Reader Editors Introduction: The Ada Journal Reader
Carol Stabile, Radhika Gajjala, and Karen Estlund
Hard to believe, but it has been 10 years since the Fembot Collective launched its peer-reviewed journal Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. In the years following our launch, racism, nationalism, homophobia, and misogyny continue to intensify amidst successive waves of COVID-19. The Trump Administration rolled back feminists’ hopes for the future of progressive politics, locking progressives into desperate and defensive maneuvers. At the same time, the era galvanized social movements around racist police violence and sexual violence, which revolutionized the use of social media to reach a globalized audience.
Ada was a very modest contribution to understanding gender, new media, and technology, meant to intervene in one of the safest avenues of production for feminists: academia. In that space, and amidst everything that’s happened over the past decade, remembering and celebrating what Ada managed to do — on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets, with no grants, no staff to speak of — is a meaningful undertaking, one that we hope holds some inspiration for the future.
From the start, Ada was a risky venture. It was launched by a group of feminists who did not care if it failed, as long as we learned from it; feminists interested not in building their own reputational capital, but who wanted to democratize access to feminist publishing. We believed that the ephemeral has power to influence the permanent, a point Alex Juhasz and Mél Hogan helped us understand early on. We implemented innovations that would be later adopted by larger, better-funded (and typically more risk-averse) journals and publishing ventures. Our platform functioned as an open peer review system, allowed authors to select their own copyright, offered open access to issues and articles, and featured a podcast book review and multimodal articles. Because Fembot and Ada had so few resources, we took chances on publishing work outside familiar disciplinary pathways; we didn’t care about scholarly genealogies, we worked with scholars with interesting and original ideas rather than scholars who were in or of our networks.
Across the course of that decade, our output was impressive. Ada published 16 issues with 140 contributions from 166 contributors on topics ranging from feminist science fiction to game studies to online violence. Articles were peer reviewed by a network of 50 active Fembot Collective members. We held conferences to workshop ideas for special issues and to convene people who might never have otherwise encountered one another's work. In academic circles built on exclusions, we worked hard to be inclusive, to make everyone feel like they belonged and that their work mattered, and we did our best to mentor authors through rejections, revisions, and a peer review process that was far more open and honest than anything we’d previously encountered. The process was imperfect, but over multiple iterations, we learned from mistakes and sought to improve.
This reader publishes a selection of articles from Ada’s 16 issues. Although all these articles are available online, collecting them in a single volume not only allows us to mark this anniversary and celebrate all those who contributed to Ada, it also allows us to put these works in conversation with each other and to think about them alongside the fields from which they emerged and those they challenged. Our selection criteria for this volume were wide-ranging. We included some articles because of their influence on their field or fields. We included others because of their originality. We included still others because in the opinion of the co-editors of this volume (co-founders of the Fembot Collective and Ada), they represent key aspects of Ada’s aspirations and hopes for feminist journal publishing. This introduction thus provides an overview of the short but shining history of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology and its contributions to the history of feminist publishing. We wish that we could have included all the material published in Ada and urge readers of this anthology to read, teach, and share issues of Ada, now archived and available here.
Ada was the Fembot Collective’s signature achievement, but without Fembot and the network it grew, the journal would not have been possible, a point that emphasizes the centrality of community to feminist publishing efforts. The Fembot Collective was organized in 2009, the year after the beginning of the great recession — a year that saw the inauguration of the United States’ first Black president. Fembot began as a naïve and unrealistic vision, cooked up by a small group of faculty, graduate students, and librarians in Eugene, Oregon. Fembot never intended to be tethered to a place; from the beginning, Fembot’s creators envisioned it as a network that was mobile, capacious, flexible, and utopian. It swiftly spiraled out to include a broader web of feminists in media studies, digital humanities, communication, English, sociology, art, and other disciplines and locations, within and outside of academe.
Fembot People, as we sometimes described ourselves, pursued connections hungrily, methodically and doggedly, meeting first at a conference in Eugene, Oregon and then with feminists at conferences in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. We had some joyous happy hours in the U.S. and Europe and other, quieter meetings where we discussed the platform, its possibilities, and the challenges for interdisciplinary online feminist scholarship. Early on, we took a group of graduate students to Australia, where we had the chance to learn from our colleagues at FibreCulture.
Through traditional conferences, unconferences, feminist value-based hack-a-thons, and deep conversations with established and emerging feminist leaders, our thinking developed in leaps and bounds. The labor and dedication of Fembot People reached beyond affinity and identity; the considerable passion that faculty and graduate students at Bowling Green, Concordia in Montreal, the University of Southern California, the University of Iowa, the University of Minnesota, the University of Maryland, and the University of Oregon devoted to this project is boundless.
During the early years of this project, we were reluctant to impose a vision on what we theorized as a collaborative, experimental platform and project. Instead, Fembot and its experiments intuitively emerged from shared political and intellectual commitments. We were a group of scholars motivated to transform and democratize journal publishing and peer review based on open access, inclusivity, and internationalism. Our holistic approach to peer review and editing aimed to ensure that collaborators could grow as individual scholars, and this approach contributed to a space that shaped collective values in the field.
Early on, we made a commitment to radically challenge the politics of traditional journal publishing. In the years following the Great Recession, the cost of journals published by commercial presses skyrocketed, and library budgets declined. We found ourselves donating our intellectual labor to commercial presses who then charged our institutions thousands of dollars to make them accessible to students. We could no longer sit and watch our work circulate within an echo-chamber reserved for the most privileged. Struggles over open access have only intensified in the years since we launched. At the time of this writing, more than half of the academic publishing market is monopolized by five major commercial publishers: Elsevier, Sage, Springer Nature, Wiley, and Taylor and Francis. Under the corporate guise of “transformative publishing,” these publishers charge university libraries double to share open access content: once for subscriptions to journals and then a second time to publish content open access within the journals they already subscribe to. This was not the kind of transformation we were seeking. In 2009, we knew there was a hunger for feminist media studies content outside the university and we were irate that for-profit publishers stole from us twice: the first time by not paying for the labor of research and writing the articles and then by selling work they hadn’t paid for to our colleagues and struggling public institutions.
We were told by those with money and resources that established presses and universities were not going to fund a feminist transformation of publishing. It’s hard to change practices and routines within institutions tightly bound to the status quo, even when that status quo is costing them a great deal of money. Our desire to seize the means of journal publishing was not likely to get us any grants. We made our peace with this, even as we understood that our inability to secure grants meant that the project accrued little cultural capital, either as a journal or for the faculty members involved with it.
We also eschewed the cultural logic of sustainability. We made a deliberate decision early on not to worry about longevity (or, perhaps the reproductive logic of journal publishing) and instead to focus on content and process. We wanted to do work and change how that work was done, and we figured out ways to share resources and redistribute those across institutions. This allowed us to avoid getting mired in funding cycles that were likely to result in compromises and the diversion of energy away from the work of organizing the collective and editing and producing the journal.
The feminist movement was born on the promise of equal consideration, which we sought to exemplify through our reinvented peer review process; peer review should be a creative and gratifying process, not destructive. The readers of this introduction understand that traditional peer review works like this: you send an article to a journal, or a book to a press, and they send the article or book off to reviewers who (hopefully) have expertise in your field. This process can take up to a year until the author receives reviews and is notified whether their article was accepted, accepted with revisions, or rejected. “Traditional” peer review refers to the forms of peer review that emerged from sociology during the Cold War and that bear the markings of that historical moment. David Pontille and Didier Torny provide a compelling account of this history in Ada Issue 3, an essay reprinted in this reader.
Outside of a very few feminist journals, like Feminist Media Studies, peer review in the social sciences and humanities has often above all been concerned with policing disciplinarity and maintaining intellectual orthodoxies. For interdisciplinary feminist scholars, experiences with traditional peer review do not always provide the feedback that allows authors (especially those with less writing experience) to grow and improve their scholarship. Not to sound overly dramatic, but traditional peer review can be a cruel and abusive star chamber, with behaviors we associate with trolls rather than professors. In this process, scholars receive anonymous, often conflicting, reports from people whose identities and disciplinary backgrounds are hidden from them. Lacking a context for rejection, they read these reviews in private — blind peer review (and leaving aside the ableist dimensions of the language) encourages us to process criticism in isolation and silence.
In contrast to the usual forms of peer review, Fembot understood peer review as a process that should invest in improving people’s research by providing feedback, even in the case of contributions we ultimately decided not to publish. We set about creating a specific form of feminist peer review in two ways. First, we endeavored to be as transparent as possible in our critiques of authors’ work. The open peer review process we developed, following Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s original use of the WordPress plugin CommentPress to solicit feedback on her book Planned Obsolescence (NYU Press, 2011), emerged from this commitment. In our process, articles were edited in real time, and reviewers were identified by name. The CommentPress plugin allowed reviewers to talk to each other as well, noting agreement about revisions or signaling where and why they disagreed with each other. We wanted authors to see multiple comments on their work, to allow reviewers to agree (and in some cases disagree) with each other. And we wanted authors to know where criticisms were coming from, in terms of social locations and disciplines, by having access to the identities of their reviewers. Beyond peer review, we wanted to help prepare our feminist graduate students for multiple career paths, not in a neoliberal, “The Professor Is In” style, but in a manner grounded in feminist politics and possibilities — one that offered graduate students access to a network of feminists. We also wanted to provide a peer review and publishing process at Fembot that could move quickly. If you’re writing an article on misogynist infopolitics on Wikipedia, you don’t want to wait two years for your work to appear in print.
We also were committed to having Ada’s content be radically relational and the Fembot Collective to be a welcoming space. We understood the importance of standpoint, and we wanted to make sure that no single standpoint monopolized the scholarship included in Ada. We pushed our contributors on these points as well, in conversation and in peer review.
Graduate students were integral to the project from the beginning. They helped us think about labor issues from the very start; their active collaboration kept us on our toes and helped us avoid exploiting the power differential between them and us. Some volunteered their labor because our work dovetailed with their intellectual and professional goals. Media studies Ph.D. candidate Bryce Peake volunteered to help us write grants in the early stages of the project, and Staci Tucker constructed the original website framework. Mel Hogan and Jacqueline Wallace shared their keen senses of design and accountability, particularly to graduate students. English Ph.D. candidate Chelsea Bullock was our first paid graduate student assistant, and her organizational thinking and creativity shaped the project in vital ways. Sarah Hamid worked closely with our Digital Scholarship Center to oversee important technological issues and regularize our listserv and membership system. Shehram Mokhtar brought the work of South Asian activists and media producers to Fembot. Starting in 2016, we also received Fembot Collective graduate assistant support from the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Diane Pasquale, Kaitlyn Wauthier, Riddhima Sharma, Sarah Ford, and Ololade Faniyi — all from BGSU — were involved with a range of Fembot collective activities over the last five years. In addition, other doctoral and master’s students from BGSU offered voluntary (unpaid) labor to complete some tasks. For instance, Zehui Dai, Alyssa Fisher, and David Stephens supported efforts to host Fembot Collective workshops and a symposium held at Bowling Green State University. At the University of Maryland, graduate student Eva Peskin and then assistant professor Alexis Lothian were staunch Ada advocates and devoted time and labor to keeping the project going.
Ada’s international reach (we still get queries from international feminist activists and scholars about potential projects and collaborations) was facilitated by the involvement of graduate students. The funded and voluntary graduate student collaborators were encouraged to bring in their situated perspectives and experiences to enrich both the process and published content. International students and students with a range of U.S. identity locations enriched our team’s process and output by confidently suggesting changes that they saw were needed for more international and interdisciplinary reach and access.
The value placed on libraries and access and archiving digital objects was also an avenue of exploration for Ada. We were anxious to take advantage of the multimedia functionality of the internet, and to not let expressions of the content be constrained by visions of the printed text while still conceding that text is an effective form of communication. Although we accepted the idea of ephemerality, we also challenged ourselves to resist it where possible, and it provided a freedom to pursue archiving digital content in nascent forms. Ada published content from authors that included audio and video, multimedia image constructions (gifs), and linked to other external web applications with interactive features, such as Scalar. We also published an article in Spanish and English language versions so that the author could reach their desired audiences. We ensured alternative text and descriptions were contributed as part of the submission from the authors. Our process relied on “how” and never “no.” The quality of the content and peer review would be the determining factor for inclusion not the media format.
Archiving always occurred alongside publication for Ada with often invisible labor of librarians and graduate students. Librarians at the University of Oregon (Catherine Flynn-Purvis, Franny Gaede), the Pennsylvania State University (Cynthia Vitale, Ally Laird), the University of Maryland (Kate Dohe) ensured that archiving processes occurred in the background, the security and stability of the Ada website was intact, metadata was contributed to searchable indexes, and DOIs (digital object identifiers) were assigned and updated. A three pronged-approach was used to archive Ada: 1) the site and linked sites were harvested through a subscription of the Internet Archive’s ArchiveIT! service, 2) the files from the web server and SQL database were regularly copied to a local directory, and 3) we intentionally formatted print style sheets (CSS) to provide readable alternatives. At Colorado State University, history graduate student Hailey Douchette and archivist Clarissa Trapp compiled the most stable and coherent versions of archived content now available in the institutional repository at the University of Oregon. This work was always coordinated as part of job duties and supported through the libraries as part of strategic or experimental initiatives where the individuals worked.
In the years since we published that first issue, Ada has provided a network based on mentoring, connection, support, and possibility. While it did not always work perfectly, Ada’s peer review process put our values into practice. Co-authors of one of the articles included in this volume wrote to us, “[N]either of us has ever participated in an open peer review process like this. I think I speak for both of us when I say that the experience has been amazing!” According to one of our special issue editors, “[I] am thrilled by the outcome, and also much impressed by the feminist process you have instilled within the journal. Ada with its people, values and processes is such a great feminist infrastructure.” The possibilities allowed through a network of mentoring and support also let us publish work that didn’t fit into disciplinary confines. Perhaps the most meaningful communication we received was from a contributor who was having a difficult time publishing their interdisciplinary work: “[I] wanted to extend a personal note to express my sincerest thanks for this opportunity. My initial reaction was to equate our encounter... as ‘chance,’ but further reflection leads me to believe that we met because the universe is merciful in correcting wrongdoings.”
Our mentoring helped other fledgling journals, editors, and open access publishing initiatives get off the ground. Through formal scholarly networks, Fembot People shared our processes and practices at conferences like Console-ing Passions, the International Communication Association, the Coalition for Networked Information, and the American Library Association, discussing Ada’s approach to open peer review, multimedia, and author-selected Creative Commons licenses. We also engaged in very candid discussions on process and the realities of labor involved. We did not wait for our process to be perfect but frequently opened the doors, Dropbox files, Google docs, technical processes, and code of Ada to those seeking to start their own journals. One editor wrote to thank us for our “generosity of time and information-sharing during our conversation about starting an e-journal this afternoon. What for real women you are!! (2018).” After a meeting with another aspiring editor, they wrote, Ada is “a journal I read a lot of, and definitely one of the ‘inspirations’ for what we're trying to put together.”
In terms of measures more traditionally valued within academe, to date, Ada contributions have been cited in over 2,025 scholarly contributions. Many early academic Ada contributors have gone on to be influential scholars of feminist and media studies, as well as public intellectuals. Ada articles are used in university courses and teaching around the world from the Illinois Institute of Technology to McGill University. The use of articles in courses is of course harder to track.
The articles we selected for this reader are grouped into six sections. “Part 1: Methods, Scholarship, and Publishing” features articles that pushed the boundaries of conventional methodologies, in terms of scholarship and publishing. “Part 2: Emerging Technology and Media” contains cutting-edge research and scholarship Ada was able to publish quickly on new media technologies, including significant articles about gaming, influencers, and artificial intelligence. In “Part 3: Systems and Networks of Support,” we turn attention to the power of feminist community-building, as well as its continued challenges. As all issues of Ada grappled with race and racism, “Part 4: Race and Racism” brings several of these contributions into conversation with each other. “Part 5: Political Interventions” includes articles for which political intervention is central, whether in terms of dismantling the victim-blaming logic of revenge porn or addressing the misogyny of Wikipedians. Finally, “Part 6: Beyond the Gender Binary” showcases the transformative queer and transgender contributions that appeared in Ada.
We hope that you will teach or share the articles we have compiled for you with students, colleagues, and publics beyond academe. These articles constitute an archive of feminist thought about gender, media, and technology in the 2010s, as well as evidence of the impact of feminist values on academic publishing. The extent to which this archive influences coming generations of scholars, artists, librarians, archivists, and activists depends on those of you who keep these ideas alive and part of an always evolving tradition of feminist thought and publishing.