Last Friday, Rachel Maddow reported (video clip above, full transcript here) that hundreds of citizens had suddenly started posting questions on the Facebook pages of Virginia Governor Ryan McDougle and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. Their pages were full of questions on women’s health issues and usually included some kind of statement about why they were going to the Facebook page for this information. Here’s an example from Brownback’s page:
The seemingly-coordinated effort draws attention to the recent flurry of forced ultrasound bills that are being passed in state legislatures. Media outlets have started calling it “sarcasm bombing” although the source of that term is difficult to find. ABC News simply says: “One website labelled the messages ‘Sarcasm Bombing’ for the tounge-in-cheek [sic] way the users ask the politicians for help.” A few hours of intensive googling only brings up more headlines parroting the words “sarcasm bomb” but no actual origin story. These events (which have now spread to Governor Rick Perry of Texas as well) raise several important questions but I am only going to focus on one: Can we call Facebook a “Feminist Technology”?
Defining “Feminist Technology”
It’s a big question that requires us to marshal vague terms and lots of data. This post cannot answer the question in its entirety but we can make a dent. First I want to define what I mean by “feminist technology.” I will borrow the definition articulated by Linda Layne in the edited volume “Feminist Technologies” (2010). She describes feminist technologies as, “tools plus knowledge that enhance women’s ability to develop, expand, and express their capacities.” On its face, it seems like a simple definition, but we immediately run into problems. First, women are not a single category and any given technology can have various consequences- many of them unintended. We might look at the average or net effect, but those two metrics frequently obscure the plights of the least powerful. A more generative discussion might compare imagined and documented individual experiences and compare those to the aggregate effects on the larger set. We might also want to consider whether or not helping a particular subset of women (such as pro-choice women), at the expense of concretizing or reifying gender differences is a feminist technology. Layne acknowledges these dynamics when she says, “…the overall effects on women must be considered. Even a technology that improves things for some women may not qualify as feminist if it does so in a way that perpetuates the gender gap.”
Technologies in Societies of Inequality
We must also recognize that individual technologies cannot change gender relations by themselves, but they can play a large role in altering the sociotechnical systems they inhabit. In other words, Facebook (or any single page) will not radically transform gender politics, but it certainly changes the game.
It is probably safe to say that when Mark Zuckerberg was building Facebook, feminism was not on his mind. The first iterations of what would become Facebook were more like “Hot or Not” than MySpace. Even today, Facebook still does not have a single woman on their board of directors while Google and LinkedIn have at least one. But even if Facebook were created with the most egalitarian of intentions, and its board were all women, these are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for being a feminist technology. What matters is if there’s something about how Facebook structures and predefines social action so as to empower women to “develop, expand, and express their capacities.”
Layne, quoting Woodhouse, warns, “New technoscientific capacities introduced into an inequalitarian society will tend disproportionately to benefit the affluent and powerful.” We have no way to empirically assess this statement, but it rings true. If I control a powerful social media network, I’m going to make it benefit my interests. Additionally, new advancements in science and technology often go for a high price before they become affordable for the rest of us. Let’s not forget that Facebook started at Harvard, then to affluent Boston universities and Ivy Leagues, then Stanford, followed by most other American colleges and universities, before opening up to everyone over the age of 13. But the interests of the powerful might run parallel to, or have no impact on, the interests of disenfranchised groups. Sometimes, the use of the latter plays to the interests of the former. When people make news on Facebook, Facebook gets free advertising. Anything that draws users to Facebook, and adds to their revenue stream without violating their terms of service, is welcome. Technology might flow to the powerful by default, but that does not necessarily stop marginalized groups from appropriating and adapting these technologies for their own ends. Information and communication technologies do not always follow the trends of other technologies.
Facebook as a Feminist Technology
Facebook seems agnostic to the intentions of its activist users, so long as it does not threaten business as usual. We saw this last year in the case of the Arab Spring, where Facebook would deactivate activists’ accounts if someone (read: political enemies) claimed they were using pseudonyms. As I have stated before, social media companies are very interested in tapping new markets in repressive regimes, but not out of the goodness of their hearts. They need more markets, and those markets require that they strike a profitable balance between transparency, privacy, government laws, and their own business models. As it stands right now, filling governors’ Facebook pages with sarcastic women’s health problems is not a threat to Facebook’s revenue. In fact, it probably increases traffic for what would normally be an inactive page. (When was the last time you checked out Governor Brownback’s page?) If these sorts of demonstrations caused every elected leader to deactivate their accounts in fear of similar retribution, we might see a reaction from Facebook. Then again, a rebuke by Facebook could spur an expensive boycott.
Does this tenuous position of monetized activism, amount to “feminist technology”? I would say no. But there might be one saving grace. I cannot help but see this “sarcasm bombing” in the same vein as mic-checking public figures. As Sarah Wanenchak said in our blog late last year:
…what was a tool of communication is now also a tool for directed and targeted protest. Communication is still a huge part of this; it can’t not be, given that one grievance common to many members of the Occupy movement is a perceived lack of “voice” in politics. Communication, in this instance, is protest. And the technology and the protest itself are fundamentally intertwined.
This also stands against the fallacy that technology itself is neutral: in its very design the Human Microphone is imbued with the ideology of its makers–especially given that its components are actual human voices, used with intent and consent. It might be used for any number of things, but it is inseparable from the people who created it and the people who bring it into being every time it’s used.
Mic-checking has been an effective (depending on your metric) method of protest that drowns out one powerful voice with the voices of many others. These high-profile mic checks are usually led by men, but I can recall several that sound like they were led by women. This balance is rarely found in day-to-day actions, and #ows is no exception. Men can (and will) reestablish their privilege first and foremost, by using the biological advantages of louder voices and physical strength. While we can identify men and women (mostly) on these pages, every user’s post is treated the same by the software. Everyone has the same box to type in, with the same font, and are positioned in chronological order. It is by no means a gender neutral space, but it does impose an equalizing force. A woman might be denied the ability to lead a mic check because “her voice isn’t loud enough” but anyone can lead the calvary charge to Perry’s wall. Facebook users can also opt to hide as much about themselves as possible, by raising their privacy settings and inserting a black box for a profile picture. So long as no one starts reporting profiles, activists can even switch their stated gender for whatever suits their goals. Insomuch as Facebook helps women activists overcome the sorts of barriers that they face offline, Facebook might be seen as a feminist technology.
Sarcasm bombing is another prime example of the complexity of our augmented reality. New technologies can support old hierarchies, and old technologies can do and mean new things after they have been appropriated or deconstructed (physically as well as metaphysically) by new users. When we evaluate technologies’ emancipatory potential we must be prepared for inconclusive or mixed results. The kinds of all-or-nothing conclusions made by popular press writers and most journalists miss the subtle and incremental changes that, over the course of time, end up changing our society.