How Can We Build Communities in a Potentially Hostile Environment?

Aug 03, 2011 • Culture, Feature, web

We are moving toward a social horizon online. That enables us to have a lot more conversations with a wider variety of people, but it also creates a danger in that we can no longer determine the sort of content that we will put on our sites. Our profiles and what we put on there are governed by the terms of service of start-ups and companies. Even if these reflect our own values, there is always a chance that the company will be acquired, or the media will put pressure on a start-up to change the nature of its content.

However well-intentioned the desire to protect young users from age-inappropriate pornographic content, very often conversations about sexuality and sexual issues become conflated with pornography. It’s a dangerous road that disables people from having the open dialog that give the internet promise. How can sex educators and interested users build any sort of community in a network that could become hostile toward them at any moment? The answer is that right now, we can’t.

In this video, Violet Blue discusses the difficulties her podcast experienced with Apple, the community she built at that was obliterated when their policies became more conservative, and the fragility of trying to build a community around sex online. It’s not a new video, but the words ring true even now — perhaps even more so now:

If you want to see where something is at its most fragile, or where someone is at their most hypocritical, make the conversation about sex. Outlets like and other places I’ve been since then, and other people have as well, they create a terms of service: ‘you will not violate these terms.’ But it’s always very loosely defined, loosely prescribed. It’s more, we either contextualize sex if it’s bad, or we pretend that it’s not going on at all. So we either get rid of it, we don’t want to talk about it, or we just move it away. This is not just something that’s going to continue to make our social media structures fragile, but it’s going to make us very vulnerable as a culture.

[…] We see these wonderful structures built, and we rush them, we go there and we build a community and then something happens: they sell, or turn their backs on their users or they decide that they want to become ‘mainstream,’ not realizing that we’re the mainstream too.

[…] What happened to us? What happened to people me? Where I was running with packs of people who have bold ideas, inventing these amazing things, being at the forefront, and now I’m handing my communities and my value over to gatekeepers? And these things are being built not by leaders, but by followers. So why are we doing this?

[…] You have the power to change this, too. I think one of the things that could help change this is the harm-reduction approach to social media. And it’s not a “Just Say No” approach, it’s applying different standards to different communities, and letting the communities decide what the level is of what is harmful and what is not harmful, and giving people the tools to assess for themselves, instead of letting gatekeepers decide for us what’s OK to talk about, what’s OK for us not to talk about.

A harm-reduction approach, I think that would help. If we could people to build this idea into their systems — please look harm-reduction up, take out the rhetoric about drugs and apply sex, because in America, we are so Puritanical, people are making us think about sexuality as a drug. It’s not accurate. It’s not true. It is one of the things that keep us connected to our bodies. Our hearts, our minds, our passion and our human sexuality. It is an intrinsic and beautiful part of our human circuitry. And they keep telling us it is not beautiful and I’m going to keep telling you it is.

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