It’s not news that social media – and the internet more generally – have not, in fact, lived up to the early, utopian promises of connecting us all in one peaceful, harmonious, global community where information is free and power resides in the hands of people rather than large institutions (whether those be corporations or governments).
The polis of small associations that de Tocqueville admired in the US has devolved, particularly during this pandemic year, into a corporate-owned space where algorithms push the most divisive and angry content at us with the goal of keeping our attention, harvesting our data, and selling ads, all of which Anne Applebaum documents in a recent story for The Atlantic.
One of the particular ways the internet, and social media more specifically, are “awful” is the harassment of women. From #YourSlipIsShowing to Gamergate to Chrissy Teigen being driven off Twitter just over a week ago, the internet is a terrible place to be a woman.
But as a recent piece in MIT’s Technology Review by Charlotte Jee points out, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, a feminist internet would be better for EVERYONE. Subscription is required to view the article, so I will summarize some of the main points below:
Jee’s piece quotes Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch: “women have very little idea of how much men hate them,” and goes on to point out that the internet has, sadly, educated many of us. As the article goes on to state: “The same sexist message runs through much of the vitriol: ‘Stop speaking, or else.'”
If something is free, that means you’re the product. And, as Jee points out (echoing Applebaum and quoting Feminist Internet founder Charlotte Webb): “Hate makes money.”
The lack of diversity in the tech industry is a MAJOR reason for this. While the tech industry has done well including Asian men, it lacks representation of most other demographic groups, and is particularly lagging in including women, regardless of race/ethnicity.
As Jee writes:
In fact, many of the internet’s early pioneers believed it could become a neutral virtual world free from the messy politics and complications of the physical one. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote the movement’s sacred text, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” It included the line “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” Gender is not mentioned anywhere in the declaration.
Women’s voices are not present in tech conversations, and men lack the necessary experience to think about how tech inventions might be used to stalk, harass, and harm. They are not equipped to perform, as Jee calls it, a “gender impact assessment” prior to launching any new program, product, or service. And so they don’t, and so women, particularly those in public-facing jobs like politician or journalist, are routinely subject to a tsunami of misogynist hate that more than occasionally has real-world impacts just for daring to have a public voice.
What would a feminist internet look like?
Jee highlights the work of the Association for Progressive Communications that cooperatively created 17 principles of a feminist internet in 2016. As Jee puts it:
The principles state that a feminist internet would be less hierarchical. More cooperative. More democratic. More consensual. More customizable and suited to individual needs, rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all model.
Women technologists are working on a variety of specific projects, ranging from a tool called Block Party that filters abusive accounts to creating gender-neutral voices for voices assistants like Siri and Alexa whose current form “perpetuates a stereotype of passive, agreeable, eager-to-please femininity that harks back to the 1950s housewife” to interrogating AI processes and algorithms for all forms of bias to a potential Facebook competitor, Herd, due to come online later this month. Jee also poses some “top down” ideas that would involve legislation and sensible internet safety protections enforced on Big Tech firms.
Applebaum’s article includes a number of specific suggestions as well, including a nonprofit model similar to public broadcasting, reducing anonymity through “self-sovereign identity,” government and industry taking active steps to promote civic discourse, and the proliferation more localized sites where civic engagement can become “usefully boring.”
Will people want a “usefully boring” internet experience? Applebaum writes:
…some skepticism about the attraction of the forums is surely warranted: Aren’t we all addicted to the rage and culture wars available on social media? Don’t we use social media to perform, or to virtue signal, or to express identity—and don’t we like it that way? Maybe. Or maybe we think that way only because we lack the imagination to think differently.
Or, as Jee puts it in the conclusion to her piece:
Ultimately, women have the right to be online without fear of harassment. Think of all the women who have not set up online retailers, or started blogging, or run for office, or created a YouTube channel, because they worry they will be harassed or even physically harmed. When women are chased off platforms, it becomes a civil rights issue.
But it’s also in all of our best interests to protect one another. A world in which everyone can benefit equally from the web will lead to a better mix of voices and opinions we hear, an increase in the information we can access and share, and a more meaningful experience online for everyone.
Sounds pretty good to me.
Image found at Feminist Internet.
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