Last week I woke up to yet another PM from someone I've come to admire from afar on tildes. This was a user I'd seen many times on Tildes, bringing with them a unique and powerful voice. This...
Last week I woke up to yet another PM from someone I've come to admire from afar on tildes. This was a user I'd seen many times on Tildes, bringing with them a unique and powerful voice. This person was a minority. They brought a voice to the table that was like a breath of fresh air - I'd frequently see them enter threads dominated by a single opinion and make everyone challenge their assumptions. They would enter and offer their shoes to anyone who'd like to try them on and get a glimpse into how the world might work for them, should they be brave enough to walk a mile or two.
This is not the first PM I've received from someone who decided this website had become too troublesome to continue participating and it's likely not the last I will see. While it is heartbreaking to see them go, it is equally heartbreaking to me that the reason they are going is often not because people are trying to push them away. By far and large, I see a majority of tildes users actively participating in discussions with good faith. By the results of the last census, increasing diversity was of importance to the majority of users and I do not think they were free-text typing that in without good cause.
This post is one that I've been contemplating in the back of my mind for a very long time now. It first really occurred to me nearly a year ago when a fairly well known person of minority status got banned for being too confrontational and aggressive to the kind of voice they didn't want to see on Tildes. I wasn't sure how to address it at the time, and I wasn't entirely certain it would be a problem, but the year since this post I've become hyper aware to its existence in a way I wasn't previously. In fact, I've had a bit of this conversation on more than one outlet on the internet already, because my recognition of this behavior has had me upset many times since. To this extent, I thank that user, because it truly did open my eyes to a behavior which I believe is self-sabotaging, but often genuine in nature.
I believe the simplest way to explain what is happening is through the law of large numbers. While not everyone responded to the 2020 Tildes Census (in fact I would imagine maybe 10% of us did), I'm going to use it as a model to touch on these issues. There were a total of 350 responses to the survey. Of this 86% were male, 67% were heterosexual, 75% were atheist or agnostic (50, 25 respectively), 52% were from the US, and 47% identified as white or Caucasian. I point all of this out to say that as a population we tend to trend towards a particular kind of individual. To be clear, this isn't necessarily bad - we are still quite a small website and we need to start somewhere with a base we know how to pull from.
But this does present a unique problem when it comes to interaction. Let's imagine for a second that 1 in 100 individuals has some sort of problematic behavior on Tildes that manages to find its way into discussion. This behavior might be that they have a strong intolerant opinion on a specific subject but manage to obscure it enough to get past the intolerance detecting capabilities of others. Or perhaps their views are not intolerant, but they simply possess a strong opinion on how something should be worded or an aversion to a particular kind of venting. Because I don't want to throw anyone under the bus I'm going to pull from an upsetting behavior I used to have in my childhood - I couldn't shut my mouth when people would bring up that women make '70 cents on the dollar'.
It's very hard for me to look back and definitively say it was one shaping experience that led me to behave like that. If I had to attribute this shameful behavior, I think there's a few major players. First off, I grew up in an upper middle class family who happened to be located in an area that was very homogeneous. I went to school with the children of tech millionaires, many of whom were white and quite privileged. I think there were a grand total of 4 people of color in my middle school. Things got a lot better once I had made it to high school (by numbers, whites were in the minority), but there's a subtle cultural indoctrination that happens through absorbing what you hear from parents and teachers at a young age. As a young child, I also latched on to early internet behavior. People who were pedantic about grammar, who could use logic effectively, and otherwise followed the rules that rich white people before them set up as the 'correct' way to do discuss were revered on the internet. I remember when being the grammar police was behavior that was actually celebrated. This kind of mindset lead me to read into the research on the matter (also primarily conducted by rich white folks, another bias I'm trying to undo in my life) and the modern research suggested that this figure was outdated and poorly controlled.
I was the 1 in 100 users with the problematic behavior. It took me awhile to learn that I wasn't helping anyone out by offering this information up (turns out there were a lot of people already doing the same work I was and people are smarter than I gave them credit for), but that only scratches at the surface of the real problem. The real problem is that I didn't have the lived experience of a woman entering spaces where this discussion was happening. I wasn't the woman who received less pay than their colleagues, who put in more hours, who spoke up but was talked over, whose ideas were restated by their male peers, or who clicked on an article link talking about pay inequality or women's rights and how far we still have to go and was met with hostile comments. I didn't know how soul-crushing it could be to be met with nearly the same resistance in every public sphere where this was being discussed. I didn't know how tiring it was to have to justify my existence and to explain my struggles to those who hadn't lived the same life as me. I didn't know how heart wrenching it would feel for someone I valued, trusted, and loved to express opinions like these years after I had built up a strong bond with them and for them to be entirely unaware of the damage they were causing.
To be clear, when I say understand I mean to have either experienced it directly enough to begin to actually place myself in the shoes of others or heard about it enough for their experience to truly sink in. It's one thing to acknowledge and know that this behavior exists, it's another to live it and see it first hand on a day where you're hanging on by a thread. To truly understand how mentally exhausting it can be to treated this way was something that escaped my comprehension because I could only live this experience through the words of others. I didn't really start to appreciate this until I got older, because I started recognizing how universal this experience truly was. I don't think I know a single female who doesn't have a story of sexual assault - the rate at which they respond with something in their lives is a stark reminder of how far we still have to come.
What I knew, but didn't truly understand is that if 1 in 100 users have problematic behavior and 1 in 100 users are transgender, we have an equal number of transgender individuals as we do users with problematic behavior. I want you to stop here and reread the last sentence and really absorb it before moving on. Ask yourself what problems might arise by these inequality existing.
In this hypothetical we have an even number of individuals who are going to participate in a thread about a transgender issue as we have transgender individuals. If even 1 of these transgender individuals decides they do not want to engage with this behavior, we're on a downwards slope to eventually having nearly no transgender representation as now they are outnumbered and their voice is more likely to be drowned out by the problematic individuals. As less and less people of the minority engage, because they are discouraged by the expressions of the problematic individuals, less people will wish to engage as the threads become increasingly more hostile.
The problem we have on tildes is that the only way I see for us to become more diverse is to ask for more from those who have, to protect those who do not. I'm calling on everyone to pay closer attention to the intended audience of a thread. We need to look at how discussions are happening throughout the entirety of a thread and do a better job being welcoming of the minority opinion. We need to elevate and celebrate the voices of the minorities in these threads so that they are equal in paradigm to the voices which counter theirs. If a thread's topic is about a minority class such as gays we need to ensure that gays get an equal voice - if one person is dominating replies to gays in the comments, we need to be good allies and help balance the scales.
We also need to stop and think about how these discussions usually play out on the rest of the internet. Do you ever see something like this on twitter and go "definitely not checking the comments"? We need to pay attention to this, and strive to ensure the same doesn't eventually apply to Tildes.
A common example of this that I've seen is present in threads directed at specific minorities. The early discussion in a fantastic thread titled What's hard about being a woman? exemplifies this issue - because there aren't enough women on Tildes, the thread was dominated by male voices. Only one of these individuals were particularly problematic, but there was a hesitation from women I knew to enter this thread because an environment dominated by the male voice is not welcoming. Some of the women who entered this thread were met with replies challenging some of what they said, rather than elevating their voices and celebrating their participation. A small minority of men were in this thread to learn, but weren't aware of how the way they engage with other men on the internet was not appropriate for this venue. They didn't stop to consider that a thread dominated by male voices was neither welcoming nor a good start. If they had merely waited for women to start populating the thread, and replied to them, or opened soft with commentary on what they had seen in women without providing too much analysis they may have made the thread more welcoming.
Another common example of this that I see happened in a thread I posted titled Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. I actually had to stop myself from posting in this thread because I had an inkling that it was going to exemplify the behavior I wanted to address in a thread like this and I didn't want to disrupt what would naturally happen on Tildes absent my intervention. Nearly every reply in that thread criticizes the author for not mentioning that men can have impostor syndrome too. Imagine entering this thread as a woman - even if you emotionally connected with the author on some level, would you bother engaging when highly regarded comments focus on nitpicking the author for not being 'inclusive' enough? As far as I could tell, even the title doesn't call upon the reader to critically examine what imposter syndrome is and who is eligible to suffer from it. It's calling upon the reader to stop telling women that they have imposter syndrome (or to stop others when they make this statement), when the problem is a sexist environment. I've even received recognition from women on Tildes outside of this thread (through DMs and discussions on different platforms) who thank me for posting these threads, but their voice is often conspicuously absent from the thread itself. I do not want to speak on their behalf, but I can guess that a major reason for that is the environment we are creating here on Tildes is not welcoming enough for them to feel it is worth commenting.
The insidious part of this problem is that very often the people creating a hostile environment do not intend to do so. They truly wish to be inclusive. Or they see behavior like this and they don't understand why it's problematic - it doesn't cause a flag to go off in their brain which tells them that they should jump in and fight on behalf of the people they want to protect. But this behavior is slowly causing minority individuals to flee this website. I don't know and cannot know them all, but waking up to PMs about someone else leaving makes my heart sink. Entering threads about the intersectional minorities that I find myself and my loved ones a part of often makes me feel similarly upset, downtrodden, and makes me feel like I want to engage less and less with this platform.
I wish I had an answer. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everything better. To give everyone omniscience, or at least a day's firsthand experience of someone radically different than them. Unfortunately, I do not. I think the best I can offer at this time is this post - a call on all of us to do better; a start of an ongoing discussion on how we can protect the minorities among us so that we can be bettered by their presence.