HASTAC and the Problem of Social Networks

Note: This blog post represents the beginning of an important conversation we intended to have at the HASTAC 2020 conference, as it is central to HASTAC’s concept of hindsight, foresight, and insight in considering ourselves as a network. Although that conference has unfortunately been canceled, we still hope to have this discussion. We welcome comments from you, the community who makes HASTAC what it is. —The HASTAC Team


HASTAC has been an academic social network for nearly 20 years; as we come up on this anniversary we find ourselves in a very different social and technological context than those of 2002. These changes have included the founding and rapid expansion of Facebook, the emergence of Twitter and it’s many social networks, and the deaths of LiveJournal, Friendster, Vine, and two different Google attempts at social networking—Buzz and Wave.

A reviewer at NSF has dubbed us the “world’s first and oldest academic social network.”  With age has come a lot of unwanted attention. One day it was 3,000 spammers from the Philippines trying to register to the HASTAC.org website in order to post commercial ads for NFL games or online betting. Another day it was 5,000 Russian spammers submitting tickets on our help portal. That’s a day in the life of an academic social network in 2021. Not just HASTAC but many academic and professional networks are trying to balance openness with a deluge of efforts by others to monetize our existence.

This has proven to be an increasing challenge both to our ideals and our labor infrastructure. As you know, we are a largely volunteer organization with a few partial positions. It has become increasingly difficult to manage this balance.

Even back in those early Internet times of the ‘aughts, everyone knew about data privacy. It was also a time when mantras like “information wants to be free” and “democratize access” were ringing loudly across new media and our efforts to break down the silos of academic spaces sought to take advantage of networked possibilities. Contrary to the popular adage, “if it’s free, you’re not the consumer; you’re the product being sold,” HASTAC has remained a resource that is free to our community. But the internet isn’t a place where “community” is easily defined and we find ourselves subject to a scale of security attacks and predatory practices that have exceeded our expectations, causing us to evaluate once again the risks and rewards of an open system.

Around 2006, HASTAC decided to require bloggers and commenters to register as network members, largely because some racist and sexist trolls were abusing network members posting on the site. Some network members objected that requiring registration violated freedom. And yet, that freedom was coming into direct conflict with the safety of our members so enacted a different form of censorship. We debated the relative merits and meaning of free expression for at least a year before implementing the registration requirement on the basis that safety and equity were paramount. We know that a community without standards and accountability is not actually an equitable community but rather a playground for bullies, misogynists, and racists.

HASTAC in 2021 is a social network of nearly 18,000 members and it is also an incredibly complex Drupal-powered site that has to be constantly updated, repaired, archived, and managed–including against the onslaught of commercial spammers. Our very small team (all of whom have “day jobs”) is constantly trying to find ways to keep the network running while also keeping it safe. We never sell personal data nor share it with others. But the world is constantly trying to steal it.

We sometimes receive complaints that it’s too difficult to register as a HASTAC member. Recently, as an added measure to protect the site’s integrity against commercial spammers, we made the decision that registrations had to be completed with an “.edu” address unless we specifically grant an exception. And still the spammers come, and that means that someone at HASTAC—someone with another job—has to sort through and make a call on who is or is not “legit.” Every attack taxes resources we simply do not have, and puts our members at risk.

What’s next for HASTAC? We’re not sure. We will continue to think about these questions. We’re happy for your thoughts–and definitely appreciate your patience with our recaptchas and security questions as we piece out what’s next for HASTAC.