Aoife Barry: ‘The structure and the inbuilt rules in each [platform] dictate how you perform your personality there’

Journalist reflects on her ‘troubled relationship’ with the internet, including being harassed by a man who was subsequently jailed

In 2016 Aoife Barry first began thinking about her life online: “This is not fun and I’m addicted to my phone.” She laughs. “It’s seven years later and I still probably have the same relationship with my phone.”

Barry’s book Social Capital: Life Online in the Shadow of Ireland’s Tech Boom is a thoughtful, richly reported and partly autobiographical analysis of three decades of the internet. It’s an examination of the ways our identities are mediated by manipulative data-sucking online platforms with reference to experts, campaigners and also those who have experienced the rough edges of the web. Barry was never as utopian about the tech explosion as some Silicon Valley evangelists.

She recalls her early days online: “A gang of us would go to [a friend]’s house. Her parents had a computer with the internet before all the rest of us had ... We’d drink cans of Coke and we’d eat Pringles, which were really exotic in the 1990s in Cork, and we’d go online ... We’d go to AltaVista because Google didn’t exist, obviously, or Ask Jeeves. I’d just write ‘chat rooms’. I would find a random chat room with random people. I did like those initial times going in, not knowing who you were going to meet. I would give people I chatted to my email addresses. And we would maybe exchange one or two messages. It was always cool that somebody from Australia would email you. But their behaviour could get really creepy really quickly. It felt as risky being a teenage girl on the internet as it did being a teenage girl in real life.”

Over the following years she found meaningful community in online fandom. She made friends on the message boards of the Cork club night Freakscene, the Irish music magazine Hot Press and, a little later, the website of comedy act the Mighty Boosh. Before social media, internet communication was commonly framed around specific interests. “I like talking, so I like typing. I like having conversations with people ... Not all of my close friends in school were into music, a few of them were. I found that I could chat to people about music online.”


In Social Capital, Barry writes about how people use internet forums and social media to explore their identities. Sometimes, for people from marginalised communities, this can be hugely liberating. But she thinks our identities are also being shaped by the norms of the platforms we use in ways we don’t anticipate. “The structure and the inbuilt rules in each [platform] dictate how you perform your personality on there. So obviously, as Instagram is more image-led, you’re putting more thought into, ‘What does this image say about me, when I put it up?’ So even though I might say, ‘I’m very honest about who I am online,’ I’ve probably followed the rules of each app that I’ve joined and looked at other people’s behaviour and judged myself compared to them. I feel that the older I get, the more troubled I am with my relationship with the internet.”

From the gardaí’s perspective, they knew they had enough there to take a case. I still feel really weird about it. And I definitely feel weird about the carceral element of it. I think it’s such a knotty one

—  Aoife Barry

Her unease began, she thinks, with the birth of Facebook and, at around the same time, the proliferation of the smartphone. “MySpace, Friendster and Bebo all had ways of encouraging people to behave in certain ways. You could be jealous of who was in the top eight friends on your MySpace [page] and you could be like, ‘What song am I going to put on my MySpace page so people know I’m into cool music?’… But the access wasn’t as regular as access became with Facebook. We had this new form of technology which allowed us constant access [and] sites that really wanted us to spend every moment on them.”

In 2011 she began working as a journalist with the online news website “Twitter, in particular, created news stories,” she says. “If I heard from somebody that a fire had broken out in a factory in Dundalk, I could search on Twitter and see ‘fire in Dundalk’ and somebody might have a photo of it or they’d have information, and I could contact them and speak to them. I could see incidents in the US live-streamed on Facebook ... That was really exciting. [But] there was a feeling of, ‘I have to be on Twitter all the time to see what the news is.’”

Other downsides were also becoming apparent. In Social Capital she writes about the spread of misinformation, anonymous trolls and people who were aggressively bullied or experienced racist or transphobic pile-ons. She writes about the short-lived Instagram page Bloggers Unveiled, and the website Tattle Life, where users revelled in taking hapless influencers to task, often unfairly and abusively. “If you’re watching a stranger being piled on by a million people and you agree with the reason they’re being piled on, it comes down to a bit of entertainment for you because you might not maybe feel like it’s real ... But if you’re the person being piled on, even though those people are just random strangers tweeting on this page on the internet, you feel it as if it was 1,000 people coming to your door and shouting at you.”

Her understanding of this is not abstract. In 2019 a man was jailed for harassing Barry and five other women online. He was named in court but she doesn’t name him in our interview or her book out of sensitivity to his family, but she and the other women refer to him by the initials BOD. Barry’s first email interaction with him left her feeling worried about his mental health to the extent that she sent him contact information for the Samaritans. But he kept contacting her. He did so through comments on her blog and through both her work and personal email addresses. He got progressively more abusive and it was more targeted. In response she became very guarded about what she said online and worried constantly that he might turn up at events she was participating in. “Even now it’s rare that I will alert people [online] to where I’m going in advance.”

She soon realised that BOD was also harassing other women. They were usually young and working in the arts or media. Some of them, such as author Sarah Maria Griffin, had even worse experiences than Barry. BOD had impersonated Griffin, contacting people she knew in the book industry with fake email addresses. He once revealed to another of the women, Kate McEvoy, that he knew where she lived and told her that he was going to her house (he didn’t do this, though the prospect was very frightening for McEvoy). “Kate was the only one of us who wasn’t a writer or journalist,” says Barry. “She wasn’t a public figure. She was the one who said, ‘This is wrong and shouldn’t be happening.’”

Barry thinks that she had, in contrast, become inured to bad online behaviour. “I had assumed that this is just a part of life, that if I was going to be a journalist and have my name on articles and work in the digital space, I had to suck it up and expect that I was going to have a strange man, living in the same city as me, constantly sending me messages telling me how much he hated me.”

Six of the women (BOD was in touch with several more) went to the gardaí, and the case went to court. There they learned about the real BOD for the first time. “He had a very small life where he was at home a lot of the time on the computer. And when he went on Twitter, he saw all of us, women who had confident voices ... And he obviously saw the imbalance between what our lives were and what his life was. I’ve empathy towards him for that. I feel sorry for him, in a way, but I still feel like what he did was completely wrong. We weren’t real people [to him]. We were maybe avatars of the type of person that he disliked.”

It was one of the first times in Ireland someone was jailed for online harassment, though Barry is certain that many other women have had similar experiences. “We had the power of the group of us, and from the gardaí’s perspective, they knew they had enough there to take a case. I still feel really weird about it. And I definitely feel weird about the carceral element of it. I think it’s such a knotty one, because the only thing we felt we could do was go to the gardaí.” The judge imposed a five-year sentence, suspending the final two years.

I started pulling back, trying to be more positive, not weighing in on stupid stuff just because I could

—  Aoife Barry

Barry thinks what she and the other women experienced connects with wider issues around societal isolation, a lack of government regulation and a lack of effective moderation online. “When the social media companies started, their focus wasn’t on how to mediate human behaviour, it was how to get as many people as possible to stay as long as possible on their sites,” she says. “And because of the lack of regulation and legislation around all that – because how can you legislate for something that hasn’t happened yet? – the companies were able to behave whatever way they wanted to encourage people to get on their sites and use them. We’re now scrambling to reverse-engineer the sites so that we make people behave better.”

In a chapter at the end of the book Barry indicates the vast power these companies have as she explores their impact on Dublin’s docklands. “If you look at the lobbying register, you’ll see that there are specific people who work for all the social media companies whose job is to go in and lobby politicians and it’s publicly accessible information. The average person’s version of lobbying is probably tweeting at Leo Varadkar.”

Until corporations and states can be convinced to grapple with these issues more effectively, all people can do is campaign for change and, perhaps, moderate their own usage. Barry is very conscious of how each platform incentivises specific behaviour in its users. “[Social media] encourages instant reactions, instant takes. It does not encourage you to sit back and think about anything. It’s such a bad way of dealing with information. On TikTok and Instagram everything’s about how many views you get and how far you go in the algorithm. That rewards certain types of behaviour that might be pathological or unhelpful or damaging, but people will emulate it, because they know that that’s a way to get seen. I find that really fascinating, what we’re being forced into viewing or seeing as normal behaviour due to the algorithm.”

Barry has been rethinking her own relationship with these platforms. “I started pulling back, trying to be more positive, not weighing in on stupid stuff just because I could.”

How’s that going? She laughs. “I took a week off Instagram recently and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have all of these other people’s experiences, and my opinions on their experiences inside my brain constantly.” It was very relaxing, she says. “Maybe I’ll go move into a yurt and not have a smartphone.”

Social Capital: Life Online in the Shadow of Ireland’s Tech Boom is published by HarperCollins Ireland