How Niche Sites are Building Safe Spaces and Better Communities
I spoke to the founders and editors of Femsplain, CirclePlus.co, Black Girl Nerds, Thurst and Autostraddle to find out what it takes to create safe spaces online.
The popular saying is “Don’t read the comments.” Whether you’re killing time on the Internet or it’s part of your daily life to create content for it, you’ve encountered a comment section. More than likely, there’s been a comment or two that made you click off the page and swear off the Internet for the day.
During a time when Internet culture is under scrutiny from all angles, certain niche websites are working to turn the tide in their own spaces. Members of marginalized groups are carving out their own corners to discuss the issues that matter to them, and to create a network of people that can communicate about them in a civil and friendly manner. There are websites solely for queer women, women of color and other groups that work to not only address issues pertaining to them, but also to build communities and regulated comment sections — without abuse and harassment.
“Safe space”: it’s an idealistic term. It’s just not a case of “if you build it, they will come.” It takes some work to get a website to a place where users will feel welcome. I spoke to the founders and editors of Femsplain, CirclePlus.co, Black Girl Nerds and Autostraddle as well as the marketing head at Disqus and the founder of dating app Thurst, to find out what it takes to create safe spaces online. I found they each have something in common, following four steps that help to not only let their audience know what they’re getting into, but to also keep potential problem users at a distance.
1. Have a mission for your site
For many of the founders I spoke to, their companies are about filling a void, creating a space for people like them.
“It’s always been difficult for me to feel like I fit in, especially in online media,” said Jessica Kitrick, video producer and founder of the new women-only geek culture site CirclePlus.co. “Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I can’t have an opinion. It’s still an opinion and that opinion should be heard no matter what.”
Each of the women I interviewed expressed a similar feeling of isolation in the Internet community, and hoped to build a place where they and people like them could feel welcome to have open conversations. In Kitrick’s case, it was about carving out a niche for video producers like her who experienced sexism online. Each of the contributors on her site are women and all work to share a unique perspective.
In the case of Black Girl Nerds, it was created because there was no other niche like it. Founder Jamie Broadnax said one night she had gone onto Google looking for a website that was aimed at people like her: women of color who had nerdy interests.
“One of the things I’ve noticed, in respect to nerd culture, it’s becoming very mainstream,” Broadnax said. “Unfortunately we’re not seeing people of color in these spaces. It’s important we see ourselves reflected. Without that, we automatically assume we don’t exist or we’re not valued.”
Femsplain is another women-only site that hopes to allow people to share their stories comfortably and openly. It has featured contributors that write regularly, but also posts a monthly theme that encourages users to submit their own stories. It launched back in October and its mission statement stresses the importance being an inclusive, safe space. “We are providing a safe space to connect, learn and grow with other female-identified people,” it reads in the first paragraph on their site. Founder Amber Gordon repeats that sentiment as well, stating that she wanted to create a website where people can share stories as if they were talking with their close friends or a support group.
“People are so afraid to be real and have that conversation,” Gordon said. “The fact we’re constantly saying ‘you can talk about anything within the realm of the theme’ makes people more comfortable knowing that they’re not going to be judged for it.”
It comes down to fixing a problem. Morgen Bromell, the founder of Thurst, an upcoming hookup app for queer people, said she had issues with other sites like Tinder and OkCupid, which all had something missing for people like her.
“I was just working to solve my own issue, like many women of color, black women directly, have done before me,” Bromell said in an email. “This space is only coming to fruition because I believed that I deserved it, nothing more.”
On each of the websites, there is a mission statement and all stress the “safe space” idea, whether it’s CirclePlus.co saying it’s a site “for everyone, by women,” or Autostraddle’s focus on creating “an accepting and supportive environment.”
Kitrick said that you need to know the rules before you start. “Take your time and don’t rush it because it’s something that needs to really take its time and breathe.” By emphasizing the idea early on and making that a key focus of a website’s existence, the founders have managed to attract an audience that understands the rules. To have a website with regulations that are well-advertised not only helps management to know what to allow, but also helps users to understand what to look out for and what to expect.
2. Moderate the comments
Photo CC-BY Howard Lake, cropped.
You can hope that people will behave, but there will always be someone that steps out of line to either make a point or to actively or inadvertently insult others. The fear is valid, with a 2005 report by the Pew Research Center stating that despite women and men logging a similar number of hours online, there is still a disproportionate amount of hate directed towards women.
Each site has their own way of moderating comments. Gordon stated that all comments are moderated through the Disqus platform, with each one requiring approval before appearing live. Site administrators also police social media, keeping track of relevant tweets and Facebook posts.
Fortunately, in a lot of these cases, the comment sections can be partially self-sustaining. Disqus has an upvoting system that allows users to rate comments. If a user is flagged too many times, they get put on a blacklist. Higher-rated users get rewarded with automatically getting published and being highlighted as a productive member of the community. There are also built-in filters that automatically flag certain words, which moderators can tailor to their needs. Black Girl Nerds, for example, relies heavily on the filters to automatically blacklist commenters. Other commenting platforms utilize similar features, such as the WordPress plug-in.
Overall, while it’s meandering and sometimes toxic to have to go through comments, it’s an important aspect of keeping an online community together. All of Autostraddle’s contributors police the comment section, for example, as a way to make sure things stay on track.
“Lack of moderation policy in community rules is the number one flaw we see communities make in terms of creating an environment that is accessible,” said Steve Roy, head of marketing at Disqus, which is also seeking to open a new forum community called Squid in the next few months. Similar to Reddit, it will have sections that people can contribute to, such as topics like romance advice. At the moment, it is only open to email-verified users, but when it is fully launched and anybody can join, there will be some more moderation needed. Roy said though there’s no shortage of people willing to help, with the site getting 50 to 70 applications a day for moderator positions.
People want to be involved in online discussions and “want to make the Internet a little better of a place,” he said.
3. Communicate with coworkers and readers
Kitrick stresses the idea of communication in how her site operates. She is frequently in contact with contributors regarding content that is supposed to go up and how it is presented on social media. Twitter and Facebook fan pages are monitored and communication lines are always open between members in the event that a debatable topic is approached.
“If [the writers] say things that are controversial, we send them a private message so we can stand behind them,” Kitrick said. “Not having support is one of the worst things that can happen to you.”
Autostraddle, Black Girl Nerds, and Femsplain all engage not just with each other, but with the readers. The comment sections are open for people to create discussions, but they are also there so writers can communicate with users. It helps with not only building an audience and steering a conversation in the proper direction, but also with moderation.
“For our readers, to know that we’re there and we’re reading and responding and someone’s online keeping an eye on what people are saying, it helps the place stay a little safe,” said Autostraddle co-founder Riese Bernard.
Bernard added that often times, the moderators don’t have to do much moderating because the users will do it for them. By communicating the policy for what’s allowed, people can do a lot of the work themselves.
“In general, we have amazing readers who have so much empathy and interest. They just really blow me away,” she said. “In general, we have a community who listen to each other and who want to learn from each other.”
Roy agreed. “Moderating in the public leaves a sign to others who may see ‘this type of behavior is not allowed here. I’m not going to try it,’” he said.
It’s important to have a public and explicit moderation policy, whether it’s expressed in the comments or in the site’s mission statement. Bromell said that Thurst will have a “zero-tolerance policy” for harassment. She added that action will be taken on people identified as abusers, with administrators possibly removing them from the app, along with providing help for victims.
“I’ve seen women of color especially dealing with unreal levels of harassment…and it’s clear to me that certain security features are a necessity, not just a side attribute of a safe platform,” she said. “You can’t have a safe space without a clear plan on how to maintain that sense of safety.”
4. Build a community
No comment section is perfect. There are always going to be people who disrupt them. The best thing you can do is make sure you have a proper community that can protect itself from any toxic comments.
“There will always be shitty commenters saying shitty things,” said Bernard. “There’s no perfect ecosystem. You can try to do your best.”
Besides being a place where people can leave a note for an author, the comment sections on these sites have become part of the network that runs them. People have met in the comments, have had productive discussions, and therefore, are willing to contribute. Autostraddle holds community meetups that build off of their comment sections. Gordon said that Femsplain comment sections help people to bond over personal stories, and Broadnax has received positive feedback from users.
Moderation platforms such as Disqus have upvoting systems so that users can police the sections themselves. Roy said that people don’t want to be that outlier who needs to be downvoted, that there is a nine to one ratio of upvotes to downvotes.
“People are there either for the quality of the discussion or interactions with other people,” he said.
In the end, while many sites do away with comment sections (The Verge recently announced that they’re doing away with the comments temporarily for a “chill summer.”), it’s important for many that they exist. As long as they’re moderated and built from the ground up as a safe place, there is a lot of good to be had.
“What we’re doing is building a community, bonding over a single piece of content,” Gordon said. “It would be such a shame to stop a connection like that from happening.”