Women at Comment is Free & CiF trespass

// 10 January 2011

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greentrolls.gifToday is CiF trespass. In response to the commenting atmosphere at the Guardian’s debate site, Comment is Free, Rowan Davies came up with the proposal:

The idea is that people of mild temperament will shuffle gently onto CiF threads throughout the day, expressing their views in a thoughtful and respectful way. If nothing else, it will confuse the hell out of the regulars.

You can follow the progress of this effort today – on CiF presumable, but also via the #ciftrespass Twitter hashtag.

By complete co-incidence, a survey of who is commenting at Comment is Free, suggests that the “below the line” comments might be dominated by male voices.

A reader wrote into the Guardian with a spreadsheet, breaking down the gender of commenters on a couple of CiF posts – based on how the commenters identify themselves in their profiles. Of course, this has some potential pitfalls as a methodology, given that many commenters do not identify their gender in their profiles. Just for starters, the commenting atmosphere at CiF might disincline women in particular to disclose this information, or might encourage them to create profiles identifying as men.

So, the results have to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, there is an established pattern that the letters pages in the newspaper itself publish disproportionately more letters from men than from women.

Readers’ editor Chris Elliot quotes from the letter:

“The article, On rape, the left still doesn’t get it, of 27 December, highlights this. In the first 50 comments, ie the front page, there are 28 identifiably male and five female posters. I have included only those who have stated their gender in profiles or posts. However, unless one looks to the profile archive, the anonymous nature of posting hides this disparity. It is not obvious that there is no substantive contribution to this discussion by women. Many of the posters are habitually sexist commentators … the hostile culture women face on Comment is free must encourage their absence.”

Whatever the actual numbers, the “hostile culture” on CIF is so well known it’s hardly worth me mentioning. I’ll just refer back to Cath Elliot’s straw feminist bingo in 2008, based on responses to one of her CiF posts, and zohra’s three part series on the problem, also back in 2008. The topic also came up again on Saturday, during a workshop I was part of at Netroots UK, during which the panel and audience was largely bemused to be discussing again how to get women engaged online. Check out Lisa Ansell’s posterous for more on this, as she’s cross-posting responses to the debate from some of the women who attended.

“Above the line” at CiF, which is edited by Natalie Hanman, the site features loads of interesting posts by women, about gender related issues and everything else – you might notice how often we link these up at The F-Word. But the fact that Rowan felt inclined to propose #ciftrespass in the first place suggests that the situation “below the line” hasn’t been completely reformed since 2008 – in her taxonomy of CiF trolls, the first point is:

The misogynist who isn’t getting any, and hasn’t for some time Who are women anyway? I’ve never met one. When did they start having opinions and stuff? Why don’t they just fuck off?

Photo of hedge sculpted to look like troll faces by tsparks, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

polly // Posted 10 January 2011 at 9:08 pm

I kind of LIKE the hostile culture at CiF though, I like a good barney.

Schnee // Posted 10 January 2011 at 10:45 pm

I’m glad there are women like Polly who like a good barney and who are willing to join the fray.

I think I’m a fairly strong woman, but I fall into the ‘encouraged to be absent’ category when it comes to CiF. I admit to feeling intimidated by the misogyny there and have very rarely ventured my opinion.

polly // Posted 11 January 2011 at 12:16 pm

Seriously though, I think the problem isn’t the comment pieces, it’s the commissioning editors who choose them. Although I agree the usual MRA arguments can be tedious, and I tend to steer clear of them, you get some pieces at CiF that should clearly have never seen the light of day.

But on the plus side, at least you can react. I’ve seen one other thing at the guardian that really offended me – this


sent an e-mail complaining to the life and style editor about the negative stereotypes of lesbians in it, and never got a word back. At least if it had been on CiF I could have had my say.

Cazz Blase // Posted 11 January 2011 at 9:04 pm

I did read the discussion on Comment Is Free last week, and whilst finding it very funny that they had published an article on why people do/don’t comment on CIF pieces, it did make fascinating reading. Possibly not for the reasons they envisaged though. I have occasionally been moved to comment on CIF articles, but never have because I registered ages ago and have long forgotten my password, and when I re-register it says I’m already registered and I can’t proceed, so I decided it was easier not to comment in the end. Completely agree though about the aggressive and sexist atmosphere, not to mention the Londoncentric nature, the middle class nature… but the latter two just reflect their readrship I guess. I found CIF very useful in terms of following what was going on at the last student protest in London, ie the live coverage, but I don’t think that’s technically CIF is it? One interesting issue I found that came out of the recent Guardian debate was that many people read the articles on CIF as articles, not blog pieces, and therefore believe the comments spoil the article for them. This throws up all sorts of interesting discussions concerning what is journalism, and whether it is old fashioned or respectful, or both, to enjoy an article for its own sake.

I will add that I personally would be very put off writing anything for comment is free myself, even if they would have me, given the number of perfectly well written, mild mannered pieces I’ve read over there that have then been slagged to fuck afterwards. For no obvious reason connected to the piece itself in many cases, and often purely because of who the author is.

Angie // Posted 14 January 2011 at 12:08 am

The evidence on which the Guardian’s ‘women on CIF’ article was based was mine. I’d be happy to send it to you if you’d like.

It isn’t possible to be sure of the gender of all posters but at least 90% say in their posts eventually, if not upfront in their profiles. It takes time but I’m confident it is reliable.

Very few people are not credible, a handful of posters claiming to be women never have a good word to say about women. This is typical of the MRA crowd but highly unusual for women, who tend to be pro-feminist but very often not the same feminist as the article writer. The few women there, and even less men, tend to have a debate and fewer knee-jerk opinions. They are used to being challenged and rationalise their views perhaps.

I don’t believe it is possible to increase the number of women without staff intervention. The anti-feminist mob are just too big and it is very unpleasant going against them. I think so and I’m a lawyer, I confront people for a living. Also the women there are usually fairly relaxed about hostility and object to intervention. The numbers tell us that most women are not comfortable with it.

One thing I would to see is feminists giving the Guardian more grief for tolerating the situation. It’s all very well battling the Mail but the Guardian is ignoring its editorial code and core values. It has to listen if feminists shout loud enough. While the Mail has a wider circulation, it seems to me the Guardian hosting these overwhelming anti-women comments is more damaging, given the liberal line that people assume it would be applying . It is ATL, and I would like to see a less confrontational approach there I’m theory? But it would send a very bad message about troll influence, and would make no difference at all to the hostility below the line, I am convinced.

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