Sisterhood of the Traveling Safe Spaces

Where women gather online

Photo: Stefan Schmitz/Flickr

There are a couple rules to follow when you’re a woman online: don’t take the comments (or the mentions) (or the reblogs) personally; block liberally; and find a safe space. But in an Internet where every woman can find her own version of sisterhood — or, barring that, start her own — a jaded eye knows no “safe space” can ever stay “safe” for long.

“Safe space” has itself become something of a buzzword, online and off. The definition is amorphous, just like many of these spaces themselves. “Private” and “safe” mean very different things online, even as most are used interchangeably. “Private,” of course means requiring an application or a password to access; “safe” can apply to any platform, group, site or game that allows users to, at least for a little while, drop that same jaded eye that we’ve been taught to bring to all Internet interactions. They overlap, too: “Private” can be “safe,” and vice versa — but not always. At least, never for long.

A few weeks ago, Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post recently asked, “How do you stop online harassment? Try banning the men.” I’ve been a member of this women-only secret Facebook group for years — they call it “The Girl Mob.” Hundreds of hip women share links to jobs, cashew milk recipes and body-positive photos of Marilyn Monroe in a bikini. My friend added me, and she had only been added a few weeks prior. She was recommended by another friend of a friend of a cool woman who just said, “you need this,” by way of explanation. These closed groups have become a magnet for women craving community on the Internet; an invitation feels like an embrace. But protecting that feeling of inclusion can itself be almost impossible — do you password-protect your shared Tumblr? Do you set rules for your Facebook group? Do you set an expiration date on your own community, to preserve its initial sense of openness?

When I asked women to share their early Internet “safe spaces,” dozens responded to my inquiry talking about how Neopets, AOL chatrooms, fan fiction Tumblrs, X-Files LISTSERVs, LiveJournal communities and more introduced them to comfort on the Internet. Most of these sites were beloved exactly for that same dual sense of security and inclusion members loved — and when that sense was lost, from time or toxicity or something else, the woman who made them moved on to another new place.

“Binders Full of Women Writers” is a Facebook group created just two years ago, where women writers created a community where they could share writing, freelance rates, sexism horror stories and more. But of course, secret clubs on the Internet don’t stay secret forever. Last year, Melody Kramer published a list of “every hidden journalism-related group” she could find. Not without consequence:

My first online community was, the proto-feminist, zine-like website that hosted web comics about masturbation, advice columns about veganism and forums that dealt in topics ranging from the openly political to the frankly embarrassing. was the web 1.0est of the web 1.0s — and its commenting system hummed with activity. As one NYMag commenter remembered: “I AM that twenty-something who will clutch her pearls in fond reminiscence of It was such a positive, inclusive place to be a female on the internet when a lot of other choices didn’t exist yet.”

Rebecca Odes and Esther Drill lauched in May of 1996. They were graduate students in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, experimenting with new media and online ‘zine culture. “I would say now community is the part of the site that I feel proudest of in some ways because that fulfilled a need — girls being able to talk about those things directly with other girls felt really revolutionary to me,” Odes said. “It’s the part of the site that still feels like it’s fulfilling the mission that we started.” The original founders have all moved on (to other websites, book deals and more grown-up Internet endeavors), but every so often, they hear, “No way! I loved that site!” Drill told me. “It had a particular moment in time that was special. it was the beginning of the web,” she said. “It was the beginning of something else.”

There have been iterations of that “something else” since. Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie handed the website keys to teen girls themselves — and the resulting essays, comics and other creations are smart, enlightening and relatively troll-free. Jezebel fueled a movement for callback culture that’s given hundreds of women (and Kinja commenters) voice in media that was previously nonexistent. Lenny Letter has channeled this same energy into an email newsletter community that thrives on open discussion of politics, birth control and vivid voices from hundreds of writers and subscribers.

But for me, nothing has quite replicated the feel of raw girl power, that rush of sharing your own story in the forum, that feeling of co-ownership — and maybe that’s because it was still such a new thing to be a woman on the Internet. In the early days, there was a “newness” to speaking up. You could throw out a question — any question! About boys, or bodies, or politics! — and you’d get an answer. Frequently, a nice answer. It felt like magic. This feeling of camaraderie felt protective, yeah, and also secretive, like I had my own clandestine crew that would dust me with a sparkling womanliness whenever I needed it most. I learned that I could grow into myself and my interests, but I could also be someone else online. It was a place to try on new identities and opinions, risk-free (at the time).

For Cates Holderness, that same space was a Sailor Moon role-playing chat room. She played as a teen, trying on the identity of Sailor Uranus — sassy, dark-haired character with a cool car and (even cooler) a girlfriend. Holderness role-played alongside teens and adults alike — she remembers it as “a judgment-free zone” where she could explore her own sexuality and her interests in anime, manga and other “nerd” culture. “Middle school and high school are horrible times of people’s lives and you feel just isolated and you’re awkward and you’re uncomfortable,” she said. “I think everyone feels that way — but if your interests are not what popular interests are, you can feel even more isolated. For me it was more of a way of connecting.”

In October 2014, Amber Discko created Femsplain, an online publishing platform for women to share personal stories. Femsplain’s private Facebook group and Slack community require permission to join — that’s Discko’s strategy to foster an open conversation within the group. The Facebook group is designed for Femsplain contributors only, hence the privacy. “You can’t control one person, let alone a thousand people,” Discko said. “You don’t know what people are saying offline or who they’re talking to about something. So that’s why something says it’s private or safe — these are just words. Nothing is completely protected.”

As a child, Discko felt secure because of the community she found in her online gaming group, Rose Online: The Guild. Her family moved around, but games were something of a constant, and the guild felt like her sanctuary. But once she began using a voice service to talk to other members, everything changed — all of a sudden the other players knew that she was a girl. “I would be on this voice service talking to my guild members and playing the game with them and that was my safety until I started getting harassed on those games. ‘Oh, you must be, like, this ugly — ‘ I would get all of that,” she said. Some years later, another member of the guild stole a nude photo Discko kept on her computer and shared it with other players. “That was the scarring moment to make me not play games,” she said. “Which was really bad because that’s what made me so happy and got me a lot through my childhood.”

Holderness eventually noticed other people leaving the Sailor Moon room for messaging boards, chat rooms and “new” technology (“new” for the early 2000s, that is). “I transitioned to different communities as I went to high school, but I never grew out of wanting to connect with online community,” she said. “It’s something I still think is really important, as our online identities become just as important as our IRL identities.” For me, moving on from my community at wasn’t a choice as much as it was a thing that just happened.

The site changed management in the early aughts, when I was still a guRL-dependent tween. With new management (from the same company that ran the infamous Delia’s catalogue) the design, content and tone changed from angsty riot grrrl zine to vapid, Bustle-type blog. I looked around for the other gurls I’d chatted and advised and queried. Once the site updated and the community vanished, those ladies left for Facebook groups, Google groups like Tech Lady Mafia and comments boards on Jezebel and The Toast (RIP). A new age of social media was dawning, so maybe this would have happened anyway — but the transition was difficult; I felt the need for something new push me into a land of notifications and friend requests and comment sections.

The original gang of gURL girls had abandoned the online forum for other things, but as I spoke to more and more women who remembered the original site, many admitted that much of their Internet community-hopping was fueled by a need to find somewhere out there like gURL. Somewhere dedicated to free and easy conversation about taboo topics. Somewhere where outsiders could feel like insiders, at least for a little while.

My own Girl Mob promised to never turn on itself — at least in the beginning. Despite the “free love” openness designated in its posted manifesto and its initial dedication to “ask anything!” conversation, the group has seen several conflicts, from microaggressions to member sparring matches. And it got big; membership grew from a few hundred women to more than four thousand. Guidelines and restrictions are an inevitability any time you agree to captain one of these things.

Those other places didn’t have to think as carefully about how to set fences around this community; partially because they didn’t have to. And partially because we didn’t have Gamergate back then, or the Fappening, or any of these other ever-present threats to digital sisterhood. But mostly: these things are not forever. Sailor Moon chat rooms weren’t built with an eye to 2016. They instead serve a purpose for a period of time; and then, like the Room of Requirement, they vanish when they’re not needed. There is an in-the-know inclusivity from being invited to a private space, but it comes with a catch: it won’t last forever. In the nature of all communities throughout Internet history — exclusive or not — they erode, and they transform.

And people leave. My friend who added me to Girl Mob recalls drifting away when she didn’t need the group anymore. “I saw posts talking about reverse racism as a legitimate thing,” she said. “Or they were critical of feminism in a really hard-headed way. And I was like ‘This isn’t really my posse anymore.’” She was invited to another online community instead: a much-smaller band of rogue Girl Mobbers had started their own closed Facebook group, called “The Not Girl Mob.” This smaller community set up very stringent rules: they allowed all kinds of conversation (including sex toy swaps and “sexy photo” posts), but they also kept all personal information private. Most importantly, they capped the number of members permitted.

Oh yeah, because that’s the other rule of being a person online: everything disappears, and don’t be surprised when it does. It’s the agreement we all signed the moment we created AIM usernames, even if we didn’t know it. AIM gave way to Gchat, which gave way to Slack, which gives way to something else entirely. Something we can’t predict yet — and if we can’t predict it, we can’t fence it or privatize it, or in any way protect it.

And in the meantime, fences make neighbors — whether they’re any good is a different story.

Julia Carpenter is a writer and tumblrite living in Washington, D.C.