Here’s a bit of a change of pace video: no real news story, no breaking science news, no abhorrent updates from America’s burgeoning theocracy, just something a little personal: the Skepchick Network is dead.
Now, I know a lot of you are saying, “OH NO! What’s the Skepchick Network?” Because I know you may have found me on YouTube and kept our relationship entirely YouTube-based, which is fine. That’s why I decided to put this video here instead of on my more personal alt-channel: I want you to know what this thing meant to me now that it is no more.
In 2004, Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage. I know, weird place to start but stay with me: I was living in Boston at the time and the ruling inspired some good friends of mine to get married. They asked if I would officiate, and I said “sure” but at the time I had no idea how an atheist goes about performing that particular ritual. So I went to the website of the best atheist I knew at the time, James “The Amazing” Randi, and signed up for his forums, where I asked fellow nonbelievers for guidance.
That forum became a happy community for me, and it led me to attending my first conference (Randi’s Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas) and realizing that I was one of just a handful of women in a sea of men. That led to me starting a nudie calendar with those women, which we sold to pay for scholarships for more women to join the community. I needed a place to sell the calendars, so I grabbed Skepchick.org. The response from other women was overwhelming, because while not everyone loved the idea of a nudie calendar (which I don’t, either, anymore), most people DID appreciate seeing other women getting active in skepticism and atheism, and they wanted more.
So Skepchick became a monthly e-zine, for the brief period of time when THAT was a thing. But by 2006, e-zines had been replaced with blogs, so I begrudgingly started one, which eventually replaced the zine. Later, the pressure of being the only person blogging became too much, so I added some friends, like Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson, who you may now know as one of my “psychic” scientists.
Things really took off after that. I would meet cool women at conferences and other talks, and invite them to write for the site. There was no money in it as I hadn’t bothered to put ads on the site, until one day when the friend who hosted the site for free informed me that it was costing him $100/month, which I found SHOCKING. So, ads went up and I had to move to my own server, and there were actually some months when the ad revenue actually covered the cost, which was nice. I started paying writers whatever ad money their own posts brought in.
It was honestly really cool to bring a writer on board, see them grow and find their voice and carve out their niche, and then get invited to give talks and host events. We kept fundraising, sending more women to conventions like TAM, working really hard with organizers to get more women both on stage and in the audience. Every year I went to Vegas, there were more women, and it was incredible.
Then members of other marginalized groups (or just people with niche interests) came to me hoping to do the same thing: bring more people into the community and give them a voice. Because I now had my own server, I realized I could set up a hundred different blogs if I wanted. So, we launched Teen Skepchick for the younger crowd, written by and for teen skeptics. Mad Art Lab was written by and for artists who were tired of the dopey, flighty artist stereotype; Queereka was written by and for critical thinkers who were LGBTQIA (we were only officially up to “Q” when it started); Skeptability for the intersection of skepticism and disability; Grounded Parents offered advice for raising little smart asses; School of Doubt was for teachers of little smart asses; and then there were the foreign language versions of Skepchick written by and for people in Sweden, Norway, Spain, and Mexico.
By 2012 or so we had dozens of writers across the planet, and it was such a cool, thriving community. Each site had their own back channel where ideas were hashed out, arguments broke out, and friendships formed. Many of those writers went on to start local meetups, give talks, or write for mainstream publications, or they achieved other dreams like completing doctoral dissertations or starting a new career or whatever and I always felt like a proud parent whenever any of that happened, even if it meant they had to stop blogging for the Network.
And I was proud of how the larger skeptics’ “movement” was changing: we got to the point where half the speakers at the big conferences were women, where marginalized people could run panels about things other than “diversity,” and where in addition to discussing psychics and Bigfoot, we were talking about harmful pseudoscience like anti-abortion talking points and racist tropes about IQ.
In the decade since that things got progressively tougher: Google killed Reader, which effectively put an end to RSS feeds, a free and easy way to keep tabs on a bunch of different independent websites you like to read. Facebook delivered the other killing blow, preventing people from leaving their site, pretending that the written word was now worthless and that video was where it’s at. At the same time, thanks to Richard Dawkins and his army of Men’s Rights Activists, I was getting death and rape threats, me and my entire family were doxxed, I had to hire security for my talks, and that bullshit was leaking through to many of my writers. They saw the threats and the insults, got some of them directed to them, and some of them were even doxxed along with me.
Then there were the legal threats: whether it was a quack who thought being criticized was the same as defamation, or copyright trolls who knew I didn’t have the money to fight for my writers’ fair use in court, it was a nonstop source of anxiety for me. By this point, my server was costing me $600 a month and Google adsense was paying less and less, and constantly flagging my account for “pornographic” content like a writer on Queereka talking about ANYTHING to do with sexuality. We tried other ad networks and they were even worse. I started up my Patreon as a way to be able to cover that server cost, still pay the writers on Skepchick Prime, and keep all the sister sites going regardless of how little traffic they were getting, because ultimately I didn’t care if advertisers didn’t find worth in our niche blogs–people found worth in them, they made people feel seen and heard and they helped the “mainstream” skeptics and atheists (white, straight, cis, able-bodied) get news from these groups that they otherwise weren’t paying attention to. It was worth it.
And it’s that worth that honestly made me hold on longer than I should. As more and more writers left with no one to replace them, the sister sites started going quiet, and then Skepchick Prime did the same. I would occasionally try to relaunch, bring in a bunch of new writers, but we just couldn’t recapture that magic and that energy that was so successful a decade ago.
And so here we are in January of 2023. Twitter is slowly dying and I’ve had the dimly hopeful thought that maybe when a social media giant goes under, blogs get a chance to come back. But if that happens, it’s going to take a long time, and it’s going to be something different than it was. And that’s okay, things change, and we have to change with them.
And so, last week I went around wiping down the tables, putting the chairs up, pulling down the blinds, and locking the doors on each site. The Network is closed.
Skepchick itself is still up, and I’ll consider to post these videos and transcripts there. But it’s now, officially, just me again, like it’s 2006 all over again.
I suppose the point of this video is just to be a bit of a tribute to a weird little project that deserves to be remembered for how it made the world a better place, even just a bit, even for just a short while. And I want to say thank you to everyone who supported the Network over the years, whether you were a site admin, a writer, or a reader. Here’s to whatever comes next.