sights & sounds

April 22, 2010

Generational tensions & internet action.

From Jezebel; emphases mine.:

“The biggest thing that had changed since [Baumgardner & Richards authored Manifesta] was in fact the explosion of Internet media and communication, which had made accessing feminist-oriented material and discussions available to anyone with Internet access. What did they make of that? (Not incidentally, how did I end up at Ms. at sixteen? The Internet. I cold-emailed them and every magazine’s email address I could find.)

They were not particularly enthusiastic about it, all this Internet and social media stuff. Jennifer said she worried it was a weak substitute for real-life activism. Amy pointed out that it was often yet another form of unpaid work for women, and that many foundations and organizations were launching blogs because they thought they were supposed to, without really knowing what they were for. Debbie didn’t really want to talk about her magazine vis a vis the Internet, but she did offer that Facebook was a girly form — “Like passing notes in class,” she ad-libbed.”

I don’t share Baumgardner’s concerns that online discussions lull people into quiet contentment with internet chit-chat without inspiring any action in realspace. Unlike, say, TV or radio, where information is filtered down to passive, lone viewers, the internet is a more ‘bottom-up’ medium that spurs and thrives upon interaction1 – people don’t just passively sit and watch/listen/read. They post videos, they leave comments, they troll, they lol, and (most importantly) they form communities. However, there are a couple of closely-related problems that repeatedly crop up with any online community.

  • ‘Anyone with internet access’ still excludes a huge chunk of the population; and unsurprisingly, demographic groups that are likelier to have internet access (college-educated, middle- or upper-class, white, under 35) are the norm in the feminist blogosphere, which has important implications for the sorts of issues prioritized there, and the ability of the ‘online revolutions’ to reach a wider audience.

Although this all plays out against the backdrop of class (i.e. if you can’t afford the internet and don’t live in a community with cybercafes and nice libraries, and if you’re too busy working to browse blogs, online discussion won’t serve you well), the ‘digital divide’ between young and older feminists seems especially striking to me – I’m ashamed to say that I can only think of a couple of feminist bloggers (that I’m aware of) who are over 40.

  • Cyber ‘balkanization’, groupthink, and echo chambers. Unlike other forms of media (radio and TV, mainly) and realspace meetings, internet gives people more opportunities to tune out information they’d rather not hear. As a result, people can have their opinions enthusiastically confirmed all day without listening to dissenting voices, encouraging extremism.

So, for instance, if a feminist started out as mildly anti-porn and anti-BDSM/kink, chit-chatting on certain radfem blogs all day could push her over into Dworkinesque territory, as hearing her biases loudly confirmed (without bothering to check out any sex-positive blogs) will only strengthen them.

On the whole, I obviously think online discussion has an enormously positive effect on movements in realspace; but ^those two concerns cover a lot of the negative, in my opinion.

1. ..which isn’t to say that I think the internet is completely immune to top-down control. It really isn’t. But I don’t think the internet lends itself as well to top-down regulation as TV and radio do; and it is unarguably more interactive.

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