I temporarily closed my FB group last week because of this pattern: white women were getting free educations and 1:1 support in the comment threads, primarily from women of colour.
This was exhausting, frustrating and hurtful to women of colour.
As the leader of the group, it’s my responsibility to create a different environment and dynamic and to prevent this from happening.
Group members asked me how I was going to prevent this from happening in the future…
…and in the moment, I didn’t have an instant solution or a quick fix to propose.
I still don’t think this is a quick fix. I think it’s much bigger than that.
When I look at the whole picture, here’s what I see.
- I see a culture of oppression and oppressive cultural conditioning that has socialized us and that many arrive in groups with
- I see a Facebook group with thousands of members
- thousands of open threads
- tens of thousands of comments that are active and that anyone can comment on at any time
- 24/7 access
- plus notifications from FB nudging people to keep responding and stay engaged.
In this dynamic, if I use the FB group structure and tools exactly as they’re intended, it will absolutely replicate the oppressive conditions that exist in our larger culture and in each of us.
If there are thousands of members and thousands of threads are active, even if I have paid moderators (which I did), they will only be able to address problems after they’ve started happening.
There’s no prevention possible in that model.
Hiring more moderators won’t fix the problem — because again, they will only be addressing problems that are actively happening or already happened.
That’s not prevention. That’s broke-fix — and who gets broken in that model?
The people with marginalized identities.
So since I can’t prevent in that model, I temporarily paused the group.
I believe I need to think structurally about the design of FB groups and come up with a new way to use this tool in our community.
It has already been proven that more moderation and new guidelines don’t fix the issue.
- Last April, for example, I changed the guidelines in the group and even the group name. Six months later, we’re in the same spot. Guidelines and background material and resources somewhat modified the issue temporarily, but six months later, here we are again.
- So guidelines for how to participate don’t prevent the dynamic.
- Moderation doesn’t prevent harm — it only addresses problems that have already happened.
The usual tactics (guidelines, moderation) don’t significantly interrupt or prevent the larger cultural dynamic from playing out in the group.
Again, it seems like I need to cast the net wider and think about the design of FB groups. I’m not just looking at moderation and guidelines; I’m looking at everything.
I think that Facebook in general and groups in particular are designed to be sticky, to keep us coming back, reacting, commenting so that the platform grows.
- ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia
- When Websites Won’t Take No for an Answer
- How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist
- ‘Irresistible’ By Design: It’s No Accident You Can’t Stop Looking At The Screen
The design of our online platforms were meant to increase the stickiness of apps and platforms and keep us in them.
And it was designed for the mythical every user.
When I think about ‘every one’, I know that means that the experiences of marginalized peoples are not centred or factored into design for everyone.
I think we see that in the application of Facebook’s hatespeech/bullying/abuse reporting system. Because of the way that it’s designed — for the universal rather than the particular (and the universal is arguably what Audre Lorde calls ‘the mythical norm’*…in other words, white men and white people) — the people who most often get suspended are the people doing the anti-racist work.
For more on Lorde’s ‘mythical norm’, see her Age, Race, Sex and Class essay in her book, Sister Outsider.
I think those of us building our cultural analysis know that if we uses systems and structures exactly as they were intended, they will absolutely replicate the pre-existing social dynamics of oppression.
So when I apply that to the design of FB groups, I think that if we use them as intended and designed (for the mythical every user and to keep us in the app), they are likely to reproduce the wider cultural conditions of oppression.
What I’m doing right now, instead, is examining each of the tools and design features of FB Groups to see the outcome they create for women of colour and people with marginalized identities…
…and how, with that in mind, I might be able to use the group structure and tools differently to create a different experience for women of colour.
- Membership — What are the criteria for membership? How do I admit new members? How many?
- Open threads — Facebook groups usually have all the threads open at the same time, which means there can be hundreds and even thousands of discussions going on simultaneously. This is good for the platform, but as we’ve seen in my group and others, it’s not always good for women of colour. Maybe an alternative is to have only one thread open for commenting at a time so that the learnings are highly focused and stays in bounds; all conversation is visible to me as the group leader; and my personal feedback resources and moderating resources are focused in one place at a time. All of the previous threads would still available to read and process and learn from, but commenting would be closed.
(side note: This is why I removed all members from the group — because to I can’t close threads while the group is archived, and as soon as I un-archive it, people can participate. I don’t want any participation because there’s risk of harm until all the posts are closed to comments and only one is open at a time. I can’t find a script to do this automatically, so to close all the threads by hand is a project in and of itself. The only way to close the threads without risking people commenting in the meantime is to remove members.)
- Time — Facebook is available 24/7 which means people in different time zones or with different schedules are commenting all the time and notifications are going out all the time, drawing people back into discussions. This provides a serious moderating and resource challenge because then there needs to be 24/7 moderating coverage, which requires a lot of bodies and a lot of money (especially if, like me, you have a commitment to not use volunteer or intern labour in your business). Maybe an alternative group experience would mean there are specific office hours when we all participate and the (one?) open thread is closed for commenting (but still readable) when I can’t be there so that there’s nothing happening off my radar. That would keep the educating and feedback labour on my shoulders rather than on the shoulders of people with marginalized identities. It also, I think, facilitates the learning process because members have to be present and actively experiment with the material and get feedback, live. (An instructional designer told me this week that having learnings be live and bounded by time moves people from being novices and scholars into being apprentices and masters, so this change might improve the learning outcomes, too.)
- Notifications — The notifications are the ‘variable reward’ that makes FB and other apps addictive. It’s good for the platform but not necessarily good for the group and members with marginalized identities. So maybe if there is only one thread open, and it can only be commented on during a specific time, there wouldn’t be notifications going out every few seconds to members pulling them back into discussions 24/7. This would reduce the constant pushes to women of colour to continue correcting white women; eliminate the opportunity for white women to ask people other than me to do that kind of work; and counter the addictive nature of FB groups and make sure discussions don’t devolve or go off the rails.
What I see is that if we think critically about the nature of systems design and centre the experience of women of colour and people with marginalized identities in the the way we use the groups, they will have a better experience and the group will be more useful and useable, too.
I think that might move us towards prevention.
These are things I’m thinking about and working on. There may be other methods and tactics to consider and fold into this.
After I’m sure that there’s a plan in place to do it differently and it’s likely to to address prevention rather than trouble-shooting problems after they’ve happened, then we can resume the group. Otherwise there’s too much risk to women of colour. I’m taking this seriously and striving to address it in a root-level, systemic way and that considering everything carefully rather than reactively.