The following interview was featured on the Token Skeptic Podcast Episode #88 — On Codes of Conduct Part II — Sexism, Skepticism And Civility Online.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of creating a podcast episode that looked at the contributions and conflicts that face skeptical women online, has been the opportunity to connect with people whose work I’ve been reading for quite some time.
For my last interview in the three-part series, I spoke to TigTog, aka Viv Smythe. She’s an Australian writer, a web wrangler, creator of the immensely popular Hoyden About Town (Life, Laughs, Science, Progressive Politics and Foiling Diabolical Masterminds!) blog and the Finally A Feminism 101 Blog —both very influential sites, with many writers involved.
For this interview, we talk about the origins of both sites, her and others’ experience as women bloggers and what advice there is for anyone who wishes to promote civility and critical thinking online.
TigTog (Viv): It basically started because I was playing around with writing a few things for some friends, old UseNet friends which we’d kept on with our own private mailing lists. For years I was an early skeptic on the alt.folklore.urban group, way back when.
We used to debunk urban legends and trace them back through the friend of a friend of a friend chain. I also used to moderate a newsgroup which discussed the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and I still have the FAQ for that up on a backup, so it’s somewhere – the alt.bible.errancy FAQ!
It’s, again, one of those things where people just don’t know how much incredible background of study has been done on these issues and that people are out trying to find their own way through the world. They’re not necessarily out to insult you and your way of finding things through your world. Which can be a problem with both atheism and feminism, I find, is people getting insulted by you just having a different view.
I had started a bit of a webzine for a little while, and then people tried to get me into blogging, and I eventually gave in. Originally, I just started with my own little blog on Blogger. Eventually I got more interested in the tech side of running my own blogging software on my own domain and doing all that side of things and it kind of just kept on growing. I invited a few co-bloggers along and then it kept on growing more.
[Kylie: I then asked Viv about her early experiences in creating the “Hoydens About Town” blog.]
TigTog: It’s been very interesting, it really has. We started that very early on, back in 2006 I think it was, when Jill Filipovic of Feministe was having one of her early Internet storms going on. I started a Google bomb to support her and got a whole heap of people to write positive things, creating a Google bomb on her behalf, because the search results on her name were being dominated by some really rather hateful stuff.
So, I sort of wrote a thing saying,”Hey, let’s all write nice things about Jill on our blogs and link back to these good profiles about her, which talk about her professional stuff as a writer and as a lawyer and all these other things. We’ll get them higher in the rankings than these horrible things.” Google has taken steps to make sure you can’t do it much really anymore, but back in 2006 you could.
[Kylie: Her online networking has extended into the real world as well. Viv talked to me about her experiences of meeting up with people at blog conferences. Sometimes the stories that fellow bloggers have to share aren’t always positive ones.]
TigTog: I have to say mostly of the blog issues, it’s mainly about one particular stalker who has a thing for emotionally leeching off the feminist blogosphere. Whenever he’s challenged he identifies himself as one particular middle-aged man. That may or may not be true. How could we know?
That name belongs to a real person, but the person who’s telling us that that’s him might not be him. But he likes to turn up with different identities on feminist blogs as women in trouble, particularly young women in trouble, are being abused at home or having questions about their sexual identity, their gender identity. All these things that you need a professional counselor for, really, but trying to ask the bloggers, in email, for help. If you get sucked into it, the stories get more and more graphic and disturbing. It’s really creepy.
Kylie: I can understand. Is it different when people talk to you in person in comparison to online discussions?
TigTog: I think they’re more willing to open up? Obviously when you’re having a face-to-face conversation and you’ve had a few wines, all that sort of thing, people just open up and tell you things in person that they wouldn’t necessarily write in an email and certainly would not write on their blog.
At Hoyden and in combination with various bloggers from Geek Feminism, who also live around Sydney, we seem to have three or four meetings a year where we go out and have dinner, or we go and march for marriage equality, or various things. We did Slut Walk earlier this year.
Kylie: Do you think that attitudes towards women on the Internet have changed [for the negative] over time, as some media reports have put it? Or is [harassment] nothing new?
TigTog: Oh, it’s absolutely nothing new. And while I think things have changed, I think they are slowly getting better, I don’t think they’re getting worse. I think they were really much worse when the Internet was seen as this much more male dominated thing where women really were treated as unicorns, these very strange, mysterious creatures. There’s a lot less of that now. I think there’s some pushback against it, of course. It’s the tension of there’s more acceptance on one side which leads a certain minority to push back harder.
[Kylie: Along with Hoyden About Town, TigTog is also one of the people behind Lavartus Prodeo, a very influential popular culture and politics blog. In addition, she is the creator of Finally A Feminism 101 Blog, an invaluable resource when it comes to discussing feminism online, and referenced by a great many blogs, including the previously interviewed Karen of the More Women in Skepticism blog.]
TigTog: That was, again, back from when I started blogging in 2005-2006. There were an awful lot of people, an awful lot of contrarians and really active anti-feminists dropping into discussions on feminism and demanding that the basics get explained to them. “How can I understand what you’re saying when I don’t understand what this is, when I don’t understand what that is? Drop what you’re talking about and educate me now!” That was kind of the attitude!
Because I’ve been on news groups on UseNet through the ’90s, and they always had an FAQ, whenever somebody did that sort of thing on a UseNet news group it was,”Bugger off newbie, go and read the FAQ!” Sometimes people were more polite, but that was essentially the sentiment.
There were a whole heap of people who were new to these discussion groups online, who’d never been on news groups, never gone through that “netiquette” idea – so I decided to create an FAQ that was more specific to the blogs.
Kylie: How well educated are people about feminism? This is a particular field that has a significant history and yet, it seems to have fallen through the gaps, or certainly with some online commenters…
TigTog: I think there’s generally a lack of knowledge and appreciation of social justice issues, not just feminism? There’s an awful lot of people who want to pretend we’re in a post-racist world in the same way that they want to pretend we’re in a post-sexist world. There’s an incredible lack of awareness about disability issues.
It all ties in together, and there are some basic concepts about majorities versus minorities, and power and things that a lot of people just refuse to believe, I think. The arguments I’ve had online about just the word “privilege” are astonishing.
Kylie: What are the big questions that people just keep on asking, in terms of the popular points in an FAQ?
TigTog: Oh, well. I deliberately stuck to 101 questions because I don’t have a formal education in gender studies, myself, so I didn’t want to have to be forced to do all this reading at the pace of questioners. I wanted to just stick to what I knew, so that’s why it’s just 101.
I think that one of the issues is sort of like, “What is a patriarchy?” The idea of these institutionalized power structures and how elites form and hierarchies. There’s always questions about that because people, particularly Americans, are very much into this whole bootstrapping idea, and that hierarchies don’t really exist, not really. I think it’s very obvious that they do.
Kylie: Sometimes there can be issues with one’s own fan base, where vocal supporters (such as people who are fellow skeptics, maybe fellow atheists) – essentially people who follow your site… they start behaving in a fashion where they are in fact trolling or acting as vigilantes for a particular cause… and they get caught up in the arguments and start acting in a way that you really don’t like… As someone who runs group blogs, what do you suggest if it crosses the line from educating to being righteous [negative] silencers for the cause?
TigTog: Again, back in my UseNet days, this is what we used to call a “second-stage newbie“!
Your first-stage newbie is all wide-eyed and innocent and asking all the questions that are on the FAQ. Your second-stage newbie has read the FAQ, knows the question numbers on the FAQ and can drop the links to the FAQ like that – faster than you can!
They’re so busy FAQ-ing people, as it were, that they’re not, perhaps, paying as much attention to the arguments being made as they might?. They’re a bit too willing to jump in without looking at nuances and looking at where the other person is in terms of their familiarity with what’s going on, without generosity.
I rather like our PZ Myers’ “three comment” rule, which I have also included in my own comments policy: that you shouldn’t get out the sub-machine guns for clueless commenters until they’ve made at least three comments. You should give them a chance. Don’t jump on them when they first comment!
Kylie: When it starts really crossing the line and you say to yourself, “OK, I’ve lost control of my own blog commentators,” and you start realizing that, “Yeah, I don’t have control over my own territory anymore!“… Do you have any advice in that regard?
TigTog: I think that mostly happens when people have a misguided dedication to a simplistic concept of free speech? I think they haven’t really thought about a comments policy for their blog and moderating comments and insisting that everybody toes certain guidelines, that the guidelines are clearly stated and that everybody has to be subject to them. Not just new people, everybody. I think that’s really the crucial thing.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden, from Making Light—and I think she also is doing some stuff on “Boing Boing,” or she was for a while – she’s got some great articles on the art of moderation and setting up comments policy, and just that you have to be willing to be tough even with the people you like.
Kylie: For someone who’s been involved, obviously, with skepticism for quite some time, what do you think about the current trend, as it seems, to embrace feminism or at least discuss feminism among skeptics?
TigTog: Well, I think it’s long overdue and very welcome, as sort of sound-byte material. There’s been a lot of where the good guys just leave us alone, and also the other side, which feminists have been getting forever, which is, “Don’t distract from the larger movement, ladies,” which is happening right now in Occupy Wall Street!
You just need to read a few things there, where women are having trouble just ensuring their own safety in those spaces, because people are saying, “Don’t call the police, it’ll make us look bad.”
Luckily, we don’t seem to have anything much on that level in skeptic gatherings, but it’s on the same spectrum of attitudes: this idea that there are more important things than your petty little complaints about sexism. We’re slowly moving past that, I think, which is terrific.
Kylie: What advice would you finally give?
TigTog: I think the best thing that women online can do is make contact with other women online who write about similar topics? Try and meet up if possible, if you’re close to a big city where lots of other people are, who are writing about similar things that you are. Or make relationships on Twitter. There are lots of groups around which have their own mailing lists or chat channels or various things, so as you reach out to other people who are in your own group, share your interests, you will find that they are part of larger communities that they will welcome you into. You just have to be aware of the opportunity.
I’ve met some absolutely terrific people online over the years. It’s been fabulous and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Many of them, when I say I’ve “met” them, there are people I’ve been friends with for nearly twenty years now in North America and the UK, who I’ve never met at all.
I know the names of their children and their pets, the same for me. Sometimes, if some one of them is going on a world tour, they’ve stayed in my guest bedroom for a while, or I’ve stayed in theirs. There are some amazing things you can do online.
Even if you never get to that level of closeness, just knowing that there’s someone you can drop an email to and say, “This is happening, I’m not sure how to handle it. What can I do?” That’s invaluable, just knowing that you’re not alone. Having people that you can contact for advice.
Kylie: That’s valuable for everyone, not just skeptics or women, obviously…
TigTog: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s one of the ways that the Internet can be terrific for anybody who’s feeling socially isolated, whether it’s because of an illness or because they have what is an unpopular political or ideological or religious view for where they live.
It’s one of the great things, is being able to reach out to people who do share your interests, even though you’re a minority in your neighborhood.
Kylie: It’s difficult, at times, to separate oneself and say, “OK. Everyone’s in a different part of the journey,” or “Some people are always going to be stuck in that particular stage,” Making connections is a little bit challenging…
TigTog: Yes – that’s why we need windows on the world, like the Internet gives us. And “boo” to Internet filtering!