Talking with The Inquirer about online feminism, intersectionality, and the challenges facing feminist bloggers
Last month, Cassie Owens at The Philadelphia Inquirer reached out to me via email for some background information on online feminism for a profile piece she was writing on Melissa Fabello, a Philadelphia-based feminist blogger, educator, and body acceptance activist. You can read the profile here. Below, I share my answers to Owens' questions about online feminism, intersectionality, and the particular challenges facing feminist writers and activists today, including financial strain and online harassment.
There’s been reporting (that quotes you!) discussing the influence of social media on feminist blogs/news sites that launched in the aughts. How would describe how feminist activist media/blogs have developed or changed during the current decade, in a landscape where sites like Jezebel are considered more mainstream?
One of the biggest changes for feminist blogs and other online outlets over the past decade has been audience size. The first feminist blogs started in the early 2000s and while they reached decently sized audiences, their readership started to grow exponentially in the 2010s. This was when the first feminist hashtag campaigns broke out onto the scene, when celebrities began explicitly claiming the feminist label, when marketing companies began incorporating feminist rhetoric and ideas into their branding strategies. Feminism started having a media moment, powered in large part by feminist media-makers drawing attention to feminist issues and encouraging feminist discussions on highly visible platforms like Twitter. As a result, today, some feminist sites have moved from the more alternative blogosphere to the mainstream. Jezebel is a good example of this. As these websites become more visible and demonstrate a market for feminist content, more mainstream publications, from The Guardian to Teen Vogue, have even recruited feminist writers from the alternative blogosphere and created columns and sections explicitly for feminist analysis.
Is there a trend in online feminist media currently towards promoting intersectionality? If so, how would you say it’s developed?
Online feminist media have played a big role in bringing the idea of intersectionality to mass audiences. Today, intersectionality is a key vocabulary word for feminist activists, but the term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 article published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum. Feminist bloggers and social media users have helped intersectionality make the leap from academia to everyday activist discourse and practices. Websites like Everyday Feminism have taken this complex idea and translated it into definitions that are not only accessible, but actionable, allowing more people to incorporate intersectionality into their analyses of social justice issues and into their activist organizing practices. The importance of this work cannot be overstated. As “intersectionality" has entered popular use, there have been some concerns that the term can become easily misused or misunderstood. Feminist publications that are doing the work of carefully unpacking and defining this term play an important role in not only spreading the idea of intersectionality, but in helping readers understand what intersectional analysis and activism actually entails.
As a fun sidebar and a testament to some of what I’m talking about here, in 2017 alone, the Wikipedia page for the term “intersectionality” was viewed more than 790,000 times [source]. That’s pretty remarkable for a term that first appeared in an academic journal.
How would you describe the economic climate for indie feminist online publications today? Anecdotally, I’ve heard about dynamics at activist publications where sites subsist on viral content, while not making much from the clicks. Is this something you’ve observed?
The economic climate for any indie online publication, feminist or otherwise, is difficult. In our digital media environment, consumers have grown accustomed to getting content for free, so old-fashioned subscription models make for a difficult sell these days. As a result, online publications have turned toward economic models based around advertising, where revenue depends upon impressions and clicks, or the number of times an ad loads on a website and a user interacts with it. This model creates a push for content that brings as many users as possible to a publication, in order to increase the probability that they will view and click on an advertisement, thereby generating the revenue that publication needs to survive. For feminist and other activist publications, this model raises a number of thorny issues. For one, the need to depend on advertising to subsist might stand in direct opposition to their activist values. When a feminist publication, for example, has to rely on advertising, its editors may have to compromise between their anti-capitalist values and their desire to keep the publication afloat. This is a longstanding issue for feminist media-makers in the U.S., going all the way back to the hundreds of underground feminist newspapers and magazines that were published throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But what’s new in this digital environment is the way that click-based revenue models create what researchers have called an “attention economy” deeply dependent on viral content that drives traffic to a publication. For activist publications, this can mean sacrificing the detail and nuance of long-form investigative pieces or political analyses in favor of clickbait. The challenge for feminist publications today is how to fund their work without compromising on their values or mission.
A related question to the previous one: How would you describe the economic climate (and challenges) for a writer working for feminist online publications?
It is both an exciting and a challenging time for writers working within the realm of feminist online publications. The demand for feminist content has probably never been higher than it is right now. We are living in a pop culture moment where feminism is regularly a trending topic across social media platforms and news outlets, which indicates that the market for feminist content is sizable. At the same time, feminist publications have struggled to develop economic models that are in line with their politics and that also allow them to remain financially afloat. For the average feminist writer, this can translate into the financially precarious and likely tiring life of freelancing and packaging content with clickbait headlines. So, there’s this tension between a demand for feminist content and a lack of economic support for content producers. Especially successful feminist writers have made the leap to more mainstream commercial publications, which are better-equipped to fund their work, but which may not offer the same support for authors’ more radical writing and ideas.
You’ve written about the appearance of feminist safe spaces. This is a two-part question: First, what are forms of online harassment that women writer-activists often experience? Secondly, beyond creating safe spaces, have you observed other means that writer-activists are responding to the abuse, individually or communally?
Online harassment is a challenge for just about any activist writer today, but research shows that women are much more likely than men to encounter gendered or sexualized forms of abuse, such as rape threats or misogynist hate speech, which is far more aggressive and alarming than the more generalized “trolling” men face. Consequently, online harassment takes a disproportionately negative toll on the careers of women writer-activists. Online harassment, particularly when combined with doxxing attacks where harassers publicize victims’ home addresses, has forced women writers and activists to leave their homes, move their families, cancel speaking events, shut down their online presence, and generally retreat from public life. Given how important it is for writers to have an online presence with active social media profiles, the harassment often comes as an onslaught via Twitter, Facebook, email, and in the comments sections of their articles. For women writers and activists who are of color, trans, queer, and/or disabled, the harassment is compounded.
Unfortunately, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have not done enough to address harassment. Leaving these platforms entirely is not a sustainable solution for writers who depend upon them for their professional and activist lives and, given the severity of some types of threats, neither is choosing to ignore harassers. This has left women writers and activists to develop their own strategies for coping with harassment. Some have created private forums or groups on Facebook and other platforms where they can enlist one another’s support. Others have successfully pushed publications to do away with comments sections, which tend to be breeding grounds for harassment. There are also organizations that are working to provide resources for anyone who encounters online harassment, such as Heartmob, an online tool for documenting harassment and requesting backup against perpetrators. In any case of online harassment, documenting everything is key and, when harassment escalates to direct and explicit threats, it is important to contact the appropriate authorities and, if available, your organization’s IT support specialists.