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Safe Spaces, Social Movements and the Internet

Every so often my imagination returns to the subject of my last master's degree--sociology.

Recently I've been thinking about social movements and the internet. This is no big surprise to those of you who know that my master's thesis analyzed the content of the Promise Keepers website. My recent thoughts are just some basic ideas about a barely remembered article by William Gamson. William Gamson is a theorist in the area of social movements and social movement organizations.

Social movements are a collection of ideas/perspectives (conservatism, for example) that people attempt to implement. Social movement organizations are the organized method of implementing the ideas (the Republican party, perhaps?).

When I was working on my masters, I got a look at an article Gamson had written about safe spaces, social movements and the internet. I don't know if he's since published it, but he was nice enough to mail me a copy after I discovered that he'd delivered the paper at a conference.

The gist of it was that social movements could use the internet as "safe spaces." Safe spaces are places that movement members could create their perspectives, refine their ideas, and do it without constant interruption by those who disagree with their premises. There are safe spaces outside of the internet obviously. Feminists constructed them in the form of "consciousness raising" groups. Black churches probably represent safe spaces for the civil rights movement.

I've got a few anecdotal observations about how this works out in practice. The first is that unless you're willing to password protect your discussion forums/website, your safe spaces will be observed by people who are not within your group. This makes them a bit less safe.

Secondly, you may not know that you're being observed even when you are. I often read forums of groups that I don't agree with. This ranges from people of differing religions, differing political perspectives (more right/left than I) to differing intellectual interests. I never bother to post because I don't particularly like being excoriated by random strangers. I suspect that there are other people like me. This might mean that the ideas of new groups are being disseminated more quickly. It might mean that arguments against their ideas are being formulated earlier in the process. Probably both, depending on the particular example.

Thirdly, I've often noticed that (particularly in the political blogs) people who violate the assumptions of the core group get pretty solidly flamed. I doubt that people would be as nasty in person as they are in print online. It reminds me of the Reformation period when Calvin (and other scholars) would write pamphlets that included calling one's opponents dogs, swine, and worms in the course of a theological argument.

I don't know whether this sort of insulting, no holds barred argument helps or hurts the creation of safe spaces or is an inevitable result of their creation. One might argue that it encourages it in that it creates a shared experience of removing "the jerk" from the room. It might destroy said safe space if the group becomes too aligned to certain ideas and persecutes even small variations from them.

It'd be interesting to study the process of the formation of safe spaces and see if there are patterns in the formation and destruction of such groups--and if online patterns differ from offline.

Thinking about it makes me wish I were getting a Ph.d in sociology with an emphasis on social movements.


i stumbled upon this entry, completely by accident. strange how a two year old entry would help direct me to william gamson's work. i'm currently working on a proposal to study how non-profit organizations and social movements use the internet to communicate, inform, educate, advocate, and mobilze. i don't know if you still read comments on old blog posts, but if you do, thank you for this reference... i've already found it helpful!

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