Online Feminism Class Mid-term Reflections
March 18, 2011
My USC undergrads are great sports, engaging in innovative primary research and production for their course work for Online Feminist Spaces. They have to choose an online space for the semester and do a variety of assignments within it. To my surprise, a majority of the them chose generic, corporate, often hostile or misogynistic spaces for their assigned feminist practices, believing I think, that the easiest intervention for would-be scholar/activists would be to name and fight sexism where it was most obvious and obnoxious. I warned them on several occasions that it might be easier to accomplish the first assignment–analyze your site as an online feminist of color space within your site–by choosing a bona fide feminist, or perhaps at minimum female friendly space, but they shouldered on amidst the corporate wastelands. On further discussion with them, I learned this was largely because these are the sites and experiences they have. They are not familiar with a radical or alternative Internet.
The good news is that we all learned a great deal from how truly inhospitable were these sites to the kinds of critical, political and self-aware online interaction I required of my students; the bad news is how deeply racist, misogynistic, and brutal are the “entertaining” and “funny” norms and regulations of the places online that college students spend their time. It turned out that a significant number of the students attempting to rather benignly discuss gender, race, or sexuality within their various “communities” (stoners, frat brothers and sorority sisters, a corporate make-up site) were almost immediately called out as trolls and expelled from the site (making their course work almost impossible). For instance, when a young Asian-American woman who was using the make-up site that she actually visits daily as her research site asked a question about the paucity of foundation products for women of color, she was outed and ousted.
As proved true for my long experiment on YouTube, learning through the reverse seems definitive of much Internet research. We begin by naming the unfulfilling, limiting, and highly regulated conventions of most Internet spaces, and from there can give words to what we might actually want. Below, find just such a list culled from the writing and presentations of my industrious, adventurous, and pretty beat-up young feminist researchers.
online feminist space
- safety: respectful, be oneself without apologies, fear, or camoflauge
- easy to be heard and seen
- self-authoring: a place to build a voice, stabilize and authentic it, and build a reputation
- sense of place: well organized, easy to use, norms of behavior
- transparency of rules, structures, and architecture
- empowering: a place to build and disrupt authority
- self and other: empathy, understanding, reciprocity, personal, nurturing
- community: alliance-building, affinity, kinship,
- dialogic: insightful, interactive, feedback
- shared interests and values: talent, creativity, originality
- accessible, open, free, uncensored
- discussion: ongoing, directed, moderated
normative, corporate, online space
- fear: hostile, hierarchical, flaming, entitlement, betrayal, exploitation, manipulation
- entertainment, humor, sarcasm, never serious
- ADD attention, no depth, fragmented
- generic, corporate
- exclusionary, authoratative, hierarchical
- hostile: misogynistic, racist, homophobic
- loss of identity: no ability to warrant or authenticate yourself or other users
A quick flagging of some of the larger contradictions expressed to date (and apparent in the lists above): safety requires rules that are often hierarchical and/or exclusionary, they make access harder; building a voice often produces authority and/or exclusions or hierarchies; shared communities exclude by definition. Can spaces or communities by unequal and still safe? Can authority be used in ways that are not brutal? Can feminists be funny? (yes! I write about that here).
If you are an everyday user of this blog, I’d love to hear if you think this blog (or others you can name) do or do not demonstrate terms from either category. Namely, do feminist blogs model online feminist spaces? If you are a student in the course, you are required to respond by class on Monday. Let us know how this space is different from or similar to the one you are studying, and how or if these terms are useful to begin to draw out what we might want, need, and expect from feminist experiences online. It might be useful to reflect upon how our feminist classroom is different from this online space or also, how requiring you to comment (as well as interact on feminist spaces) produces a different investment than might be true for my largely anonymous and quiet readership (see last post on feminist blogging and the “service” of commenting.)