Thursday, February 20, 2020

Communication, Power, and the Whisper Network

We can think of communication and power as two opposite ways of getting things done with others. The way of communication is for people to talk about a situation, come to an understanding of what needs to happen, and voluntarily coordinate their efforts to get it done. The way of power is for those who have power to use it to get what they want by controlling the behavior of others, whether through force or threat, legitimate authority (owner, boss, judge, priest, parent), incentive (money, favors), or sheer personal charisma (rock star, guru, demagogue). (For now, we won't go into into theories of power, a vast subject.)

The distinction between communication and power is invoked when parents are advised to talk with their children, or bosses with their workers, or stronger nations with weaker ones, to work out problems instead of using their power to compel compliance. It's a useful distinction for promoting more peaceful, cooperative, humane ways of living together though communication. It's also an idealistic distinction that considerably oversimplifies the actual relations between communication and power. As usual, I don't propose to give up a valid ideal but do want to understand its limits and possibilities in a complex reality. Consider, for example, the whisper network.

The term "whisper network" refers to an old communication practice that recently has gained prominence and taken new forms in the context of the #MeToo movement. Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
whisper network is an informal chain of information passed privately between women. It is typically a list of powerful people in an industry alleged as being sexual harassers or abusers. The information is often shared between women by word of mouth or online in private communities, forums, spreadsheets, and crowd-sourced documents. The stated purpose of maintaining these lists is to warn potential victims of "people to avoid" in their industry. Whisper networks also purportedly help victims identify a common abuser and come forward together about a serial abuser. (, retrieved February 18, 2020)
Based on my research, I think this definition puts too much emphasis on the idea of circulating "lists" of abusers. That happens, of course, but the practice more broadly is to share information about abusers and provide social support for victims through informal networks that could also be described as gossip networks or "the grapevine."

I used Google and Twitter searches to learn something about the recent history of this concept. A Google Web search on "whisper network" (in quotes) produced about 160,000 hits, so we know it's out there in circulation. People are talking about it. Running the same search on Twitter year by year, moving backward from 2019 to 2010 revealed that "whisper network" was not used in its current sense much before 2014. I found no clear examples on Twitter before that year; and a Google Ngram search found no instance of the phrase in books published between 1800 and 2008. It is a new concept. The hashtag #WhisperNetwork has appeared only since 2018, mainly to promote a popular novel of that title by Chandler Baker; but "whisper network" (no hashtag) often appears in tweets with the hashtag #MeToo. It is a concept that has gained impetus from the burgeoning #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and abuse.

Much of the "whisper network" Twitter traffic in that first year of 2014 referred to "Workplace Harassment, Reporting, and the Whisper Network," an online article by Jennifer Wong in which she narrated her own experience with a serial workplace harasser named "Leon" whose behavior continued unpunished for years and victimized numerous women in a certain unnamed workplace. Wong explained the importance of the "whisper network" for combating this widespread problem:
The ‘whisper network’ – if you’ve worked in an office, you probably know it. There are two sides to that network. One is destructive and full of gossip, one is empathetic and fiercely protective. I’ll focus on the latter side and its importance in supporting those undermined in a working environment. The ‘whisper network’ creates a safe haven to discuss problems and prejudices experienced, warn others of harassers, and bolster camaraderie.
Even years beyond my experience of being harassed, anytime I divulge my story to coworkers (new or old), I find that they have their own stories of sexual harassment to share. The prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplaces constantly shocks me. However, the more women who are willing to share their experience, the bigger this ‘whisper network’ becomes. This can lead to a powerful, underground circle of empathy and safeguards.
As an aside, although I don't know how the term "whisper network" originated, I would hazard the guess that it was created as a play on "WhisperNet," a service introduced by Amazon in 2007 to provide internet access for downloading books on early versions of the Kindle e-reader. The phrase "Me Too," which went viral as #MeToo in 2017, appears to have been first used publicly on social media by the sexual harassment victim and activist Tamara Burke in 2006. As the #MeToo movement emerged, "WhisperNet" was available for coining a clever new name for one of its communication practices.

So, what does this have to do with communication and power? If communication and power are opposite ways of getting things done with others, then the whisper network is a great example of the communication way. It consists of women getting together to share information and support each other to address a shared problem. And, of course, the problem in question, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, is an equally great example of the power way of getting things done as men abuse the power arising from their gender privilege and workplace status to get what they want by manipulating or coercing women.

Looking even just a little more closely, however, we see a more complex relationship between the whisper network and power. If communication is the whisper network's method, after all, power is its purpose: empowering women to combat an abuse of power. (A Google search on <"whisper network" and empower> returned 43,000 hits; while Chandler Baker's novel has been criticized for trivializing the #MeToo movement by turning it into "an empowerment fantasy.") 

More generally, getting things done with others through communication perhaps always occurs in some sort of power context where the "getting things done" part impinges on others or faces opposition. And the use of power, of course, typically involves some use of communication, for example for the purpose of "grooming" potential victims of sexual harassment or abuse.

One takeaway is that we can distinguish communication from power conceptually but perhaps can never entirely separate them in practice, even if we would want to do so, at least sometimes. I say "perhaps" to acknowledge that the point has been illustrated but not yet proven. We have barely scratched the surface of this issue.

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