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May 24, 2021, 2:22 p.m.
Audience & Social

The Binders isn’t a secret anymore. Where does the giant Facebook group go from here?

“It felt like I was at Ms. Magazine working with Gloria Steinem at the beginning, like you were one of the first people with a desk.”

In June 2014, the Canadian freelance writer Anna Fitzpatrick wanted to create a space for her writer friends to congregate online. She tweeted: “Hey, women who write: if I started a group on facebook to network & share info & gossip about One Direction, would you want to join?”

She called the group “The Binders Full of Women Writers,” and invited members to add other women writers as they saw fit. Though she imagined the group would grow, she did not expect 6,000 people to join almost immediately. By the end of the Binders’ first month, membership was capped at 22,000 people. Today, the original group is 46,100 members strong and the name has been changed to “The Binders” to be more inclusive to gender non-conforming writers.

Over the course of 2014, members began launching subgroups, known as “sub-Binders.” There were regional subgroups, and subgroups for writers of marginalized identities. There were subgroups for certain types of posts (like job listings), and subgroups for genres and mediums, like travel writing and screenwriting. Every subgroup’s admin was a volunteer and and no umbrella organization united these 200-plus Facebook groups, so none of them were officially affiliated with each other, apart from a document in the main group with a directory of all the subgroups.

Back in 2014, the media worker listserv Study Hall did not exist, nor did the virtual “ask me anything” freelancing town halls that became popular during the pandemic. Twitter’s freelance subculture was less developed than it is today. The Binders and its subgroups played a role that has become increasingly complicated over the last few years.

[Read: The New York Times is so done with its 77,000-member Facebook cooking group. What happens now?]

Back then, members of Binders would list #binders in their bio in order to find and follow each other, building out the network. (In the wake of Gamergate, it also felt like a safe space on the web.) Authors and reporters with name recognition introduced themselves to the group and volunteered to be resources for those starting out; during those early months, it was not uncommon for an IRL coffee date to lower her voice, lean over the table and ask, “Are you in the Binders?” as if she were extending an invitation to a secret society.

Secrecy was initially a big part of Binders’ appeal and seen as integral to its legitimacy. When Melody Joy Kramer mentioned its existence and linked to it in a Poynter article in 2015, she was kicked out, and controversy over that decision (did “secrecy” really just mean “elitism”?) erupted.

“At the beginning, I was addicted to this group,” said Leigh Stein, a novelist who went on to become one of the main group’s moderators. “It was the only thing I wanted to do. Any moment I was awake, I wanted to be on Facebook, checking what was being posted in the Binders. It felt like I was at Ms. Magazine working with Gloria Steinem at the beginning, like you were one of the first people with a desk.” Joining the groups in the early day felt like gaining access to a secret corner of the media whose purpose was to chip away at the monolithic, legacy publications that relied on word-of-mouth referrals to hire staffers and assign stories. By widening the whisper network, the argument went, the Binders democratized media and offered members a leg up for pitching and applying to jobs. It was almost like a media sorority.

Also like a sorority, the arcane rules and regulations of the Binders could seem overwhelming for new members. Is this type of post appropriate? Is there a better, more specific sub-Binder out there? Do I know anyone who can add me? Am I even doing this right?

In July 2014, Stein proposed starting a Binders conference to translate the group’s go-getter energy to the real world. About 100 members volunteered to help organize it, including writer Lux Alptraum. A Kickstarter raised over $55,000, and the organizers hosted the first of six “BinderCons” three months later at Cooper Union in Manhattan. Speakers included Jill Abramson, Anna Holmes, Leslie Jamison, and Imogen Binnie. With roughly 550 writers in attendance, many of whom received comped scholarship tickets and travel stipends, the conference was indisputably a success.

The conference briefly became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Out of the Binders, with its staffers moderating the main Facebook group. But Out of the Binders has been defunct since 2017, and the nonprofit is in the process of dissolving. “It was so much work and burned everybody out,” Alptraum said. “But that’s what happens with events. It’s hard to do them forever.” (Alptraum is no longer affiliated with Binders in any way.)

Stein remembered a cultural turning point in 2016, around Donald Trump’s election, when Binders became explicitly more political. “I don’t think it was only the Binders,” she said, “but it was suddenly this feeling that everything was about politics and that politics were very high stakes.”

Part of that political conversation centered on the group’s name, a reference to Senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 comment about having “binders full of women” he’d consider appointing to cabinet positions if elected president. How could politics ever be kept out of the group, some wondered, when that remark was its origin? But the politics of the Binders were “implicit, not explicit,” Stein argued. “It was founded by a Canadian.”

“The name was one of those things where you think of a dumb joke, and then it blows up and suddenly you’re stuck with it. It wasn’t a name people put serious thought into,” Alptraum said, recounting Fitzpatrick’s original tweet. (Fitzpatrick did not respond to requests for comment.) Around 2016 or 2017, as the discussion in the main group centered on the question of what it meant to be a woman writer, the moderators changed its “The Binders” in order to be more inclusive. Still, at over 40,000 members, the tone of the group’s discussions had become nearly impossible to keep in check. Controversy ignited with increasing frequency.

“The labor of moderating the Facebook group was thankless, exhausting, and exacerbated by holiday weekends” when members had more time to kill on Facebook and conversations would become heated), Stein said. “By the time I left, I was taking antidepressants. I was in thousands of dollars of credit card debt. It was an extremely dark place. I attribute that to the labor of moderating the Facebook group.”

It wasn’t that the group was full of bad actors. But it was large, diverse, and composed of people with varying political educations who never encountered each other in their daily lives. Members had different definitions of what should be considered offensive.

Meanwhile, in the subgroups, women and gender-variant writers posted writing jobs, asked for advice, self-promoted, and organized meetups. Some people found housing through the Binders, and at one time, there was a Google Doc of couches in various locales where fellow Binders would always be welcome to crash. The groups ranging between 1,500 and 4,000 members were large enough to feature under-the-radar opportunities, but manageable enough that moderators could still control the tone of the discussions. Larger groups, though, regularly spun out of control.

“It’s not that anyone is actively hostile. It’s that there are different understandings of what is appropriate, what is and isn’t racism,” another former group admin told me. “I tend to side with the more marginalized people, generally speaking, and I think that the more marginalized people have a right to be really, really angry.” She said she’d witnessed similar misunderstandings in queer Facebook groups. (See also: Carrie Battan’s New Yorker piece on how pink “pussyhats” and “deplorable knitters” upended a social network for knitters.)

These dynamics came to a head on April 12, 2021, when a member of the Binder focused on “writing jobs” submitted a job opportunity at Fox News’s website and a moderator approved the post. Writers in the group say an argument devolved over whether or not it was appropriate to signal-boost an opportunity at Fox News, considering that the Binders’ entire purpose was to promote the interests of women and marginalized people.

After 666 comments had been posted, Katherine Brodsky, the founder and administrator of the “writing jobs” subgroup, closed the thread, so the discussion shifted to other threads in the group, per writer Kate Lindsay’s coverage of the incident. Brodsky posted a statement along the lines of “While some conversations are important to have, there are better places for that kind of dialogue,” she says. Consequently, she was accused of being a white supremacist, an ableist, and a Nazi collaborator.

“This was not an environment I wanted to condone in a group where the mission was jobs,” Brodsky said. “The focus has always been very professional and very much about jobs. We never even really allowed other kinds of discussions; it wasn’t a place for that.” After going back and forth about whether to archive the group — or even whether to make it public and open to men, therefore taking it out of the Binder umbrella — Brodsky decided to continue to let the group operate for “women and gender non-conforming individuals,” and keep it “focused completely on jobs, with zero tolerance for personal attacks or political discussions.”

However, some members believed it was impossible to separate a Binder from its implicit politics. “It was pointed out to me that because the group was a Binder, that means it’s inherently political and it’s an act of white supremacy to take out the politics,” Brodsky said. (Some members left and formed splinter groups, including “Binders Full of Writing Jobs [anti-racist edition].”) “[And] by virtue of it being a group for women and gender non-conforming people, that makes it a political group. It was also pointed out that as somebody who is white, I should not be able to admin the group, even though I started it, which is a common thing that has been happening in Binder groups.” She didn’t step down and continues to manage the subgroup because she feels that it provides a “massive advantage” to members, especially since there are some opportunities that are exclusively posted to the Binders.

For thousands of members, the Binders are less of a forum to participate and more of a job board to check periodically. “For as many vocal people as there are in the group, there are 1000 lurkers,” Stein said. “We hear from the ones who are the loudest, and as much as there was public pushback against the moderator [of the writing jobs group], I would imagine she got many private messages of support. That’s my guess.”

Brodksy believes the depersonalizing effect of social media creates a “threatening environment” in general, since the interface of Facebook Groups allows commenters to pile onto posts all at once. “There is a place for heated conversations. I just don’t think platforms like Twitter or Facebook are the right places for that,” she said. “I’ve been considering holding conversations on some of the topics that were brought up — like which outlets are allowed [in the writing job Binder] or not — over video or voice, something that has more nuance and personal context.”

Many of the Binders subgroups that were active in 2014 or 2015 are now defunct. Those that remain have become a “self-selecting group of writers who are still active on Facebook,” Lindsay said, and Facebook is now losing daily active users in the U.S. and Canada. “It doesn’t feel reflective of the current, up-and-coming generation of writers,” Lindsay said.

Though many writers still rely on the Binders, others have migrated to less fraught spaces for jobs and advice. Writers of color have started secret Facebook groups and networks of their own. Groups catering to Black writers are “spaces where I can talk about the nuances of being a Black writer that I simply do not feel comfortable or have the opportunity to speak about in larger writing spaces,” said independent journalist Tiffany Onyejiaka. “I also find that these groups emphasize genuine collaboration, and I feel like I can get very good and specific advice for my writing needs from my fellow Black journalists. I can’t say that I feel the same sense of camaraderie in larger Facebook writing groups.”

Lindsay sees similarities between the debates in Binders and those around The Wing, whose CEO and cofounder, Audrey Gelman, stepped down last year amid allegations of mistreatment of employees of color.

“I think it’s similar to what happened [there],” Lindsay said. “We’re past the point of being able to say something women-only is a progressive space, because our thoughts about gender have progressed, and being a woman doesn’t automatically make you infallible.”

Kate Dwyer is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Cut, The Wall Street Journal, and many other outlets.

Photo by Sear Greyson on Unsplash.

POSTED     May 24, 2021, 2:22 p.m.
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