The top secret internet groups where men are forbidden

Private women's forums are as old as the internet itself but they seem to have taken off in the past two years.
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Private women's forums are as old as the internet itself but they seem to have taken off in the past two years.

The group message thread began out of practical necessity, a place to source hair ties and pain relief meds. But it wasn't long before The Washington Post's all-female chat room began to diversify into other subjects.

Tampon taxes. Yoga classes. The stubborn gender wage gap that plagues our industry. Get a bunch of ladies in a private chat, and you'll see all sorts of conversations you wouldn't see typically.

"Communities are fundamentally different when they're just women," said Women.com founder Susan Johnson, giving voice to a piece of old, obvious wisdom that's enjoying something of a renaissance online.

"The cadence is different, the tone is more trusting... It's this safe environment where everyone can express herself without being trolled all the time."

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Private women's forums are – to be clear – as old as the internet itself. But they seem to have proliferated in the past two years, helped along by the rise of messaging apps and growing awareness of both privacy and gender-based online harassment.

In addition to Johnson's "gender-gated" social network and projects like the "troll-free" feminist community Femsplain, the past two years have seen a proliferation of invite-only private message threads and closed Facebook groups with names like "Girls Night Out", "Female Founders" and "No Boys Allowed".

Because of their private nature, it's hard to come by exact numbers of these groups. But the evidence suggests there are thousands. And regardless of each group's exact size or platform, they share a common mission: to give women a refuge where they can talk about tampons or wage gaps or whatever else without raising male eyebrows or drawing harassment.

"It's exhausting being attacked for having any opinion or being cross-examined about a personal experience," said Hannah Witton, the host of the feminist YouTube series "Girl on Girl". 

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"It's like a breath of fresh air to be able to talk about these things without worrying about or expecting (hostile) comments."

ONLINE HARASSMENT

It's no longer a secret, of course, that the internet can be unfriendly to women. Despite the fact that women are the dominant users of almost every social network (with the exceptions of Twitter and Reddit), they tend to face severe and sustained online harassment at a rate far higher than men.

In 2014, the Pew Research Centre found that one in four young women has been stalked online – and roughly the same proportion has been sexually harassed or physically threatened.

But it's not just the overt harassment that can make the internet seem less than welcoming to its female guests. There's also the fact that so-called "mixed-gender" spaces tend to default, decisively, to men.

In the late '90s, communications researcher Charles Soukup spent some time hanging out in two highly gendered chat rooms, where he promptly made an observation that's been canon ever since: Men and women use vastly different communication styles online, but when you put the two together, it's the loudest one that wins.

We'll give you one guess as to which that is.

All-girl groups, on the other hand, tend to operate according to a more nuanced set of rules – in many cases, quite literally. Common to almost all of the new girl groups are strict behavioral guidelines, the better to protect the quality of dialogue and the general health of the community.

POSITIVE COMMENTS

Ironically, women's groups may have less need for those sorts of rules than mixed-gender groups. Soukup and a host of other academics have observed that women online tend toward politeness and conciliation to a far greater degree than men do. That doesn't mean women never start flame wars or that women can't be bullies or trolls. But the social norms that evolve among, say, Hannah Witton's commenters are worlds away from the ones observed on other YouTube channels.

Witton's YouTube channel may actually have the site's most impossibly civil comments section. Despite the fact that her show focuses on hyper-controversial issues, including subjects that tend to divide and enrage feminists, the only time that she really has to intervene is when an interloper goes after one of her fans. (These interlopers are – surprise! – almost always men: On Witton's most recent video, one demands to know why she's never addressed how the patriarchy impacts him.)

Instead, commenters are thoughtful and respectful; they disagree with a degree of civility that feels almost anachronistic online. It's a relic that reappears in forums like Reddit's TwoXChromosomes and Facebook's legendary secret girls group Girls Night Out: The comments are "ALWAYS positive" one member said – and if you stray from that tone, the mods will kick you out.

MONEY STRUGGLES

Given all that positivity and empowerment, it's odd, and distinctly disappointing, that the bulk of the internet's all-girl groups remain at its fringes. The great advantage of these groups – the fact that they're private – is also ironically what keeps them from getting big.

Meanwhile, the larger, public attempts to carve out women's spaces have struggled to gain any sort of commercial traction, despite the fact that they cater to one of advertising's most desirable demographics. Women.com fought for months to reach a critical mass of members that would really sell ads, finally conceding that there aren't enough women interested in a women's-only social network to sustainably power it. (The site has since refocused on producing editorial content, and it immediately saw huge gains in traffic.)

Femsplain has also struggled with the problem of monetisation, actually suspending publication in February when no brand could be found to sponsor the site. A few expressed interest, said founder Amber Gordon, but they ultimately decided that the site was "too niche".

"This is a thing that women need," sighed Gordon, who dug into her savings to keep Femsplain afloat and now runs it out of her apartment. "It's hard to be out there, and hear that you're needed, without having the money or support for it."

Femsplain did resume publishing last week: The site has now moved to Medium, which relieves many of its monetisation woes. In a note to fans, Gordon reassured them that the platform had a track record of handling its trolls.

In the event that they aren't reassured, however, Gordon also plans to introduce a private discussion platform for paying members of the site. Something along the lines of Femsplain's invite-only chat thread, where 50 to 100 women can be found at any given time.

It's a concession to the uncomfortable fact that, online, women's empowerment can actually look a lot like retreat. But if the alternative is screaming down trolls, who wants to win really?

 - Washington Post

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