Do We Need Websites For Women?

The news that women's blog Double X is being folded back into Slate has sparked both disappointment and relief, but for us it raises the inevitable question: what's the point of a women's blog anyway?

I frequently find myself having this conversation with people who've just found out what I do for a living. They ask, isn't writing for a women's blog ghettoizing? Shouldn't we just have blogs for everybody? Of course, this debate is both older and broader than the blogosphere. Critics have long asked why we have women's colleges, women's studies, awards just for women. Shouldn't women be equal players in a diversified world, rather than one divided up into compartments?

I'm always a little uncomfortable having this debate in the real world because I'm so obviously biased — this particular blog not only lets me write about feminism and Battlestar Galactica but actually pays me to do it, so even if sometimes I have to spend all night reading about Sarah Palin's energy policy (curse you, Lynn Vincent), I'm pretty pro-ladyblog. I do, however, understand some of the cons. The question of what's a safe space and what's a ghetto remains a concern, not just for women but for all marginalized groups. More specifically blog-related is the problem of the echo chamber. In a recent New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert explained it thus:

Conservative blogs like Power Line almost always direct visitors to other conservative blogs, like No Left Turns, while liberal blogs like Daily Kos guide them to others that are also liberal, like Firedoglake. A study of the twenty most-visited blogs in each camp in the months leading up to the 2004 Presidential election found that more than eighty-five per cent of their links were to other blogs with similar politics. When the study's authors charted the links in graphic form, they came up with a picture of non-interaction-a dense scribble on one side, a dense scribble on the other, and only the thinnest strands connecting the two. In 2006, [author Cass] Sunstein performed his own study of fifty political sites. He found that more than four-fifths linked to like-minded sites but only a third linked to sites with an opposing viewpoint. Moreover, many of the links to the opposing side's sites were offered only to illustrate how "dangerous, dumb, or contemptible the views of the adversary really are."

Kolbert goes on to chart the role of such like-minded link-fests in making people's views more extreme, but there's something intrinsically sad about the compartmentalization of Internet speech as well. As nice as it is to feel comfortable with one's audience (though, with the presence of trolls, no blogger can ever feel too comfortable), it can sometimes be hard to find a place on the Internet where people with different opinions come together to talk rationally and learn from one another. Part of this is because the Internet can make an asshole out of anyone, but part of it is because the blogosphere encourages like to seek out like, and can sometimes feel like a whole bunch of separate choirs, each listening only to its own preacher.

But all that said, there are ways in which Internet speech is actually more open and free than earlier forms. In Planned Parenthood NYC's panel discussion a few weeks ago, Lynn Harris and her fellow panelists pointed out that blogs are the 21st-century version of 1970s consciousness-raising groups, except that they are public. You no longer have to personally know a feminist or drive to her living room to learn about feminism — you can access it anywhere there's WiFi. And what's more, you don't actually have to show your face. This is problematic, in that it allows people to say things they'd never say if they were actually personally accountable. On the other hand, it's liberating — the scared and unsure can expose themselves to new ideas and new politics slowly, without the barriers to entry that once existed. Sites may still link to like-minded sites, but Google makes it easier than ever to stumble across new viewpoints, and accidental enlightenment is more possible than ever before.

Because of these possibilities, women's blogs aren't just blogs for women. They're blogs about issues that affect women — issues as various as reproductive rights, healthcare reform, world affairs, and yes, Battlestar Galactica — for anyone who happens to read about them. Many of these readers are women, but many of them are men, and some of them — both male and female — are bound to be people who haven't thought much about feminism or women's issues per se before. Women's blogs can sometimes be echo chambers, but they can also reach a wide and diverse audience, some of whose minds will surely be opened by the experience. So I'm sad about the scaling-back of Double X, not just because some bloggers are likely to lose their jobs (an email tipster tells us associate editor Samantha Henig already has), but because it will mean fewer opportunities for women's issues to reach new readers. The Internet may be a divided and divisive place, but it's easy to move across its divisions, and a women's blog is really just a public space for women's concerns. With a smaller Double X, those concerns are a little less likely to be heard.

News About DoubleX [Double X]
Slate's DoubleX Online Site For Women To Shut Down [WebNewser]

Related: The Things People Say [The New Yorker]