by Nicole Pasulka
Queer Exchange, a Facebook group that has been active since 2011, is an online market for NYC’s queer community. As the group has grown to more than seventeen thousand members, moderators Edgar Díaz and Ariel Speed Wagon have done their best to preserve the right balance between commerce and discourse — “Queer Exchange still wants you to trade coats and pots and pans and barbers…and isn’t really interested in talking it over” — and to stamp out the occasional thread that erupts in flames.
Though it was created to facilitate trades, not discussions, the group is queer and this is the internet, so arguments over racism, classism, ableism, and transphobia; how to pay library fees; what to charge for theater tickets; and whether it’s OK to re-home a cat are inevitable. The other day, we chatted about the demands of moderation, the limits of running a messaging board on Facebook, and how internet drama erupts in a group that rejects gender binaries, hierarchies, and heteronormativity.
How did you get involved with Queer Exchange?
Ariel: Robyn Overstreet started Queer Exchange. It was her baby. She’s this genius who wanted to make a space for her friends and her friends’ friends to exchange stuff and find queer-friendly housing and jobs. Little by little they needed more moderators. I had spent time on strapon.org, which was this legendary hard-ass, third-wave feminist message board that came out of the Chainsaw Records message boards. I wasn’t a moderator there, but I spent a lot of time watching and fighting out incredibly heart-wrenching political things on the Internet. I was also a part of various BBSes and — this is embarrassing — on LiveJournal communities. So, at one point Robyn was like, you should just moderate Queer Exchange.
Edgar: Like Ariel, I’d moderated in contentious spaces online before too, mainly at r/Gaybros and r/Gaymers on reddit. I had a reputation for calling oppressive things out there. I’m pretty sure I joined Queer Exchange when it already had several thousand people in it and I would report posts to the mods. I wasn’t looking out for things that were oppressive, just posts that didn’t belong there. Because of my diligence flagging things, I was invited to moderate.
You published new guidelines earlier this year that specify that the group should be a place where “discussion does not overtake the exchanging.” Why minimize discussion in favor of exchange?
Ariel: It is not hard to find places on the Internet to talk about your political feelings or opinions. When we were writing these guidelines, I thought a lot about how to not allow subtle racism and subtle classism and subtle transphobia. I also didn’t want this be a space where people are constantly duking it out over those things. When that happens, you end up with a lot of people who are trying to prove how smart and aware they are and a lot of people trying to prove how stupid the other side is for being so sensitive. People who are having conversations, but don’t actually care that much about each other. So, let’s talk about these things in the context of trying to do something together, rather than just talking about them.
Do you think these conflicts are unique to Queer Exchange in some way? Or does it feel like typical Internet drama?
Edgar: Folks on places like Tumblr and Reddit tend to get into impassioned, heated arguments about social justice, combating oppression, and identity politics. On Reddit, a lot of the drama will be people coming out against being social justice warriors — there can be opposition to people who mean well and are trying to be anti-oppressive. That opposition is gone on Queer Exchange. If we were in real life and we talked about these issues we would mostly be on the same side. But there’s a lot of nuance, and so these conflicts can feel like infighting.
Ariel: The word “infighting” is so often used to mean, “Why are you fighting with me? I’m so close to being right!” But no one ever says, “Why are you being subtly racist? That’s infighting!” The word is used to shut down people who are trying to call things out. Not everything on the Internet can be a discussion group, but that doesn’t mean everything on the Internet has to slide down to the most normative, everything’s fine, oppressive place.
The guidelines make a point of banning racism, classism and not allowing defensive, sarcastic, or snarky comments that point out racism and classism but aren’t “helping.” Is it hard to draw that line?
Ariel: People always expect the moderators to be omniscient and protect their best interests, but those are specific to each person. We’re subject to our own biases and can’t possibly meet everybody’s needs. We can say “we hear you” but can’t always do that thing they’re asking us to do. We walk a funny line between exchanges and discussions and we do the best we can but we absolutely do not always get this right. With the guidelines we’re trying to be transparent; we’re explicitly getting it wrong in some places and we’re sometimes mis-moderating.
It’s pretty easy to see how racist or classist comments would destroy a thread, but what else derails conversations or exchanges?
Ariel: Something less politically charged that we deal with a lot is the cats. We have a small and very passionate group of people who will come down on pet owners who are in over their heads and trying to give away their cats. But it’s not your job to save the cat! Robyn used to say, “If there was a sign on a bulletin board being like, ‘cat free to a good home, I have a baby coming,’ you most likely wouldn’t write on that sign, ‘How dare you?!’” At least not as readily as you would post on Facebook about it.
Do you have any reservations about the fact that Queer Exchange is on Facebook since the site was slow to provide non-binary gender descriptors and queer people are being kicked off for using chosen names and drag names?
Ariel: Facebook has turned into one of these things most people are willing to hold their noses and use. It is so intertwined in the fabric of so many queer communities. The people who are kicked off Facebook aren’t like, “Fuck you, we’re done.” They want to be let back on Facebook. My main frustration with it as a venue for something this large and complex is that the moderation tools suck. People invite us into threads expecting us to have a level of subtlety. You can delete a thread, you can ban a user, you can delete a comment, and that’s all.
How often do you get invited into threads to moderate them?
Edgar: The group mostly runs itself, but sometimes there’s a flame thread that goes on for hundreds of comments and we get tagged and start getting messages from people. Those times become very visible. I have friends in real life who will be like, “Whoa, what was all that drama on Queer Exchange today?”
Ariel: Someone put an ad up looking for an anti-apartheid seltzer maker, or seltzer maker that doesn’t support apartheid in Israel — SodaStreams are made in occupied Palestine — and, like, KaPow! It was on. There were over two hundred comments within two hours. I got a text from someone saying, “Queer Exchange is blowing up, please save us.”
But the only time I was ever really worried was when a person was legitimately having a mental breakdown in the group. People were being mean to her, she was posting that she was going to kill herself, and people were threatening to call 911 on her.
Edgar: I was on the subway and I had to get off and tell my friend, “I’m sorry something is happening on the Internet.”
Ariel: We were tag teaming back and forth — I’m trying to have a date, he’s trying to have dinner — and we’re not mental health professionals. We’re not God, or your dad.
I feel like I see these threads, they pop up in my feed and make it look like the whole group is melting down. Does it feel like that to you, too?
Edgar: At times I have been like, “OK let’s just like close up shop. I can’t deal with these people.”
What brings you back from the brink?
Edgar: I guess I sometimes empathize with people who get very, very riled up about things ’cause I have been that person making grand pronouncements and taking a stand and getting on a soapbox on a fucking website. But when I walk away from the keyboard and go outside, that drama doesn’t actually matter. I have other things to worry about in my life. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are just some people who are going to be problems.
Ariel: I think it’s worth it to figure all these questions out and have these fights and let them play out provided they haven’t crossed the line. Where is that line? That’s a good question. One thing that helps is that the Internet has a short memory. Four hours with no posts and a thread falls out of the Queer Exchange memory. When things cool down, usually they stay cool.
Do you think what goes on in the group reflects conversations and challenges within the larger NYC queer community?
Ariel: This online community has absolutely made me realize that there’s no such thing as a queer community. There are queer communities each of which has its own norms and language and political morals. They all talk about “the queer community” and they all mean themselves and not all the others, and that’s where so much of the infighting comes from.
You see that every time people have any type of disagreement. It’s not just race and it’s not just age and it’s not just geographic location. I think after the seltzer situation, someone started a queer and trans people of color queer exchange. There was a thread posting about that, which turned into a flame war between people of color. There were white people in there arguing for and against it, but mostly it was an inter-POC conflict.
Has being so involved with this online group changed how you feel about queer communities online or your own online lives?
Edgar: Occasionally there are thinly veiled posts looking for weed and sometimes people will ask for prescription medication. People will ask for hormones, and I’m waiting for the day when someone asks for Truvada. At first, I thought that shouldn’t be here — the person should be searching out a doctor. But then I was like, It’s not my place to take it down and wag my finger. Why do I think that’s how this should go?
Ariel: What’s changed for me is that I’m now seen as part of this very large institution that people talk about. I’ve been at events where someone will make a Queer Exchange joke and people look at me. Even people I don’t know. People sometimes expect us to be a funny mix of dad and God. To create exactly their vision of what a queer group should be on the Internet. It’s surprising that people really and truly expect we can make the Internet safe and OK. We’re just trying to make something that’s useful and doesn’t suck and hopefully get people some coats and blenders and maybe even a cat.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.