How a ban on pro-Trump patterns unraveled the online knitting world - MIT Technology Review
When knitting site Ravely banned all pro-Trump content it caused a schism in the community—but it also shone a spotlight on how women are using niche sites to politicize.
But the infighting in one of the internet’s most niche communities is about more than just politics and knitting. It’s a glimpse of how otherwise ignored populations—here, predominantly older women—are using online platforms to organize and make their voices heard. And the Ravelry falling-out highlights questions other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, have tiptoed around: What constitutes hate speech, and how should censorship work online?
For some, the politicization of knitting groups started in earnest with the Women’s March in 2017. Thousands of women knitted “pussy hats” to protest the “grab ’em by the pussy” comment the president was revealed to have made in 2005. Nearly 5,000 knitters were active on Ravelry’s dedicated subgroup for the march. Three years later, a majority remained active, says Sandra Markus, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Together with Ioana Literat, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College, she published a paper last year that chronicles online “craftivism” and how politics has grown with it.
But with the ban on Trump-related content, many of those voices moved elsewhere. In the eight months since the ban, a slew of right-leaning Ravelry copycats have sprung up. Deplorable Knitter launched her own site, subtitled “The Adventures of a Politically Incorrect Knitter,” where she’s gained a cult following and is currently hosting a knit-along of a hat and cowl emblazoned with “Women for Trump.” There’s the independent 18,000-strong Fiberkind, whose threaded chat layout most resembles Ravelry. And there’s Trump-supporting Freedom Knits, “where artistic freedom is respected.” It has grown to 400 members in the two months since it launched.
The increased politicization of the online knitting world has come as part of a demographic shift. While the community still skews older and mostly female, it is fast diversifying. Millennials—who are generally more politically active and came of age in the AIM chatroom—are now signing up to Ravelry and its offshoots. “They’ve been awakened in this particular moment to capitalize on their identity,” Literat says.
Online communities that are hyperspecific to certain hobbies also help engender dialogue across the political divide—a key point in a polarized political environment where people spend much of their time in ideological bubbles, says Literat.
“You get a much wider spectrum of opinions in these spaces,” she says. “You see people who are already politically engaged, but also people who aren’t coming to these places, at least at first, because of politics.”
The controversy shines a light on the future of political organizing: ultra-niche, small-but-vocal online communities built around an otherwise nonpolitical hobby or interest. For Literat, Ravelry’s ban presents a litmus test for the future of niche-site censorship and whether it’s best to forge a single, politically homogenous community or to splinter fringe users off.
It is also giving women a new way to become politicized online. For Amy Singer, the founder of another knitting site, Knitty, that’s good news.
“The one thing that crafts have always done is bring solace,” she says. “It gives us a way to express what’s upsetting us, hope for change, and bring comfort. Knitting’s not for grannies. We’re not scared any more.”