Starting your own feminist backchannel

If you’re a feminist with an online presence, you know how hard it is to have a public conversation with your friends without some rando sea-lioning in to the middle of your discussion with his very important man-sights. Maybe they are just explaining your joke to you, maybe they are tone policing, maybe they are sliding into your DMs, maybe they are just boring self-entitled narcissists. Whatever the case, you’d like to be able to have conversations with your friends on the regular without the constant background noise of entitled misogyny leaking in.

I have good news for you: you (yes, you!) can start your own personal feminist backchannel! A backchannel is a alternate conversation happening outside of the “mainstream” discussion, often commenting on or related to the main discussion. Backchannels are incredibly useful to marginalized groups who are looking to build community, mutually support each other, and share useful information for their survival and success. That’s one reason why backchannels are often maligned by the privileged group (unless it is a backchannel for the use of the privileged group, in which case it is “just normal, friends talking”).

When women ask for a women-only discussion group in a mixed gender group, sometimes men in the group get very upset, sometimes to the point of angry shouting and turning red. When I ask them why, they say things like, “Well, they will be talking about stuff and I won’t know what it is,” or “Will they be talking about men – will they be talking about ME?” In addition to the normal human desire to be nosy, they realize that if women (or any other marginalized group) are allowed to talk to each without being monitored by the privileged group, the privileged group might be in danger of losing some of its perks. (E.g., the ability to serially abuse women more easily because their previous victims weren’t able to warn their future victims.)

But the main reason to start your own feminist backchannel is: FUN.

Hey, you like making misandry jokes? So do a whole bunch of other women like you, and you can do it without worrying about a poorly timed “Not all men!” ruining your hilarious riff. Are you super interested in energy policy but most of your friends are bored by it? Start your own backchannel with the other 5 people interested in feminism and energy policy and have conversations you’ve never had outside your own head! Love programming AND sewing? So do literally hundreds of thousands of other people, and you probably know at least 10 of them.

Twitter in particular cries out for feminist backchannels, but I have sad news: group DMs lack the features needed to make a good backchannel. I’ve started or been part of many feminist backchannels in years past, and lately I’ve been surprised by being invited to several new feminist backchannels by people I don’t even know. I thought it was time for a step-by-step guide to starting and maintaining your own feminist backchannel, in the style of “Start your own b(r)and: Everything I know about starting collaborative, feminist publications” which I had fun co-writing with Amelia Greenhall. [Update 5 Feb 2016: Amelia has deleted her blog and we are no longer collaborating on any projects. Link updated to a different copy.]

Keep your feminist backchannel a secret

The first rule of Feminist Backchannel is: don’t talk about Feminist Backchannel.

Because your backchannel is probably not composed of macho egotistical competitive dudes, you really don’t talk about your feminist backchannel except to people you are inviting to join it. A key element of a successful backchannel is that you only invite people who are a good fit for the backchannel’s social style, which is only a small subset of your friends. But your friends will feel left out and rejected if they learn they haven’t been invited to your backchannel. The only way out of this dilemma is to keep your backchannel secret outside of its current members. (That’s part of why I’m writing this how-to guide, because the people who invited me to their backchannels can’t say anything about starting backchannels without making their uninvited friends feel sad.)

Choose your purpose and scope

You need a vision for your group beyond “People I like,” though that’s a good start! What style of social interaction do you want: warm and sincere, joking and absurdist, cutting sarcasm at all times, everyone pretends to be robots, everyone pretends to be cats? And what is in scope for conversation: technology, cats, the weather, RC cars, doing your nails, complaining about work? You have lots of friends with lots of different social styles, and many of them aren’t going to get along long-term in a backchannel. What is important here is that your group’s overall social style is seldom grating to the people who are in the group. That’s why it’s important to have spelled-out social norms (hey, perhaps even a code of conduct!) and clear rules on acceptable topics.

Find some co-founders

Life happens, and while you might think running a feminist backchannel is totally doable on your own, everyone will be happier if you have a co-founder or two. It helps to have someone to talk to about the scope, style, and membership of the channel, especially when you are considering inviting someone you don’t have a lot of experience with in a social context. Sometimes you are oblivious to a specific person’s most irritating personality faults but they are obvious to your co-founders. (It only takes one irritating person to torpedo a backchannel — keep reading for more about what to do when that happens.)

Choose your medium

I’ll be honest, the answer here is probably Slack. It’s the best private group chat solution I’ve ever seen, by a mile, and the user experience is warm and welcoming. You may also consider old-fashioned IRC, a Mailman mailing list, or a Google Group, but they all have major drawbacks around administration overhead and usability. Slack is free unless you want to keep more than 10,000 messages in your user-accessible history or have custom message retention policies (keep reading for why you might want this). Another advantage of Slack is that if you use it for work, you can login to multiple Slack instances at the same time in the app, so it’s hard to tell that you’re not working!

Be incredibly picky about who you invite

You do not have to invite everyone you kind of like or have something in common with. Especially in fields with relatively few women, we get used to not being picky about who we spend time with – the concept of being able to choose WHICH women in open source software I wanted to hang out with, based on compatible personalities or other interests, was an incredible luxury for me! Your feminist backchannel is going to be a little bit like working in a shared open-plan office with everyone you invite, so if there’s someone who rubs you a little the wrong way, or has opinions about activism that you don’t agree with, or tends towards infectious, unconsolable self-pity, feel free not to invite them. They can start their own feminist backchannel with people who have the same quirks and social styles.

Create and enforce rules about conduct

You should have explicit rules about how people act in your space. Since it’s your space, you get to make up arbitrary additional rules in addition to the usual base assumptions. You can make rules that everyone has to pretend to be a cat when they join the backchannel, or you can make a rule that no one can pretend to be a cat ever – whichever you prefer! The Geek Feminism community code of conduct is a good place to start.

Kick people out when necessary

A few people who don’t have a compatible social style with the group will ruin the entire group. It’s up to the backchannel co-founders, or their duly appointed representatives, to ask people to leave when they are negatively impacting the vibe. This is true even if they haven’t violated your formal code of conduct or done something “awful” enough. Just wishing someone wasn’t in the channel at a vague subconscious level is a good enough reason to ask them to leave. It’s tough to ask people to leave, especially when you like them in other contexts, but crucial to the survival of the group. Watch for when your favorite people start to drift away or go silent – it could be that they are too busy to take part at the moment, but they could also have decided to just leave your group instead of tell you that another member is making them unhappy.

Allow people to choose what topics of conversation they participate in

The conversation in your feminist backchannel is going to range over a wide variety of topics, some that bring up a lot of strong emotions, positive or negative, and some that are just plain boring to others. The best practice here is to split conversations into multiple channels of communication that allow people to choose what they want to participate in (this is easy in a Slack or private IRC server). Some suggested channels:

  • general: for everything that doesn’t go elsewhere
  • rants: for complaining
  • cute: for pictures of kittens, happy children, and flowers, and uplifting stories and things
  • news: to talk about current topics
  • advice: where people can ask for and give advice
  • triggers: place where people discuss commonly triggering topics

Any time you aren’t sure if the rest of the people in the general channel want to talk about a thing, describe what you’d like to talk about and ask if you should start a new channel. If everyone wants to talk about the subject in the general channel, you’ll find out, but most likely you’ll find that you have an enthusiastic subgroup that will excitedly join your new topic of conversation.

Accept the fleeting nature of backchannels

Like any other social group, backchannels don’t last forever. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a constant low-level rotation of old people leaving the backchannel and new people joining and it will stay fresh and interesting for many years. But in most cases, the life of a successful, healthy backchannel is measured in the single digits of years. Don’t be afraid to dissolve it if no one is enjoying themselves as much any more. It will probably give birth to several new slightly better backchannels.

Be aware of the potential for subpoenas

One possibility to be aware of is that if anyone who is part of your feminist backchannel is subpoenaed for a court case related to anything they discussed in the backchannel, and they have kept records of it, they may have to turn them over to the opposing side (probably awful people you detest). There are two ways to avoid having a bunch of lawyers poring over your chat records discussing your ex-partner’s annoying sex habits: have an explicit policy of not keeping the records, or don’t talk about things that might become the subject of court cases.

Unfortunately, this is a place where the free version of Slack doesn’t work well: They keep all of your messages but only let you access the most recent 10,000 of them. I am not a lawyer, but presumably this means Slack could be subpoenaed directly to get the messages that you can’t read.

Hey Slack folks! You have a great product. As a way to support women and marginalized folks of all sorts, I’d like to see Slack add an additional option to the free offering that allows people to choose to permanently delete messages that they can’t access themselves. That would be sweet!

How to join an existing feminist backchannel

Sometimes, the feminist backchannel you want to create already exists and is a good fit for you, and the founders just haven’t thought of asking you to join. Your best course of action in this case is the same as if the backchannel doesn’t already exist: Talk wistfully about wanting to start a backchannel with particular qualities with the people you would like to be part of that backchannel. If it already exists and you are compatible, you will probably get invited to join it. Otherwise, you’re already on your way to being the feminist backchannel you want to see in the world!

2 thoughts on “Starting your own feminist backchannel”

  1. i don’t think anyone would object to people who identify themselves as marginalized having a safe environment to talk and have fun free of persecution from dominant class.

    For all I know that’s just what everyone want really..

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