Technology

How Women Are Rebuilding A Man-Made Internet

April 2, 2019

Originally posted in Forbes.

March 5th, 2019

There’s an old maxim in fiction: Write what you know. And the best writers — those who are able to create authentic and effective worlds — draw from their own experiences. In tech start-ups, there’s a corollary: find a problem in your own life and build the solution.

But since tech culture is disproportionately white and male, the problems that are addressed, and the solutions that are engineered, don’t work the same way for everyone. While Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and Alexis Ohanian and thousands of other entrepreneurs have given billions of people a platform, they haven’t always functioned as well for women, or people of color or LGBTQ communities.

Take Facebook’s ‘real names’ policy, which was seen an important solution for creating online accountability — so long as your name and gender matched your government ID. Or Twitter’s radical free speech policy, which was theoretically liberating— unless you were among the 83% of women who report online harassment and trolling as a major issue.

But what does a woman-forward internet look like? For some, it starts with building greater protections for users.

Bumble was founded as a response to the misogyny that women have faced for too long,” says Alex Williamson, Bumble’s Chief Brand Officer. “Women make the first move on Bumble, because historically, women get inundated with unwanted messages and unsolicited pictures on online platforms.”

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Tinder designers seemingly prioritized access and volume, a stream of endless potential connections. But many women found themselves harassed by potential matches, and shamed or ignored if they made the first move.

Bumble’s founder, Whitney Wolfe Herd, designed her app to remedy her own experience. Instead of endless access, Bumble prioritized safety and control. Her company is now one of Tinder’s chief competitors in the space, and is pushing beyond dating into social networking, fostering actual connections between women.

“We saw first-hand just how damaging social media can be,” says Williamson, “and wanted there to be an internet that was both rooted in kindness and engineered to empower women.”

Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs Greta McAnany and Lauren Tracy saw a similar lack with the existing design of social platforms— particularly for younger women.

“The internet was not created to help solve emotional problems, but that is how it is being used today,” says McAnany. “People are self-medicating with media,” says McAnany, “[We’re] binge watching Netflix or spending hours Instagram scrolling, but we aren’t connecting on an emotional level.”

Rather than providing relief, Instagram and other social media sites can paradoxically provoke more anxiety for women.

So McAnany and Tracy founded Blue Fever, a text-based platform that provides video messages of encouragement to women, and fosters direct connections between them for emotional support. Rather than social media, Blue Fever regards itself as “emotional media.”

“We are building an internet completely differently than people thought it could be,” says McAnany.

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Too many in tech regard the internet’s wild west nature as intrinsic to its being, but those qualities are more historical than essential. As more women and people of color raise capital, found companies and develop systems, the better the internet will work for all users.

As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve hired women not only to correct the industry’s sexist imbalance, but because women’s lived experiences are essential for building successful platforms.

At O.school, we launched with a team of designers who were women, people of color or LGBTQ. That perspective helped us to design a unique threat modeling system that detects and prevents harassment, not just security breaches. It helped us structure content and attract a broader user base. It even informed the site’s information architecture. The categories we created, the tags we used, were not treated as neutral values, but signifiers of inclusiveness.

Correcting problems in the man-made internet isn’t just an issue of justice, but a market opportunity. The tech community understands implicitly that content needs to be optimized for different platforms — if you only design for Safari, or Android or a desktop, your product won’t function correctly for half the users.

But for many women, going online can feel like gaslighting. When the largely male, largely white tech community doesn’t experience the same problems, women begin to doubt their own reality. Women designers can and are changing that.

“Many women feel very broken when they go online,” says McAnany, who will be joining Williamson and Tracy to address the issue this weekend at SXSW.* “We think our tools are broken … We are going to share how incredible new technology, built from a new perspective, will help push us forward.”

*On March 9th, Bumble’s Alex Williamson, Greta McAnany, Lauren Tracy and I will continue the conversation at SXSW. The panel, How Women Are Rebuilding a Man Made Internet, will address what a gender-responsive internet looks like, and how women entrepreneurs are finally making it happen.

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