Gender and social movement scholars have contributed to the expansion of how we think about activism—including enlarging conceptualizations of the targets and tactics of social movements, and recognizing the importance of movement communities and cultures.
Applying these themes to the online setting, my research on feminist mobilization sheds light on how blogs are an important site of activism.
In my research, I found that feminist blogs educated readers about feminism and provided an opportunity to create online communities.
This research was based on mixed methods data collected at three U.S. college campuses, in different regions and with varying activist cultures and student demographics. Despite my initial research focus on offline feminism, I was struck at the importance of the Internet to their feminist mobilization. During my in-depth interviews with a diverse group of feminists, participants spoke frequently about how the Internet was critical to their feminist identities and activism, often in some surprising ways. Their engagement with blogs not only complicates how we think of activism, but it also reveals consistency and change in the feminist movement. This argument is outlined further in my Mobilization article Facebook Feminism: Social Media, Blogs, and New Technologies of Contemporary U.S. Feminism.
Feminists have created an ever-expanding blogosphere, or a network of online feminists and bloggers. Feminist blogs run the gamut from Tumblr or WordPress sites written or compiled by individuals, to large sites with teams of regular editors and contributors. Blogs like Feministing or Racialicious drawing huge followings. The most popular feminist bloggers have authored books about feminism, toured the country, and have become regular columnists in mainstream media outlets such as The Guardian.
Content and themes of feminist blogs typically include responses to current affairs, politics, and entertainment. During times of heightened mobilization, such as with the recent protests against police officer violence or in response to the threat to Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, the blogosphere is unusually abuzz with debate and discussion. Since there are multiple feminist ideologies and approaches to feminism, bloggers certainly do not always agree. However, taken together, the feminist bloggers create a robust and active community of feminists.
My research indicates that participation in the feminist blogosphere is an important form of respondents’ feminist activism. In different parts of the country and at colleges and universities with varying activist contexts, participants reported visiting similar blogs.
Knowledge about a movement is an important part of an individual embracing movement consciousness and becoming an activist. This includes gathering information about movement history, grievances, campaigns, and how its ideologies may be incorporated into everyday life.
Blogs educated participants about the history and current state of feminism. For example, one participant said: “in general [reading blogs] is a good way to get your feminism on, to keep you up to date and informed. Being educated is the best possible way to have weapons on your side.” According to another participant, blogs “help me grapple with feminism, they help me address feminist topics more effectively.”
One research respondent told me about how he was trying to figure out how to be a man and a feminist. Reading feminist blogs allowed him to understand feminist critiques of male privilege. He learned that many men, particularly white heterosexual men like himself, do not have the fear of harassment or assault like women often do. With an understanding of these feminist perspectives, this participant changed his behavior to align with his newfound understanding of feminism and gender inequality.
On blogs, participants reported learning about the feminist waves, critiques of feminist waves, feminist campaigns, and the history of feminism. Although they also learned about feminism from their relatives, high school teachers, and college professors, blogs gave them information that was oftentimes more current than could be found in a book or written by young person with a similar background to themselves.
Community and solidarity among participants are critical components of perpetuating a movement. My research shows that blogs unified individuals from diverse locales. They allowed individuals who felt isolated or alone in their feminism to find others who shared their perspectives, and it confirmed and motivated their activism. One respondent, an African American enrolled at a largely white institution, said that following blogs written by Black and Latina women was “seeking a community who thinks like me.”
Respondents also reported that because of the volume of feminist material available online, feminist blogs allowed them to be more aware of the differences within feminism and the complexities of feminist movements. One respondent said that she considers the six or seven feminist blogs she follows as a “feminist community,” and “I think a lot of activism is coming out of blogs…I don’t know that we are all united in one movement now, but we’re definitely more aware of the differences within the community.”
This online network of blogs allowed participants to feel part of a feminist community and to not feel alone in their commitment to feminism. One participant said: ”[Blogs are] good because they also connect you with a group of people who generally have the same interest as you do, and you get a lot of meaningful and insightful information from them.” Or another student: “Before, [community] was who you went to school with or who was in your geographical community, but [online feminism] expands who is in the community.”
What was most striking about this use of feminist blogs, however, is that participants did not participate in comments sections. Comments sections were seen as “bloodbaths,” according to one participant. With a one-to-many relationship, participants incorporated blog content in their everyday lives. Despite this, participants felt like they were part of a feminist online community.
Reading blogs also facilitated offline engagement. Participants reported speaking about what they read on blogs with their offline friends, roommates, and dorm mates.
Continuity and Change in Feminism
Blogs create a space that is counter to the mainstream and that perpetuates feminist knowledge. According to Frances Shaw, feminist blogs “critique the ideology of mainstream discourses at least partly in order to change them, and participation in this community can be understood as discursive activism.”
Social movement scholars have argued that creating an alternative community in which women and feminist values are highlighted is a key part of feminism. Blogs continue that tradition of feminist activism online. A number of people have also argued that the effect of blogs is similar to those of the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, in that women learn about inequalities and the connections between their individual lives and broader structural forces.
In contrast to previous forms of feminism and feminist media, however, blogs speed up the pace of feminist debate and conversations. Commentary on an important event that occurs in the morning may be all over the feminist blogosphere by noon. This increases the opportunities to learn about and discuss feminist material.
Additionally, anyone with Internet access may start a feminist blog. Given the sheer volume of feminist blogs, the feminist information circulating online is more varied in its perspectives than those printed offline. Blogs give a feminist platform to a diverse array of individuals—who may not have written a popular book, have an advanced degree, or be well networked. On the downside, it also means that there is oftentimes an overwhelming amount of content.
Despite these differences, participation and engagement in the feminist blogosphere is part of a long tradition of feminists relying on community, solidarity, and consciousness-raising. This research contributes to existing conversations about persistence and change in feminism and social movement tactics and strategies more generally. It also raises more questions—how is blog readership part of a larger picture of activism? What is the relationship between blogging and offline activism? What are some outcomes of blog reading? How do participants in other movements use blogs? Is blog reading a generational phenomenon, and if so what does that tell us about the persistence of social movements? Further consideration of blogs will help us continue to expand how we think of activism.