

Clearly there’s been an elevated awareness of bad feelings in hockey Twitter in the wake of Mooney, Lepore, and Dater, and, in terms of whether space currently exists for meaningful discussion on the issues, there are many more questions than there are answers. By observing that some in the hockey community celebrate outspoken female fans for using Twitter to educate about sexism, while others have felt personally attacked by insinuations about their alleged silence in the face of gender inequality in the hockey media community, it’s clear that consensus is lacking.

So, given the concern that there’s work to do in order to tone down personal attacks, as well as to change attitudes and practices surrounding gender, has the hockey community actually gained anything from the events surrounding Mooney, Lepore, and Dater and their aftermath? Has it been constructive for people to publicly call others out on Twitter? Is it possible that a better situation can emerge from the current discomfort and acrimony?

Even given how difficult the last several months have been for hockey Twitter, the answers to these questions that were offered by those I spoke to add up to a yes.

The Importance of Speaking Out

Just as the outside world has been confronting struggles over power in the cases like Jian Ghomeshi and Gamergate, the Mooney, Lepore, and Dater events symbolize the hockey community’s own version of the contemporary confluence of bad behavior, public challenge/judgment via social media, and wider social recriminations. It’s not that there’s total consensus here on what these events really were, or even on whether they were all exactly the same, but there is a bit of a shared understanding of why people in hockey Twitter responded to them in the manner in which they did. There’s also a common view that speaking out about ongoing grievances shouldn't be dismissed as baseless outrage.

This perspective is even expressed by people who were very close to some of the events that took place.

Patrick Johnston is a Digital Editor and part-time rugby writer at the Vancouver Province. A former hockey blogger, Johnston is close friends with Harrison Mooney, and was in regular contact with him last August. While he held the belief that many of Mooney’s critics who spoke up on Twitter did so with incomplete knowledge of the situation, and believes today that Mooney’s actions were not as harmful as those of Lepore and Dater, Johnston nevertheless says that all three men crossed a line and deserved punishment for what they did.

""I think some of the people who are especially vocal tend to be extreme and unrealistic in the short term, but we must absolutely pushback against the objectification of women, that women are just there to be cheerleaders." -Patrick Johnston

Johnston still has many unanswered questions about what actually happened, but he says that grappling with, and speaking up about, what happened with Mooney, Lepore, and Dater is part of a difficult process of ensuring that abuse doesn’t go unchecked.

"This is the modern reality, and there’s still so many rules to be sorted out," Johnston said. "All three of them crossed a boundary, there’s no doubt about that. There are definitely people in power who set the tone, who are dismissive of anybody they perceived of as weak, and in the traditional sense, this has been women. So, the reaction of hockey Twitter, there’s something behind that. There are broader social issues behind that that cannot be ignored."

Though Johnston believes that some of the women hockey fans who became vocal following Mooney, Lepore, and Dater are naïve to expect that the status of women in the hockey community will be improved instantaneously or easily, he also cautions against blanket condemnations of loud critical voices asking for change.

"I think some of the people who are especially vocal tend to be extreme and unrealistic in the short term," Johnston said. "But, we must absolutely pushback against the objectification of women, that women are just there to be cheerleaders. In the end, how people talk to each other [on hockey Twitter], and how to make people feel comfortable is important to understand. But, I think it’s also important to understand that sometimes there’s a reason why things are on the extreme."

Shifting the focus away from interactions with his own critics, Brian Wilde says that he saw a lot of hypocrisies in the events surrounding the Mooney situation, especially given his belief that many of the men who publicly condemned Mooney on Twitter were very likely guilty of some of the very things that they were denouncing. Reflecting on the ways people have used social media to expose social transgressions outside of hockey, Wilde, like Johnston, believes that speaking up in cases like Mooney, Dater, and Lepore was the right thing to do.

"Learning isn’t easy," Wilde said. "Sometimes you have to see something as shocking as that type of exposing of a human being to have an overall learning environment. The women who posted it knew that there would be some blowback from misogynistic males who want women to understand that they are second class citizens, and they went ahead and did it. It was courageous, difficult, because that’s what learning is, that’s what change is. There’s a lot of learning going on in this new environment. It was hard, but the more I think about it, it was necessary."

Like Johnston, Robyn Flynn also has a friendship with Mooney, and she felt no amount of pleasure in the fact that he lost his job. And, though she has doubts regarding the fullness of the knowledge she has about Mooney’s particular actions, Flynn believes that speaking out against abuses like the ones on hockey Twitter, or even disclosing stories about those experienced in everyday life, is important. Acknowledging, and understanding, why it’s very hard for women in mainstream sports media to have the freedom to freely and openly express their concerns, Flynn nevertheless affirms that speaking up is needed to help the cause of achieving greater equality and recognition for women.

"I think it’s years and years of pent up frustration, of finally women having a voice," Flynn said. "I feel the Jian Ghomeshi thing was a turning point, not just in media, but in the world. I feel all of a sudden, girls now are not ashamed to stand up for themselves, and they’re not ashamed to point out misogyny. It may be a little reactive, and really intense, but I feel that’s one really positive thing that’s come from everything that’s happened.

"It was so socially acceptable to say misogynist things to girls, and it's an explosion now, it's almost like everybody just got fed up with how slow it was taking to progress. It was like, 'no, change has to happen now, and it's going to happen this way.' So, there are people in the crosshairs now, but if you don't want to get called out for saying something misogynistic, don't say something misogynistic."

Though speaking up more recently on hockey Twitter has come at the cost of being one of the ones now accused of doing the bullying, Toni McIntyre still thinks it’s been the right thing to do. Believing that the different issues that she and other women raise merit much more media attention than they’ve been getting, McIntyre explains how publicly expressing her concerns, even if it's not resulting in immediate change, is motivated by the desire to make hockey Twitter a more inclusive space.

"I’d like to see hockey a more welcoming place. That’s the goal of speaking up," McIntyre said. "Women, people of colour, and LGBTQ people are so often assaulted in the form of jokes about ‘she-males’ and ‘no rinks in the ghetto,’ and that’s a constant reminder that this place isn’t for us. We should be able to be here, too. I want to dismantle the system that tells people like Mooney and Lepore they can do what they want and get away with it. It shouldn’t be ok. I prefer speaking up. If it helps someone not feel so alone in the hockey community, that’s part of the goal met.

"The positive effects of being vocal are I've seen some people speak up who would've otherwise stayed silent. I also think the people who hate those people [who speak up] are getting more and more convinced the 'outrage hobbyists' need to be chased off the internet. I have to acknowledge that hockey Twitter doesn't quite love me back yet, but I have to believe it's going to get better."

What’s Next?

In its recent circulation of ugly words and heavy ideas, hockey Twitter has shown that it's not immune to the bold demands for rights, and to the fierce voices of backlash, that have characterized interactions in the ‘outside’ world. Yet, despite the various ways that its discourses can rapidly become unpleasant, Brian Wilde says he won’t be shutting down his Twitter account any time soon, and Robyn Flynn and Toni McIntyre say they, like others they know, plan to continue to use the platform to raise awareness about gender inequality.

So, rather than looking at hockey Twitter in the last several months and hoping that either the ‘outrage’ is going to die or that the issues that cause it are just going to disappear on their own, maybe the best thing members of the hockey community can do to clean things up is to work on talking and listening to each other a lot better than they do now.

"When you write stuff down, it has such a different effect in terms of influence and lack of control over what you mean," Patrick Johnston said. "So the challenge with Twitter is that everything that we say does matter, and we all need to be aware of that more. That’s hard, that’s being vigilant, and most people just aren’t wired that way. The way we talk to each other has so much importance. The lesson for everybody is, holy shit, understand what you’re saying, and how it can be perceived."