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Why Is It So Hard for Women to Find Safe Spaces Online?

Photo: Christoph Hetzmannseder/Getty Images

The shitty-men-in-media list has always existed.

It’s just that prior to this week it didn’t exist in the form of an open-source spreadsheet viewable by anybody with the right link. Women — and some allies — always kept tabs. It was a mental list, well-tended-to and seemingly ever-growing. Hear about somebody sending unsolicited dick pics? Add them to the list. About somebody physically abusing their significant other? Add them, too. Sometimes the list would get cross-referenced, you’d learn the same guy who physically blocked you from leaving the bar after office happy hour and asked if he could go home with you and your partner and “watch” had also harassed another female colleague. And so the list grew and spread. The allegations on it no more or less the truth by word of mouth than they would have been on paper.

But this week, the list took on a physical manifestation. An unnamed person started a Google spreadsheet, naming dozens of men in media and publishing and alleging actions from creepy flirting and gross DMs to physical violence and rape. The list — the original has since been taken offline, though screenshots of it, and a re-created version, are still circulating — had clear instructions. Add your piece anonymously, take everything with a grain of salt, do not name accusers, and don’t ever show the list to a man.

This list was, as it had been when it was the mental product of hushed conversations with other women, a guideline: Watch Out for These Men. But when it took on digital form, it became something else, too: a place where women felt safe to candidly share the things they so often can’t safely discuss in the real world. The women who were sharing and contributing seemed to be adding to it not only out of a crusading sense of justice, or a practical sense of protecting other women, but also out of relief that there was finally a place to share. The internet had given what was once decentralized gossip and rumor a shape and stable home.

But gossip and rumor with shape and stability can be weaponized very easily, and as the document made the rounds, women raised concerns about the consequences of creating an anonymously sourced list of criminal accusations. Early Thursday morning, BuzzFeed published a piece entitled “What to Do With ‘Shitty Media Men’?” The piece didn’t really answer its own question, so much as confirm the list existed and wallow in the ambivalence that so many people felt about it. Was this spreadsheet an indispensable tool for protection? A necessary support group? A libelous weapon?

The problem was that in publicly confirming the list — it’s worth noting it was taken down prior to BuzzFeed’s story — the document immediately lost any possibility of being a place where women could freely discuss their trauma. In bringing it out to the wider world it became something else — something much more pointed, much more unwieldy, and in many ways the opposite of what it was intended to be.

And that’s not just a shitty-media-men list-specific problem. That’s an internet-wide problem. Once you build a community — a crowd-sourced list, a Facebook page — you also perfectly package it to be infiltrated, shipped off, and shared with outsiders. In this week’s case … shared in neatly organized columns and rows with red highlights to differentiate alleged rapists from alleged sleazebags. The same web-enabled power that allowed the list to grow as fast as it did, and spread as far as it did, would also be the same power that would undo it.

There’s a reason Facebook retooled its mission statement this year to be about “the power to build community.” It’s what the internet has always been good at — bringing together groups of people and giving them a sense of belonging, a sense of security, and a sense of being a place where someone can speak openly.

But historically, spaces like these, specifically spaces like these built for and by women, have not panned out well. “Binders Full of Women,” an invite-only Facebook group created for women, genderqueer, and nonbinary journalists following Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential debate gaffe become a source of great debate several years back after its existence was made public in a Poynter article. More recently, Facebook’s “UES Mommas” melted down after arguments over racism were screenshotted and shared beyond the confines of the group. Walls around these internet spaces are like two-way mirrors. Those within the group can see out, but they’re protected because those outside the group can’t see in. But mirrors, obviously, are easy to crack, and once they are, it’s all but impossible to repair them.

And like that, the list stops being a community and returns to the form in which it’s always existed — the whispered warnings of a group kept on the margins of power.

Why Is It So Hard for Women to Find Safe Spaces Online?