SistersInMotion’s mission is to provide a platform.
The Montreal-based poetry and performance events provide a stage for women of color and strive to set the standard for accessibility for people with disabilities. To that end, co-organizer Malek Yalaoui turned to where so many other organizers, artists and activists turn when they need to put on an event: Facebook. For the third iteration of the poetry series, Malek and her co-organizer set up a Facebook event as they always had, months in advance of the actual show.
A week beforehand, it disappeared.
Thinking it was some kind of error, SistersInMotion set up another page. Within 48 hours it, too, was gone. According to Facebook, the event had been flagged as spam. Both pages were restored, joining a brand new third page, the day before the event after Facebook was contacted for comment by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in advance of an interview with Yalaoui.
Whether somebody was intentionally reporting the event as spam, or whether it was a victim of an algorithm or some other mechanism within Facebook’s black box, the event shook Yalaoui and showed how fragile an ecosystem social media can truly be.
“You’re on these platforms, and you think that you’re building a business,” Yalaoui said. “You think that you’re building a community, and you think that you’re building your own platform. And what you realize is, actually you have nothing.”
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—no matter how open these social media platforms feel, they are, in reality, corporate-controlled spaces, more akin to a hotel lobby or ballroom than a public square. They can remove whomever they so choose whenever they so choose (or, in Twitter’s case, not remove). Just like Yalaoui with SistersInMotion, users can suddenly find not only their business, but also their life and community vanished into the ether.
“People have started realizing that these platforms, they answer to and have business objectives that are increasingly in contradiction with groups that thought they could use these platforms to affect social change, to build broad constituencies, to do organizing,” said Wilneida Negrón, technology fellow of gender, racial, and ethnic justice at the Ford Foundation.
Recognizing this issue, web developer and activist Rebecca Woodmass founded Quill Creative, a web design boutique that seeks to empower marginalized voices online. Initially begun as a creative outlet for Woodmass, who had just come out as queer, Quill expanded its mission to building web platforms for marginalized artists, activists and organizers by building independent websites on a sliding pay scale.
“I quickly realized that my desire to express myself was also the desire of other people in my communities,” Woodmass said.
A trained opera singer who originally came to Montreal to earn a Master’s degree in vocal performance at McGill University, Woodmass’ love for coding began almost a decade ago doing side gigs for arts organizations.
“I kind of just had a knack for it,” Woodmass said. “I really enjoy detail, and I’m very tenacious.”
Woodmass promotes marginalized communities on both ends of Quill. Since Woodmass is currently the only full-time employee, all Quill projects are contracted out—at a fair, living wage—to queer, transgender and non-binary designers and developers.
“People have started realizing that these platforms … have business objectives that are increasingly in contradiction with groups that thought they could use these platforms to affect social change.”
To help those who cannot afford their own web presence, a Patreon-based funding system, where supporters can make donations to fund Quill, helps Woodmass take on projects that could not be fully paid for by clients, removing another barrier to access. Eventually, they hope to make Quill entirely donor funded.
“I believe really strongly that if my communities are going to make a difference in the world, we’re going to have to be thriving,” Woodmass said. “So we pay ourselves a good rate, a good living wage, and we build websites for people who could not afford to pay our living wage.”
Quill sites are built with accessibility in mind. High contrast text, for example, can help people with vision impairments. If an online hosting service has a history of caving to governmental pressure and shuttering sites, Woodmass will avoid using them.
The recent rollback of net neutrality protection has jolted many in marginalized, online communities, hastening their realization that the web is not a public utility, and social media platforms do not truly belong to their users.
Still, their expansive reach and accessibility—Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are enormously powerful and free advertising platforms—makes the current social media platforms practically inescapable.
“I think it’s really important to look at each tool that we are using, as artists, activists, entrepreneurs, organizations,” Woodmass said. “And say what if this were gone? What if this were taken from me?”