Some thoughts on openness, freedom, and structure in large-group conversations

Shakesville [1] is one of my favourite blogs. It isn’t really just a blog, it’s a virtual utopia, an online space that is free of all those forms of discrimination and marginalization that are so common in everyday life, that we hardly notice them. It is a space in which a very high level of discussion of feminism and other social justice topics takes place. And it has one of the most restrictive comments policies I have ever seen:

Comments are open to anyone as long as they don’t traffic in racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, ageist, sizeist, or otherwise overtly objectionable commentary based on people’s intrinsic characteristics. Differences of opinion are welcome; no one has ever been nor will ever be banned on a difference of opinion alone. Hate speech, rape apologia, rape jokes and metaphors, violent imagery, threats, trolling, concern trolling, derailing, playing the Oppression Olympics, pointless belligerence, sockpuppeting, silencing tactics, accusations of bad faith, disrespecting the mods, including ignoring them, telling contributors what they should be writing about or how they should be writing about it, and/or invoking the blogmistress’ personal experience to use against her, or doing the same to any of the contributors, mods, or other commenters, could result in any of the following: Your comment edited to remove offending material, your comment replaced with an incredibly sophomoric paraphrase, your comment deleted, and/or your commenting privileges revoked. [2]

I spend a fair amount of time reading feminist blogs. Normally any discussion on a topic such as Rape Culture is flooded with comments such as:
— You think all men support rape but this is not true.
— I don’t believe the rape statistics you quoted.
— But men have problems too! [Long and off-topic description of some of the problems faced by men.]
— The statistics you quoted included date rape, but that isn’t “real” rape.
— Can you please explain to me what ‘Rape Culture’ is, I really don’t understand.
— I agree with what you’re saying but your tone is too angry and this only hurts your cause.

At Shakesville these are considered to be ‘Feminism 101’ comments, because they all include questions or false assumptions which would go away if the poster read the ‘Feminism 101’ page. As such these comments are (mostly) not allowed. This avoids the (extremely common in feminist blogs) situation that Feminism 101 comments are repeated over in over, in endless permutations, and those readers who do know their Feminism 101 get caught up in responding to them, with the result that the discussion never gets past the 101 stage.

Shakesville has a team of moderators who between them ensure that comments are moderated in real time, with the Feminism 101 comments, as well as more obvious troll comments, removed – this must add up to more than a full-time job, divided up between several people. Commenting is sometimes turned off at night, and turned on again the next morning, to give moderators a break.

A lot of thought and effort is put into the policing of Shakesville. Although anyone is welcome to comment, the restrictive comments policy makes Shakesville a walled garden, open only to those who have a certain level of understanding of feminism. It is because of this policing that the advanced level of discussion that takes place at Shakesville is possible.

I find it fascinating that adding extra restrictions creates a new freedom to have a type of discussion that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

In a previous post I talked about having been involved in a queer cafe. Queer spaces are arguably spaces where an extra set of restrictions are imposed: you aren’t allowed to say anything homophobic, you aren’t allowed to question or judge other people’s gender presentations. It is the imposition of these extra restrictions that creates a space in which queer people experience a level of freedom and safety that might not be possible outside of those spaces.

‘Openness’ is a catchword that is associated with the Free Software movement, and also with Wikipedia – yet both of these have been criticised for being spaces where antisocial behaviour is allowed to flourish [3][4]. It may be that in some cases ‘open’ spaces are spaces where bullies are allowed to be bullies, without restriction.

This problem was addressed by the feminist Jo Freeman in her famous pamphlet “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” [5]. Freeman pointed that in groups that claim to have no leaders and no hierarchy, an invisible, informal hierarchy can creep in, which may be more vicious and harder to fight against than any formal hierarchy.

The answer seems to be what could be called “structured openness”; having a formal structure or set of rules which actively counteracts the tendency towards hierarchy.

One example that comes to mind: a friend of mine is a member of a co-operative that runs a wholefoods shop. The co-operative has a rule that when a new member joins, for the first two months they are not allowed to speak in meetings or take part in decision-making. I was surprised when I heard this, since it sounded quite hierarchical to me, but according to my friend the rule actually encourages equal participation. When a new person joins they naturally defer to others because they don’t know how things work yet. The other members might in various informal ways make it clear to the new person that they are expected to defer to the wisdom of the more experienced co-op members. As a result the new person might end up still thinking of herself as “new”, and might be treated as such by other members, for a very long time. With the two-month rule, it is clear to the new member and to everyone else that once the two-month mark is passed, the apprenticeship period is over and they are expected to participate equally. In this case a formal hierarchy was imposed for the purpose of preventing the formation of an informal one.

Another thing that comes to mind: when I first got involved in activism meetings were open to all and anyone was welcome to speak whenever they wanted. Sometimes this worked well, but many meetings devolved into a shouting session, with the same two or three people continually interrupting each-other, while those who weren’t comfortable with this aggressive discussion style never got a word in edgewise. These days most groups use a slightly more formal meeting style, in which people have to raise their hands in order to speak, and sometimes techniques such as go-rounds or small-group discussions are used to make sure that everyone has a chance to make their voice heard. These techniques don’t always work perfectly, and consensus decision-making can at times be an extremely frustrating process, but nevertheless a formal structure is being used to counteract informal hierarchy.

Could the techniques used by activist groups to combat informal hierarchy be adapted for use in online spaces? And if yes, what new kinds of online communities would we create?


[2] From accessed 7 Feb 2011





One Comment on “Some thoughts on openness, freedom, and structure in large-group conversations”

  1. Joey says:

    It’s what I intuitively started to grasp while being a member of a particular message board for people in crisis, an online support group of sorts. I felt it better when I found Shakesville (I disagree with a few policies but I still love the place). The board I mentioned was totally open for everyone. I believe it helped a lot of people (me included), members are usually very friendly especially the old-timers. But occasionally when shit hits the fan you can imagine what kind of questions a rape victim is asked, how street harrassment is minimized (no dude ever heard of it), how you get flamed for bringing up that one member is stalking another. How every other perspective then the default of a heteronomative male is minimized in little ways whenever it shows up.

    It only kind of pissed me back when I didn’t really know what sexism or feminism were, but after I matured a little bit I found I couldn’t stand it anymore. Everyone’s being nice and supportive and suddenly you’re blindsided by some retrogressive sexist flame. I still miss some people there, but it basically became a battlefield for me. I could go on, but you pretty much said it all, better than I ever could say it. Thanks a lot.

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