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Building an ifeminist online community
By Wendy McElroy, email@example.com
My general topic this afternoon is how to construct a grass-roots movement on the Internet and the specific example I'll be using is ifeminists.com -- a web site that serves as a portal (that is, as a door to information) for individualist feminism on the Internet. For the past year, I have been working with an organization called Free-Market.Net to build an online community of ifeminists which could also serve as a vehicle for outreach to the broader feminist and academic communities. Most of the principles and techniques of ifeminists.com can be applied to sculpting any type of political community or political advocacy group online. But, since, the goals of ifeminism influence the means by which the site functions, I want to briefly describe them.
Ifeminism extends the slogan "a woman's body, a woman's right" to every peaceful choice a woman can make, from motherhood to participating in pornography, from being the CEO of an international Corp. to prostitution. It believes that women and men should be treated equally under just law -- that is, under law that protects the person and property of every human being. Women should neither be hindered nor helped by government. And since the system that best reflects freedom of choice and impartial equality is the free market, ifeminism is pro laissez-faire; it seeks private rather than governmental solutions to social problems. We extend a warm hand of welcome to any man who agrees with these goals.
That's the theme of the site. Now, onto the nuts and bolts.
When Chris Whitten of Free-Market.Net and I began constructing the ifeminist site last August, we divided the site into three sections: introduction, interaction, and information. Only one of these sections is static -- by which I mean, it does not change daily -- and that is the introduction. This is where ifeminism defines what it is. We provide a clearly spelled out definition of the site and its mission, which is easily accessible to anyone who clicks on the home page.
In defining the mission of a site, it is absolutely essential to focus on what is unique about it. What do you offer that is different? This is essential because it is no longer difficult to found an organization or to attempt a community. Decades ago, it required a substantial outlay of money for everything from rent to paperclips; it required a tremendous investment of finances, time and energy. Today, any 13-year-old child with a weekend to spare can set up a free site on a host like Geocities and call it The Global Alliance of Mothers For Rap Music.
To state my point in economic language, the cost of entry into this marketplace of ideas is very low ... which is a good thing. But it means that there is intense competition on the Internet for people's attention. An individual -- like me -- who has limited funding and time cannot compete with major feminist sites, and I don't try to. Instead, when you click onto ifeminists.com, you quickly see material that you won't find on other feminist sites. For example, one of the most prominent images is a plug for the pro-gun organization called "Second Amendment Sisters." So define your site clearly and emphasize its uniqueness.
Then construct a site that is user-friendly and not intimidating. Imagine that the web site ifeminists.com is a physical structure, like a suite of offices. In this structure, the introduction would be the foyer or reception area where a visitor is greeted and given some sense of what is in the other rooms of the building.
For example, in the ifeminists' reception area, there is a quiz based upon the famous Nolan quiz that allows a visitor to rate themselves as individualist feminists. There is a FAQ -- frequently asked questions -- to give some immediate answers. And, for those of a more scholarly bent, there are essays on the history and theory of ifeminism. By the time visitors have walked through our reception area, they know who we are and they have a sense of how they relate to us ... which is important because that will tell them where to go next.
At this point, visitors find themselves looking at two other doors: information and interaction. Through these doors, they can access the database (information) and the community (interaction) which are the other sections of ifeminists.com.
Let me begin with the door leading to the database, and I begin there for no other reason than it is simpler to describe the data collection than community building. Through that door lie almost a thousand links to data on individualist feminism, with each link having a brief description of its contents and relevance. You can access the links in one of three ways: by category, by region, or by topic. Each category will select from the same database and organize results according to your preference.
Let's say you chose "category." The site offers you about fifteen different categories. Let's say you chose "online books and collections of writings." Clicking on this option will lead you to 72 entries of either online books -- for example, Peter McWilliams' online classic "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" -- or online collections of a person's writings -- such as the archives of the online work of Claire Wolfe -- author of "Don't Shot The Bastards (Yet): 101 More Ways to Salvage Freedom."
Or, suppose you want to know what organizations or events are within driving distance from you. Because you live in London, England, you select "region," then click on Western Europe, which includes Britain. Immediately, you find links to events such as the monthly meeting schedule for the London-based Feminists Against Censorship, you access the many pamphlets relating to feminism that have been posted by the Libertarian Alliance (again London based) and you can visit sites such as The Melon Farmer which is an anti-censorship site dedicated to tasks such as monitoring the BBC.
If you select by "topic," some of your choices will be predictable (for example, you'll see sexual harassment and violence against women); some of them are not (for example, men's movement and Ayn Rand.)
When you click on one of the topics ... let chose Men's Rights Movement ... the database will provide you with all the links to books, news items, events, organizations, book reviews, etc. that relate to the Men's Rights Movement. Again, every piece of data can be accessed by "category," "region," or "topic."
Also, some database items are temporary -- they have a limited time value, like news stories -- and we date them when we post them. These are automatically deleted after three months.
Other items are permanent and -- in theory -- they will remain in the database in perpetuity. In reality, sites change, they move, they close down. But as long as the site exists, the data link remains.
The method by which these URLs are acquired and publicized is also important. I surf the Internet constantly to collect the best and most relevant links and sites, which are stored in a sort of "file cabinet." Each week a free electronic newsletter called the InsiderUpdate goes out to everyone who has requested it by entering their e-mail address into our site. The newsletter is a listing of the new URLs I've found in the preceding week along with a brief summary of why they are important to ifeminism. Once the e-newsletter has been sent out, each one of the hyperlinks and the descriptions becomes part of the database .... In other words, the e-newsletter is a method of enlarging the database so that remains dynamic and relevant.
But the newsletter does a great deal more than that. It also keeps ifeminists abreast of the news, events, and other information that is of special interest to them. This provides them with a valuable service -- we filter the news and the Internet according to what interests them.
The e-newsletter binds ifeminists together as a community because of their shared interest. Which brings me to the second door visitors encounter one they walk through the reception area -- the one labeled "interaction," or community. And the art of community is nowhere near as simple as assembling data.
How do you build a community? How do you make it last? In answering these questions, we have a textbook to consult -- and that textbook is history.
The "art of community" is nothing new. And, although online communities bring some challenges that none of us have seen before, many of the basic problems they confront are the same ones faced by reform communities throughout history. And the best way to approach the "art of online community" is to read the advice offered by centuries of activists who learned from their mistakes.
The 19th century American libertarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented that there wasn't a "thinking man" in New England who didn't have the blueprint of a new community in his "waistcoat pocket." I find Emerson's words to be an almost perfect description of what is happening with the Internet today. "Not a thinking radical" in the circles I know doesn't have a plan on how to organize over the Internet. I only wish more of us used the lesson of history as a guide so that we learn from the mistakes of other, rather than from our own.
So, to answer the question, "What is the first step in community building" consult one of the best strategists of the 20th century, Mohandas Gandhi. His advice was to issue a newspaper -- that is, to have a source of information that bound together people who might be geographically far apart. It doesn't matter if you begin with two subscribers. It doesn't matter if you begin by writing every word and stapling the sheets together yourself. Put out a newsletter in some form as a means to bind the community together and keep it informed.
I've brought along a hard copy of a recent ifeminist e-newsletter for anyone who wants a more visual example of what I'm talking about.
So, you've got a clearly defined mission for your site and you are sending out a newsletter. What's next? The 19th century American anarchist Josiah Warren had more experience in constructing communities than any other libertarian in history and his works, like "Equitable Commerce," contain the record of those experiences. Josiah Warren would have said that the next step is to construct "a meeting place." You need a forum where members of the community can talk to each other. And this is where the Internet offers huge advantages and a few real drawbacks. The main advantage is obvious. With next to no expense, people from all over the world are able to meet in one place to exchange ideas and to socialize. Some ways of meeting are more dynamic than others and ifeminists has been experimenting with several approaches.
For example, for several months, we ran a weekly lecture series of sorts through a chat room -- this is an online forum that functions in real time. Each Sunday at 9:00 EST, a featured guest would show up in the chat room and an audience would assemble from all corners of the world -- typically, there would be about 20 people. The speaker would post a prepared statement on an announced topic and people would ask him or her questions with me acting as a moderator. The guest would then reply, again in real time. Our guests included such luminaries Chris Sciabarra, L. Neil Smith, and Sheldon Richman. We are currently working out a cooperative venture along these lines with another organization so that the chat room is not such a drain on my time.
But, whatever approach to "a meeting room" that you use, the most common one on political sites is probably a Bulletin Board. This provides a free-wheeling forum where people can talk to each other. For example, you could a message, perhaps explaining why "Feminists should embrace men as delightful equals." You might sign the message with your own name or with a penname that preserves privacy ... that's your choice. Everyone who visits the site can now read your message that we archive for about a month. Then you go away and when you come back the next day or in ten minutes, you discover that others have posted their responses your message and, sometimes, their responses to each other. In turn, you reply to them, or not ... again, it's your choice. So that's the basic idea.
There are two bulletin boards at ifeminists.com and the main one is so busy that I don't even try to keep up with it. And, fortunately, I don't have to: a good Bulletin Board will have a life of its own. Every day, a flood of people post messages to each other, sometimes making insightful comments, at other times hurling insults.
And this raises what may be the most difficult question for anyone building a community to answer. Namely, how do you keep out disruptive members -- people who act in a manner that undercuts the purpose of the community? How do you keep someone from going on the Bulletin Board and shouting obscenities at people who are trying to conduct a civilized conversation? And, believe me, a lot of disruptive people will visit an open Bulletin Board.
In the 19th century, many experimental communities failed because they threw open their doors for people to join freely. As a result -- as a sort of market response -- there were individuals who made a living by going from one such a community to another, sowing discord in their wake. You see a parallel phenomenon on the Internet where a disruptive person will "haunt" the Bulletin board or discussion lists on one site and, then (for a variety of reasons), move on to another.
Warren's solution to this problem was private property. He suggested that libertarian communities could solve the "crackpot" problem by having all land owned by the originators. Then, they could sell land to new members on the condition that the buyer contractually agreed to observe the community's rules. The parallel solution for ifeminists would be for the proprietor, me, to insist that members agree to a code of conduct before being allowed to inhabit the Bulletin Board.
There are three problems with this solution. (And I'll go into a bit of detail here in order to illustrate how nothing about building a community is as simple or obvious as it may seem.) The first problem: libertarianism stands for every human being having his own opinion and the right to voice it. Imposing civilized speech on a libertarian Bulletin Board is akin to imposing a dress code on anarchists. Second: you want to attract people to your site, which means being inclusive -- opening things up -- rather than being exclusive -- closing things off. The third problem is the real possibility of getting into legal trouble. This is a problem I've had to explain repeatedly to members who feel that they have been abused by others on ifeminists.com.
The explanation runs as follows. Various court decisions in the US and elsewhere have found site owners who tried to control the content of what was posted on their Bulletin Boards to be legally responsible for that content: this means they could be forced to pay a settlement to someone who had been libeled. On the other hand, owners who made no attempt to control content were found to bear no legal responsibility. The reasoning was this: if I control the content, I am the online equivalent of a magazine publisher and therefore accountable for what is allowed to appear. If I merely provide a forum, however, I am like the phone company. I simply offer people a method of communication and I bear no legal responsibility for what they say. In essence, the law prevents me from using Warren's solution of imposing my own rules of conduct on my own property.
What Chris and I have used, instead, are even older means of dealing with disruptive people: primarily, moral suasion and the technique of shunning or refusing to acknowledge them in any manner. We have a posted list of what we consider to be proper conduct. But the rules are voluntary: we do not delete posts, ban people from the posting, or filter messages in any manner. If someone steps out of line, we use reason or moral suasion (otherwise known as peer pressure) and most people respond well to this. Then there is the odd person who doesn't care how destructive he is, who wants to be destructive. With such a person, shunning usually works because attention is one of the main things he's looking for.
Even though I have just touched upon the surface of what it means to build an online community, I need to move on. But before doing so, I want to make two quick points. I want to recommend the best book I've read on the subject of communities and one that deals especially with proprietary communities -- privately owned communities. The book is The Art of Community by Spencer H. MacCallum, which is available from the Heather Foundation.
My second quick point is in answer to a question I frequently hear. The question is, "why put energy into building a community of people who agree with each other in the first place?" Why preach to the converted when there are so many unconverted people on whom you could focus that energy?
I could answer that ifeminists isn't building a community as opposed to doing outreach, but in addition to outreach. But this answer gives some credibility to the idea that "talking to each other" is a waste of time when I think exactly the opposite is true: I think a core community is the one essential thing that a grass-roots movement must secure in order to be successful. It must identify and be dynamic enough to hold together a core of people who are deeply committed to a goal. To do so, the community has to offer intellectual stimulation as well as a forum in which to socialize. And, if the movement is successful, then it will achieve something that is more difficult than catching people's attention (which is, outreach). It will maintain people's attention (which is community.) Frankly, I have always considered it utter folly to assume that we can do outreach without "talking to each other" and sustaining the many community ties that constitute the libertarian movement.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be said for outreach. Unfortunately, I don't have much time to say it so --again -- let give you just a sense of the goals I have in this area. Year #2 for ifeminists.com literally begins next week, and this is the year we intend to focus on outreach. An impressive database is now in place, and an active community has become somewhat self-sustaining. From the beginning, Chris and I recognized that academia would be a natural target for outreach, especially Women's Studies departments. This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, most feminists in academia are notoriously hostile to the goals of ifeminism. Just the fact that we embrace the free market sends blasts of hostility in our direction.
Yet I predict that ifeminism is going to be very successful. I base this on my experiences of lecturing at colleges, mostly in New England. The campus feminists may have been hostile to the ideas of ifeminism, but they were fascinated by one aspect of it. Namely, it is a largely unexplored school of feminism. Its centuries of rather dramatic history, the hundreds of women and men who constitute that history ... all this lies like untouched treasure for hungry scholars to claim as their own.
It is increasingly difficult for feminist scholars and writers, for students who are seeking dissertation topics ... for anyone in academia to do truly original research in the area of feminist history. Yet in ifeminism, hardly any of the major figures -- and I am speaking of people who were extremely prominent in their day, like Moses Harman or Angela Heywood ... hardly any of these figures have so much as a single biography written about them. Thus, when I send a mailing (or emailing) to every single Women's Studies Department in the coming year, I won't stress the ideas ... I will stress the wealth of unmined history in an undiscovered tradition within feminism.
And that makes my final point: when you are doing outreach to people who are not already half-converted to your position, you should attach the ideas to a useful service that they are likely to want. Don't expect to catch people's attention by the truth of what you say. There is a lot of competition in the truth business and most people don't have the time to listen to every sales pitch that comes along. The cogency and power of your ideas is what will hold people. But it is not necessarily what will catch their attention. Being useful is what will draw them in.
With that, I would like to extend a most cordial invitation to everyone to drop by "my place" at www.ifeminists.com and say "hi."
Thank you. I'd be happy to take questions now.
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