Ruminations on online communities, feminism and campaigning

It was two years ago.  I was still an idealistic student, in a left-leaning college,  ready to jump up and pounce on anything which was morally dubious or just plain wrong. Caste, class, gender, race, everything was victim to my scorn and derision and anything which came my way was met with the decisive cry of ‘hartaal!’ or ‘boycott!’

So, when I heard of several incidents of sexual harassment on campus (having been a previously active member of this project) I decided that ‘something had to be done!’ I was not the only one so a group of friends and I decided to start a gender sensitivity campaign. Focusing only on issues on campus, we decided to create a space where men and women could confidentially and freely discuss issues of gender and sexuality without being persecuted for it. At the same time, we wished to mobilize and campaign for those issues we felt strongly about, while creating an alternate space for expression and ideas.  The internet then seemed like the best way to go about doing this, attracted as we were to anonymity of the medium along with the space for interaction it provided.  So, as   we decided to launch it by what seemed to be the single easiest and cheapest way – a blog.

And so we began this. We put up one post, we sent out one email to the student’s union and in a week we became infamous. Complemented by a series of provocative posters, our campaign soon became the talk of the (admittedly, small) campus.  We were met with both derision and admiration. We were dismissed as ‘fab-india activists,’ of creating a ‘hoopla-over-nothing’ while at the same time praised for the initiative we had taken.

The campaign did not sustain itself merely on these marketing techniques. Using a host of guerilla marketing (we changed the homepage of all campus computers to our blog address, for example) we were able to attract a LOT of interest initially.  We had tonnes of visitors, thriving discussions with multiple points of view, we were able to mobilise students for the Queer Azadi rally that year, most importantly, we were able to make gender something to think about and we were even able to create a small vote bank during the student union elections as well (historically taken over by the SC/ST cell)!

Those were our successes. By the time of the second month of our campaign, we slowly realised the inadequacies of the blogging medium. The initial spate of comments and discussion was as much out of curiosity rather than an actual need to talk. We physically told people to go to the blog and so they went. There was no reason to stay on.

We then decided to make ourselves more visible on campus through various offline initiatives. We did this by organising a series of talks and film screenings, thereby creating physical space on campus for these issues. From then on, the blog became a mere notice board for these events. Having realised this, people soon stopped drifting over. Basically, we realised that having made our mark through controversy, we were unable to sustain once the novelty wore off.

This made me rethink the idea of using the blog as a medium to reach out to people. Inspired by the fabulous Jasmeen from Blank Noise (she was able to take her project nationally and internationally) I thought that it would be easily workable, especially within the closed environment of a mostly-residential college campus. However, without the necessary upkeep work a blog like this requires, it was of little wonder that the momentum slowed down.

The idea of using a blog for campaigning is hardly a new one and we were definitely not the first to hit upon it.  With an increasingly large number of people on social networking sites these days, a large number of activists have hit up0n digital media to ‘reach-out’ to their audiences.  And they have – increasingly causes are being measured by the number of Facebook ‘Likes’ or Re-tweets on twitter or the number of hits and comments on the blogs. These metrics appear to quantitatively demonstrate the reach. However, the issue of quality still remains unresolved.

The New Yorker, in a recent article on Twitter, Facebook and social activism points out that the hoopla surrounding the iranian protests last year was just that – a hoopla. According to them, a large number of people who were actually tweeting were mostly people from Western countries. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,”  wrote Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy, quoted in the article.  This, for obvious reasons, hyped up the role that Twitter played in Iran.

The point remains that social activism and campaigning through social media will necessarily lack the quality of campaigning in real life. This is because, like any other mass-media, we are reaching out to people we don’t know or have probably met only once.  At the same time, unlike face-to-face campaigning, online activism also lacks the intimacy which comes through only from real life encounters. In a way, a facebook cause page seems like the person hasn’t really taken the effort to do more with it. It just doesn’t mean as much as say, a newsletter from the same organisation. It’s as simple as the difference between a facebook event invite and a text message for the same event.

It is then that I started questioning – does the media have to necessarily be an impersonal one. What are the techniques being developed to make it personal to us?

Maybe the answer lies in the cause itself – Blank Noise has survived not only because of its vigorous online presence and vibrant leadership but because it talks about something which is meaningful for every woman. Maybe that’s where our campaign, grounded as it were on similar topics,  lost out – it didn’t mean much to it’s audience except for titillation.  Maybe it’s about really understanding the medium. The internet CANNOT take the place of real life interaction. Despite various theorists who proclaim that EVERYTHING is mediated (Roger Silverstone, anyone!), we cannot deny the power of face-to-face campaigning.  The blog then remains a tool for documenting, discussing real life events and advertising up-coming events but without the accompanying real-life aspects it remains completely meaningless.

It’s taking these lessons forward which becomes the real challenge.  When we finished our  degrees and headed off to distant horizons, we proudly handed over our baby to the next batch of aspiring feminists on campus. We shared what we’d attempted to do, where we’d gone right and where wrong, hoping they could do something far more concrete with it.  Curious to see whether they implemented our suggestions, a year later I wandered over to see how things were on the blog – it has taken on a distinctly academic style (attempting to do a Kafila, I suppose) To my dismay, the first comment I see is this:

sorry i could not able to understand few of the concept.. may be coz of my lacking of knowledge, and the domain on which your whole arguments is based on.

Unfortunately, it appears that the attempt to facilitate discussion and give people the space to express themselves has now descended into something a lot ‘less’ facilitative and more pedantic.  This can be excused – it was perhaps the direction in which our successors wished to take it and well, more power to them. But hopefully, they too learnt what I did – that online communities are a fantastic resource for interest groups who come together to form it. But reaching out to strangers in an anonymous environment is a whole different challenge altogether.



One thought on “Ruminations on online communities, feminism and campaigning

  1. Jasmine says:

    Well-written, thought provoking post.

    It’s too easy to assume that the benefits of the Internet, social networking platforms and digital discussion spaces are universally understood and accessible – the successors to your blog were probably operating under this assumption that everyone who finds their way to the blog probably not only understands the content but agrees with it is what probably what happened, culminating in the much more prescriptive and pedantic environment that you were referring to.

    The new trend now with social media is measurement and quantification – not only for businesses who want to see a direct ROI from money thrown into digital initiatives but also trying to measure the extent to which the Internet has truly educated and changed perspectives instead of turning into a ‘members only club’ open only to those with the digital ‘know-how’ (which we too easily assume is everyone).

    PS DIGGING the silverstone reference!

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