Date: 18th May 2015
Name and Bio:
Ashley Tsai was 24 at the time of our interview and was one of the 16 students whose class project turned into the popular Who Needs Feminism? campaign. Ashley graduated from Duke University in 2013 with a major in women studies. She now lives in Los Angeles and is a filmmaker and photographer.
Before her involvement with Who Needs Feminism?, Ashley had previously been involved with activism. As a freshman, she participated in a four-day student-led retreat where people come together to ‘do activities that provoke conversation around race and gender and sexuality,’ an experience she considers ‘very eye opening for [her]’. She eventually became a director for this programme. She told us that this experience ‘really prepared [her] for Who Needs Feminism?’
Origins of Who Needs Feminism?:
Ashley was enrolled in the Women in the Public Sphere course at Duke University, where, along with 16 other students, she developed the Who Needs Feminism? campaign as part of a class project. Ashley was the photographer in the initial round of participants on Duke University’s campus. Ashley says the intention was to change the perception of feminism and debunking stereotypes of what feminists look like and so forth. Eventually, they ‘landed on the words Who Needs Feminism?, so that it could be a personal thing that people could answer themselves’.
Although the class initially wasn’t planning on having the project be open for public submissions, after posting the project on social media, ‘it really took off.’ When asked why, she said: ‘the reason it really took off was because suddenly it was like anyone with a computer or a phone could participate and just write something down. And that, I think, was a huge part of why the campaign become so big was that people could easily participate and be a part of this movement.’
Although the campaign also received a lot of positive feedback, Ashley admits they was also a lot of ‘negative impact’ such as trolling or defacing the posters they’d hang around campus. According to Ashley, this response showed that ‘obviously, we had hit a nerve.’
Maintaining the Campaign:
The project took up a lot more time than the students ever anticipated, which Ashley argued was a challenge, given they were all in full-time education. As a result, they came up with a plan of moderation by splitting up the time during the day for monitoring and posting to the sites.
The first few weeks as Ashley reports it was ‘pretty consuming’ and she was personally ‘monitoring the page pretty much any time [she] had’. This was not just monitoring but also coordinating with all these other people who wanted to get involved, interview requests etc. They have reached out to many schools, women’s centres and feminist groups to launch their own Who Needs Feminism? campaigns which made everything ‘take off and link’. So overall, Ashley suggests time spent varied depending on what was going on and the extent to which one was involved.
When the semester was over, three of the 16 students were still interested in keeping the project going and submissions to the site have slowed since. In 2017, the original Tumblr site was no longer active.
In relation to trolling, Ashley remembers that at first they were ‘shocked’ at what people were doing to the Who Needs Feminism? posters which they displayed around campus as part of the project. When asked about the impact this had on them, Ashley shared the way such behaviour galvanized them and ‘gave them more fire’ to continue. The angle they generally took was:
‘We were just, like, wow, if this was something that really wasn't relevant, no one would have been responding and nobody would be angry and feel threatened by it. So yeah, we kind of just took it as fire for us to keep going and doing what we were doing.’
Most of the trolling experienced took place on Facebook, mostly because as Ashley thinks the platform enables ‘you get comments directly.’ Although Ashley wasn’t personally targeted as such, she does remember the way some of the participants photographed for the posters ‘were starting to feel kind of uncomfortable with how much attention it was receiving’
In terms of strategies to manage trolling, Ashley says they ‘allowed a certain amount of pushback’ as they ‘didn't want to shut people down… just because [they didn’t] agree’. But, they also had a comments policy that said:
‘If you're directly attacking people and insulting people and tearing people down, that's not productive conversation and we're going to delete that. But if it was a thought-out conversation where you're actually trying to talk to people, and even if you don't totally agree but you're there to have a respectful conversation, then that was allowed and we would keep those up’.
When trolling occurred, they were acting ‘as moderators in terms of making sure there wasn't terrible things written, and deleting those if they were, and blocking certain users. But we really let the online community just take care of it.’
When asked about her overall experience with the campaign, Ashley stated:
‘I mean, it was amazing, it was just…I think it was…it really showed me that if you do something from…it really felt like it was a project that we did from the heart. We really came together and figured out what it was that we felt was missing, and work to change that together. Also, and then to be able to see how much that resonates with other people was so inspiring for me. Because I'm an artist, I'm a creative person, and I also care a lot about these social issues, it just felt…and also, and then I got to thinking…I really felt like it contributed a lot to my growth as a bigger person and inspiring me to continue on this path.
‘And yeah, people were actually having real conversations. And I think that people were grateful for that space. I don't think that it really had…I mean, I didn't know about anything like that before. Or even if there were other examples, I think people were grateful to have another space for that.
I mean, it's not uncommon for trolls to interact with people online like that, and also to interact with even…I think there's the trolls and then there's the people who are just confused or kind of just like, I don't really get why you're doing this, and these are my reasons. And then they would have conversations with people who were very strong in that sense. And I think I remember seeing some very productive conversations with people and really learn things from each other. Yeah, so we really left it up to anyone who wanted to write on there. I don't think any of us actually personally participated in those conversations.’
‘I constantly…I sought out those articles, I read all those horrible things that were happening. And that made me angry and sad but it fuelled me and it made me want to keep working. But now that I'm graduated and I don't have that same community, I actually find myself ignoring those articles, like, I just can't read them. Like the stuff that's going on in Baltimore and Ferguson, I was, like, all the…every new video that comes out with a police officer beating somebody up, I'm just…like, I can't read it. And it's really interesting and I don't really know how to get out of this place. I know that I should and I will eventually but I'm in this place right now where it's just I can't handle it. It makes me so sad.’
Ashley feels ‘very invigorated by’ her participation on Who Needs Feminism? where she gets to read all these reasons why feminism is needed.
‘I think one of the most powerful things about the campaign was that it showed people that they weren't alone, and that especially seeing young people posting, like middle school posting things, and seeing that we were giving them not only a space but a community and a set of vocabulary for them to express these things that they had always experienced but didn't know that this was…there's something wrong with it, and kind of just giving them those resources. I think for me, it was really inspiring […] So it was definitely really…I think it had a lot of impact personally. That was a huge part of why it was…yeah, I think for me it was just really inspiring. I was tired at certain points but I was mostly inspired by just how much it seemed to be impacting people in a positive way and giving people an outlet for certain things that they hadn't been able to.’
The interview with Ashley identified a number of significant trends. First, it showcased the ways that trolling is a common experience when women talk about feminism in online spaces. What was interesting about Ashley’s response however, is that it challenged widely held views about the negative impact of trolling, as say a tool used to instil fear, anxiety, or as a silencing mechanism. Instead Ashley shared the way trolling angered her and galvanized her to continue. The interview also revealed a range of strategies devised to manage trolls, including ignoring, deleting, and letting the ‘community take care of it.’ This communal response to trolling, while unusual, is not unheard of, and is significant for alleviating the stress and burden that organisers often have in dealing with it on their own.
What also became apparent in the interview with Ashley, was the sense of community, collectivism, and communal calling out of sexism, misogyny and rape culture, which emerged around the campaign. As Ashley stated: ‘I think one of the most powerful things about the campaign was that it showed people that they weren't alone, and that especially seeing young people posting, like middle school posting things, and seeing that we were giving them not only a space but a community and a set of vocabulary for them to express these things that they had always experienced but didn't know that this was…there's something wrong with it, and kind of just giving them those resources.’