Allies in the blogosphere

There’s so much to write about for Angry Black Woman’s Carnival of Allies that it’s hard to know where to start. At first I thought of focusing on “why the usual excuses are not good enough.” As the month of April went on, though, with brownfemipower’s and Blackamazon’s final statements, the growing list of women of color bloggers rejecting the term “feminism”, prof bw’s call for a Seal Press girlcott, open letters to white feminists from Jessica Hoffman and Ico … I realized that after all that, if anybody is still clinging to the usual excuses, it’s almost certainly beyond my power to reach them.

So I started working on an essay building on the discussion in places like Melissa McEwan et al’s We write letters on Shakesville, Chris Clarke’s Is a humane online politics possible, and Theriomorph’s An ally 101 thread. not currently publicly available

While I was working on it, though, I was also becoming more and more irritated with the way that broader political blogosphere continues to ignore the marginalization of the voices of women and persons of color — and the especially intense intersectional effects on women of color.

Update, May 31: Yet another example: Pam Spaulding’s The DNCC state blog dustup continues discusses the controversy over minority blogger representation — or lack thereof — on the floor at the Democratic National Convention. The story got attention in the Washington Post and other mainstream media, but no pickup in the “progressive” blogosphere.

A.J. Rossmiller’s Myth of the meritocracy, blogosphere edition on AmericaBlog didn’t get picked up anywhere; and while I thought it was an excellent post, as MorgaineSwann pointed out in the comments there are problematic aspects to the use of Markos as an example of diversity. [I helpfully added the citation of “Markos is latino, Jane is a woman, John is gay” as the rare counter-examples highlights the absence of women of color, just in case anybody had missed it, and started hanging out more at Firedoglake -- and Pam's House Blend.] Kay Steiger’s The “new” new left is white, male was similarly ignored, except for a passing reference in a post by Matt Yglesias the bulk of which was responding to the far more important issue of a perceived insult to Bakhurin; I started reading digby and others on Hullaballoo.

And I wasn’t the only one who was noticing how intensity of campaigns has highlighted both the racism and sexism; witness Betsy Reed’s “Race to the Bottom” in The Nation, Shakesville’s 84-part (and counting) sexism watch, and thread after thread on political blogs turning into a endless string of attacks, flaming, racism, and sexism. Obama supporters, Clinton supporters, and progressives are “allies” in a different sense of the word “allies”, but there are a lot of common issues here. Could I address this as well?

The essay morphed, and continued to as review feedback came in. Eventually it turned into an essay about online discourse, and how that applies to allies in multiple senses of the word.

Being able to engage in discussions is vital to making progress on the deeper issues. Online discussions are particularly valuable because they leave behind threads that can be examined later: valuable resources, shared experiences, trainwrecks to ponder. At the same time, communication’s difficult online, with only text and a handful of emoticons. And although it’s not something people talk about much, the dynamics of the online environment reflect, and often accentuate, existing power imbalances.

Issues become particularly acute when groups with different perspectives, priorities, goals, and backgrounds need to work together. Even with the best of intentions, miscommunications, thoughtlessness, privilege and unexamined assumptions can easily escalate to attacks and flaming, which winds up making the situation worse rather than better.

It’s going to take a lot of work to go against those default tendencies. Still, if we want to be able to work together as allies, it’s something we’ve got to pay attention to.

This essay focuses on our behavior as individuals. That’s not the only place effort is needed, of course: we also need to consider community aspects such as defense mechanisms against trolls and a viable “101″ educational area (and good ways of getting people there); and technology assistance like Slashdot-style community moderation/meta-moderation can make a big difference in shielding readers from hate speech). First, though, let’s starts with ourselves — and, please forgive the egocentricity, but the the best way for me to do that is to start with myself.

For the last month or so, I’ve been trying to apply some principles to my own behavior online, expanding and refining them in light of my experiences — and mistakes, which gave me ample opportunity to beta-test the link from Teh Portly Dyke that I cited below. Your mileage will almost certainly vary, of course; still, I think that the process I went through is a very valuable one, and some of the principles are broadly useful. I really believe that if all of us allies spent a month doing similar introspection and self-monitoring, came up with their variations, and do our best to act in accordance with our individual principles, it will go a long way towards making the blogosphere a more inclusive place.

Here’s my current version, last major update May 11:

  1. when reading blogs, make a point to get a range of perspectives, starting with those that are shut out from the mainstream news.
  2. spend more time commenting on other blogs and forums than posting on my own
  3. when visiting a new blog, listen for a while before jumping in
  4. show respect for the people posting — and for the norms and conventions of discourse at a site.
  5. cite and attribute generously, respecting the authors’ preferences
  6. quote and link appropriately, and respecting the authors intent
  7. try to refer to people by name, not just with a link; it gives them more of a voice.
  8. constantly look for ways to cite, quote, and link to more women, persons of color, and others whose voices are typically marginalized.
  9. think before I link: don’t call attention or direct a firehose of traffic to a person or community that would prefer to remain low profile. Bear in mind that on the web, explicit links tend to give the linked-to page and site more visibility, credibility, and authority; and that a link-based culture marginalizes information that’s not freely available online or is only in partial form.
  10. keeping in mind past experiences and perceptions differ, remain conscious of things that are likely to trigger miscommunication or (worse) be perceived as offensive: using terms of art without context or definition; words and styles that have different meanings to different audiences; language or images with sexist or racist overtones; etc.
  11. be respectful to the tone, intent, and topic of the site and thread. don’t derail threads by bringing my issues to them.
  12. unless it would clash with the tone of the site, challenge other commenters’ personal attacks and racist and sexist speech and opinions — preferably in a way that doesn’t derail the discussion.
  13. discuss language and patterns rather than intent
  14. remember that offensive statements often stem from ignorance and unexamined privilege.
  15. keep in mind the goals of educating and changing behavior (both of the speaker and of others who are reading), identifying patterns, and minimizing disruption and harm.
  16. when others challenge personal attacks or racist and sexist speech, if i agree that’s what’s going on, speak up and back them: in the thread if appropriate or in a private message.
  17. when the people i support are attacked unfairly, defend them publicly if appropriate — and if not, send them a message and ask what i can do
  18. if the site guidelines forbid hate speech, consider asking the moderators to enforce the rules.
  19. challenge others when they say things like “you’ve got to have a thick skin in the blogosphere.”*
  20. don’t use others’ bad behavior as an excuse for my own.
  21. please don’t feed the trolls, unless i’m doing it for a good reason and with the support of the moderators and/or community.
  22. when i screw up, follow Teh Portly Dyke suggested 4As of how to fuck up: acknowledgment, apology, amends, action. And, paraphrasing Angry Black Woman, don’t expect a cookie for acknowledging it
  23. do my homework: it’s not others’ job to educate me. be open and receptive and a good listener and learner on those occasions when others are enough to take the time to teach.

It’s a long list, and I’m sure there’s just as much I’ve left out; there’s a lot to keep in mind.

Writing and evolving this list has been a very valuable exercise for me, and I’d strongly encourage every ally in the blogosphere to do the same. Feel free to adopt and adapt some or all of these as starting points** — or come up with your own list; your mileage is likely to vary. The important thing is to be conscious of the effect that our individual posts have on the blogosphere, and for all of us to take the responsibility for changing the current dynamics.

Because it really is past time for excuses. We need to acknowledge problems and past mistakes and pain, and figure out how to work together as allies to transform things moving forward — and stop recreating the same dimensions of oppression.

Learning to talk with each other more respectfully is a good first step.

Additional references

Some additional references, originally intended to supplement the links elsewhere in this post and complement prof bw’s excellent Feminist Reading Tools for Recognizing and Countering Racism and Historical Reading List, both on WoC PhD.

For a basic grounding in patterns of online discourse, Susan C. Herring’s Gender and power in online communications and (with Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah L. Wright) Women and children last: the discursive construction of Weblogs; Clay Shirky’s A group is its own worst enemy; Danielle Citron’s Position Paper for the Yale Symposium on Reputation in Cyberspace, excerpted with context in Frank Pasquale’s Disparate Impact in the Blogosphere on Concurring Opinions.

For more on recent events in the blogospheres, my own Community defense vs. trolls in the One Million Strong for Barack Facebook groups on Liminal States; Pam Spaulding’s “The Blind Spot” on Pandagon; Michael Marshall’s “Don’t Flame me, Bro” on the New Scientist’s blog; alegre’s “Writers’ strike on Kos” on myDD; “nubian speaks” on blac(k)ademic; Sudy’s “Surveying the Damage” (part 1 and part 2) on A Womyn’s Ecdysis brownfemipower’s “Why mustn’t we tear down that dirty little house?” on La Chola; and Blackamazon’s The margin on the margins, One Week and I cry on Having read the fine print.

For a more detailed list on a narrower subject, please see the resource page on Dealing with Hate Speech and Trolls on the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy wiki.

Originally published as draft May 4. Last major update May 14.

thanks to Steven, Mikal, Malron, Greg, Deborah, and others for feedback

apologies for any mis-citations or mis-attributions

* If you’re skeptical that this makes a difference, please read Susan C. Herring’s Gender and power in online communications followed by Kathy Sierra and Chris Locke’s coordinated statement and the discussions of Kos’ response by Nezua, Jessica, Amanda, terrance, BitchPhD, and the many others linked to from XicanoPwr’s The Word According to Kos.

** like all original content on this blog, this post is under a Creative Commons attribution license. Preferred citation:

  • reference material: “Allies in the blogosphere” by Jon Pincus, on Liminal States, May 2008
  • blog: please mention the title “Allies in the blogosphere” and link here; if feasible also include my name and/or a reference to Liminal States.