Blog Post

A Lot of Work and Nothing to Show for it But This Blog: Feminist Historiography and Online Violence

How do you document marginalized histories when the process of documenting is fraught with danger/distrust/unbalanced power?

We write this post,as part of our DML grant work, in order to share our efforts at collecting histories of groups and individuals targeted by online violence as well as the histories of people working to end online violence. Our first work on this project entailed a summit that brought together academics, writers, and activists from a broad range of backgrounds. During that event we were reminded to recognize the many who have come to this work before us - some of whom were in the room and had been working on these issues for years before it became part of the public awareness. Consequently, as a group, we committed to making those histories and that work visible to our many communities.

Moving forward from the summit, there was no doubt in the grant team’s mind that we would take up this historical work and that we had ample energy and community buy-in to do so. But now in April of 2016, we’ve decided that we are not collecting and distributing histories related to online violence. On the surface, this might seem to be a betrayal to our collaborators or a failure in work. But, in fact, we’d argue that this decision is not born out of failure or betrayal.

Let us back up a bit, and return to our summit in July 2015.

We sat in a circle around the classroom, no coffee remaining in the carafe. Outside, it would soon be a scorching 110 degrees outside in the sun. A few people came into the room together, laughing and dancing to John Legend, hugging tightly and showing love. Some people arrived with their work bags and laptops, ready to get to work and looking determined. And others were jet lagged and demoralized from long flights and hassles at the airport. In sum, there were nearly 30 people present, sharing a day full of both common and personal challenges in a non-descript classroom.

It was July in Phoenix, and we were gathering to kickoff a grant to deal with very heavy, real world issues. There was tension and anxiety in the air as we were asked to introduce ourselves and why we attended this summit to address anti-feminist violence online. Some of us had been friends for a long time, some of us were colleagues, some of us were merely acquaintances, and many of us were unknown to one another.

As we introduced ourselves, it was clear that some of us came to the summit because we wanted to jump right in and start helping to create solutions to online violence. However, it was also clear that many of us came to the summit in the middle of sorrow and trauma, deeply impacted by targeted aggression online. Our bodies crossed all of the major power lines of embodied, lived identities: race, gender, sexuality, trans/cis, religion, class, age, ability, professional and educational status, and size (just to name a few). The theme of our grant competition was “Trust,” and it was clear that while there was some strong trust between individuals in the room, it would be challenging and probably painful for many to establish trust within this group of writers, activists, scholars, artists, and technology professionals--especially because of the intersecting power dynamics.

Still, each person spoke and shared what was most important for that individual in coming to this summit. While there were many repeated ideas and concerns, one that stood out to the grant team (those organizing the event and writing this blog) was that there were histories here, and those histories needed to be acknowledged, respected, and collected. When the summit concluded, we had a list of action items related to “collecting histories” and no fewer than a dozen people committed to this work.

Why recount this story in a blog about collecting histories related to online violence? It’s not succinct, for certain. However, the physical description of the people in the room is a visual representation of what it is like to try to collect historical accounts about digital/online violence when people come from intersecting power positions, when people have urgent and material needs for safety and security, and when people cannot control who has access to the histories shared.

After eight months of trying to find a meaningful and safe way to collect data on the histories related to online violence, we have realized that there is no way to collect this data in a way that inspires trust between those participating in the collection or that protects those whose histories are being collected.

For example, imagine that there have been targeted online violent acts against a group of Chicanx writers on Twitter.* One of those writers offers to provide a written history of what happened, who was involved, and other pertinent details. This writer wants to map this event with other occurrences of violence to see if there are patterns for abuse.

However, another writer who was targeted in this same act is still undergoing violence from this event. Because of this ongoing threat, any mention of this specific event--especially in an online publication, such as a blog like this one-- re-animates the violence against that writer.

Furthermore, as a grant team deeply committed to thinking through “trust” from a feminist standpoint--especially moving from people’s lived experiences and asking the difficult questions of “who gets to speak? On behalf of whom? Which voices are silenced? Which people could be harmed in this work?”-- we could not overlook the need for affirmative consent in collecting histories. Much like in Title IX and sexual assault legislation changes, affirmative consent requires that all parties participating in an act provide enthusiastic and ongoing consent for the actions taken.

It proved to be more than we could tackle-- to collect affirmative consent from all of those people touched/harmed by online violence or working to end online violence. For example, in order to gain affirmative consent, we would need to be able to contact all participants affected by a given event. While it might seem easy to know who is harmed by or working against a specific hashtag to organize violence, it is usually only a few voices that rise to the surface. Other people, because of their valid choice of protecting themselves and loved ones, might not be as noticeable in that series of events. But that person’s interests and consent would be absolutely necessary.

Finally, once we started talking with people about collecting histories, it was obvious that there was not consensus--let alone enthusiastic consent-- for what would be done with these histories. Some people preferred the collection of histories to be shared with the other contributors, privately. However, much like our summit in July, the group of contributors would be comprised of people with diverse motivations and access to power-- there could be no trust that this information would be kept personal and private. Given the violent backlash that many of the participants in the room had experienced from those events, we were concerned that any manner of indexing of the events would not only be woefully inadequate, but would also serve to reopen the wounds from our contributors.

So if there was no way to create a secure network of trust among contributors, why not just publish and map our findings so that we could bring this violence “into the light”? Many participants wanted an online database so that we could publicly chart patterns of violence. But it would be untenable to choose whose consent would be needed, let alone to gather that consent in an ongoing and enthusiastic manner. Additionally, many of our participants had been betrayed by the work of so-called “benevolent” researchers and journalists who co-opted the voices of our contributors for their writing and research projects (see: What happens when a journalist uses your tweet?).

In early March, the grant team met online to discuss the histories project one more time. The person taking the lead of the conversation said that it sounded like we should cease our work in collecting histories. “But how can we scrap a component of this grant work that our colleagues, friends, and participants explicitly and passionately asked for?,” asked one of the grant team members. We all nodded, feeling heavy hearted and like we’d reached an insurmountable wall.

But as this grant has shown, collaboration can produce innovative ideas. After a few moments, we decided that we would write a blog about the challenges of collecting histories related to online violence and the issues with feminist historiography. By telling this story of our attempts at building an historical archive or map of online violence, we hope to share with others the barriers we encountered so that people might come up with solutions to such barriers.

We did create some important projects that we think help further the work of creating the kind of internet cultures we want. Moya Bailey and TL Cowan created a resource guide for students and faculty wanting to use social media in the classroom. Mikki Kendall created a comic aimed at teens to teach them about how online harassment manifests. Members of the alchemist group created reconceptualized power and control wheels that explain how online harassment differs from other kinds.

Outside of these resources, we also share this story so that it is visible-- so that it is legible and not erased due to the challenges to trust and feminist solidarity. If we don’t write it, people can believe that no one is attempting this work-- that no one cares. But we care, very deeply. So much so that we hope that this blog entry helps inspire people to figure out how to collect contested histories in a manner that validates the lived experiences of the people who are a part of those histories.

Finally, while we cannot share the stories and histories shared with us, we can amplify some of the voices of people who are putting together their histories and taking action. These are a few of the projects that we are inspired by. We hope that these projects can serve as resources for others struggling with online violence and harassment.

Colored Conventions studies the experiences of black delegates to a lesser known set of Post-Civil War political conventions organized to challenge educational and labor norms.

The Twitter Ethics Manifesto provides a postcolonial critique of the archiving practices of Twitter.

TrollBusters is a resource for reporting incidences of sexual harassment. These are not made public but are used to activate existing resources and networks that can respond.

Allied Media Projects “cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative and collaborative world.” They define media broadly and provide support for those working with media for social justice. Through the Allied Media Conference and the Sponsored Projects program shares existing models for social change.

The Coral Project creates open-source tools and resources for publishers to utilize to promote their communities/work. They also “collect, support, and share practices, tools, and studies to improve communities on the web.”

Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 is a hacktivist organization that engaged in “developing the theory and practice of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD).”

Tactical Tech is a non-profit organization, working since 2003 to advance the use of information and digital technologies by advocates and activists worldwide. They work internationally to “help rights, accountability and transparency advocates and the communities they work with to use information and digital technologies effectively in their work.”

DIY Feminist Cybersecurity is a “comprehensive and accessible introduction to some of the most valuable cybersecurity tools available.” They even have a cheat sheet if you don’t have time to read the whole thing.  

Crash Override Network is a crisis helpline, advocacy group, and resource center for people who are experiencing online abuse. Crash Override is a network of experts and survivors who work directly with victims, tech companies, lawmakers, media, security experts, and law enforcement to educate and provide direct assistance to eliminate the causes of online abuse.

Hollaback! is a nonprofit dedicated to fighting street harassment by encouraging people to respond through a smartphone/web application. Their new technology, HeartMob, provides “real-time support to individuals experiencing online harassment and empowers bystanders to act.”

Women’s Media Center Speech Project, The WMC Speech Project is dedicated to raising public and media awareness about online harassment. Committed to the creation of a robust and safe public commons that will expand freedom of expression and engagement in the public sphere instead of limiting it, the WMC Speech Project is a project of The Women’s Media Center, and is chaired by Ashley Judd and directed by Soraya Chemaly.

Sula Collective is an online magazine “for and by people of color.” They offer a safe space for people of color to share, create and write. They aim to amplify the voices of contemporary artists, writers and thinkers of color.

Boriqua Chicks is an online blog and community that highlights entertainment and lifestyle topics related to African-Americans, Latinos/as, and Afro-Caribbeans and an influencing force in discussions around Afro-Latino/a identity.

The Black Women Oral History Project archives audio files and transcripts of oral histories with 72 African American women who made significant contributions to society during the first half of the 20th century.

Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network “showcases, supports, and promotes individual, community, social and environmental justice work that continues to be inspired by her life and fiction.”

 

* This is a hypothetical scenario in order to protect the people we’ve worked with. While a real world example (with historical details) would provide logos to our blog, we cannot use such an example because of the harm it could bring to our colleagues on this grant work.

 

Resources for Further Reading

(This is by no means a comprehensive list, and we welcome your suggestions too!)

Bailey, Moya. “All the Digital Humanists are White, All the Nerds are Men, but Some of Us are Brave” Journal of Digital Humanities Vol 1.1 (2011).

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Whose Story Is It Anyway: Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill.” Rac-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill. Ed. Toni Morrison. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.

#FemFuture, History, and Loving Each Other Harder.

Isoke, Zenzele. Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance (The Politics of Intersectionality). New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Minh-ha, Trinh. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Nancy, Naples. Feminism and Method: Ethnography, Discourse Analysis, and Activist Research. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Trudy. Gradient Lair. 2012-2015.

 

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