Lenten Discipline: No Male Authors

Navigating social networks, gender representation, and the impact of the voices I amplify

by Hampton Stall

Starting last Valentine’s Day, I decided not to retweet men for a year. This Lent, I took it a step further.

Last year, a good friend of mine shared Anil Dash’s 2014 “The Year I Didn’t Retweet Men” with me. This article explains the author’s year of (you guessed it!) not retweeting men. Dash explains that this discipline arose out of a desire to look at a different part of his social media experience: what messages, voices, and identities he amplifies and whom he wants to bring to a broader audience.

The article mentions a tool called “Twee-Q”, an online resource that scans any public Twitter account for recent retweets, and then scores the user on a gender equality scale from 0–10 (with 10 being most equal, and the average Twee-Q at 4.4). I remember submitting my handle and getting some atrocious score like 5.4, skewed male.

Dash works in the tech world and made a point of how media representation in his field is so often male-oriented. His year of retweeting women was an attempt to be more aware of which voices he amplifies. My field, political science, is about as male-oriented as the tech industry. I do believe both areas are shifting away from such boy’s clubs, but that doesn’t mean we have found equal voice, nor are we near to it.

Demographics of my Twitter followers

To understand who might see my tweets, I first checked Twitter Analytics for gender representation among my followers as well as their areas of interest.

Twitter Analytics breakdown of @HamptonStall followers by gender, April 05, 2015

6/10 of my followers are male according to Twitter. 24% of male internet users and 21% of female internet users use Twitter, according to PEW. My followership is at least in the neighborhood of what could be a typical Twitter user — my audience is at 61% male and all of Twitter is about 53% male.

There is another factor that Twitter Analytics provides that also gives a bit of insight into why my social media activity might have an impact: follower interests. Whenever someone creates a new Twitter account, Twitter asks that person to check off their interests. Twitter uses these “interests” to give more applicable lists of suggested accounts to follow (also to tailor their advertising). Looking at interests of followers allows one to learn exactly who is seeing her tweets and which tweets might be more impactful based upon interest-level in the subject matter.

Twitter Analytics breakdown of @HamptonStall followers by interest, April 05, 2015

Nearly everyone claims to like comedy (I know few people who don’t like to laugh). The fact that “Politics and current events” ranks at #2 and “Business and news” at #3 and again at #6 indicates that those who are most likely to see my tweets — my followers — have told Twitter that they are interested in areas that I find myself often tweeting about.

Before I continue, though, an admission: I’ve never been one to try to get more followers or to promote my Twitter page as evangelically as some, and I never claim to be the most interesting person to follow on Twitter, so I’m taking a second to let you, my reader, know that I do not have the audience that Dash enjoys. In turn, I understand that my impact on what narratives are popular or often-read is much lower than his. At the time of writing, I have 437 followers and tend to stay around 440 depending on which automated accounts get removed each week.

Lent: more than quitting chocolate

Lent is the 40-day period of time leading up to Easter representative of Jesus’s time in the desert suffering and facing temptation. During this time, Christians of different creeds may take on disciplines. Catholics and other Orthodox Christians often give up meat or fast, and some also give up other pleasures or take on new habits. Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the final day before Lent, is a day of excess in preparation for a 40-day period of voluntary scarcity. I have friends who give up soda or give up chocolate or quit video games. I have friends who decide to take on a discipline, too. Some pray each evening, practice singing for an hour a day, or try to be more intentional about being patient.

My religious journey could perhaps take an entire separate post to explain, but there are a few traditions I observe every year. Lent is one of these traditions I observe, not so much for religious reasons but for reasons like those we take on New Year’s resolutions. I know that the only way to develop new habits is to live them for a good amount of time, and 40 days is a solid chunk. My vegetarianism started as a Lenten discipline 5 years ago, my adversion to soda (usually!) I link to two years of Lenten discipline (I couldn’t give up energy drinks and finally broke them for the most part in 2011). There are some years that I have been unsuccessful in creating these new habits (chocolate, veganism, not cursing), but I know I can’t improve myself unless I give it a try.

So that’s why this year I decided I would only share articles written by non-male authors. I wasn’t sure to what degree non-male authors featured in the articles I was consuming, and wanted to see if I could run my usual Twitter feed activity (and link-sharing via text and Facebook) by sharing links written only by this contingent of authors.

Methods —

I get many of my articles from a few different sources. The obvious one is Twitter. I use my Twitter feed (and my Discover tab) to keep up to date on news and major currents in what folks around the world are talking about. Since I study the Middle East, specifically Syria and Lebanon, I also frequent sites like Al-Arabiyya, The Daily Star (Lebanon), and BBC.

I use services like Flipboard and Zite to read my own “magazines”, curated by my interests and further influenced by what I tell the apps I want to read.

Flipboard (left and middle) and Zite (right), allow the user to create, read, and develop a unique news magazine that updates constantly.

Flipboard creates “magazines” for specific areas of coverage, and the two I most often use are “Politics” (left) and “News” (middle). The former usually covers only American politics and the latter covers global. Zite (right) allows the user to create one single magazine, which makes for an interesting mashup for those of us who love to read along a broad swathe of topics.

An invaluable resource in finding female voices to amplify is Foreign Policy Interrupted, a group/email list/book club/news curator that seeks to amplify female voices in the “men-talk-war fest” of the news. Each Friday, Elmira Bayrasli and Lauren Bohn send out an email digest of the week’s news, world updates, and political analysis written by female authors. They also curate lists of female Twitter users who tweet about specific issues, from Israel-Palestine to the Iran nuclear talks. To say that I get a lot of my news and analysis from this weekly email (even before this year’s Lent) is a major understatement. I am on 8 or 9 news email digests, and FPI’s is the only one I read entirely and the only one from which I read every article each week. I highly recommend you sign up for this email, even if you are not as politics-obsessed as I am.

I then took every tweet, Facebook message, and wall post and added them to a neat spreadsheet I created on Google Sheets. I am attaching a part of the spreadsheet below, but you can access the full sheet here (with continued updates as I finish my discipline).

A preview of my spreadsheet with information about shared articles.

Besides recording information about the articles, I included information about the responses to these posts. The overwhelming majority of these links garnered no response, but I tried to couple my follow-up conversations on these links with a short explanation of what I was doing and why I was doing it. When I explained that I was only sharing articles by non-male authors, I heard more encouragement than I imagined. I do not think I received a single negative comment after I offered my explanation, and I did my best to try to convince these friends to try it themselves or to be more aware of whose voices they themselves amplify.

I found that it wasn’t tough to find articles written by non-male authors, but that sometimes it took a little bit of searching. If I wanted a good article about the Bardo Museum attack, I could find it. What was interesting, though, was that a lot of the time this search led me to learn a lot more about the topic I was posting about. I learned of the different angles one could take on the event in question. There were those talking about the museum attack as the mark of a turning point for ISIS, there were those talking about the human impact of the attack, and there were those who interviewed a parent of the shooters. Had I only shared the first article I found (written by a male), I would have missed a lot of the picture which I was claiming some knowledge of by sharing the article.

I also found that many of the articles written by males seemed to echo the same facts or the same point of view. This extra, voluntary level of searching opened me to a perspective that I have for so long valued in my life but had been missing from my reading and sharing activity through social media. What I had not realized was just how much male voices in political science/politics/war had been so given a spotlight and a pedestal for speaking (I had a suspicion going into this month that I would find this, but was hoping that I was thinking cynically). What is so frustrating about this, though, is that it’s not at all a question of merit. I shared only articles that I thought were well written and important. The fact that these articles were sometimes hidden from view was not due to any lapse in merit or boring subject-matter (at least in my opinion), but because they were written by non-male writers. I don’t think this is due to any deliberate exclusion (or at least I hope so), but because so many editors, readers, and interlocutors might have prejudices against the work of non-males, even though these writers may have even better credentials than their male counterparts.

I will admit, I missed the beginning of Lent by a little over a week and gradually tightened from allowing wire articles (no author listed) to no longer allowing these genderless articles, telling myself that if I wasn’t sure the author was not a man then I couldn’t share with full credibility to myself and to anyone who might check me on my activity after I finished the month.I intend to carry this discipline on for another week and a few days to complete 40 days not because I feel obligated to (though I do), but because I want those who might see my posts in the next few days to be aware that they are, of course, reading articles by non-male authors.

Moving forward —

This isn’t a project that ends when the “project end date” passes. I think I have experienced something valuable and will carry forward the personal awareness I have gleaned from these 40 days.

This project gave me the chance to be mindful of whose voices I amplify to my personal social media network, and afforded me a chance to showcase non-male voices without paraphrasing too much or “mansplaining”.

Like Dash, I would recommend giving my experience a try. With the amount of time any of us spend on social media, sharing links with each other, and arguing in Facebook threads, there is a lot of room for us to improve what media we are consuming and contributing. There is a long history of wrongs across many channels of media, and small trials like this are one of the ways to change the narrative we all receive from our news coverage. These are easy because they are small, simple, and deliberate.

There is a lot of room for expansion on this social media awareness, too. I could replicate this with any number of under-represented identities or communities in the media. For instance, I could spend time tweeting only articles written by Egyptian reporters on Egyptian topics, or share only stories with interview texts from Syrian refugees, or share maps generated only by Arab non-profits — one can be as broad or as specific as one wants with this sort of deliberate media exercise, and I would say highlighting voices of those so often ignored by mainstream media is always valuable.

I’m also probably still in the majority of males who cite male authors and male scholars more than their female counterparts, too. As someone who is finishing up a thesis on conflict and about to enter into the workforce, I want to do as much as possible to ensure that I’m not only sharing justly, but giving credit to scholarship where it is due.

Without representation by all voices on issues that matter to so many, how can any of us hope to get a full picture?

Hampton is a Davidson College senior studying Political Science and Arab Studies. He can be reached on Twitter at @HamptonStall.

Header image by the author.

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