#YesAllWomen: a digital chorus with the power to transform

In response to the recent Isla Vista shootings, and the misogynistic manifesto of the shooter, Twitter was inundated by #YesAllWomen – a hashtag appended to tweets detailing the many ways in which women’s experiences are shaped by misogyny, sexism and fear.  More than 150,000 tweets had already used the hashtag by 3am Sunday.

Social scientist Steph Harold in a 22 May, 2014 article reflected on her experience of online activism, creating a viral hashtag, and what she learned from it.  Ms. Herold used Twitter to appeal to women who had chosen abortion, asking them  to speak out as an act of challenge to anti-choice organizations and agendas, asking them to tell their stories and use the hashtag #ihadanabortion.  The thread exploded, with over 10,000 uses of the hashtag in the first day. This included people sharing their stories, as well as anti-choice activists using the hashtag to shame, while various media and advocacy groups weighed in.  The experience was a transformative one for Ms. Herold, causing her to think extensively about the power of social media and the question of how to measure its effectiveness.  She outlines four ways to create real cultural change around abortion, all of which she insists must be  grounded in hard work and activism, not just social media. 

I wonder, however, if the very strategies she identifies can’t actually be served by social media rather than being distinct from it. 

I remember reading about the role of consciousness-raising groups in second wave feminism—how the realization that what had seemed like individual inadequacies or inabilities were in fact common to many was instrumental in politicizing and empowering women. Frank exchanges of stories provided important context, perspective, and solidarity. 

As I witnessed the growth of #YesAllWomen and the responses to its messages I felt as though there was the potential for something beyond a viral twitter moment to result from this. 

The Atlantic says simply that “…that the vast majority of men who explore it with an open mind will come away having gained insights and empathy without much time wasted on declarations that are thoughtless” an insight eloquently articulated in Neil Gaiman’s tweet “the #yesallwomen hashtag is filled with hard, true, sad and angry things. I can empathise & try to understand & know I never entirely will.”

The feminist website Jezebel elevates the conversation swirling around the hashtag to an even loftier level stating “…now with trends like the #YesAllWomen hashtag, we are uprooting everyday sexism, the ideas that perpetuate systematic marginalization, outright violence towards women, rape culture, and demonization of women who deign to stand up for themselves, forcing it out and showing just how pervasive and destructive it is.”

Herold’s four strategies for creating meaningful cultural/policy change are:

  • ·         Address silence, shame and fear
  • ·         Increase visibility
  • ·        Transform negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes; and
  • ·         Deconstruct myths and misperceptions

When I look at the powerful acts of speech, visibility and witness that populate #YesAllWomen, it seems to me that we’re seeing precisely these strategies in action.  I don’t want to oversimplify, and I’m certainly not claiming that a weekend worth of Twitter posts will in and of themselves lead to social and cultural transformation.  That said, there is a big segment of the population who rarely do (because they don't have to) ever imagine what it's actually like to live as another gender (and/or race, ethnicity, sexual orientation…). 

It is my hope that the raising of individual voices in the digital chorus of #YesAllWomen, and the larger recognitions they inspire can help remedy that failure of imagination and facilitate the development of empathy.

Feeling Safe Doesn’t Mean You Are: Conflating Alarm/Notification with Prevention

Recently various news stories have trumpeted Kitestring as:  a safety app for women” and “an app that makes sure you get home safe.”   In an April 2014 story, service creator Stephan Boyer explains that he founded Kitestring to keep my girlfriend safe.   Even feminist blog site Jezebel’s headline invoked the claim that Kitestring makes people safer, though the story itself acknowledges that the value of the service is in making women feel safer.

Kitestring is a web-based service that takes on the role of a safety call – when enabled, it notifies pre-designated persons if the user does not check-in within a pre-set time period.  Where other “safety” apps require some positive action in order to sound an alert – bSafe creates a safety alarm button that must be pushed in order to alert others, while Nirbhaya sends out the alarm message when the phone is shaken – Kitestring will send out the alert *unless* the positive action of checking-in is undertaken.   

What we’ve got here is another iteration of the belief that the more information is collected, the more we can know, predict and protect.  And while it’s easier to critique this position when looking at issues like invasive NSA monitoring, even voluntary services like this one have this same logical flaw inherent in them.  In this case, without disregarding the importance of a safety call (via telephone or through any of these services) and of access to services such as this one, equating sounding an alarm with keeping the individual (virtually always identified as female) safe is a dangerous overstatement. 

Public surveillance cameras have long been touted as making public spaces (as well as those within them) safer.  Evidence doesn’t exactly support these claims though – studies looking at CCTV in London, England have consistently found little or no correlation between the presence and/or prevalence of CCTC cameras and crime prevention or reduction.  To put it harshly, public video surveillance (whether recorded or live monitored) won’t prevent me being raped.  The video record of it may be of assistance in identifying the rapist, but even that is uncertain, depending as it does on quality of camera and recording, camera positioning, etc. 

I’m not against services like Kitestring – I want people to know if I don’t get home or somehow fall off the grid.  That said, letting people know I’ve gone missing isn’t the same as preventing the problem in the first place.  Headlines that claim “This New App could’ve Prevented My Friends’ Rape” are optimistic at best, misleading at worst.