Terms and Conditions
By Claire Cao
21 August, 2020
Content Warning: sexual assault, violence, sexist and racist language.
This piece is the final piece in a five-part series of responses for BLEED—an online biennial festival from Arts House and Campbelltown Arts Centre. You can view the festival in its entirety here.
The first thing Kim notices about the office is its clean windows. The vast panes are so clear she worries a gull will smash into them head-first, smearing the glass with red viscera. While the interviewer busies herself with a pot of Moroccan mint tea, Kim peers down at a scrum of students and suits. She watches as they mobilise into neat little café-clusters.
The interviewer has a Muppet-like voice for someone in her late thirties. The hems of her palazzo pants swish theatrically as she flounces by, settling only when she transfers two ceramic cups onto a low rosewood table. Here ya go.
You’re welcome. So, as I was saying, the job’s quite straightforward. But it takes a lot of commitment, considering the volume of information you’re processing. We’re talking thousands of posts per day.
I pay great attention to detail, Kim lies.
We can tell from your résumé! But the question is—the interviewer gives a playful wink—do you have the guts?
Uh, well, I was born in 1998. Grew up online, basically. And my parents were busy with, like, working full-time and trying to learn English, so they were too busy to monitor my internet activity. And schools weren’t great with, like, censoring stuff back then. So yeah, I’ve seen, like, y’know, what everyone’s seen: 2 Girls 1 Cup, bestgore, the thing about the Japanese girl being buried in cement. Christ, can’t believe I mentioned 2 Girls 1 Cup in a job interview.
The interviewer laughs encouragingly. Or is it only out of politeness? Kim feels childish; her mind stutters on the poor lapses in speech—stuff, yeah, like, like, like. But then the interviewer leans in closer, propping her chin up with a pale hand.
I don’t know about all that, to be quite honest—got a bit of a weak stomach. She pats her stomach. That’s why we need people like you.
Kim takes a gulp of tea, allowing the liquid to scald her throat.
• • •
Her new workplace is open plan, sectioned by rows of glistening chrome tables, with each one topped off with a potted Monstera. She settles into an ergonomic chair in front of a wide desktop screen. Behind the adjacent desktop sits a white boy around her age, with doughy red cheeks and stylish, pink-rimmed glasses. Sure, it can be intense at the start, he tells Kim before her first shift, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. He sounds bored.
All the posts are aggregated into queues. By now, Kim has memorised all of the company’s guidelines; she is to glance at a post for no more than twenty seconds. After all, there is a subterranean cavern of content to wade through. She loads up her queue for the day, feeling the mild blood-buzz of excitement she experiences whenever she tries anything new.
Kim thinks the first post is a relatively tame: ‘suck my dick bitch.’
Then the dicks accumulate. Dicks that jam, ejaculate, plow on whores, bitches, specific names (some of them with three middle names). Kim refers to the guidelines, begins tentatively clicking ‘delete.’ She sees images of a girl’s throat covered in blood, a man being hit by a car, assault rifles. A grainy upskirt pic, faces slathered in dark paint, a hand white-knuckled around a throat. Dead babies. Torrential puke. The words: Asian women (Oh, that’s me, Kim thinks). She goes a little cross-eyed at the mentions of submission, genitalia, invasion. She wonders if she’s deleting a larger volume of these posts out of vindictive personal bias.
How you tracking? The doughy boy asks her at lunch. Not too bad, huh?
Kim pauses. There’s a lot of dead babies, is all she says.
The boy is demolishing a truffle cheese toastie, fingers plush and moist with sauce. Sucking them clean, his lips make a pop noise whenever they slip off the skin.
He assures her the babies are mostly shopped.
• • •
Kim needs to get used to it. That’s all. She’s accustomed to being couched in an algorithmic bubble. Sure, she’s seen things that piss her off online, but never at such a volume, in such quick succession. A barrage of gaping holes, dislocated necks and intimate threats of violence would tire anyone out.
But there’s something else—an old, threadbare memory floating to surface, insistently knitting itself back together.
The first time someone ever called her a bitch was in primary school. Raymond Hou held down her wrists and spat the word onto her face. She had clawed at his arms, his neck, leaving red angry marks streaked and twisting across his flesh. Eventually, she managed to clip him in the mouth and was rewarded with the metallic spray of blood that signalled the end of a schoolyard brawl.
All her humiliations were akin to this—attached to a face, a heaving chest, alert, hard gazes. The Year 5 teacher who made her repeat a sentence over and over again in front of the class, until it was grammatically correct; the ex who slapped her; the university professor who mocked her ‘solipsism’ when she objected to yellowface in an old French classic.
At work, she feels the same flush of shame, the sting of a slap; but she’s clicking through too fast, and there’s too many words, so many of them unnervingly similar. There’s no source, no warm body fastening her to gravel. Only a void leaking and leaking.
• • •
Sensations begin to flicker to life, seemingly at random: hands on her wrists, loose stones scraping against her thighs. Metal kissing her throat, a hand snaking up her body, ceaseless. When Kim spends the night at her boyfriend’s, she can’t stand being spooned. Instead, she crawls behind him and clings to his back, wanting to hold onto something tangible.
You’re like my jetpack.
No jetting. I wanna be heavy. Like a dumbbell.
This job’s really stressing you out, ey?
Nah, I’m fine…I dunno. There’s so much of it, it’s like these giant waves that keep coming. And as soon as I’m like, oh, there’s a person behind every post, like, a real person with a whole life, who can hurt me—it freaks me out a little.
Aw, c’mon. People are trolling. Just cos you say something online doesn’t mean you believe it.
Kim huffs. Disentangles her hold.
Shit, sorry. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t suck to see. But, I mean, people aren’t gonna stop being cunts online, ever. And this is an in-between gig. You’ll be outta there soon.
But someone has to be doing it. If it’s never going to stop, someone always has to be there.
Yeah. It’s like Davy Jones’ ship in Pirates of the Caribbean. Sucks, man.
• • •
A month in, she settles into a routine. She clicks through the posts faster and faster—chinks, dog, Mexicans, kill, tight, dead, ream—and starts to feel bored. She eats lemon cakes in the break room; drinks cappuccinos downstairs at the café. Goes back up, clicks through the two hundredth post of the day: a long, rambling rape threat left on someone’s formal photo. Takes a break. Shows her co-worker a video of a (live) baby dancing, which sends them both into hysterics.
Kim no longer sits gawkily in her chair; she sinks into the cowhide, appreciates how the aluminum skeleton has reshaped itself to better cup her spine.
Inevitably, though, something will cut through the cloud of comfort. She’ll experience it again: this halo of prickling heat, expanding and contracting in her stomach.
Maybe it will be a howling girl, with the same build and eyes as her; or maybe the hair being wrenched from a scalp will be a familiar shade of black. Maybe a death threat will be addressed to a Kim, a Kimmie, a Kimberly.
Or maybe her professor was right, and she’s a little solipsistic after all.
• • •
Her mind evolves like a killifish taking to toxic soup; it begins to probe outside herself, into the lives of others. She wonders about the stroppy girl at the Woolies check out, scanning Kim’s sandwich meat and peach tea—what did she Google on her work breaks? What forums did she lurk on?
The guy who mans the front desk at work. The one with a dark beard shot through with streaks of copper, who nods to her every morning. Has he shared videos like the ones she sees every day? Kim wonders. Or maybe glanced at them out of morbid curiosity: a flash of skinny ankles, a body pounding muscle and tissue.
The woman who takes her coffee order, the businessman who pressed his leg up against hers on the train. Her best friend Wendy, her boyfriend, her father. Her doughy desk buddy. She had thought, at first, that there was a certain type of person who posted certain things. Now, having seen the miscellany of names swirling behind posts, she knows that something malodorous slinks beneath every surface. It’s so banal to be disgusting.
Besides, she’s used to it now, Kim tells herself.
On her walks home, she weaves between the nest of buildings flanking her workplace. All of them are crumbling and colonial, with narrow windows and chunky rock facades. They stare down at her, poised and still, making her feel simultaneously caged and insulated.
One time, a young man in a puffer jacket sways too close. Kim lurches back, automatic, like a jerked marionette. She bumps against one of the sandstone buildings, feeling a hot scrape at the base of her skull. Geez, relax, the guy says, right as Kim is huffing out, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
• • •
She’s scrolling through a thread that escalates into generic threats of bashing, when a bang resounds against the nearest window. Bang, bang, bang. The glass shudders for a few moments, but eventually bounces back, resuming its perfect posture. Kim jumps up along with a few of her co-workers, trading expressions of alarm.
The source of the noise is a crested pigeon, baffled at its inability to pass through. Pulp gathers on its concave head. It flies into the glass one more time—a muffled thud—before flying off in a dizzy zig-zag formation.
Stupid bugger, an older co-worker grumbles, before settling back into his chair. Kim has never noticed him before. One by one, the workers around return to their seats, settle in front of their identical screens. Each a distinct, flesh-and-blood person.
She never realised how many of them there were—all of them in this room together, sorting through thousands and thousands of posts. Kim feels herself multiply, feels the content multiply, feels the world around her swell.
Then, she sits back down. Looks over the threat of bashing.
What a word: bash. A head against a windowpane, a curled fist against bone. Ten seconds pass, then twenty, then thirty. Kim can’t figure out if the comments violate their internal policy. She taps her desk buddy on the shoulder and asks for his opinion. He quickly scans the thread.
It’s all good. Definitely doesn’t fall in the range of baby murder.
Right, Kim says slowly. You’re right. It’s really not that bad. But I had to check.