By Hanna Barczyk

“Join our webinar”: Provocations on webinars and feminist ways of knowing

Fully pivoting to online communication during the Covid-19 lockdown has been happening across sectors and industries as well as in our personal lives, with screenshots of Zoom tiles being one of the defining visuals of Covid-19, whether it’s a birthday or a funeral or a classroom or a PhD thesis defense or a team meeting. Feminist and social justice organizations have also understandably found all our work having to move online almost overnight with face to face interactions coming to an almost standstill. This is my reflection on how this shift is affecting feminist ways of knowing and setting precedents for how we might create and share knowledge and use technology to do so in a postpandemic time. With a specific focus on webinars and their platforms.

Everytime I check my email or look at my Twitter feed, there seems to be an onslaught of webinars by nonprofits which makes me wonder who is left to listen. If the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic began somewhere in late March 2020 for many of us, then by the first week of April there were already a number of organizations and collectives organizing webinars. Some were specifically on Covid-19 while others were just scheduled discussions being shifted online. In addition to outward facing engagements like webinars, many organizations and people are also on regular internal conference calls. While communicating online through webinars and conference calls is not new for a lot of people, many of us are realizing that going fully online is a different experience and one that comes with advantages and opportunities but also with compromise of some of our feminist principles, and fatigue and burnout.

Why webinars?

Covid-19 has exposed deep inequalities in society. Many inequalities that feminists have been raising for decades on income, class, caste, race, etc. and how those impact access to healthcare, education, employment and social protection have come to the forefront. There seems to be more clarity and public consensus that capitalism is a system rigged against those most marginalized in our societies and that there is something very wrong with how our worth is being valued through capitalist standards if essential workers like nurses, sanitation workers and informal workers of the gig economy are amongst the most undervalued and underpaid in the labour force. While feminists have clarity on the injustices of capitalism, there is no denial that capitalist conceptions of work, productivity, efficiency, etc. are embedded in our movements, especially the institutions within our movements like nonprofits and donors. This is inevitable when you’re trying to survive within the very systems you’re trying to challenge and dismantle. 

The language and rhetoric of outputs, outcomes, impacts and theories of change drive the power dynamics within the movement and there are explicit and implicit expectations of accountability closely linked to these. While some donors explicitly reached out to their beneficiaries and partners at the start of the pandemic to formally and informally provide more flexibility in how funds can be spent, the implicit expectations of donors and also from within our organizations hang heavy. These implicit expectations, both external and internal, are often of visibility, performance and credibility. A constant pressure to be seen doing and saying things, reaching people, coming up with quick responses and positions (even to a public health crisis of a scale and nature we had not experienced before), running awareness campaigns, and at the same time keep up with regular programming so that we continue to be funded in the future. 

I’d argue that webinars are a meeting place for these various expectations and have thus become a preferred method of creating and sharing knowledge during Covid-19. I’m not suggesting that our organizations and movements don’t have any autonomy. We are very much aware of the needs of our communities and are using technology including webinars to try to serve those needs as much as possible while lockdowns and social distancing slowly eases. There are dominant narratives around the pandemic that are steeped in militarization, racism, sexism, transphobia, etc. that make it critical for feminist narratives and counternarratives to be heard publicly. Platforms like Zoom, Jitsi, Instagram and Facebook Live, Google Hangouts, etc. provide infrastructure and affordances to create and share these feminist voices.

However, I’d still argue that the urgency and sheer number of webinars right now are mostly due to the external and internal expectations of visibility, performance and credibility which do not give us the luxury to slow down, breathe, and take time to regroup before we take things online. As someone who has taken a year off to study, I have a bit of that luxury and these are some provocations to that end. 

Feminist ways of knowing

Feminist activists and researchers are constantly challenging knowledge creation and sharing that is rooted in heteronormativity, hegemonic masculinity and prioritization of intellectual knowledge. Tigist Hussen beautifully explores feminist ways of knowing in a previous edition of GenderIT and asks a few questions about feminist knowledge creation on and about the internet. I think these are essential to ask ourselves as we pivot to webinars or any other technological facilitations of knowledge creation and sharing. 

How can feminist knowledge creation:

“contribute to liberation and transformation of technology to be used in its full capacity by women, gender diverse, and vulnerable groups on basis of race, sexuality, caste, ethnicity etc.?”

“constitute the solution that challenges the regulation, scrutiny, exclusion and disciplining of marginalised individuals?”

“interrogate the actual infrastructure of the internet – from connectivity to hardware to interface – that regulate social, political, economic, cultural and interpersonal behaviour and chokes imagination of alternative ways of relating”

From the outset, most webinars set a hierarchy between “expert” speakers and listeners. Webinar platform affordances by design limit how much freedom listeners have on them and also enable administrators of webinars to further control listeners by switching off cameras and microphones. This often creates a classroom or lecture atmosphere on webinars which is a faithful manifestation of a web+seminar but is often at odds with our feminist praxis. While practical concerns of disturbances are understandable, technology affordances make us do things we otherwise wouldn’t do in physical convenings like mute people. Setting aside a few minutes at the start of a webinar to collectively come up with some common values and guidelines for the space we create could be a more participatory way of agreeing to how we’d engage and behave during a webinar or a conference call. 

Webinars have also resulted in more privileging of intellectual knowledge than we’d usually see in most feminist knowledge creating and sharing. Affordances of the platforms are responsible for this in some part. If the platform takes the form of a classroom, then there’s an assumption that someone who can impart knowledge and has answers to our questions should be speaking. While this can be useful in certain settings, especially when dealing with highly technical topics, it is essential that we play with the formats of our online engagements according to subjects as well as our feminist praxis, and resist conforming to how platform wants us to behave. We must make space for messy conversations and occasional chaos in how we create and share knowledge. 

Access: Who gets to talk? Who gets to listen?

Access in terms of language, ability, connectivity and devices are another important consideration when we think about who gets to speak and participate in webinars. Use of technology including webinars have given us exciting opportunities for transnational solidarity and movement building. However, both within and across countries, there seems to be a prioritization of speakers who can speak in link languages given that most platforms are not equipped for simultaneous translation. This often results in an exclusion of potential speakers and listeners who don’t speak a language like English or have disabilities that require interpretation and transcribing. These exclusions are usually not malicious. Sometimes it’s a lack of funds to hire interpreters so we need to be mindful in our planning and fundraising that moving activities online does not automatically cut down budgets. Donors have a responsibility to provide additional funds in order for webinar organizers to be able to provide more access. 

At other times, it seems to be due to undue focus on being as efficient and productive as possible in a given time period and viewing extra time spent interpreting or transcribing or typing as time wasted or time we don’t have. This requires a shift in mindset. Technology is increasingly designed and built to provide a “frictionless” user experience and we have all gotten used to the conveniences this offers. Friction is “the name given to any quality that makes a product more difficult or time-consuming to use” and eliminating this has made a fundamental difference in our expectations from technology. If we are to practice feminist principles in how we create and share knowledge online, including on webinars, we need to stop perceiving friction as bad. The disability justice and design justice movements are where I’m doing this (un)learning. 

Disability justice activists and scholars speak of crip time, the essential antithesis to capitalist conceptions of efficiency and productivity. Ellen Samuels says crip time “requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world.” Srinidhi Raghavan describes a conference call with a group of disabled women using only text: “The entire process had patience embedded in it, but also a challenge to ‘normative’ ideas of discussion time and pace. No one impatiently typed over others or wanted to ‘move things along’.” Can we imagine webinars and other interactions, online and otherwise, that work on crip time? Can we break out of conceptions of time, pace and productivity that are embedded into us and into technology? Srinidhi frames crip time as “community time” and I think this is key to us creating spaces for feminist knowledge creation and sharing that are true to intersectional feminist praxis. 

The design justice movement provides ways of thinking through our choices in design and technology. In their new book on Design Justice (some chapters available on open access), Sasha Costanza-Chock says we must ask if any affordance in design (including technology/platform design) is equally perceptible and available to all people or “whether it systematically privileges some kinds of people over others”. These questions are useful in order to critically evaluate the (dis)affordances of webinar platforms (or any other platforms and technology we use) and make choices to use, misuse or not use them according to our own values and contexts. Context includes devices being used by our communities, platforms that require less bandwidth consumption, allocating funds to provide reloads or other connectivity assistance that would enable more people to join webinars, allocating funds to pay speakers on a sliding scale, etc. 

Feminist Faultlines and Collective Care

To use the internet for feminist activism is to constantly occupy faultlines. We critique and challenge capitalism on capitalist platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We trade off some of our privacy to use affordable, frictionless and accessible platforms whose business model is based on surveillance and data extractivism. We build feminist autonomous infrastructure and sites of feminist knowledge and solidarity. We co-opt platforms and technology for our activism at the risk of facing hate, violence, censorship, and even incarceration. Just as any kind of knowledge production cannot be fully free of bias, our use of webinars and other modes of communication for feminist knowledge creation and sharing on the internet is also a constant negotiation at these faultlines. And that’s okay.

However, asking ourselves questions like those I posed earlier about external and internal pressures, feminist ways of knowing, crip time as community time, affordances and (dis)affordances of technology, etc. might help us with such negotiations and the consequent choices and decisions we make. They might lead to radical changes in the spaces we create and make them more accessible, caring and pleasurable. They might give us more power to say no to colleagues, partner organizations and donors who want us to constantly engage outwardly and instead be more imaginative in the format of our engagements and less invested in their visibility and frequency. They might allow for more collaborations, chaos and messiness through which feminist ways of knowing can emerge. All of this could perhaps culminate in the spaces we create during and after Covid-19 being rooted in feminist ethics of care and solidarity.

Thank you to my feminist friends who gave me consent to use their tweets in this article and for the pockets of conversations about this here and there.

Featured image by Hanna Barczyk

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