Feminism & the Internet: Connect, Disconnect and Reconnect
Anna Naiyapatana and Pangrum Boon are two of the founding voices behind FeministNhoi, a Thai-language Facebook page and Twitter account advocating for gender equality. However, forming the FeministNhoi platforms, building an online community and witnessing the power of the Internet has its drawbacks.
Here, they discuss the good and bad of activism in the digital age, and how they have been forced to find a balance between online and offline.
In the summer of 2017, I returned to Thailand, from the United States, with a mission: to preach the gospel of feminism to the entire Internet. I wanted to put feminism into the context of female traumas and experiences, after having felt consistently blockaded from expressing my perspective.
Here came my catharsis. It saved my soul, so I wanted other female-identifying souls to be saved, too.
At the time, there was not much content on feminism within Thai social media. I decided to set up a Facebook page under the name FeministNhoi. Then, I made a slideshow, with cute illustrations, that explained what feminism means, in Thai. Finally, I clicked “post.”
Instantly, likes and comments started flooding in. However, one notification was unlike the rest. It was a direct message from an old friend, Pangrum. She expressed an interest in becoming involved with the page. After Pangrum, three other friends on Facebook reached out, and a group chat on Facebook Messenger was created.
Apart from Anna, I had never met other people from the group chat in person, which I didn’t really mind. I grew up in a digital realm; I read, watched and interacted with “people” whom I had no expectation of seeing in physical form.
It didn’t bother me that FeministNhoi existed purely online and that our blue Messenger bubbles were the only way we connected. The growing chain of excited bubbliness wasn’t about to burst just because we were bonding in the digital world. It seemed natural for our connection to grow that way.
Together, we developed content on feminism and gender equality. A couple of weeks into the project, an influencer shared our article on rape culture, and from there, FeministNhoi, and our bubbly bond, blew up. The number of likes grew from a hundred to a thousand, then from a thousand to ten thousand.
For the first few years, we craved that feeling of “blowing up,” of going viral, of being the center of attention. We loved the adrenaline rush of watching live how people were engaging with our content. This was big and we were doing something people responded to.
However, a lot of engagement came in the form of people fighting sexist trolls in the comments. We learned quite early on that the angrier our audiences were, the more popular our content became. But hey, any publicity is good publicity, right?
We loved the adrenaline rush of watching live how people were engaging with our content.
A few years into the project, we gained some clarity into what makes social justice content “engaging.” The content has to be “digestible” -- short and visually-appealing. We continually experienced weak engagement in our longer, more academic content to the point that it became discouraging to keep writing anything longer than a paragraph.
So, we shifted away from Facebook to Twitter; a platform that is designed to keep written content limited to a paragraph, with @FeministNhoi.
If you’re on Twitter, you’re probably well-acquainted with the lifecycle of Twitter drama. It typically goes like this:
A “hot take” about the nature of the world is tweeted.
Next, the tweet becomes “viral.”
For the next few hours, the entire Twitterverse chimes in with their own hot takes. With a 270-character limit, there is no room for a well-thought-out argument. Instead, each of us screams into the void.
Once we collectively let out how angry we are at one messed up aspect of the world, a hot take about another messed up aspect of the world is made, and a new Twitter drama starts.
And, moving on to the next wild wheelie of opinionated fury, the cycle tweets on.
The more we reflected on the few years we’ve been online, the more we realised how much “activism” is shaped by the platform it uses. First, we must come to terms with what the Internet looks like now because, like any other effective power, it invisibly permeates our consciousness.
It is important then to articulate, to make visible, this mode of online communication and how we have come to accept it as natural, with the same expectations and understanding as offline communication; as true.
With a 270-character limit, there is no room for a well-thought-out argument. Instead, each of us screams into the void.
Truth-Default Theory, developed by Tim Levine, suggests that we assume strangers are telling the truth, unless there are some obvious signs that they are lying (which we can’t see in most digital communication), thus digital spaces, like Twitter, provide a perfect platform for assuming strangers are being honest without the context that might refute that.
One context-free, quick-fired hot take is received by fellow Tweeters without the intonation, angry body language, or irritated face of the communicator, which would indicate that what is being shared is a type-based tantrum or a badly-researched emotional outburst.
It’s significantly less common for people to apologise on the Internet for sharing falsities, being deceitful, or rageful ranting, than it is for them to say offline, “I’m sorry I said that. I didn’t mean it.”
We’re all aware that not every overzealous sponsored blog post or product placing post is written with genuine enthusiasm, yet figuring out what is based on true excitement and what is just a marketing ploy is nearly impossible.
In her book, “How to Do Nothing,” Jenny Odell, writes that the Internet runs on “the invasive logic of commercial social media… its financial incentive is to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy and distraction.”
This state is profitable because it keeps us engaged online, albeit distracted from the real world, in search of an escape or, even worse, a solution. It’s not surprising that the most viral tweets are just angry rants about sexism. It’s easy for the public to agree on the lowest common denominator and for platforms like Twitter to capitalise on communal bursts of emotion.
On the Internet, attention functions like capital, being traded for advertising revenue and engagement statistics. Users are rewarded by the platform, whether through a bit of advertising revenue or increased social clout, when they generate content that can hold intense public attention.
The problem is that intense and short lived public attention rarely translates into real, structural change. The financial incentives of social media platforms - that is, to harness as much attention as possible - works against these types of conversations.
When engagement and attention becomes the Internet’s main currency, who would want to spend time creating non-revenue/attention-generating content?
On the Internet, attention functions like capital, being traded for advertising revenue and engagement statistics.
Indeed, four years after FeministNhoi was created, content about feminism on Thai social media went from meager to mighty. The mission I set four years ago was achieved, but seeing feminist discourse everywhere online isn’t emotionally satisfactory.
In fact, being stuck in an unending argument on the Internet is emotionally draining.
Did we gradually become less and less inclined to post content to our accounts, or even just say anything online, due to being oversaturated with other people’s opinions? Why are there such limited forms of how feminism and “social justice” can exist on the Internet? Is this truly the solidarity that we set out to build when we first started out?
The Internet requires of us a performance. It is simply not enough nowadays to believe in something. It is equally as important to perform those beliefs for ourselves and our audiences on the Internet. And in return for these performances, we expect to be rewarded in “engagements,” such as likes, views and shares.
When we take our political stance or perform our political identities, we expect a response from the anonymous audience on the Internet. This validates us in the same way someone would stop walking on the street to listen to a music performer. It makes the performance seem worthwhile.
Being stuck in an unending argument on the Internet is emotionally draining.
We must question if this form of activism - one that feeds off viral tweets or consistent personal branding - is the only form of activism available to us. Is this the path we want to go down? It feels suffocating to be on the Internet.
Imagine if all the conversations you had were just one sentence hot takes on social issues, like reading the headline of an article without reading the article. This form of activism lacks nuance. It lacks the building block of conversations, of discussion, of discourse. This is not where I want to be, nor where I want to go.
I can only imagine what it does to other people who are older than me and do not have access to the same digital literacy skills common among middle class Thais.
The Internet requires of us a performance.
If we continue heading in this direction, I’m afraid we’ll start conflating virality with change. Perhaps, we are already there.
In Bangkok, where I feel like the spaces I can take up, as a young woman, are limited, the Internet offers a safe haven. But, at the same time, I ask myself whether the Internet is still a haven, an exception to whatever happens in “real life,” or has it has become the sole space for our social justice discourse. The medium is not neutral and that matters.
The Internet stopped being my safe space, so I started to disengage from the Facebook page and the Twitter account. Instead, I started spending more time, online and offline, with the other members of FeministNhoi.
With them, I am not FeministNhoi’s founder and spokesperson, who delivers our standpoint on a feminist drama. I’m just Anna, a woman in her early twenties, confused about her life and frustrated with the world she lives in.
With them, I don’t have to perform: I simply am.
In the texts we send and the video calls we have, I feel the sense of catharsis I found when I first learned about feminism, the very catharsis that drove me to start this project. The feminism I sought to spread was not feminist hot takes. It’s the solace and solidarity I found with the people who also believe in the cause of gender equality.
The Internet stopped being my safe space, so I started to disengage.
The relative anonymity of the Internet and social media places emphasis on the individual. Even as a digital native, I find Internet activism so isolating. Indeed, the Internet is amazing for increasing awareness, but at the same time, it also makes us increasingly aware of how small each of us are in the face of these challenges.
The feminism I know has been built on a sisterhood, a community of shared knowledge and care. The community gives me hope, in the dark, that I do not face the fight for change alone.
The feminism I know has been built on a sisterhood, a community of shared knowledge and care.
I have my doubts about whether the Internet is the right space for the necessary change to be made, but I am conflicted because, whilst I’ve long departed the dream that my viral tweets will help build solidarity, I know that disconnecting and escaping is neither possible nor beneficial in this cyborg world.
So, maybe, it is time to reconnect with the women and not-women in our lives. Perhaps, it is together that we can refuse to participate in algorithmic despair and embrace the possibility of actual change.
Anna is the founder of FeministNhoi and an aspiring academic in Asian studies. She is interested in the intersections of gender, religion and ethnicity/nationality.
Pang is a writer and editor for the FeministNhoi team and a recent International Relations graduate working her way through the world. These days, she is reading about (and untangling the relationship between) gender, politics, the attention economy and sustainable fashion.
Illustrations by Blue Rachapradit
Blue is an aspiring illustrator, sometimes poet, living in Bangkok. She is the founder of The F Word art magazine and passionate about the intersection between arts and social activism. You can see more of her illustration as well as her poetry on Instagram at @thisbluecreature