How will Writing on Glass avoid the "echo chamber" effect?
The day after Trump became our president-elect, I launched Writing on Glass and emailed each of my friends a sign-up link. My subject line: “Help me redefine feminism as Trump takes office.”
Being a white, straight, educated young woman born and raised in a liberal Northeastern environment by upper-middle-class parents, I know how much my privilege skews my perspective. My activism is going to be a constant effort to unpack my own unconscious biases, educate myself however possible, and strive to be a better advocate each day for humans of every gender, color, background, and orientation.
It is a process.
Below is an email response I received this morning from one of my favorite people. She took the time the consider why Writing on Glass might not be the most effective way to advance feminism right now. I reflected on her words and offered up my own acknowledgements and counter-arguments.
Please listen in below and chime in with your own thoughts and reactions.
My Friend’s Email to Me
I’ve been thinking about [Writing on Glass] since I received your email last week. I’m of two minds about it, and I thought I’d offer my perspective in case it’s helpful.
On one hand, I think that having a place to talk about feminism with my peers would be of value. It could be a good way to find a language for some of the things I experience in the world as a woman, either by working them through myself in the process of trying to write, or by reading other people’s words.
On the other hand, I see a few potential problems: first, I think this platform will be insular, and that, whatever language or ideas it develops about feminism, those will be circumscribed by the lack of diversity in the perspectives of its contributors. As you probably know, Trump carried white women. Though I feel the impulse to go and proselytize to these women, I think the better starting point for a new kind of feminism would be going to them to ask: why? What don’t I understand about you that makes your vote so inconceivable to me? How were you not hurt and invalidated by his words, as I was?
I think feminism has shied away from the differences that split female identity (class, geography, religion, race), but perhaps for a new feminism, that should be our starting point. Without it, I think we’re at risk of conflating our female identity with elements of our identity that come from our class, education, etc. — and that, ultimately, is exclusionary and alienating, and will reinforce the cultural and political differences we have among women, rather than bridging them.
Second, I’m concerned that an online platform isn’t the right place to start this work. I have too often thought that what I have to contribute to politics is a voice. Now, I realize that what I need to contribute is a presence. Talking at the world isn’t the same as being in it. I think the volume of voices on the internet makes us forget that the voices that matter most to us are the ones we trust, and we trust the voices that belong to people we know. I think what we need to do now is be less omniscient and critical, and more personal, intimate, and proximate — and that intimacy and proximity can only come with a physical presence.
I think (as Trump has shown) that it is far easier to throw stones than it is to fix problems or come up with ideas. You’ve inspired me to think more actively about feminism right now, and I’m also so grateful for your commitment and bravery in starting this up. I’m going to try and think of some variations of your idea that might add value to it. For instance, I know from when I lived in the Midwest that a lot of evangelical churches have women’s groups — Mormons do as well. What would it be like to bring a group of feminists like us to one of those groups, and talk with them in a personal and intimate setting over a series of weeks or months about topics that affect women (abortion, careers, family, discrimination, violence and abuse). What would we learn? What would we disagree over? How would our perspective on feminism change? Would we see it broadened, or its emphasis shifted? I imagine in such a scenario, I personally would feel uncomfortable and a nervous — which, I think, is a sign that it could be the right thing to do.
Anyways, there are my thoughts! Thank you again for being a leader, a visionary, and a bringer-together of people. You have such a talent for that, and, not being that kind of person myself, I admire it and appreciate it so much in you.
[One of my thoughtful and kind friends]
My Email Reply
*Note: Email has been reformatted for Medium, and slightly modified to preserve anonymity for my friend.
First of all — thank you for being one of my most thoughtful friends. A lot of people have either been cheering or staying silent, and it makes me feel nervous about Writing on Glass and how genuine a reaction it’s inspiring. Your feedback also makes me nervous — because I don’t want this to be an echo chamber, or proselytizing, or stone-throwing — but let me explain my vision and the angle I’m coming at it from.
Here’s my personal friend-to-friend background: I’ve been planning to start a feminist blog for several months, treating my idea like a business idea that could scale into a media platform. I had my content and audience development strategy, a competitive matrix, a brand in mind. It was in many ways a self-serving idea, because I wanted to get my voice out there and I’ve been too scared to speak up for years. It was also a career plan. The online media world has become my professional home, and throughout my freelancing, I realized that I wanted to be building something and not only selling labor. So the feminist blog was an idea I hatched to meet many of my needs and hopes: to write, to speak up publicly, to be a leader, to build a meaningful business, and to learn more about feminism while holding myself accountable to an audience.
Then Trump won.
I recontextualized my thinking and decided to speed up my launch from January to last week. I suppose my intention wasn’t necessarily to appeal to the white women who voted for Trump, but rather to give an outlet to all the other women (and men) who were affected by that choice. What can we liberals and middle-of-the-roaders do to take action? To broaden our viewpoints on feminism? To make women’s rights a far more inclusive conversation of people of color, LGBTQ+, and men?
I agree wholeheartedly that part of a feminist’s job is to understand why so many white women voted for Trump. But right now, I’m more concerned with collective healing around the hurt that Trump’s election has caused, and with honoring the people who feel like their voices were just snatched away from them. I think the time to create dialogue with Trump supporters will come after the mourning, healing, bonding, and activism that the rest of us need to keep moving.
On the potential for insularity
When it comes to Writing on Glass, creating the echo chamber you mention is my biggest fear. I’m white, I’m straight, I’m from the Northeast, I went to Harvard, and my family is upper middle class. By default, my perspective is so skewed by privilege.
I will say that for the past 2 years I’ve been educating myself like it’s my job, reading Everyday Feminism and Jezebel and Feministing and Medium posts and writers of color and lots of intersectional news sites. Working on Nat. Brut as an associate editor in 2015 also taught me so much about intersectional feminism and opened my eyes wider to the experiences of women of color and LGBTQ+. That’s not to say I’m an expert or authority of any kind. But I am learning.
Here’s what else I’m trying to do to mitigate the echo chamber issue for Writing on Glass:
- Build up a masthead and contributing writer base of non-white, non-straight, non-ivy league, non-northeast contributors
- Be unendingly transparent about my own limited point of view and the mistakes I will make and have already made
- Be radically open to feedback from people who don’t look like me or think like me. I’ve already gotten criticism that my first newsletter was too white, so I’m building up a checklist of things to work on.
On the benefits of an online platform
Reading articles online helped me realize that I’m a feminist — a term that I would have shied away from until I was about 21. I’ve also had men tell me that content they’ve seen on Facebook over the last few years has changed their views on sexism and helped them recognize a problem they didn’t know existed.
While I understand your point that a presence might be more important than a voice, I don’t necessarily agree. I see “voice” (esp. in the online content sense) as a tool to equip people to make a bigger impact in person. For example, if I want to talk about feminism in the company of people who might disagree, I draw on the many articles and statistics I remember reading online to make my arguments. Without them, I wouldn’t have as much confidence to speak up. I need to read, reflect, and draw my own conclusions in private before presenting them to the world… and I imagine there are other people like me who feel the same. My goal is to provide them with ideas and resources they can leverage in making change.