From comments: the revolution will not be tweeted?

jon asked in comments:

I wonder, what would a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network look like?

(We might have readers unfamiliar with the term “womanist”, if so, see Renee Martin’s I’m not a feminist (and there is no but) and Ope Bukola’s meta-discussion following from that.)

I find this question a lot easier to answer in the negative (“what wouldn’t a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network look like?”), and my answers would include things like:

  • packaging women users as a demographic product for sale to advertisers
  • packaging women users as a demographic product for sale to people seeking relationships with women
  • packaging women’s lives and identities as a product for the entertainment of other users

Ditto for replacing women with other marginalised or oppressed users. But I find it harder to answer it in the positive. What do you think?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

19 thoughts on “From comments: the revolution will not be tweeted?

  1. Nightwalker

    I imagine it would look rather like Ravelry, but with less knitting and more feminism.

  2. Courtney S.

    A feminist-centered social network would absolutely have to respect the privacy of its users. Facebook is (notoriously now) a place that disregards the privacy of its users in order to make more money. That makes it impossible for people who either want or need privacy for their physical or mental safety. (The most obvious examples of why this is needed would be people who have been abused, stalked, or raped, but this can be any person who is uncomfortable with Facebook putting their information all over the internet. A person shouldn’t have to have experienced violence to be given the option of privacy on a social network.)

    I think this would be a necessary response to a social network being actually user-centered. A user-centered network would ask its users what they want and give them options. It would respect their boundaries and find out what its doing wrong that could be harmful, and what it could be doing better. And it wouldn’t only meet the needs and desires of the majority, but of as many users as possible.

  3. Melissa

    What comes to my mind is the cornerstone of medical ethics: “First, do no harm.”

    It’s not always easy to actually abide by it, but if your model involves at least thinking about whether you’re going to harm someone with your new feature/policy, then you are much more likely to make the right decision about whether the risk you are considering really does outweigh the benefits.

  4. Mary Post author

    I wonder if there’s a difference between feminist/womanist/woman-friendly and a social network centred on womanists or feminists. Thinking about the former only, other things include: freedom of gender identification and other identifications; ability to use pseudonyms; ability to create safe spaces through, eg, moderation of comments; ability to segment social networks easily and to limit content to certain sub-networks.

    I think having the option to lock or remove older content in an easy way is important. If one gets a new job or lover or enemy one should be able to quickly limit viewable content rather than hoping that several years worth of content is 100% acceptable to a new contact.

    Some assumptions that would need questioning would be functionality similar to Facebook’s “suggestions” for friends to add, both the automatic ones and the ones that people can make for new users: friendship and trust is very much not transitive, and having a social network repeatedly advertise one’s presence to friends-of-friends is not good.

  5. Dorothea Salo

    I actually think it would look a lot like Dreamwidth, both in front of and behind the scenes. The behind-the-scenes part is very important, because the more women involved there, the more likely that potential issues surface before they can cause harm.

    1. Mary Post author

      Given Terri’s comment on the other thread, if it was a website using current technologies it would probably have to be no-ad like DW. This also means the user (rather than the advertiser) is the customer.

      It’s a shame that (as DW fully explains) they do have to retain the ability to secretly give law enforcement access to your content.

      1. jon

        This is a fantastic discussion … I mean, from a software engineering perspective it’s a great start at a requirements sketch. Most of the technology pieces exist for this, and Dreamwidth and others provide great roadmap to creating a diverse teams and communities. It’s clearly buildable …


  6. rivenwanderer

    I’ve been thinking about how one might replicate the fun and useful bits of Facebook without as much potential for evil… I think that something more decentralized, focusing on collecting and organizing information that had been exported from a whole galaxy of apps in a compatible format, might be the way to go. Something akin to a feed-reader, but with more specialization for social networking stuff. Linking to content that was absolutely controlled by the users, rather than hosting content and giving users some limited control over it.

    1. Katie

      I think openness would be key, as in openness of data formats and standards. Sorry that’s vague. My understanding is that it’s easy to export the data you have on Twitter to some other social network, whereas you can’t export your Facebook data, except in the very specific and limited ways allowed by Facebook. Open data formats mean the user isn’t locked into any one social networking site – if that site does something the users don’t like, they can leave and take their old posts, friends’ lists, etc., with them.

      Following the theme of openness, a key point for me is that a user-centered social network would have to be open source. In 2005 Facebook had pretty decent privacy settings. If Facebook had been open source, someone would have forked the code as soon as they started doing things that users didn’t like. But then if Facebook had been open source, just the threat of a code fork would have been enough to stop them violating people’s privacy. (But then maybe I have some rather misty-eyed ideas about the ability of open source code to cure all the evils of the world :-)

  7. Loquacity

    Hmm. Would it be wrong of me to suggest that a feminist/womanist social network would look just like any other network? I mean, gender or sex does not dictate that we use social media in different ways. Assuming that a social network could respect privacy, allow people to create profiles that reflect who they are and are not restricted to social ‘norm’ binaries such as male/female, and any advertising is respectful and ‘clean’, then everyone would be able to interact with that network in the same way. And networks like that exist. They’re just not Facebook.

    Feminists/womanists – as *people* – should be welcome to converge on any social media they see fit, create profiles that suit them, and discuss the issues that are important to them. If a network doesn’t allow that to happen, then they need to be free to leave it at any time. I just quit Facebook for exactly these reasons.


    1. Mary Post author

      Would it be wrong of me to suggest that a feminist/womanist social network would look just like any other network?

      Not wrong as such, I don’t think, but are your assumptions true of any network currently in existence? I think that’s really the big question here.

      I think it’s unlikely that such a network would spontaneously spring into place without specifically feminist/womanist attention. For example, a network set up by and for people who center civil libertarian concerns might meet many of the requirements that have come up here with regard to privacy. But I doubt they’d be especially interested in, say, limiting advertising that is thought to objectify women or play into body insecurities, which many feminists consider important in their own spaces.

      I do think it’s important to be more specific than “don’t be awful!” if you want to create something that won’t be constantly making mistakes like assuming the gender binary.

      1. Loquacity

        Not wrong as such, I don’t think, but are your assumptions true of any network currently in existence? I think that’s really the big question here.

        I can’t help but wonder if we’re overthinking it, though. It’s easy to not have offensive advertising if you have none at all. It’s easy to reject gender binaries if you just don’t ask the question. Privacy can be easy too, if you have methods of allowing some posts/messages to be private, and some to be public, and those standards are communicated and not changed (at least, not without notice and consultation).

        The point I’m making is that the simpler the interface, the less structure it has, the more inclusive it becomes, and the more freedoms the users have. When the focus is taken off the advertising, the profiles, the networks, the fans and likes, and put on the conversation, then it instantly becomes more inclusive.

        When a social network isn’t looking to gather as much data as possible (for nefarious purposes or otherwise), then it doesn’t matter what people put into (or leave out of) their profile. Give people the ability to upload any pic they want, give them a blank text field to write their own bio/blurb, and then allow them to connect to who they want, in whatever way they want. Allow people to report or block spam or other abusive users. Make sure they don’t have to follow or fan or friend anyone they don’t feel like, and can change that decision arbitrarily.

        Hold on, did I just describe Twitter? Aside from the fact that it’s not open, it’s pretty close.

        I don’t think a feminist/womanist social media site has to have bells and whistles to make it ‘safe’ or to make it ‘friendly’ to the demographic. In fact, I think adding complexity will just make it more likely to alienate some users over others (which is essentially what you would be attempting *not* to do). By reducing the complexity, it becomes more inclusive, as people develop their own ways of interacting with the software.

        Oh dear, I think I’m ranting again.


        1. Mary Post author

          I think there’s definitely something to what you’re saying, but even in your free network, consider a few things:

          allow them to connect to who they want, in whatever way they want… to report or block spam or other abusive users

          This still all hinges on what can be considered ‘abusive’. To give an example from LiveJournal, there was a tradition on LJ of trolls creating incredibly offensive usernames and then friending (connecting) to anyone they could find, in order to hurt those people and sometimes to hurt their relationship with their real friends (so-and-so is connected to icky_username… um? should I still be friends with them?)

          You can do similar things with the ability to upload any pic they want and so on. And you can harass someone by finding a friend with a more lenient connection/comment/etc policy and leave your abusive messages on the mutual friend’s space for the abused person so see. (This is probably partly MikeeUSA’s strategy.)

          Some of these can be highly persistent abusers. So then you get into the question of not just banning people from your personal space, but kicking them off the network. You can either not do it by deciding that people must police their own space, or you have to define what constitutes unacceptably abusive conduct towards another site member, which can be done in a more or less feminist/womanist way.

          As I said, lack of rigidity is a good thing for allowing fluid self-expression, which can contribute to womanist/feminist spaces. But it also allows lots of free self-expression from anti-feminists, and thus there’s still a need for a womanist/feminist conversation about site policy (among other conversations of course).

          (Incidentally, I don’t have a lot of feminist problems with Twitter, but it does like to advertise its trending topics, and they don’t always endear themselves to a feminist. It also encourages people to reply to locked tweets on their own public streams. So it really depends on how safe your space needs to be. And I don’t think people who’d prefer a much safer space should be written off from this conversation.)

  8. Loquacity

    Well, now, there’s a good point. I guess there’s a section of people (who may or may not identify as feminist/womanist/[insert category here]) who would want something that was a very secure, locked-down network. It sounds awful to me, but then I’m very much in favour of openness, and I can understand that other people exist who don’t think that way, and respect their desire for something different.

    So perhaps the question is not so much what would a feminist- and womanist-oriented social network look like? but what do feminists/womanists want from a social network? The answer to that is a little different, because it’s not one thing, being that all feminists are not the same (who’da thunk?!). The answer is that some people in that category want one thing, and others want something different. Creating a perfect vision that suits the entire group? Never going to happen.

    Wow. That’s a bit of a bummer, actually.

  9. Meg Thornton

    One thing I’d like to see encouraged is the growth of “safe spaces” on the internet. Now, these do require a larger investment of time and effort placed in things like moderation, community-building and community maintenance, but they’re also largely beneficial places to hang out. I’m a lurker on a few different blogs which are “safe spaces” (for various groups), and I find the quality of discussion there is much higher than in most places which don’t have the same constraints.

    By a “safe space”, I’m meaning a place where being female, disabled, non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, not conventionally “beautiful” etc doesn’t automatically mean you’re “lesser” or “other”. It means a place where insults and slurs based on these identities are discouraged, either via outright moderation or via community explanation and maintenance of preferred standards. While this doesn’t stop the trolls outright (does anything?) it does mean there’s a lot less leeway given to their behaviour – usually it’s along the lines of a polite notification from one or more community members, a moderator’s formal warning, then buh-bye chum.

    Polite behaviours are, by and large, something which facilitate discussion, interaction, and sharing of perspectives, in my opinion, while impolite behaviours (even those which are perfectly legal) serve to shut discussion down, restrict the available perspectives on a topic, and discourage interaction. So more “safe spaces” would provide a greater range of places for those who are currently silenced by the wider hurly-burly of internet discussions to speak their pieces, and put their perspectives across.

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