In May 2014, the female-centric subreddit r/TwoXChromosomes was promoted to default subreddit status, meaning it automatically displayed top posts to users when they landed on the reddit homepage.
That might sound like a positive change, adding increased female visibility on the wildly popular male dominated website. But it also meant the once quiet, safe space for women suddenly had a lot more attention from the average redditor.
Quickly, the r/TwoXChromosomes space was flooded with new users, many of them male.
"Suddenly there are men saying immature shit in response to posts about periods, labia, etc. Then there were rape apologists posting in threads about rape culture," one former r/TwoXChromosome subscriber, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid harassment, said in an email to Motherboard.
"I saw what was happening and left before I got myself into any arguments that would raise my blood pressure too much. I've kinda given up on trying to educate men and boys who already think that feminism is a bad word."
This experience of male internet commenters infiltrating what is meant to be female or neutral online space isn't unique.
You could call it virtual manspreading.
Manspreading, the practice of sitting on public transportation with splayed legs in a way that encroaches on the space of others, was a popular topic of articles, Tumblrs, and ads in 2015, even getting an entry in the Oxford Dictionary.
Though one might be tempted to suggest that men's bodies simply need more room, various writers have linked manspreading to privilege and occupation of space. Wrote University of New South Wales researcher Emma Jane, "Manspreading is framed as a powerful—yet also ridiculous—symbol of what is argued to be men's tendency to take up more than their fair share of literal and metaphorical social space."
Similarly, virtual manspreading is the practice of taking up online space in a way that encroaches on the space of others. Though it's not always as extreme as what happened to r/TwoXChromosomes, research has shown that the way men take up and encroach on space in virtual comment sections is significantly different from women's experience of online commenting.
Although 44 percent of NYT readers are female, only 27.7 percent of gender-identified commenters were female
In a study looking at online commenting on the 16 highest trafficked news sites in the US, UK, and Australia, researcher Fiona Martin found that male-named commenters dominated the comments section in every single site included in the study.
She determined the gender of commenters by looking at a sample of top commenters and coded for gender based on the username, including coding for gendered first names (for example, Mary or Robert) and gender cues (for example, Sister or Mr). Gender was also cross-checked against images used by commenters as well as any instances of self-reported gender.
Although the readership of the sites included in Martin's study were almost always made up of more male than female readers, the gender spread for commenters was much wider. At the more equitable end, 35 percent of commenters identified as female at the Texas Tribune (with 56 percent male and 9 percent ambiguous). On the other end of the spectrum, 3 percent were identifiable as women at the Washington Post (21 percent male, 76 percent ambiguous).
The author notes that it's possible commenters could use pseudonyms that misgender them, however, three of the sites included in the study use Facebook-powered comments with (mostly) real names, and all three of these sites echoed the gender differences found in the pseudonymous sites.
Similarly, Emma Pierson's 2015 study of the New York Times online comment sections found that although 44 percent of NYT readers are female, only 27.7 percent of gender-identified commenters were female. She used a similar method of gender inference, running an algorithm that compared commenter names to lists of traditional first names categorized by native speakers, but discarded comments where the gender of the author was ambiguous (46 percent of comments were discarded).
She also found that women tended to voice different opinions when commenting on the same news stories as men. For example, female commenters were more likely to comment in support of employer-provided contraception on an article discussing religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act. Women were also more likely to not use their full, first and last, names. Seventy-eight percent of male commenters used their full names versus 63 percent of female commenters. Gender was inferred through first name when used, on in the case of initials, via a model that determined gender based on the distribution of male/female names for the first name initial. The author posited that the gender difference in anonymity may be due to the increased threat of harassment women face online.
Pierson's study shows that while male voices dominate the conversation in comment sections, female viewpoints are valued and desperately needed. It can be dangerous when a singular view is promulgated over and over, even when it's not widely held. Pierson wrote:
"Since people are influenced by reading online comments, these discrepancies may propagate throughout society. Readers of comments about intimate partner violence, for example, were influenced by the views expressed in those comments. Worse, these discrepancies may be exacerbated because if people falsely believe their own views are unpopular, they may be persuaded not to express them at all, creating a 'spiral of silence.'"
So how can female commenters take back space when faced with virtual manspreading in the comment section?
In the case of r/TwoXChomosomes, some female users fought back against the increased male presence in the best way—by posting and upvoting content that went into graphic and honest detail about uniquely female experiences (yes, period shits).
Despite the challenges, the subreddit's founder and moderator HiFructoseCornFeces still sees default subreddit status as a positive.
"Women comprise half the population. An online forum for women that is easily accessible makes sense to me," she said, noting that the greater visibility of the forum meant higher numbers of women finding support in leaving their abusive partners, talking about accessing contraception, and figuring out what it means to be a survivor of sexual assault since default status. "How did we deal with the challenges? By continuing to moderate a space for women online."
Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.