Infrastructure And The Feminist Blogosphere

I’ve been particularly struck in the past couple of days by two great pieces, one by S.E. Smith on Tiger Beatdown and one by Courtney Martin in the Nation, about the challenges of doing work in the feminist blogosphere. It’s not so much the testaments to the truly evil things people write to and about women on the Internet, though I agree with S.E. that it cannot be reaffirmed enough: if you’re not the person who is being threatened, the extent of the awfulness can take time to sink in. But both pieces brought up different aspects of a similar problem: how costly infrastructure is, and how difficult it can be to maintain.

S.E. writes:

This is something else people don’t talk about, very often; the fact of the matter is that if you run a feminist or social justice site, you will be hacked. Probably on multiple occasions, especially if you start to grow a large audience. Some of these hackings are just your usual cases of vandalism, people testing servers to see if they can do it, not with any specific malice directed at you. Others are more deliberate, more calculated, and they come with taunting and abuse.

Many feminist sites stay on services like Blogspot because of the higher security they may offer; people who host their own sites do so in awareness that if they aren’t very knowledgeable about technology, they need someone who is for when they get hacked, and it’s not if, but when. Readers often don’t notice because it flashes by, or it causes problems with the backend, the site management, not the front end. Sometimes they do, when hackers inject malicious code that changes the appearance of the front page, or attempts to load malware on the computers of visitors, or just takes the site down altogether, sometimes with a message making it clear that it’s personal.

And Courtney explains the cost, and what it means for expansion:

Like Feministing, Racialicious, a destination for online readers interested in racial justice, spends its revenue—which comes from intermittent fundraising drives and limited ads—on tech and hosting fees and other basic maintenance. “Strains have been starting to show and most of them are financial in nature,” explains editor Latoya Peterson. “Simply put, a good blog takes a lot of time. It’s really easy to spend so much time on Racialicious and then realize you haven’t pulled in any paid work for that week, so rent is going to be rough next month. A lot of people get so burned out in the process of producing, creating and engaging, that the emotional tolls are super high.” Despite running a popular and well-respected site that draws about a quarter of a million readers per month, Peterson loses money every year as she doesn’t get paid and is, in her words, “on the hook” for the expenses…

Currently, most online feminist organizations are structured as nonprofits—obliging them to fundraise from private donors and foundations that still generally don’t understand the ways in which the internet are being used to make social change. Emily May, founder and director of Hollaback, which is building an international movement against street harassment using mobile technology, online advocacy and on-the-ground organizing, says, “We’ve had to hustle really hard for every dollar, in part because most foundations just don’t have a portfolio that we can fit into.” Their budget last year was $81,256 cash and $114,113 in in-kind services, according to May, and most of it came from unusual sources, like the Instructional Telecommunications Foundation and an older male donor who admitted to “hating the internet,” but loved the idea of women in solidarity, fighting back against violence in public spaces….

Tiger Beatdown’s Sady Doyle solicited donations from readers when she was in danger of losing her apartment. As Doyle has made a name for herself with smart, outspoken feminist analysis, the “real pay,” as she puts it, has come from freelance writing and speaking opportunities. Today, she pays contributors to Tiger Beatdown a modest stipend out of her own pocket, but recognizes the need for more systemic support: “If specifically feminist media is going to be marginalized by media as a whole (and it really has been), we have an obligation as a community to do what we can to ensure that there are spaces where it is provided, and that the role of the public intellectual is financially supported outside of the academy.”

I have to admit, I’m thankful every day that I work at an institution that’s big enough to hire a ninja-like webtech team that makes sure we’re up and running smoothly (almost) every day, though of course code pushes do wonky things occasionally. But not every blog is going to want to become part of a larger institutional structure, and not every blog can. And not every blog and not every blogger can wait for foundations to make cultural changes and recognize the importance of Internet publishing. I wonder if it might make sense to try to jump-start an independent fund specifically to provide infrastructure support to the progressive, and specifically feminist blogosphere to handle some server costs and to provide free or low-cost hacking response and tech support (and open-source resources for beginners on both topics), and freeing up folks to raise money they can spend paying contributors and expanding the range of their content. I’d kick in a recurring contribution for something like that. And given the success of something like Womanthology’s fundraising campaign, I think and hope others would, too.