Elizabeth Losh, Jacqueline Wernimont, Laura Wexler, and Hong-An Wu
In her 2015 talk on women’s history in the digital world, Claire Potter observes “that like digital humanities, histories of media are so intertwined with histories of gender, race, and class as to require feminism” (“Putting the Humanities in Action: Why We Are All Digital Humanists, and Why That Needs to Be a Feminist Project”). Her talk took place during a spring when news of police violence against unarmed black people in places ranging from Ferguson, Missouri, to Staten Island, New York, was so regular as to operate as a kind of violent cultural heartbeat documented by #BlackLivesMatter. It also came at the beginning of a summer in which several major digital humanities events were troubled by talks and panels that seemed to belie any sense of greater intersectional sensitivity within the field. For example, a 2015 keynote address by David Hoover prompted a robust discussion on social media about the future inclusivity of “big tent” digital humanities (“Out-of-the-Box Text Analysis for the Digital Humanities”).1 In a peculiar turn, we saw greater popular awareness about the structural racism and sexism in the United States emerge at the same moment that it felt as if a progressive, interdisciplinary academic field had failed to make good on those same insights.
As members of FemTechNet who are interrogating norms around technology, we agree wholeheartedly with Potter that feminist digital humanities has a significant role to play in emerging academic and social efforts to ask “bigger questions and locate bigger answers” without reverting to dreams of “ludicrous racial, gender, and class harmonies.” FemTechNet and ally organizations such as the FemBot Collective are attending to fundamental design challenges posed by existential conditions of difference, discord, bad actors, and mess. As our manifesto asserts, “FemTechNet understands that technologies are complex systems with divergent values and cultural assumptions. We work to expand critical literacies about the social and political implications of these systems.”2
The digital is a medium as well as a method, hence a proper concern of media studies critique. As Tara McPherson observes in a 2009 essay, far too often the more conservative digital humanities tradition—which is grounded in humanities computing, the print canon, and text-encoding initiatives—leads scholars to ignore “the epistemological, phenomenological, ethical, and cultural dimensions of the visually intense and media-rich worlds we inhabit” (McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities,” 119) and ultimately to repress vexed issues about race, gender, sexuality, desire, spectatorship, appropriation, and bearing witness. McPherson also suggests that media studies would benefit from more rigorous study of algorithmic interaction and topics such as visualization or information management. Thus digital humanities is presented with an rich opportunity to lead academic change in gender/women’s studies, media studies, and elsewhere—not just at the technical level, but at theoretical and social levels as well—but it needs to be an intersectional feminist digital humanities in order to do so.
McPherson was one of the original members of FemTechNet, an international feminist collective of hundreds of scholars, students, artists, and activists who study technology and computation, which is becoming even more widely known now for its interventions in digital humanities work. FemTechNet has answered the call for the digital humanities to incorporate contemporary media studies even further by highlighting work by noted feminist theorists in the fields of STS (science and technology studies) and HCI (human-computer interaction) in the Feminist Digital Humanities course offered annually at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria. Such research emphasizes the situated, material, embodied, affective, and labor-intensive character of engagements with computational media.
The larger FemTechNet umbrella organization operates as a nonhierarchical collective that supports and advances shared objectives and methods, while both recognizing that local specificities will shape implementations and honoring domain expertise of collective members. We mandate no particular ideological or methodological approach, we share copiously, and we respect the situated labor of our colleagues. Currently underway in FemTechNet, production of the Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Pedagogy Workbook, spearheaded by Genevieve Carpio, Anne Cong-Huyen, Christofer Rodelo, Veronica Paredes, and Lisa Nakamura, among others, is a significant addition to this capacity.
Addressing biases toward imagined technocratic rationality in the digital humanities is not the special domain of FemTechNet; many feminists outside of the collective have offered important correctives to the field. For example, Julia Flanders has commented on low-status and low-wage labor in DH, Amy Earhart has written about abandoned and obsolescent projects and broken links, and Bethany Nowviskie has interrogated masculinist hubris in blog postings that range from humorously mocking phallic obsessions with size and tools in the digital humanities to wistfully meditating on the complicity of DH with the trajectory toward extinction in the anthropocene. In the context of this volume, it is noteworthy that several pieces within the Debates in DH series have usefully challenged theoretical and practical assumptions within the field from a feminist perspective. While we are using “Digital Humanities” as a heuristic in order to think through DH as a disciplinary field, we are sympathetic with Jamie “Skye” Bianco’s intervention that “this DH” is not “one,” but many different digital humanities (Bianco).
While there is a great deal of excellent feminist, queer, and antiracist work within DH discourses, there remains significant room for development. Scott Weingart, Jeana Jorgensen, and Nickoal Eichmann have been working on analyses of the annual ADHO conference, which remains stubbornly male dominated (only one-third of papers are presented by women). Weingart observes that this major professional conference is also topically skewed toward masculinized methods, such as “stylometrics, programming and software, standards, image processing, network analysis, etc.”3 Thus DH—when approached as an object of distant reading—remains a field oriented toward instrumental engagements with digital technologies rather than negotiations in critical communities of practice. There is clearly more that feminist scholars can do to make the field more theoretically sophisticated and institutionally disruptive.
FemTechNet has embraced the recent turn in media studies toward analyzing media archeology, the apparatus, interface design, infrastructure, embodied and affective labor, and mess. “Mess” serves as a theoretical intervention in popular notions of digital media as neat, clean, and hyper-rational and serves as a powerful reminder that “the practice of any technology in the world is never quite as simple, straightforward, or idealized as it is imagined to be” (Dourish and Bell, 4). Beyond simply troubling the neat veneer of computing culture, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell note that attending to the messiness of digital technologies is also a way of recognizing that “technologies are contested . . . they are different among the different groups, places, contexts, and circuits” in which they are employed (5).
Recognizing Bad Actors as a Design Problem
To be critical of the social structures that are manifested and enforced by computational means, it is necessary to evaluate carefully and with discretion the type of datasets that the digital humanities employ. The unchallenged acceptance of datasets, like the uncritical inclusion of the newest computational media, further reinforces the idea that DH best proceeds along a technology-driven model of neoliberal development that dominates the global economy and creates further bias against those using legacy systems (such as feature phones or low-bandwidth networks), which is an issue in urban and rural America as well as in the developing world.
Too narrow a vision for the digital humanities obscures important conflicts among users, including contentious issues about how structures of power and privilege can be reproduced in computational systems and the need for flexible tactics around negotiation that recognize differences among stakeholders. For example, Wikipedia prides itself on the transparency and egalitarianism of its organizational dynamics. It emphasizes a strong community ethos around collaborative procedures that include “civility” among its core five pillars. Clay Shirky even defines Wikipedia as “a process, not a product” that “assumes that new errors will be introduced less frequently than existing ones will be corrected” (Here Comes Everybody, 119). Yet “civility” can also be employed as a repressive device and deliberations among editors can still become messy.
Wikipedia’s pose of maintaining a “neutral point of view” can be itself problematic for feminists who do not wish to be “neutral” but rather to address its systematic bias against representing women, feminism, invisible social actors, lost histories, and the logics of reproduction rather than production. Even Wikipedia’s attempts to address gender imbalance can have, and have had, regrettable outcomes, despite numerous projects and initiatives to include more women among its notable figures. In 2013, controversy erupted after the New York Times reported on the fact that prominent authors’ names were being moved from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” category, thereby undercutting their centrality among all novelists or literature generally.
Senior Wikipedia editor Adrianne Wadewitz—who often used the term “digital liberal arts” rather than “digital humanities”—worked tirelessly to improve the quality and coverage of Wikipedia as an online encyclopedia and repository of images and video. She also aspired to improve a gender gap in participation on a site in which over 90 percent of the editors identify as male. As Wadewitz asserted, “The point of doing feminist outreach is you need to find not only women but also feminists. Right now only 10 percent of editors are women, but just because we recruit more women doesn’t mean we recruit more feminists.” In considering who gets “written out of history” she encouraged active questioning of “the structures of knowledge” rather than training editors to “replicate the structures of the past” (Losh, “How to Use Wikipedia as a Teaching Tool: Adrianne Wadewitz”). Wadewitz worked closely with FemTechNet from the time of the collective’s founding in 2012 until her death in 2014. Because she was so effective, FemTechNet made its Wikipedia strategy central to its curriculum and later joined those organizing Global Women Wikipedia Write-Ins, Art+Feminism Edit-A-Thons, and other ally events. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to apportion academic credit to a collaboratively authored resource that is perpetually susceptible to change.
As digital humanities initiatives aim to replicate the successes of user-friendly interoperable Web 2.0 interfaces and to capitalize on robust community contribution practices on social media platforms, it is important to acknowledge the potential negative unintended consequences of appropriating these platform design choices for user-generated content. Mark Nunes has argued that Wikipedia has become “the poster child for institutional anxiety over Web 2.0 knowledge communities” (Error Glitch, 168) because of edits that reflect acts of bad faith, including vandalism that intentionally introduces errors. From its inception, FemTechNet has had a Wikipedia Committee devoted to effecting change within a significant knowledge repository, and we believe that Wikipedia has the opportunity to be an important site for feminist knowledge dissemination and the democratization of digital humanities projects. It is also a community where we can intervene in the everyday and sometimes extraordinary sexism, heteronormativism, and racism of Web 2.0.
Bad actors can compromise the safety and security of many types of digital humanities users, if we approach the digital humanities from a “big tent” perspective, including many self-identified online feminists. Safety is particularly at risk when harassment, ridicule, or abuse escalates into coordinated attack efforts that use anonymous accounts to cloak the identities of hostile participants. For example, one FemTechNet student working on a project theorizing feminist code found her online reputation targeted by mockery in 2013 on Reddit and GitHub. Barbed comments about her person seemed to undermine her security and privacy as a student.
FemTechNet instructors teaching about the development of independent video games—particularly feminist, queer, or trans titles—often felt forced to abandon social media in favor of more private walled gardens for discussions, and developers like Zoe Quinn or Mattie Brice received death threats, rape threats, and “doxxing” intended to destroy their credit ratings and encourage further harassment. After the 4chan forum site banned this conduct, opponents of feminist “social justice warriors” turned to 8chan as a staging ground. Although these incidents have become news items relatively recently, awareness of how rape culture may be manifested in online interactions in cyberspace dates back at least to work done on MOOs, MUDs, and other spaces for text chat in the 1980s and 1990s.4 There is a long history as well of such hostility to feminist journalists, public intellectuals, and prominent online bloggers speaking for underrepresented minorities in general. FemTechNet has seen that we are in need of a robust and strategic intersectional analysis in imagining digital humanities interfaces that might also serve as channels for social and public exchanges.
Building Architectures for Safety and Risk
Academic communities are no longer able to behave like gated communities; hybrid experiences in which online and face-to-face interactions converge and also obliterate distinctions between “gown” and “town.” In response to the systematic exclusion seen in Wikipedia, Reddit, and the various social media venues where GamerGate and other “raids” have played out, FemTechNet proposed a year-long program to address antifeminist violence online. Threats against women and/or feminist public intellectuals reached a fever pitch with specific, detailed threats of sexual violence and assassination directed at prominent feminist bloggers and YouTube hosts. While these women face harassment on a daily basis, threats were being leveraged in contexts, like at the state university in Utah, where law enforcement officials refused to prohibit guns in a room where Feminist Frequency creator Anita Sarkeesian was to speak.5
In contexts such as these, feminists are fundamentally at risk and engendering safety, online or “in real life,” seems difficult at best. In order to help address these disturbing situations and to ensure that feminist voices will not be de facto silenced, FemTechNet proposed a year-long content production and curation project to the DML Trust Challenge, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. We secured funding late in spring of 2015 and are currently at work creating a living digital space that houses critical and supportive information on digital security, documenting harassment, local support networks, and identity protection online.
Using the Scalar platform (scalar.usc.edu), which was initially designed for more conventional multimodal digital humanities projects, this Trust Challenge project is creating a digital collection that accepts contributions from many kinds of stakeholders in order to better keep up with the speed of digital culture, in which new forms of risk and harassment emerge with frightening speed. As Whitney Phillips has observed, so-called trolls are in a “simultaneously symbiotic and exploitative relationship to mainstream culture, particularly in the context of corporate media” (This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, 21), meaning that—much like the twenty-four-hour news cycle—accelerated multichannel media acclimatization has driven and will continue to drive rapid change in harassment methods and modes.
This work continues the FemTechNet traditions of recognizing and using distributed expertise and fostering networks of collaboration that capitalize on the human resources of everyday cyberspaces, drawing on at least thirty-five domain experts to broaden the scope of our work. It also entails a willingness to hold sometimes competing paradigms and goals together in a single project, despite the existence of tensions around risk, privilege, expertise, ownership, and appropriation. This is to say, even as we work to ensure both “brave” and “safe” spaces online, we recognize a certain ambiguity in that notions of “trust” and “safety” are also central to a largely corporate, utopian narrative about the nature and function of digital communities and technologies. But we continue to hope that our underlying values, which are not those of corporations, will leave their mark and that this presents an important example of work by digital humanists that is simultaneously engaged in addressing so-called practical needs and transforming theoretical and ideological paradigms.
Similarly, we continue to engage with the rising public awareness of the dangers of engaging law enforcement engendered by digital discourse around police violence against unarmed black people in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, and elsewhere. Activities to create digital collections around related acts of witnessing and bearing witness might seem to be out of the purview of a digital humanities dictated by the priorities of academic institutions, but members of FemTechNet such as Beth Coleman, Alondra Nelson, Jessie Daniels, and Kelli Moore seek to have them understood as central rather than peripheral to digital humanities work.6
The limitations and sometimes outright danger of seeking legal recourse has been long known to those who have experienced sexual assault and gender or race-based violence. Just as activists and theorists of “terrestrial” or “in real life” (IRL) violence have debated the value and utility of legal frameworks dependent on security and safety, we find ourselves similarly engaged in understanding how to best support women, queer/trans folks, and people of color online within a cultural system that can still be fundamentally oppressive and exploitative. Further, we are cognizant that while threats of violence to self and family are always damaging, we have colleagues both in the United States and abroad who have been murdered and/or sexually assaulted in efforts to silence their work in terrestrial and digital contexts,7 and we are also collaborating with FemTechNet partners working on the issue of street harassment and sexual violence, such as Jasmeen Patheja of Bangalore’s Blank Noise. For the most vulnerable, to be visible online is to be visible as an all-too-human target.
Seeking Alternatives to Niceness
In contexts where women and feminists are fighting to be heard and to live freely both online and off, discourses of access and civility with DH can seem appealing. Invocations of inclusivity and acrimony-free spaces offer a utopian vision of a discipline where discord and dissensus are unnecessary. While pieces like Tom Scheinfeldt’s “Why Digital Humanities Is ‘Nice’” claim that DH is concerned with method rather than theory and therefore is naturally less contentious in its interpersonal relations, many might also hear echoes of a question that McPherson poses in another one of her essays: “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” In other words, asserting an absence of conflict around power relations can undermine claims for diversity, equity, and inclusion. What role can a genuinely messy, heterogeneous, and contentious pluralism play in this version of digital humanities if niceness is enshrined as a core value?
In its very etymology, the word “nice” points to its own negative undercurrents, as a term that has evolved from meaning “timid” to “fussy, fastidious” to “dainty, delicate” to “precise, careful” to “agreeable, delightful” to “kind, thoughtful.” None of these should be attributes to which the humanities aspires. Of course, “niceness” might seem to be an even more compliant, feminized, and passive stance in academia than the highly problematic notion of “civility” invoked in cases like those of Steven Salaita,8 Saida Grundy,9 and other faculty members persecuted by their institutions for unpopular opinions expressed in tweets from private accounts (Koh, “Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities”). Nonetheless, both niceness and civility do have their defenders among digital humanists seeking community and desiring a disciplinary home without domestic tension.
Certainly DH feminism is not without its own internal conflicts, just as feminist movements have always struggled to negotiate participation amid intersectional identities and to overcome the unconditional acceptance of default positions and interpretations of white feminism as the norm. By arguing that we need to defend digital spaces that are both safe and brave, we do not want to occupy the position of the “tone police” who exclude challengers to norms. As Bonnie Stewart has recently noted, Internet shaming can include important positive modes of “calling out” injustice, as well as negative modes of trolling.
Fortunately, there are now a number of useful touchstones in the field. Lisa Spiro offered “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of Digital Humanities” as a counterpoint to the “who’s in? who’s out?” debates around defining DH as a field (“‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of Digital Humanities”). In that piece she calls for a “core values statement” as a way to “communicate its identity to itself and the general public, guide its priorities, and perhaps heal its divisions.” In that same collection, “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One” (Bianco) invoked Luce Irigaray’s powerful “This Sex Which Is Not One” in order to disrupt the notion, implicit in Spiro’s call, that there is “a” digital humanities discipline, rather than seeing it as multiple.
So what do we have left if we shouldn’t settle for just being “nice” or “civil” or “respectful,” and we do not want to flatten a rich field into a homogenous discipline? In Designing Culture, FemTechNet cofounder Anne Balsamo lists the principle of “intellectual generosity” first among feminist virtues that include “confidence,” “humility,” “flexibility,” and “integrity.” Balsamo observes that intellectual generosity includes “the sincere acknowledgment of the work of others” and fosters “intellectual risk-taking and courageous acts of creativity” (Balsamo, 163). We would add that as of this writing, #BlackLivesMatter continues to underline the urgency of feminist anti-racism as a first principle.
In conclusion, we advocate for a repositioning of digital humanities by putting the “genres of the human,” to use Sylvia Wynter’s important term, back at the center of these inquiries and by scrutinizing how gender, embodiment, and affect are often relegated to the periphery. It is vital to attend to how corpora composed of supposedly neutral and transparent databases and tools may obscure the many ways that objects of study are positioned in relationship to human—and race, classed, and gendered—constructs of discovery, revelation, display, exhibition, desire, curation, witnessing, and bearing witness. These acts of searching and finding are not neutral facts of scholarship because they may also compromise trust, privacy, dignity, and consent and must be pursued in a spirit that is mindful of the presence and potential activities of bad actors. It is only through acknowledging and addressing how both traditional and computational media are constructed, consumed, and utilized by humans as political social actors with intersectional positionalities that digital humanities can raise the crucial questions of gender, race, nationality, class, power, and representation. We urge our colleagues in the material, mediated, and messy digital humanities to join us in embracing an ethos of generosity that supports collaboration and inclusion in the field.
1. See Amardeep Singh, “An Account of David Hoover’s DHSI 2015 Keynote: Performance, Deformance, Apology,” http://www.electrostani.com/2015/06/an-account-david-hoovers-dhsi-2015.html.
4. MUD: a multiuser dungeon/dimension/domain. MUDs are real-time multiplayer game worlds that often text-based. MOO: an object-oriented MUD. Both are characterized by being network accessible, multiuser, and in the case of MOO, programmable, interactive systems well suited to the construction of text-based adventure games, conferencing systems, and other collaborative software.
5. Utah State University press releases on topic can be found here: http://www.usu.edu/today/index.cfm?id=54178; several news outlets including Forbes.com (http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2014/10/14/anita-sarkeesian-cancels-speech-after-school-shooting-threat-at-utah-state/) and The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/15/anita-sarkeesian-utah-state-university-firearms_n_5989310.html) also ran stories.
6. See, for example, the #fergusonsyllabus discussion as inaugurated by Marcia Chatelain, including her discussion of it in The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/08/how-to-teach-kids-about-whats-happening-in-ferguson/379049/). See also Chad William’s #charlestonsyllabus (http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/) and Jacqueline Wernimont’s “Build a Better DH Syllabus” (https://jwernimont.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/build-a-better-dh-syllabus/).
7. For example, Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights and free speech activist who organized Pakistan’s first hackathon in April 2013, was murdered April 24, 2015.
8. Salaita was fired from the University of Illinois shortly after taking a new position there; the case revolved around a set of tweets that left administrators and donors uncomfortable. The Center for Constitutional Rights is suing on Salaita’s behalf; see http://www.ccrjustice.org/Salaita.
9. For a basic summary of the events around Grundy’s tweets, see https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/05/12/boston-u-distances-itself-new-professors-comments-about-white-male-students.
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