Safe Collaborative Tools
From Gender and Tech Resources
This section is part of the Safe Space chapter
Which tools enable to develop collaborative notes and documentation? Which tools enable secure online chat? What are the alternatives to corporate owned Google docs or Facebook chat that my group can use? Why those tools matter from a safe space perspective?
Tools for Immediate Collaboration
We might assume that online communities such as the ones we take part in through social networking platforms, mailing lists, chat and forums are inherently democratic, horizontal, participatory and relatively safe. This is unfortunately not true. Online spaces often reproduce hierarchies, privileges and power relations that exist in society. We need to be mindful of this and to think through ways to mitigate and limit these downsides to get the best out of our spaces. Using such strategies is about caring for ourselves and for the communities we are part of. Making these issues explicit and visible is also about agency, social justice and feminism, and it will help better shape the spaces we care about, we organize in and in which we grow. We present below some tools that have been around for a long time demonstrating their stability and sustainability over time. This set of tools will enable to move forward with starting to build safe spaces for us and our collectives/organizations through online communication such as Chat, Pads, Wikis and Free Social networks.
Chat with IRC
Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a chat service, which can be hosted on different servers, and accessed from through different user clients. It provides the ability to set up channels or chatrooms where many people can discuss and gives you the option to encrypt your communication. You can’t embed video, audio or pictures, but you can link to them.
IRC can be used to facilitate collaboration in addition to decision-making processes. If you are thinking about starting a new project, are launching a campaign or just want to have a space for your group to ask each other questions, you can consider using IRC. IRC allows for real-time collaboration as long as you all have easy access to the Internet and can arrange your schedules to be available at the same time. If your group has individuals working from different timezones or from places where power outages regularly occur or some of you regularly get pulled away to look after kids or parents, a mailing list might be better for reaching decisions collectively.
IRC can take a little time to get used depending on the skills in your group. Regardless of your skills, developing relationships across a purely text-based channel such as IRC can be challenging. Try to be sensitive to how language can be interpreted and different styles of communication that exist between different people. You can always think of ways to overcome this challenge with your group. For example structuring introductions when you first start out, sharing links to articles, chatting about random news in your country or trying to develop a shared language.
Setting up IRC
There are several ways to chat through an IRC network. The easiest way to start out is to use a web browser application such as those provided by Indymedia or Freenode. You can instantly create a nickname and a channel which you can give to your colleagues to connect with you.
Using a web application is however not the most secure option so if you are a more advanced user, or have already tested IRC out and think it will work for you, it is recommended you access your chosen IRC network from a chat client. There is advice and instructions on how to access an IRC network this way, provided by Freenode, Autistici and Indymedia. The last two also allow us to anonymise our connections through Tor.
There are several clients which you can choose from. For example Xchat for GNULinux and Windows and XChat Aqua/Azure for Mac OS, and many more. For more information on IRC chat clients, look at the Pidgin and Off The Record Section on Security in-a-Box and Prism-Break web platform, a site that has been developed after the Snowden revelations which supports you to opt out of mass surveillance programs.
Basic rules of engagement
Once you start your meeting it is useful to appoint a facilitator that will keep track of time and topics to be discussed and who might ask participants to re-focus if the discussion goes off track. When you start a conversation take time to say hi and greet people. It is particularly important to talk to newcomers. If a group of you know each other over IRC, you might have a tendency to chat to one another and/or give more importance to what your friends say. In order to create a welcoming environment and a safe space, acknowledging and valuing the voice of everyone will be key on IRC.
While continuing the discussion, let's remind ourselves that writing is not easy for everyone and/or that many might not be using their mother tongue. IRC can also go very fast, particularly if you are many in the discussion, so allowing everyone to slow down and let people read all the inputs can help to facilitate an empowering discussion. You might for instance decide that people should be given turns to speak in order to ensure that everyone has space to express themselves. You can simply assign turns in alphabetical order of nicknames (or any order you want to give) for each of the points addressed. This can help structure the conversation and stop one or a small group of people dominating the conversation. It can also be useful to end your conversation with “over” or “finish” or "done" so everyone knows when you have stopped speaking and because IRC meetings can be tiring, you can set a time limit beforehand. Whichever methods you choose to use, make them visible and explicit beforehand, in the email where you will be inviting people for the IRC meeting for example.
Tools for collaboration
Chat services and mailing lists will only take you so far. When it comes to managing collaboration between people living in different places, you will probably find yourself looking for something with more functionality.
Forums and Wikis
One of the oldest tools used for public discussions online is internet forums, where discussions can be hosted over time and are at least temporarily archived. What really distinguishes a forum from a mailing list or IRC chat is that it has a tree-like structure and can contain a number of sub discussions, each with a different topic.
If you are looking for a tool to collaboratively write a text with many sections or even to create the initial structure and content for a website, a wiki can be useful. This is a web application that allows for hierarchical structuring of content and tracks the edits and additions of the users, easily allowing you to revert changes, move around and delete content.
Both forums and wikis need to be installed in a web space, so will require the expertise of a website manager. However you will find these tools, together with many others, in one of the most versatile platforms for managing groups and collective projects, Crabgrass. Crabgrass is hosted by the autonomous server Riseup, we.riseup.net, the tech collective providing tools for activists, already mentioned above.
Pads are a great way to collaborate in real-time on documents. They are a good alternative to corporate services like Google Docs and more effective for co-editing text than mailing back and forth. The main thing you need to look for in a pad is that it is hosted with an encrypted connection via SSL. A list of such pads can be found here.
When you create a pad you decide on the name of the URL. Just like with creating passwords, you should make it long and inventive. For example: https://pad.riseup.net/p/feminists is not secure. You want to use a more complicated URL such as https://pad.riseup.net/p/FeministsRockAndTheyWillBeDoingGreatThingsToghether. Once the pad is created you can send the URL to your friends and colleagues to start collaborating on a document. Remember whoever has the URL can access the pad, so don't share it in public spaces.
Pads allow you to choose to be anonymous, use a moniker or use your real name. There is a colour-based system that differentiates the contributions of each participants on the pad, so being anonymous will not bring too much confusion while writing. If are worried about your pad being found by others, you might consider a password protected pad. For this check out: https://www.protectedtext.com/
Crabgrass provides a secure HTTPS connection and encrypted data storage, and users and groups are free to choose which information they reveal about themselves. The offered tools include functionality for personal messaging, public or private forums, wikis, task lists, decision-making tools, and a system for uploading and managing images, audio, and documents. It is also possible to set up a customized public homepage where your group can publish your event calendar, blog posts, and other content. For more about how to use Crabgrass, read this how-to in Tactical Tech's Security in-a-box. Finally you can visit the alternative social networks section in this manual if you want to use social networking platforms other than the dominant ones.