‘Feminist Geographies of New Spatial Media’

An important article on the gender inequalities of ‘new spatial media’ by Agnieszka Leszczynski and Sarah Elwood has just been published in The Canadian Geographer.

The strength of it is in the number of rich case studies provided. The gendered nature of OSM gatekeeping and moderation is a critical but so far underexplored dimension. As they rightly identify, open-source narratives merely mask the gendered roles at play, and their analysis of a debate over childcare typologies on the platform, for example, is frightfully revealing.

In the example they use, OSM moderators did not believe three separate types of amenity were necessary for could broadly be conceived as kinds of  ‘child-care’. An editorial board rejected the more specific ‘childcare’ as an separate category, despite neither the existing ‘kindergarten’ nor ‘baby hatch’ categories aptly denoting the function of a childcare type. Commonly, this would amount to a space or place designed to look after older children, perhaps doubling-up as an ‘after-school’ club of some kind. Kindergarten is typically for young children (say, before school age – whatever that may constitute), whilst baby hatches are safe places where parents (usually mothers) can leave babies anonymously with the hope they are cared for. They might, for instance, be used by mothers too poor to look after a child. In leaving their baby at a place such as this, there is a greater guarantee the child will be brought up safe and well. Plainly, each of these constitutes a very specific place of child-care with very particular kinds of motives for their use. Needless to say, the types of practices engaged in at each location are incredibly different.

However, OSM editors didn’t think as much and refused to designate separate categories. OSM users would thus be left to have to decipher the ambiguous labels of both kindergarten and baby hatch on their own. Presumably those searching for childcare locations would have to carry out further research as to whether either of these types doubled up as, or were in fact, childcare places. In their own words Leszczynski and Elwood suggest that

[t]he voting down of the childcare amenity re-relegates spaces of care—and women—to the private sphere by rendering them invisible and leaving them, literally, off the map. (6)

And, as we know, the in/visibility of phenomena on the map is testament to the power of those who firstly render such places as mappable, and secondly, decide whether it is worthy of being visualized. Whilst OSM claims and is claimed to be an ‘open’ platform for contribution in the sense that all and any individual can upload data to OSM, decisions on map labels and typologies is strictly controlled.

Leszczynski and Elwood position this editorial decision alongside a second typology. That of public sex establishments. In doing so they are pitting a series of commonly female spaces (those of care) alongside those of predictably male spaces (those of pleasure). OSM makes distinctions between three types of public sex establishments: strip clubs, swinger clubs and brothels. Whilst they note that the first of these ‘says nothing about the gender of the performers’ (6) and swinger clubs could easily be visited by heterosexual couples

longstanding gender norms around the expression of sexuality accord men roles as sexual actors and presume women to be passive and submissive recipients of that activity (6)

Thus, giving space to a ‘fine[r]-resolution taxonomy’ (6) in the case of the sex establishments accords men a greater public – and digital presence. The claiming of space thus literally being reserved for male pursuits (and visions) over those of traditionally female practices such as care. Discourses pertaining to a proliferation of open platforms and initiatives risks obscuring the multiple ways in which gender inequalities are wrought. This case goes some way to illuminating them.

Leszczynski and Elwood also discuss two location-based applications designed for users to find women in their local area based on ‘public’ social media data. In truth, each of these apps scrape personal information on women without consent, locating them for the users based on recent spatial log-ins. The array of promotional material – both visual and textual – strongly suggest each is aimed at the hetereosexual male market. Specifically, it seems, the ‘introverted’, tech-savvy or ‘geek’ male.

Both play into a rather disturbing heteronormative discourse that legitimizes and normalizes sexual harassment. The use of both would undoubtedly amount to stalking, bearing in mind that any such encounter with a user on either platform would be wholly unsolicited, based as they are on the collation of personal data without explicit consent. Leszczynski and Elwood argue that this debate is often framed through victim blaming; ‘privacy-shaming’ (12) women for their failure to secure social information from prying eyes, rather than contesting the practices of attaining personal data on strangers without their knowledge. In any case these types of engagements would constitute stalking. But commonly, they are seen in a different light. So-called ‘Facebook stalking’ is deemed OK, whereas snooping through the fence at a neighbour is deemed creepy. What is interesting in this case is that each of the apps in question uses online data scraping as a tool to facilitate offline stalking. Perhaps because of the qualitative differences in the types of practices associated with each is Facebook stalking deemed acceptable to many, and those discussed in this paper are not.

The gendering of socio-spatial media is an important debate if we are to fully understand the ways in which digital platforms modulate spatial practices. There is, I think, space for even more investigation. Leszczynski and Elwood point to some salient issues and, indeed, some notable platforms and spaces where gender inequalities are laid hopelessly bare. It is within these associative practices that we need to look more closely. Misogyny is rife on many digital platforms. For critical cartographers the task is how these gender inequalities manifest themselves across bodies, spaces and places and write themselves into platforms, architectures and infrastructures.