Gender & Digital Identity

In Spring 2016, I taught a class on Gender and Digital Identity for Portland Underground Grad School.

Several people requested that I post the syllabus for the class online—here you go! In addition, here’s a brief talk I gave on the topic for Portland City Club, along with some illustrations. The class was expanded on all these ideas through four focus areas: Identity, Activism, Violence, and Privacy.

You’re welcome to use this talk and these images for your own noncommercial work. They’re Creative Commons—please just credit them to me.



In political science, there’s this idea called the “town square test.” We don’t have free speech everywhere in society, but to consider ourselves a “free” country, you should have the right to free speech in the town square. All public spaces should include the right to public discussion, to be spaces where all voices can be heard without fear of arrest or physical harm.

Those rights are enshrined in our laws for our brick-and-mortar public spaces.  But now our most prominent town squares are online.  How do gender dynamics impact speech in the digital town square?


My whole 10-year career as a reporter and editor, people have been telling me that journalism is dying. I don’t think that’s true. Yes, in that time, lots of outlets have shut down and hundreds of people have lost their jobs. But many digital enterprises and new media projects have taken off. In my experience, print is not dead—it’s diversifying. The decline of traditional media has a silver lining: there are now fewer gatekeepers.


In the past, media was dominated and controlled by white, straight, male voices. They’re still overrepresented. But it’s easier now than ever to publish your own work. To get your perspective out to the public, you no longer need someone else’s permission to publish. Technology has made it possible for many people who would traditionally have been shut out of media—specifically women and people of color—to get their voices heard by millions.


Social media is media. Many of our cultural conversations are now written and led by people who have never had a job at a traditional media outlet. Plus, social media conversations shape mainstream media coverage as TV stations, newspapers, and magazines look to Twitter and Facebook to find stories. The new “town square” soapboxes available online have helped democratize media. Activists use of digital platforms have put conversations about feminism, racial justice, and LGBT rights front-and-center—without having to spend much money or have any institutional backing to get their opinions out there. (Though both certainly still help.)


While it’s more open than national forums of the past, not everyone has equal access to the digital town square. First off, you need the internet. Not everyone can afford that—it’s a sad reality that some people are too poor to participate in our popular culture. Telecom companies like Comcast are actively working to worsen that divide by lobbying hard to kill net neutrality, which would allow them to make some websites (ones that pay for the privilege) load faster than other sites.


It’s important to recognize that the places where we have many of our most crucial political and social discussions of our day are NOT public spaces. They’re platforms that are owned by private companies. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram mine our personal data and use it to make money. We’re trading our personal information for the ability to participate in political conversations. Plus, the right to speech on these platforms isn’t enshrined in the Constitution—the terms of engagement for these “public” discussion are set by the companies. What would happen if private companies owned our physical spaces of discussion? We’d be outraged. But online, we react to these realities with a shrug. Them’s the rules. To be part of the conversation these days, you sacrifice your right to privacy.

The people who make our technology shape its design. Since the tech industry is overwhelmingly male, there are big things the developers of social media overlooked in the initial design of its infrastructure.


Harassment has been a huge problem since the beginning of the internet. In the early years of online life, people dismissed harassment with the simple mantras “Don’t feed the trolls” and “Don’t read the comments.” But many people—particularly women, people of color, and LGBT people—can’t shrug off harassment. They can’t afford not to read the comments because those comments could include threats or their own personal info. Recent studies of online harassment show that most people are harassed online, but the harassment is colored by gender: young women are more likely to be threatened with real-world attacks. For example, 25 percent of young women have been stalked online. Anti-transgender activists have gone so far as to email the schools and doctors of trans writers to in an attempt to “out” them to people in their off-line lives.

Online harassment ties into larger social power dynamics around gender, race, and sexuality. Calling someone a “bitch” online, publishing their home address, and threatening to murder them are all ways to express dominance—instead of just telling a woman “I disagree with your opinion,” it consumes more of her mental and emotional energy if you threaten to hurt her. While many writers and activists remain committed to speaking their minds online, others have stopped. Harassment has driven them out of the town square.

When social media sites were designed, they were built on the core idea that people wouldn’t want privacy. Sharing was good. The developers didn’t see harassment as something that needed to be addressed in the fundamental design of sites like Twitter and Facebook.

In recent years, death threats and mob-style intimidation of numerous women on social media has finally made clear to the tech industry how serious harassment is. In 2014, someone who was mad at feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian threatened to stage a mass shooting at a school where she was giving a speech. It took violent threats like this to finally wake up the industry.


In the past two years, victims of online harassment have formed their own secure support networks online. On the private website Heartmob, for example, you can report harassment—everything from violent threats to floods of misogynistic Youtube comments—and raise a posse of supporters. Facebook and Twitter finally changed the design of their sites, too. There are now ways to block people for harassment, mute people you don’t want to show up in your feed, and to report abuse. Real-life employees review those reports. Those are major changes to the design of the infrastructure of our town square. There’s now a security detail.

Those changes came about thanks to the advocacy of feminist media organizations and individual victims of harassment who pushed for change. If the development teams had included more women from the beginning—or listened to those people who spoke up about problems with harassment—then the ability to counter harassment wouldn’t have been a years-later afterthought.. But these anti-harassment reports, of course, aren’t always taken seriously and it’s easy for abusers to make new accounts. We’re far from having a town square where people can speak freely without fear of physical harm.


So where are we? More people have access to the town square than ever—especially women and people of color who were shut out for a long time. But it’s a square that’s controlled by profit-driven companies that make you trade your privacy for the ability to speak. And it can be especially unsafe for women. I take heart in thinking about how all the voices that are being published—and publishing themselves—online right now work to shift our culture. The ideas that people are putting out there to be heard by millions are helping change our national identity, hopefully to one that’s more inclusive, more supportive, and where no one will grow up to be a troll.


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