Toward a Feminist Approach to Digital Space

Metaphors of space and place dominate our vocabulary for naming and describing the internet. Since the earliest days of the digital age, when dial-up subscribers could “go online,” “surf the web,” and explore “cyberspace,” visions of traveling to and from a network of websites have played a central role in everyday understandings of the internet. This spatial logic has informed the branding and packaging of digital content and platforms, the terms of policy decisions and debates, and the classic elements of web design. In an open letter published in the midst of controversies concerning the spread of misinformation on Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg uses the term “community” more than 100 times to describe the platform. Twitter repeatedly has been dubbed the twenty-first-century “town square.” Legislators and activists have used the image of the internet as an “information superhighway” to advocate for net neutrality and against the establishment of paid “fast lanes.” Your browser has a “Home” button. Websites have “domain” names. We “navigate,” we “visit,” we “lurk” in digital spaces. 

The theme for this month’s Field Guide — “A Digital Space to Call Home” — got me thinking about how our spatial metaphors for talking about the internet inform our experiences of it. We may not give them a second thought, but these turns of phrase matter in a real way. The communications infrastructure and flows of information that constitute the internet can feel immaterial. Describing the digital in familiar, concrete terms gives it shape, makes it accessible, and endows it with meaning, possibility, and value. Assumptions about what the internet is and ought to be underly our vocabulary for talking about it. If a digital platform like Facebook or Twitter is a space, we can ask questions about its residents and its borders. Who has access to it? Who feels at home in it? What norms govern it? What can we do in it? Given the internet’s central role in social and political life, thinking through questions of digital spaces, digital homes, and digital transience is vital for the health of our democracy. 

I want to suggest that, to move toward a more equitable and emancipatory internet, we need to recuperate the radical potential of the spatial metaphor. To do so, we can follow the lead of feminist activists, whose practices for cultivating digital spaces protect and uplift marginalized voices. 

Early strands of the “cyberfeminist” movement of academics, activists, and artists imagined the internet as a virtual world where women could leave the body behind and exist free from the restrictive gender roles that shape the “real” world. Their utopian visions of cyberspace joined the chorus of excitement that swelled around the arrival of commercial internet service providers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In her 1998 book Zeroes and Ones, Sadie Plant, a leading figure in the popularization of cyberfeminism within and beyond the academy, argues that the textual, multiprocessing world of cyberspace lends itself to “the female” (p. 23), who, according to Plant, is inherently more expressive and a better multitasker than the male. These conditions would, Plant conjectured, bring about a revolution, in which the yonic, nonlinear zeroes of the binary code behind basic programming language would displace the phallic, linear ones. For Plant and others, digital technologies would usher in a feminist future characterized by an equal distribution of power and resources. 

This unbridled techno-optimism has since collapsed beneath the weight of the realities of trolling, cyberstalking, revenge porn, and other forms of online harassment. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, while roughly four in ten Americans have experienced some form of online harassment, women are far more likely to encounter gendered or sexualized forms of abuse; 21% of women between the ages of 18 and 29 reported facing sexual harassment online, more than double the share among their male counterparts, and women were twice as likely as men to describe their most recent encounter with online harassment as extremely upsetting. This online misogyny is compounded when it intersects with racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of identity-based hate and oppression. The same Pew study found that nearly six-in-ten Black internet users have experienced online harassment, compared with 41% of white users. And, according to a 2016 study conducted by Data & Society, queer and trans internet users are more than twice as likely as straight and cisgender internet users to experience online harassment.

These statistics suggest that, if the internet is a space, it is one where body politics and norms are not erased and reconfigured but extended and reinscribed. Corporately owned social media platforms and other commercial content providers have little incentive to address these power imbalances. While those who face identity-based harassment are often unable to quit social media for personal or professional reasons, censoring hate speech and other negative behaviors risks alienating a large portion of a platform’s user base, and so the harassment continues. Again and again, these profit-driven motives produce digital spaces that are inhospitable to gendered, racialized, and sexualized bodies. YouTube has been reluctant to take action against content creators who produce homophobic and racist videos. Violent white supremacy continues to find a comfortable home on Twitter. Facebook only recently banned white nationalist content after months of pressure from civil rights groups and the platform continues to struggle to detect and remove hate speech. In a 2014 Pacific Standard piece, feminist journalist Amanda Hess cites sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s work on globalization to describe how this pattern circumscribes movement through digital spaces. White, cisgender, heteronormative men traverse the web as “tourists,” freely moving from one site to the next in search of new experiences. Harassment and other oppressive experiences, however, leave marginalized users as “vagabonds...pushed and pulled through mean streets where they could never hope to settle down.” 

The internet of privileged tourists and displaced vagabonds is certainly not the utopian virtual world early cyberfeminists had in mind, and I am far from the first person to point out that social media platforms are not the democratic arenas for discourse implied in rosy metaphors like “global community” and “town square.” Continued use of such terminology obscures how power manifests online. So, what would a more politically useful spatial orientation toward the internet look like? One answer lies in contemporary feminists’ tactics for creating digital spaces that vagabonds can call home. In my research on their online communities and activist campaigns, I have found that intersectional feminists consistently negotiate between the affordances and limitations of digital platforms to cultivate spaces that reflect their values of inclusion and equity.

For example, during nine months of ethnographic fieldwork in a secret feminist Facebook group, I observed activists develop social and technical practices to construct the group as a digital “safe space.” As I describe in an article published in New Media & Society, moderators took advantage of Facebook’s group interface to limit membership to women and nonbinary people and used the private messaging function to post anonymous messages on behalf of members seeking support for sensitive topics like sexual assault and harassment. Members frequently headlined their posts with trigger warnings to flag potentially distressing content for trauma survivors. The group as a whole developed discussion guidelines to encourage open expression among community members who, because of their bodies and identities, were often silenced in more mainstream arenas for public discourse. When conflicts arose, lessons were learned and the guidelines were revisited to ensure that the safe space grew to meet the needs of its members. 

Similarly, in an article forthcoming in Feminist Media Studies, I detail #MeToo movement participants’ practices for developing a specifically feminist approach to hashtag activism. Twitter hashtags have become powerful tools for feminist activism aimed at illustrating the pervasive nature of sexual violence. But survivors who share their personal narratives on the globally networked platform are often met with abuse, while the most marginalized victims — those who can’t tell their stories or whose stories don’t fit the paradigm of the “ideal victim” — are often left invisible. Through a textual analysis of a large sample of #MeToo tweets, I highlight how campaign participants drew on a variety of strategies to perform care labor for survivors, shift the burden of blame onto the shoulders of perpetrators, and call out rape culture’s intersections with white supremacy, capitalism, and heteronormativity. 

A more radical spatial orientation to the internet begins with the reflexivity at the heart of both of these feminist case studies. The activists in both spaces demonstrate that simply declaring a digital platform a “global community,” “town square,” or cyberfeminist utopia does not make it so. They illustrate that space is a relational achievement and model alternative, more empowering modes of social engagement that are instructive for any online space. 

Turning a digital space into a place to call home takes work. It is an ongoing project that requires constant maintenance and revision. Feminists’ approach to digital space-making exemplifies how to do this work with a critical sense of care and creativity. 
 

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