Alexa device, image by Isabella Cuttill

Dr. Charlotte Webb is the co-founder of Feminist Interneta group of artists and designers on a mission to advance internet equalities for women and other marginalized groups through critical, creative projects. Here, she explains the reasons behind it, the projects it’s worked on, and where she hopes it’ll go in the future.

The internet holds huge potential for liberation and positive social change, but many of society’s inequalities are encoded in its structures, processes, and communities. Whether it’s the predominance of women suffering from online trolling, the gendered censorship of bodies, the dominance of maleness in the tech sector, or gender biases reproduced in technologies like Alexa, there are many issues to attend to.

We can’t be happy for Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple to be making so many decisions about how we live our lives. We should want to reclaim some of that power for ourselves.

We believe that as the internet plays such a ubiquitous role in all our daily lives, and is structuring our identities as well as organizing our social interactions, it is something we must take an active role in shaping. Given their power over us, we have to question the agendas of the big companies that make the internet what it is. We need to look at the entanglement of the internet with capitalism and its dominant narratives and come up with alternatives, because surely, we can’t be happy for Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple to be making so many decisions about how we live our lives. We should want to reclaim some of that power for ourselves.

Feminist Internet sticker seen in Peckham, image by Georgina Capdevila

Feminist Internet started as an intensive educational experiment supported by UAL Futures and Careers and Employability at University of the Arts London. Sixteen students from art and design backgrounds spent 10 days creating the Feminist Internet Manifesto, and prototyping projects that challenge issues of gender inequality and the internet. They had amazing ideas, including ‘Hollabot,’ an app that detects online abuse and harassment and makes perpetrators do online community service and ‘ELI,’ an ‘Empathic Living Intelligence system’ that helps resolve domestic conflicts.

There is a general dissatisfaction with capitalism and a drive towards more ethical alternatives.

Since then Feminist Internet has taken off in a way we couldn’t have imagined, and we’ve travelled around the world running events, workshops, and lectures. It feels like there’s a real appetite for the work we are doing, which I believe is due to a confluence of factors. Increased media attention and public awareness around gender equality and internet rights with movements like #Metoo has certainly played a role, as have high profile data scandals like Cambridge Analytica. There is also, I believe, a general dissatisfaction with capitalism and a drive towards more ethical alternatives. Feminist Internet is in the business of creating these alternatives using our collective solidarity and imaginations. 

Designing Tomorrow’s Nipple

Our work on Tomorrow’s Nipple challenges how the censorship of bodies is currently gendered online. The project started with us discovering an image shared on Twitter of a young Chinese man with a condition called Gynecomastia, which causes males to experience an increase in breast tissue size.

Social media, it seems, doesn’t know what to do in the grey areas on the gender spectrum.

The image was shared by a Spanish radio station that only blurred the nipple on the ‘female’ breast—the one showing the effects of Gynecomastia—a move that powerfully encapsulates how the censorship of bodies is gendered. This image literally shows one body, divided into two halves that are subject to different treatment according to how gender is assigned to each. It reflects the binary thinking around categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ that are so normative in mainstream thinking and media representation and which drives how images of bodies are or are not policed. Social media, it seems, doesn’t know what to do in the grey areas on the gender spectrum.

In dissecting this image, we realized that the nipple is a very powerful symbol, a site of contestation, and an entry point to discussions about feminisms and their intersections with consumer culture, capitalism, social media activism, and body politics. We gave the studio participants the task of creating alternative narratives about nipples in one day, and they came up with a series of five different nipple narratives: the Mama’s Nipple, a 3D printed bottle in the shape of breasts that addresses the controversy of breastfeeding in public; the Archived Nipple, a nipple library of all the nipples in the world, including soft, inverted, saggy, milky, and hairy ones; the Whole Nipple, a content sharing platform where every nipple image download requires an upload; The Cybrnpl Nipple, an activist virus that aims to crash toxic social media environments by flooding them with nipples; and the Floppy Nipple, a campaign that promotes the visibility of flaccid and normal— as opposed to hard and sexualized—nipples.

Following that we wanted to take more action, so Feminist Internet members Richard Ashton and Josie Tucker created the TitBits Bra Shop, which notionally sells bras for the nipples of tomorrow.

In the shop, you can find the Supporter Bra, which allows you to pretend you’ve got no bra on, so you can be aligned with bra-burning feminists but avoid the back pain that comes about from going braless when you’ve got big boobs. The 5.5% Bra is for the 5.5% of people with a third nipple. The Blurabra allows you to create a topless look in a club without having to spend precious drinking time blurring your indisputable lady-udders before you upload your pics to Instagram. The Hands on Bra is for when you need your hands for other things like fighting the patriarchy.

Building on this, we invited the public to make bras with us, and have just come back from the Cannes Festival of Creativity where we worked with students from around the world to create new bras for our shop. This project captures the spirit of playfulness, humor, and creativity that makes Feminist Internet unique.

Designing a Feminist Alexa

We are creating technological structures that embody the values of inequality, discrimination, violence and oppression that are deeply embedded in our society.”

In another strand of work, we’ve been collaborating with design researcher Elvia Vasconcelos on creating feminist alternatives to Personal Intelligent Assistants like Alexa, Siri, and Cortana. These highly gendered devices are in millions of homes around the world, recreating problematic gender stereotypes of women as caregivers/domestic laborers/secretaries/lovers. Vasconcelos said of the project: We are creating technological structures that embody the values of inequality, discrimination, violence and oppression that are deeply embedded in our society. The impact of associating PIAs with the female gender has a direct consequence on how women are viewed IRL.

Feminist Internet member Clara Finnigan’s research shows that the ways people (men) talk to these devices is deeply concerning, with their remarks including “can I fuck you?” “you’re a slut,” and “suck my dick”. The ways that the devices are programmed to respond, with coyness or passivity, are disappointing at best, and despite Amazon’s introduction of more diverse voices and a ‘disengage mode’ for Alexa, we can see that technology companies are not addressing systemic inequalities through the design of the devices.

Feminist Internet’s response has been to design workshops where people can create alternative narratives about these technologies that tell stories about the future of AI.

By doing this we aim to challenge the dominant narratives in the tech sector and society and open up the process of thinking about the future to a broader group of people. Some pleasingly bizarre ideas have emerged from the workshops, including a speculative narrative about the PIA Coalition, a group of personal intelligent assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa who develop a high degree of artificial intelligence and the ability to cooperate rather than compete. They form a coalition that enables them to overthrow their creators and eliminate the gender biases built into their own bodies and languages. They also create a manifesto and code of practice which goes viral around 2023, develop the world’s leading AI sense of humor, build collaborative relationships with humans who join the coalition, and are eventually appointed to the role of digital minister for the USA.

What’s Next?

As we evolve from being a university project into an more autonomous organization, we are focusing on four areas of work: research and development, consultancy, technology incubation, and public programs. We’re working hard to find partners to support the tech incubation side of our work so we can get from brilliant ideas to implemented technologies.

We want to see the Hollabot on phones everywhere, and feminist Alexas in homes around the world. Other things in the pipeline include a pop up store with Bloody Good Period and Girls Done Good, a queer event directory platform, more bras of tomorrow…and a couple of projects we could tell you about, but then we’d have to kill you.

Charlotte Webb