SpaceX, Toxic Fandom, and Gatekeeping

SpaceX CRS-1 launch, October 8, 2012. Photo Credit: NASA Kennedy

Two Tweets yesterday morning ushered in the mood of 2021, and underscored the very real problems women sci-commers encounter when writing about SpaceX, Tesla, and/or both companies’ leader, Elon Musk. Writer Shannon Stirone shared at 10:48 a.m.: “What it’s like being a woman on the Internet: woke up to a threatening voicemail in Russian calling me a dirty bitch and that they are judging me. And then some text trying to break into my WhatsApp. Fun times.” Her follow-up Tweet read, “There’s a solid lesson here — if you’re a woman and you piss off the M*%k army enough they will legitimately come after you. Learned this a few years ago and again today. So sick of these men.” Emily Calandrelli, host of Xploration Outer Space and Netflix’s Emily’s Wonder Lab, retweeted the first Tweet and added, “When people ask why I don’t cover SpaceX stories as much as other male sci-commers.”

Some responses Calandrelli received were less than inspiring and supportive. One Twitter user called “Scooter” responded, “I assumed you had better things to do than bring more attention to a narcissist.” Several responses to her appear to have been “dirty deleted” by the original posters. Outside of Twitter, this issue is also problematic. During the last year, toxic behavior by male SpaceX fans (including varying forms of harassment and name-calling) on Facebook nearly drove me to leave the platform — and my career writing and discussing spaceflight — entirely.

Look, I get it — when we love something, we’ll defend it to the death, even sometimes to the point of insanity. However, this behavior is a form of gatekeeping, which is generally pointless. In mass communication, gatekeeping is defined as “the process of selecting, and then filtering, items of media that can be consumed within the time or space that an individual happens to have.”

This process requires a leader, or a (you guessed it) gatekeeper: “The gatekeeper decides what information should move past them (through the information “gate”) to the group or individuals beyond, and what information should not. Gatekeepers are the at a high level, data decision makers who control information flow to an entire social system. Based on personal preference, professional experience, social influences, or bias they allow certain information to pass through the their audience.” In a traditional news organization, a gatekeeper might be, say, an editor. In the SpaceX fandom world, the fanboys have assumed the role of gatekeeper, and seem to be especially aggressive towards women who might not toe the company line 100%.

Read this: I do not care about anyone’s personal problems with me, real or imagined. When I write about a spaceflight topic, I am doing it for myself mainly, not for likes, follows, or fans. I will write or speak about any damn topic I please, without fear of harassment or retribution.

Many women in sci-comm started from a different place than their male peers, and may have not been allowed as much access to certain topics for the reason listed above. In turn, this means that readers might assume we’re coming from a different level of authority, or a place of no authority at all. In 2021, let’s endeavor to leave this malignant behavior behind — all women space writers and communicators want is to be viewed through the same lens as their male counterparts.

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Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010.

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Emily Carney

Emily Carney

Space historian and podcaster. Space Hipster. Named one of the Top Ten Space Influencers by the National Space Society. Co-host of Space and Things podcast.

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