Facebook for Women vs. Facebook Designed by Feminists: Different vs. Revolutionary

by cv harquail on October 5, 2010

What would Facebook be like if it were designed by women?

In my earlier post, I proposed that Facebook would look, feel and function differently if it had been designed by “women”.

[What I actually was writing about what what Facebook might look like if it had been designed by Feminists– but I used “women” in the title to enhance SEO. Sometimes we make tradeoffs, and write headlines that prioritize discoverability over precision.]

Distinguishing Between Women and Feminists

Clarifying how a facebook designed for women is different from a facebook designed by feminists is an important place to begin the conversation, because so many people struggle to distinguish between “women” and “feminists/feminism”.

“Women” is a social category, based on a person’s gender self-definition. When we talk about “Women” we’re talking about a social category with predictable, empirically verifiable, modal preferences. We can measure what women as a group prefer, and we can design to appeal to these preferences.

“Feminists” is a social category, based on a person’s political orientation. Many women advocate feminism and many feminists are women. Some feminists are men, and some feminists choose to define themselves without using the terms like man or woman. Feminist have values they want to ‘build in’ to products, services and organizations.

When it comes down to distinguishing between women and feminists, we need to separate marketing and politics.

Marketing to Women

Designing something “for women” is a marketing challenge. Products designed for women are intended to appeal to women by reflecting the preferences of women as a social group.

If you want to get lots of women to like, buy, use your product, you identify empirically what kinds of features “women” prefer, you design your product to have these features, and viola, you’ve got a product “for Women”.

Feminist Design

Feminist design of a product is a political action. Products designed by feminists are intended to change power relationships and advance social change, on behalf of women and men.

Facebook was not and is not designed “for women”. It is not designed in ways that reflect what women prefer in terms of the tool’s appearance, functionality, and raison d’etre.

A facebook designed “for Women” might have begun with some research into how women might want to create, sustain and recreate social relationships in an online forum. That research might have included what kinds of visual appearance they’d like the site to have, as well as what kinds of functions they’d like the site to enable, and what different ways they’d like their social relationships categorized, organized and represented.

Women would have been asked:

  • What do you want to be able to share, see and do with your ‘friends’? (Would we even call them “friends”?)
  • How do you understand the variety of your relationships?
  • How can relationships best be presented graphically/visually and over time?

Maybe Facebook for women would have been pink, with flowery text and pictures of cats; maybe not. Maybe a facebook designed by women would display the romantic relationship status of each user; maybe it would have displayed each person’s answer to the question “If I could make the world a better place, I would ________.”

Facebook for women might have had:

  • Ways to evoke and express emotion
  • Ways to personalize the look and feel to make it more ‘us’
  • Ways to rate men on how supportive and mature they are (just kidding)

Who knows — no one seems to have asked women what they might prefer to find on Facebook, either in terms of appearance or functionality.

choose an avatar.jpg

Facebook Designed by Feminists:  Feminist HCI

A Facebook desinged by Feminists would be a much different ‘product’.

I am not an expert in Feminist HCI (Human Computer Interface) so I’ll just give you the general, layfeminist /layperson’s view:

There is a feminist approach to software design, a feminist model of social community, a feminist political and economic ideology, a feminist technology movement, and a feminist social movement. All of these are engaged and reflected in feminist design.

As a movement, feminism focuses on changing power relationships to bring about social, economic, and ecological justice. (While feminism initially focused on changing gender relations, the movement and ideology has expanded dramatically. For an introduction to feminism, please go to Feminism 101.)

A social network platform designed by feminists would aim to facilitate egalitarian and inclusive social relationships, distribute authority and responsibility, encourage collaboration, honor individual agency and self-definition, and more. A Feminist Social Network Platform would “give the user a tool to express her choice and the truth of her existence”.

A feminist social network would not be a ‘product’ to be sold to users, but would instead be a service that was supported by users. We tend to forget that Facebook is a product because we don’t pay anything to use it– as far qas we know. But, we users generate a great deal of profit for Facebook not only by looking at profiles and feeds, but also by creating content ourselves.

Some additional ideas?

A ‘facebook’ designed by feminists:

Feminists would approach the project with a political goal in mind. The overall intent of the platform might be ” general social networking”, just as with the current Facebook. but the driving interest might have been for creating friendships, affinity groups and social movements, not checking out chicks to evaluate whether you want to date them.

A feminist social network would be designed on open-source software (as Facebook is), as a political value driven choice, not (only) because open source is less expensive, more malleable and often more reliable than proprietary software resources.

The processes through which a feminist Facebook would be created would also be different– feminists would approach the very project of building a platform very differently from the way that Facebook was designed.

As Jon and other commenters have mentioned, there are some alternatives out there– some alive, some defunct, some in alpha, some in wireframes — that are trying to do things differently. Not many of these are explicitly feminist designed, but some like Diaspora have political and economic justice as a driving value.

Where do we go from here?

I’m excited by the thoughtfulness and complexity of the comments shared after the last post, and I will take them up in future posts. Thank you all so much for these insights. From my research, it looks like the conversation about values and technology is confined within expert tech communities, and I think it needs to come further out into the mainstream social media conversation. Any suggestions about how to do this? I’m open….

The general point to remember is that any piece of technology reflects implicit assumptions of the people/ business that designed it, along with the explicit design / commercial goals of the product. We often miss this, because we take for granted the male-ness of our dominant approach to technology. And, we take for granted that profit motives will dominate what is included and excluded from a product — unless we set different priorities.

These last few weeks there’s been a great conversation about whether social networks can facilitate advocacy and social change. The answer is obvious, although more complex than some make it seem.

No technology is neutral. Every technology reflects values and a political stance towards the social world. Many technologies can be co-opted so that they facilitate unintended purposes. Truly revolutionary technology has social justice and liberation built in.

Facebook is changing our world, that’s for sure. But is it truly revolutionary? Not the way a social network designed by feminists would be.

I look forward to continuing this conversation!

See Also:

Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog
The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted


Anonymous October 7, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Well, with various blogs and forums buzzing about the lack of women in technology and startups, why are you merely blogging about this? Why aren’t you personally taking it up as a call to action, and leading the charge?

Develop the damned thing yourself and start a revolution!

cv harquail October 9, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Anon– are you so sure that I’m *not* doing this? 😉

jon October 8, 2010 at 12:31 pm

This is another great post and I am still reflecting on it … rereading this morning, I’m really struck by how many of your criteria Dreamwidth meets. A couple things I’d add:

– design for security from the beginning, including use cases like abuse survivors
– use programming languages, tools, and libraries created by women as well as men [although i don’t have any great suggestions here]

> I think it needs to come further out into the mainstream social media conversation. Any suggestions about how to do this? I’m open…

A couple of possibilities: suggest it as a topic for #smchat and/or #fem2 chat, or approach RWW, Mashable, GigaOm, or even TC with an idea for a guest post. It might also be interesting to get conversation going on Dreamwidth about this….


PS: to the anonymous commenter above: as cv said in her post “the processes through which a feminist Facebook would be created would also be different”.

Kathy October 10, 2010 at 8:16 pm

Thanks to Jon for pointing me to this essay! I didn’t know that I had so many feminist values until I read your laundry list! I’m one of those women who pushed back at the label when I was in my 20s, when I believed the world was built on meritocracy (and I wasn’t even working in the tech industry, then, but agriculture and communication, so I have no excuse for the idealism).

jon October 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Continuing on the theme of different processes … I went to a party last night. The presentation I’m working on is called What Diaspora can learn about security from Microsoft, but the lessons obviously apply to other hypothetical Facebook alternatives as well :-)

Which brings me to another thought: a Facebook designed by feminists would consider security up front — because without good security, privacy is easily compromised.


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