The future of feminism is offline

Even more powerful in person.
Even more powerful in person.
Image: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
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When it comes to the future of feminism, Gloria Steinem has some advice for how the intersectional movement can thrive in 2016: go offline.

“Over time and far from home,” Steinem writes in her new graceful memoir My Life on the Road, “I discovered something I might never otherwise have learned: people in the same room understand and empathize with each other in a way that isn’t possible on the page or screen.”

Technology has allowed feminism to push its way to the epicenter of mainstream culture in the past decade. At the same time, however, technology has rendered feminism primarily as a cultural trend, concerned with modes of visibility, representation, and self-promotion. While such aims are celebrated as female empowerment, they are usually divorced from the realm of the political. The ephemerality of digital media, too, hinders the ability to create a sustained, powerful, and effective feminist movement.

While it’s tempting to believe the adage “what goes online lives forever,” the capitalist forces of production in the digital age mean that not only are we buried daily in immeasurable amounts of mass-produced content, but more significantly, the scope of both our memory and our access to a definitive archive of feminist materials has become truncated and piecemeal.

Steinem’s memoir is a testimonial to the necessity of physical spaces—not only to further the intersectional feminist cause, but to ensure our enduring commitment to humanity. What she learned from the Gandhians in India, Native Americans, and the African-American feminists with whom she worked and traveled alongside with beginning the 1960s, is that physical interaction is imperative to sustained civic-mindedness. “If you want people to see you,” she writes, “you have to sit down with them eye-to-eye.”

Steinem emphasizes the importance of physicality in activism throughout her memoir, stressing that the space itself is less important than the bodies present which make and define it. “If I had to name the most important discovery of my life,” she reflects, “it would be the portable community of talking circles; groups that gather with all five senses, and allow consciousness to change.”

“They taught me to talk as well as listen,” she writes. “They also showed me that writing, which is solitary, is fine company for organizing, which is communal.”

This idea of deep bodily engagement is an important one. Recent studies have suggested that, as we have progressively moved our lives online, we have become less empathic. Sara H. Konrath’s 2010 study through the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that a statistical decrease in empathy tellingly coincides with a broad “increase in social isolation.” This is also what MIT professor Sherry Turkle has observed as a 21st century American cultural phenomenon of being “alone together.”

It’s true that the internet has elevated the perspective of many activists whose voices weren’t perviously being heard, either because they didn’t have access to a platform or because they belong to often-marginalized communities. It has also in some ways democratized debate. You don’t need to be published in Ms. Magazine to engage in provocative discussion and ideation. And that’s a good thing.

On the other hand, online spaces can never be substitutes for the real thing. The first reason has to do with the ephemerality of “viral” information. Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has become 15 seconds. In the goldfish bowl of the internet, we don’t remember important points because we can’t remember, thanks to information overload.

The second reason relates to Steinem’s thoughts on meeting face-to-face, or  “eye-to-eye.” The feminist movement depends on strong roots to guide and sustain it. Forging a community means creating a culture by making memories—and this requires a form of bodily listening that is impossible online. As perhaps the truest form of democracy to ever exist, social media is not really about listening. Eventually, all this talking devolves into shouting as more and more people join the conversation. Eventually, dissenting voices—those that arguably differ from the mainstream, innocuous, politically-correct tenor—are drowned out.

Meanwhile, on Facebook and Twitter, we’re more likely to “like” and “share” than actually read the content of what we’re liking and sharing. Social media has become the epitome of Macbeth’s famous line, “full of sound and fury/signifying nothing.”

This is Steinem’s explicit message in My Life on The Road: When it comes to community building and activism, online spaces are supplements to—never substitutes for—physical spaces. Avatars are never substitutes for real bodies, either. Bodies have histories. They anchor the feminist movement, teach younger activists, and create a critical bond that links generations. If the feminist movement intends to break the worrying circularity of the discourse about women’s oppression, we need to remember and honor that established history. We need that knowledge—which depends on more than what our eyes can surmise through images and video clips we gloss over on our phones.

Feminism online connects us in critical ways, but feminism offline makes us a community.