Before this street harassment map debacle consumes my whole blog, I want to offer final words. I received two thoughtful and direct emails from Upworthy in regards to my post Upworthy Let Me Down. I tried to summarize, but it feels more honest to just quote the text. I'm including my response as text and not as quoted text because a) I don't want to be painfully redundant and b) a girl only has so many words.
First off: I'm really sorry you felt your work was misrepresented on Upworthy. (I read your blog post and wanted to write you). I can only imagine how frustrating it is while you're trying to illustrate such a rampant social problem. We have that goal in common. So if you don't mind, let me share a bit about how we think about these things at Upworthy, to help shed some light on the stuff you found objectionable in how we promoted your maps.
You're right, we choose thumbnails with a specific purpose in mind: to get attention in the crowded landscape of a social news feed. Internally at Upworthy, we call them eyecatchers. And what our data has shown, after thousands of experiments, is that images like the first one we chose are what tend to catch the most eyes. Our goal is never to be needlessly objectifying or sexualizing, but because we test so many images, we often use stock photos to find facial expressions, body language, etc to match the tone of the headline and the story in the content.
In our use of the word "hottie" in the tweet, the reasoning is similar. We want people who don't think street harassment is a problem, or don't know that it's a problem, to view your work. To do that, we have to get their attention and they have to click through. The goal was not to objectify you or suggest that calling someone a "hottie" is acceptable, our goal is to help people talk to their friends about the content, and often we do that by using language that is accessible to people who wouldn't normally click on a map about street harassment.
We try to be very deliberate in the words and images we use, to find a balance between something that will stand out and catch people's attention in a busy newsfeed without misrepresenting or being disrespectful to the content, because the content won't share if we do that, and our goal is always to frame things in a way our audience will feel comfortable sharing.
And just to say it, the thumbnail and the text used on social media feeds are merely the way we get more people in the door.
No one who clicks through and absorbs your work will remember what image we used to lead them there, or that the tweet used the word "hottie". Instead, they'll remember the quotes on the maps. They'll remember that you were subjected to all that in just three blocks. It's your story that will stick with them. It's your lived experience that will change minds.
We reached out to you because we loved your maps and wanted to help get your work in front of as many people as possible — a wide, across-the-spectrum audience. And the editorial decisions we made were carefully considered in pursuit of that goal.
I do apologize again that the wrong image and Twitter text appeared publicly — I had changed them after my email with you last week, but our audience development team had already scheduled them to go out, and sometimes Facebook or Twitter pull the wrong image even after we change it. Anyone tweeting or sharing the post on Facebook or Twitter now should be seeing the updated text and image.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to read my post and respond. I'm grateful that I've gotten several thoughtful responses from Upworthy, and I do understand what happened with image. I do still have some frustrations about how the piece was treated, but all in all, it's valuable to know that you're open to feedback and sincere in your response. I will make sure that my blog reflects that.
Everything you've presented makes sense, and it's fair for the editors to make choices that drive clicks and sharing. My intention isn't to scrutinize every aspect of Upworthy's process, and certainly not to condemn you personally. However, because this is issue is so often confused or dismissed (and because it is so deeply relevant to my life - quite literally daily) I do feel that it's valuable to dive critically into every aspect of how it's presented and discussed.
For Upworthy's purposes - drawing attention from a wide audience to an issue - your presentation was effective and appropriate. For my goal, which is to create an ongoing reflective and nuanced dialog about street harassment- there is more conversation to be had, about what the issue is, and even how we talk about it.
For example, in addition to feelings I shared with you about the image choice, I think it's neither correct or productive to present street harassment as something that only happens to beautiful women or "hotties." Personally, I feel that street harassment has infinitely more to do with asserting power over a person than it has to do with how attractive they are. Moreover, it may even be unfair to present street harassment as a women's issue - there are men, particularly marginalized men, who probably also experience in a way I can't speak to. Again, I'm not an authority on any of this (except when speaking to my own feelings). It may also problematic to conflate street harassment with compliments. Of course there are shades of grey between politely telling a woman that you find her beautiful and accosting her on the street. I know I made a choice to create a map that grouped all of that together to make a point, and again, I'm looking for answers here as much as I'm presenting them.
This is all to say, I see now that Upworthy accomplished its precise goal in this instance, and did it very well. However, the kind of activism that I'm trying to do takes a few more steps to deconstruct every aspect of a social issue and the dialogue about it. I think it's not only fair, but also critical for the advancement of any issue, that we hold each other accountable for the exact words and actions we use about a topic. That's what I tried to accomplish by creating that map, and it was towards that same end that I wrote about the problematic aspects of how it was shared.
For many people who saw the catchy headline and clicked on it, this piece gave them some understanding of the issue and my personal experience, and that is fantastic. For a smaller group of people, who followed the post and then my next blog about the post, this project gave them a deeper understanding of what the practical and discursive issues are at play here. For me, that's a success.
I am grateful for the obvious consideration you have given this, and my hope is that you see us working towards a similar goal.
All the best,