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Aren’t ‘we’ already constructing a ‘feminist data future’?

Creating (feminist) data in a Quantified Self (QS) type of world

Amelia Abreu shares her dream for a feminist data future—one where women (and other marginalized groups) have control of data collection, usage, and access; one where we all are compensated for our labor; one where “users can control their own narratives.”

Abreu points out some of the issues with data collection and digital technology. Like science, data is always fraught with subjectivity. As a sociologist, how I collect data, the types of questions I choose to ask, the variables I plug into my regression analysis, etc.—all these choices impact the type of data points I collect (and the results I will present/publish).

Abreu introduces us to the Quantified Self (QS) movement, point out that most QSer are males with capital who are voluntarily creating digital tools (read: self-tracking devices) with an aim of helping “people get meaning out of their personal data.” This self-control of our personal data is not as rosy as it seems—as not all of us have the ability/time/funds/etc. to use our personal data for “good.” I chuckled when I read this, thinking about how much of our personal data is already surveilled, used by the governments and corporations to track who we are and what we are doing. The QS movement could not better reflect the current neoliberal governmentality—the organization “proposes that if you, a consumer, submit to an untested battery of somewhat proprietary metrics, you yourself can have an all-around better life.”

But the problem is that not all of us can play the neoliberal role of entrepreneurs who pursue our own interest as governable subjects–who can use calculation and choice to make ourselves the best beings we can be.

Abreu points out some of QS’s flaws, focusing on its (mostly) white-male-centered method of data collection that has always seems to rule the roost–not without being challenged–and is now, hopefully, shifting, at least a bit. But back to Abreu’s discussion of the controversy. She tell us that tracking health data (very QS; very masculine) versus tracking human-relationship data (women’s work; not taken as serious data collection). She critiques the QS movement as, in its search for universal data points and scores, it does not take into account those populations its goals exclude.

This next point may seem really off topic, but I’m going to try to make it work. I’ve written about Whole Foods Market (WFM) being this ideal neoliberal institution—providing customers with opportunities to dutifully complete their neoliberal checklists: choice, self-mastery, and biological citizenship. However, I also point out what I call WFM’s paradox: it regularized a population of mostly white and elite consumer while its predominately non-white workforce cannot fill these same neoliberal checklists (they may not even be able to afford to shop in the stores in which they work).

I get QS is different–from what I understand, QSers design products for people like them. But where I see the parallel is in those who are excluded. Like QS, WFM’s corporate team also builds stores for people like them. I don’t know if there are workers, like WFM team members, on QS projects, but there are definitely potential users who are discounted (or not even thought about when these self-tracking tools are built)–and therefore, for various reasons, cannot use the technology (just like many WFM customers cannot shop in their stores).

Abreu writes: “I want Quantified Self to be a messy space, one where users willingly choose the aspects of their lives they are proudest of, and most troubled by, and allow them to track, and engage with their narratives over time on their own terms.”

But can QS, in this incarnation, be messy? I don’t think so.

QS is QS (and that’s ok for QSers but not for those of use who don’t align with the QS movement). We need our own messy spaces–created by us. These spaces must have different roots that QS, even if they have similar purposes: the collection and transmission of digital data. And it’s happening. Maybe I’m wrong? (I’m thinking of Sonia’s ITP project here, which I don’t know much about, but seems to fit as a non-QS, but QS-like project).

Perhaps we can find some of this messiness (potential) in the hashtag feminists’ work?

Can hashtag feminism bridge the virtual and the face-to-face?

Hashtag feminists are creating their own data points—perhaps they are fulfilling Abreu’s “dream of a feminist data future.” But where will those points ‘live’ in the future (other than in Twitter’s API that is not accessible).

And maybe we’re not looking towards a feminist data future but instead we are already thinking & creating in a feminist data reality? This seems probable, especially after reading Susana Loza’s article; I’d say this feminist data reality is imperfect, but it is occurring. Even Loza points out that hashtag feminism is imperfect, is in progress, and is very messy. But it’s also generating rich conversations. Educating (some) people. Making issues, rifts, inadequacies visible. Pushing for a more intersectional way not only of thinking, but also of being.

But I can’t help to worry: Are the divisions within the feminist movement (not to talk about the feminist and transgender women movement rifts) are impeding the advent of a non-white-male-centered data-logical turn?

Loza’s piece highlights an important part of hashtag feminism’s work (for me, maybe not for all hashtag feminists): the ability to connect online and offline activism. This interconnectedness seems like a natural extension of hashtag feminist’s work; taking digital conversations and translating them into face-to-face work. I found this piece (on my Twitter feed) about the importance of net neutrality for black online spaces. The piece cemented these ideas about how what happens online creeps into our face-to-face spaces.

In a Digital Age, (Black) Feminism Demands an Open Internet, Malkia Cyril quotes a section of Alicia Garza’s speech at NetGain, a conference focused on building partnerships for a stronger digital society. During her presentation, Garza, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, shared this: “Black Lives Matter is much more than a hashtag—it is an organizing principle. It’s more than a moment, it’s a movement for Black lives.” Garza also shares: “We’ll know that Black Lives Matter when we all have access to digital spaces that create open spaces, work for all of us, and do not criminalize us.”

Notably, Garza points to the interconnectedness of our online and offline lives. How who we are online/what conversations we start and are a part of/the hashtags we produce and reproduce–that they matter in real life too. And this is not only important for #blacklivesmatter. It’s also key for #girlslikeus, #translivesmatter, and other conversations that may not have specific hashtags associated with them.

It’s worth noting that Jessie Daniels has been writing a series of blog posts that critique white feminism’s response to inequality or what Daniels calls “the trouble with white feminism.” While this series is not solely focused on cyber-racism or digital identities, Daniels writing is closely related as it illuminates the power of the media/images/discourse and how ideas that seem natural (white feminism) need to be unpacked, challenged, and reworked. Daniel’s work (not just in this series) is a strong example of the intricacies of digital identities. Her work, and that of others (like Loza, Lee, and Abreu) demonstrate how conversations about feminism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia that take place online are serious and can have serious implications for what is happening offline.

Maybe it’s because I follow many of these activists in my (constructed) Twitter feed. Or maybe I’m an idealist. But I see value/productive power in these virtual conversations; even the messy ones, the ones where I want to scream: Are you kidding me, you’re actually writing this (potentially ignorant stuff) for all to see?!?!?!? I believe that digital conversations can move off the screen and into our face-to-face conversations.

It’s also important to remember that not everyone can or is taking part in these online/hashtag conversations (hashtag feminism is not for everyone).  Janet Mock brings up a similar point in a recent blog post about the violence affecting the trans women of color community. While some trans women of color, including Mock, have become visible via the media, many others are still invisible–and transphobia, racism, violence, and hatred persist.  Mock writes: “What we can’t expect this visibility to do is cure our society of its longstanding prejudice, miseducation and myths surrounding trans women.” As such, conversations that are happening in digital spaces also needs to occur in-person. And they must include a wider audience–in attempts to continue to counter prejudice and miseducation.

‘Choosing’ to own my labor

When Ofek, Blog Editor of biology-online.org asks Danielle Lee to commit to a non-paying guest blogging spot—she says NO–as she does not want to work for free. In response, Ofek calls Lee a ‘whore.’ The idea that this editor (a man) would call her a ‘whore’ because she values her labor (and wants to control how she uses it) is disgusting. This interaction reflects how the labor of some people (who are often women, queer, trans, low-income, brown or black) continues to be taken for granted/under- or devalued/appropriated—by those who sit in the inner circle (this is a reference to Dorothy’s Smith’s work who critiques sociology’s white/male inner circle and its power to make decisions on what types of knowledge is taught/published/learned).

I can’t help but to think about Marx and his idea that the excess (surplus) labor of the proletariat results in profit for the bourgeoisie. In choosing not to work for free, Lee is (perhaps) preventing Ofek (and his site) from making money off of her education/insight/expertise–the ‘bourgeoisie’ who benefit in this concept of surplus labor. While Lee has a ‘choice’ here, she and many other people with marginalized identities do not always (often?) have this choice. An by choosing not to give away her labor for free, Lee is taking a risk (which we can clearly see in

It’s ironic that this conversation is taking place online–so perhaps to connect back to Loza’s article and Garza’s points above, she is helping make visible the invisible and connecting online and offline issues of sexism, racism, exploitation….and many more.

4 thoughts on “Aren’t ‘we’ already constructing a ‘feminist data future’?

  1. Sissi Liu

    Rachel,

    Thank you so much for your wonderful thought-provoking post. To echo what you wrote, I want to share with you a facebook post from one of my closest friends, who is also an academic based in the US (now in UK on a fellowship grant). She is now volunteering at an educational and community center in London. Below is the full quote:

    If nothing else, volunteer work has taught me to be more aware of inequalities and our privilege. While explaining to a frustrated client (who only has a land line) that I did call her but could not reach her (to let her know the Age UK rep could not come today), I blurted out “maybe you can give us your mobile number so that we could reach you more easily in the future.” She exploded. And I am ashamed of my insensitivity. She said she barely has money to pay for heating, much less a mobile phone. And the reason why she was not home to answer the phone was because she was out working and also applying for government housing benefits (our centre is one of her most important stops of the day).

    Being the ‘face’ of an organization at the reception desk means frustrated clients usually take it out on me. And I am learning to be more sensitive, to be a better ally, to listen. Simply having someone who talks to them as a human being means a great deal to them. All their frustrations. All their trauma. Being an ally takes WORK (intellectual, emotional, social).

    In terms of digital culture, it is ridiculous that government agencies are asking the most marginalized and vulnerable communities to visit their websites for forms and information when they are precisely the people who don’t have access to a computer and Internet.

    P.S. We are an educational and community centre that serves women of color, victims of rape, domestic violence, Female Genital Mutiliation (FGM), immigrants, low-income residents.

  2. Joseph Paul Hill

    For some reason I hadn’t thought of the podcast in relationship to this, but your point definitely brings it up for me. In the Colgate situation, I think that the decision of the professors to renounce their anonymity on Yik Yak was an extremely effective tactic. The Colgate professors used the app subversively to make their presence known and attempt (perhaps successfully, perhaps not) to change the content of the conversation. It definitely strikes me as a Big Brother strategy–very Foucauldian panopticon. But maybe that’s the way to go. I have to wonder, would these individuals make such overt sexist and racist (and homophobic and transphobic and other such prejudiced) comments if they thought their mothers were reading them? As members of the community, we need to make known that such viewpoints are not taken lightly.

  3. Rachel B Post author

    I like this, not what’s going on, but your thoughts about how to address online racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc — why aren’t people checking the box (or take a similar action). For me, part of this issue is about accountability, especially when we cannot hold people making online comments accountable. Who is working to hold people, like Joe Colonel, accountable for their actions? And what strategies are effective? And why aren’t people checking boxes? I wonder if, in part, it’s because digital identities, while constructed and not always reflective of embodied identities, are not entirely anonymous (or are they? – I think this is interesting to talk about, especially as digital identities can be constructed as black, brown, queer, female, trans, etc.)

    This makes me think about the podcast we listened to about Colgate and how some of the professors decided to use Yik Yak to address the anonymous racist ‘yaks.’ And while one of the professors commented that he didn’t think, by ‘yaking’ mundane and positive news about Colgate) he was fighting against the racists yaks–but, according to Melissa, he was. Melissa comments that she was moved by the actions the professors took–and she felt supported by their actions, more supported by the Dean of the College.

  4. Joseph Paul Hill

    In the spirit of “making the invisible visible,” I want to bring everyone’s attention to the offensive YouTube comments under DN Lee’s official video response “Saying no thank you & getting called a Wh***” (http://youtu.be/Q9kTZx1vq7c). I’m not sure if any of you chose to check out the video on the YouTube page, but if you do, you can see all of the comments that various users have posted about the video. With very little effort, you should be able to locate the comment from “Joe Colonel” that posted 9 months ago: “Your just a stupid black person who complains just about being black suck it.” I find the content of Joe Colonel’s statement to be even more offensive than his abuse of English grammatical conventions–which, I assure you, I find incredibly upsetting. No one responded to Joe Colonel’s comment. No one gave the comment a thumbs up or a thumbs down. And perhaps it is this fact that upsets me even more. Here is a video with over 239,000 views to date–a video that I’m sure we all agree is an articulate and eloquent response speaking out against a horrific instance of misogynist and racial bullying. Yet in all those views, not one person has taken Joe Colonel to task for what he said. To be fair, I must admit that within the other 700 comments on the video, there has been some discussion about the (in)appropriateness of Lee’s response, but the vast majority of that conversation occurred over a year ago. Joe Colonel’s comment stands near the top of the comment thread entirely unblemished.

    I’m not necessarily advocating for someone to call Joe Colonel out for his offensive remark … well, actually, I most certainly am … but there’s a bigger point to be made. I’ve been wondering why the online war against inequality continues to drag on, and I’m beginning to believe that maybe the reason the war is so tough is that all of the battles are not being taken up. Why hasn’t someone checked Joe Colonel’s comment? Why has the comment space under a pro-feminist YouTube video not been marked out as safe territory? And, just as importantly, what’s the best way to go about addressing Joe Colonel-esque comments? A contentious emotional argument will likely not change opinions, but certainly any attempt to change Joe Colonel’s mind is better than none. Such offensive viewpoints should not go unchecked.

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