Creating Safe Spaces For Mob Online

We need spaces that not only serve us, but protect us, too.


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Welcome to January; I am already exhausted. Living in the colony takes an emotional toll that lingers long after January 26, but I and many other Indigenous people have find comfort in digital spaces that help us navigate our identity, find community, and be huge nerds about it.

Not all spaces online are made equal. We may leverage websites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to find our mates, but that isn’t their business model — these platforms are more like data farms that also happen to be good at connecting people.

So, when we’re navigating our virtual worlds, using tools designed to extract and conquer, sovereignty is already something to be reclaimed rather than baked into its scaffolding. We need spaces that not only serve us, but protect us, too.

So, What Makes A Space Safe?

We can find culturally appropriate support.

Living in the colony comes with a unique set of challenges for Indigenous people. There is a calmness in spaces filled with people who can share and validate our experiences. Support might look like finding job opportunities in industries that are still learning to work with us or unpacking historical trauma.

A safe space means we can ask for help from members of our community, know the support we receive will be culturally relevant, and be surrounded by people who understand the cultural significance of Keen’s curry.

We Don’t Need To Be Educators To Non-Indigenous People.

The cultural shockwaves of the Black Lives Matter movements across the US, which have reverberated into our own reflection of Australia’s treatment of First Nations people, have carried with it a swarm of well-meaning allies who want to do more to support us.

The first step in an ally’s anti-racism journey is usually to educate themselves, but often this means the burden of educating lands on Aboriginal people, peaking around January as people discuss Invasion Day, Change the Date, and Abolish the Date. While some of us are willing to be this kind of cultural guide for valued friends, this unpaid emotional labour takes a toll.

A safe space becomes a sanctuary, free from the pressure of providing some kind of thought leadership or racial litmus test to help non-Indigenous Australia determine whether or not it’s okay to wear a flag cape. (Spoilers: it isn’t.)

We Can Be Ourselves.

This means being able to carve out places for ourselves gives us strength to exist in the world, where we are protected from stereotypes or judgment.

A safe space gives us the freedom to express the multitudes of ourselves. As a minority, that facet of our identity that marginalises us can take centre stage in a public forum – it might be the first thing people see or the part we want to shine a light on for visibility – but we can also be nerds who enjoy Star Trek and DnD.

We Can Control Who We Share Our Culture With.

People have a sense of entitlement when it comes to culture. There’s a Western view that stories are meant to be told and culture is meant to be shared, but we have our own protocols to navigate when engaging with culture. Negotiating who has access to the stories of our old people is fundamental to preserving their integrity.

Platforms like Twitter provide equal access to individuals with limited moderation. I won’t begrudge the bird site too much – Twitter has brought me some of my favourite people – but the town square is not always the best forum for navigating cultural identity.

There is joy to be found in being able to connect with mob across the country, and #BlakfullaTwitter gives us a common thread to find our people, but providing equal access to every individual doesn’t create a level playing field unless platforms do the work of rebalancing power. In amongst the doomscrolling and #auspol takes, marginalised people wade through judgment and toxicity for the privilege of being a part of the conversation.

Rather than taking on the impossible task of rehabilitating existing social media whose for-profit model often comes at the sacrifice of human wellbeing, we have tools like Discord to create our own spaces, baking in the initial conditions for safe spaces to flourish.

When we have control over the look and feel of a space, we can create something that feels more like the carefully curated bulletin boards of the early Internet than the screamfest of contemporary social media.

Over the years, I’ve collected a few Discord communities; usually centred around fringe hobbies like mechanical keyboards or synthwave music. One of the better things to come out of 2020 has been helping build a mob-only Discord for people to discuss culture and identity, but also gaming and science fiction.

The more I see these kinds of niche communities thrive, the less interested I am in fighting for breathing room in toxic environments or begging to be invited to tables that have historically disenfranchised my community.

The best part is I get to watch funny, talented mob build a platform on their terms and be supported by organisations like Indigitek. I get to watch other mob play video games, make art, and cook up incredible feeds. I get to watch an all-Indigenous line-up of nerds play Saturday D&D every month, which goes a long way to making these hobbies feel a hell of a lot less lonely.

We all have parts of ourselves that deserve safe spaces. Finding and protecting these spaces is crucial to surviving the colony long after January, and I’m grateful for all the digital communities that make these spaces more welcoming.

Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker is a Nyungar technologist and activist living on unceded Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. She is a digital rights activist serving on the board of Electronic Frontiers Australia, who campaigns for online privacy and believes increasing technical literacy in our wider community will keep us from falling into dystopia.