I know what it feels like to be in an environment built for women. At the all women’s college I attended, the staircases were designed for the average woman’s stride, hallways for the width of women walking side by side, and landscapes with particularly placed hills to evoke community and health for women. It is empowering and beautiful to be in a place resplendent with tools and furnishings that acknowledge your experience and perspective. Often it can be subliminally alienating to interact with environments or tools made without you in mind, and even deadly as the history of seat belt design shows.
Virtual realities are no different. Our digital lives weave through systems architectures, tools, interactions and pathways, all of which exist in an Internet coded almost entirely by men for men. The dearth of marginalized groups in tech is well-documented and widely known. In response, organizations like Black Girl Code and Coalition for Queens have sprouted, valiantly building a pipeline of women and people of color in a field stark white and clad in cheetos-stained band shirts. On trend, New York City announced that compulsory computer science courses will be instituted in the next decade, giving more than 1.1 million students basic knowledge of programming; exposure is a promising step.
However, It’s not enough to have more a more diverse student body in computer science. They need to become the builders, and with diverse builders will come a fragmenting dudeweb. The release of two women-designed tools – Just Not Sorry and HeartMob – are doing just that. Users of all kinds are beginning to understand the possibilities that come with a more representative tech pipeline. Women leading tech companies and programs have subtle yet insidious effects on the current state of the digital world, upending the traditional power structures that have made their way online. These new architects and funders are and will design spaces for people like them to exist in, digital worlds constructed for people of color, women, non-gender conforming individuals to feel comfortable, confident, and safe.
UX/UI designer Caroline Sinders has been researching and designing exactly this. Central to her work on social media sites are the questions: What if the platform architect, the moderator, and the user experience designer of this digital space don’t understand the nuances in microaggressions, the distinctions within gendered experiences, and the implicit (and often explicit) violence of online harassment? How do these platform developers and administrators ensure equitable, enjoyable, and safe experiences of the digital spaces they build?
Look at Twitter and every other major social media site. They’re created by the young white tech dude demographic, and their attempts at addressing gendered or racial harassment are ad-hoc and misguided. They’re the wrong balance of paternalistic and tech-bro libertarianism, and ultimately spark little confidence. We shouldn’t trust the builders, the testers, and the moderators of today to anticipate experiences they’ve not had and to prevent structural violence they’ve never felt the sting of. This is why Caroline Sinders prototypes small tools and platform modifications on Twitter and other social media sites that alter security and create norms of empathy, discourse, and acceptability.
“We’ve built Twitter somewhat incorrectly,” Sinders explains. “We’ve built it, effectively without seat belts, without more nuanced degrees of safety. There’s more to language and conversation than being ‘public’ or private’ and there’s more to users’ needs than such a binary state. What would happen if our engineers, designers, producers, and executives looked and sounded like our user base? How would that change the way in which we make things? Users have a variety of ends. Let’s give them tools to match those needs.”
Beefing up a pipeline of marginalized groups in tech will have profound effects in the tools we have and the environments we experience online. And we’re already seeing that today. I’m stoked.
Case in point: Recently while sending out a slew of emails, I hit a personal milestone. Since downloading the Google Chrome plug-in Just Not Sorry in December 2015, this email tool underlines words or phrases commonly used by women to qualify their statements. Over the course of a month I’ve brought those squiggly underlines on weaker language down to nil in most emails. I had no idea how often I undercut my opinions and beliefs with: just and I think, my two main offenders. Full disclosure, I was an early supporter of Just Not Sorry’s launch, and I’m not apologizing about that.
I’ve come to realize how endemic qualifying language is through following Just Not Sorry. Designed by women who noticed how often women (including themselves) used detracting, gendered language, this tool helps many of us be more linguistically purposeful. Within thirty days of launching, the plug-in had 100k downloads, and I’ve seen it celebrated by a number of personal connections. Many have responded with ways to expand the tool by adding phrases like if you have the time and when you have a chance. In a different direction, men have asked me if there could be a plug-in that helped them use softer language. In my personal use, every email visually confronts me with my learned language and expression habits, and by the time I hit send, the right message, intention, and tone have coalesced. And when I do consciously choose to use I’m sorry it means that much more.
Tools that enable us to make informed choices and subvert internalized patriarchy are rad. So are those that help us build online communities. At the end of January, Hollaback! harnessed their tools and research on street harassment around the world to launch HeartMob. Combating online harassment, much like street harassment, rests on a few fundamental pillars. The first is data collection. HeartMob enables survivors and bystanders of online harassment to report harassment experienced across platforms. While cultural norms within platforms vary and companies half-heartedly analyze online harassment, collecting cross-data on the Internet is a revolutionary step in creating broad solutions, commitments, and codes of conduct. Moreover, HeartMob cultivates a community of advocates and supporters, directly targeting the alienation within online attacks and digital mobs. Platforms created around the needs of marginalized groups promise ripple effects, changing the way users experience and what they demand from the Internet at large.
As platforms and tools are developed by emerging tech players, I’m confident that these architects will profoundly shape both on and offline experiences. My verbal qualifying language has significantly diminished thanks to Just Not Sorry. This new breed of tech leaders is united in that they’re looking to build the world and the tools they want, both of which have been unrepresented and unconsidered. They’re building the seat belts they need and they want. Customizations, new features, later versions and iterative processes are around the corner. For now, we can be sure that diverse experiences will make a more fragmented and equitable Internet we should all opt into.
About the author: Kacie Lyn Kocher works at the intersection of tech, economic development, and community building. On top of her work in telecommunications, crowdsourcing stories of harassment, and civic engagement apps, she’s a self-taught painter and printmaker interested in creative and participatory urban planning programs. Like many Texans, Kacie made her way to Brooklyn. It’s the pitstops in her journey through Morocco, Boston, Istanbul, and London that shape her unique outlook on the endless possibilities of sustainable development and engagement.