The thing nobody talks about with engineering management is this:
Every 3-4 months every person experiences some sort of personal crisis. A family member dies, they have a bad illness, they get into an argument with another person at work, etc. etc. Sadly, that is just life. Normally after a month or so things settle down and life goes on.
But when you are managing 6+ people it means there is *always* a crisis you are helping someone work through. You are always carrying a bit of emotional burden or worry around with you.
Between July and October of this year, I did a lot of reading and writing about the role of Meta and Facebook—and the internet more broadly—in the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The below posts are what emerged from that work.
The format is a bit idiosyncratic, but what I’ve tried to produce here is ultimately a longform cultural-technical incident report. It’s written for people working on and thinking about (and using and wrestling with) new social networks and systems. I’m a big believer in each person contributing in ways that accord with their own skills. I’m a writer and researcher and community nerd, rather than a developer, so this is my contribution.
More than anything, I hope it helps.
Myanmar got the internet late and all at once, and mostly via Meta. A brisk pass through Myanmar’s early experience coming online and all the benefits—and, increasingly, troubles—connectivity brought, especially to the Rohingya ethnic minority, which was targeted by massive, highly organized hate campaigns.
Something I didn’t know going in is how many people warned Meta‚ and in how much detail, and for how many years. This post captures as many of those warnings as I could fit in.
Instead of heeding the warnings that continued to pour in from Myanmar, Meta doubled down on connectivity—and rolled out a program that razed Myanmar’s online news ecosystem and replaced it with inflammatory clickbait. What happened after that was the worst thing that people can do to one another.
Also: more of the details of the total collapse of content moderation and the systematic gaming of algorithmic acceleration to boost violence-inciting and genocidal messages.
Using whistleblower disclosures and interviews, this post looks at what Meta knew (so much) and when (for a long time) and how they handled inbound information that suggests that Facebook was being used to do harm (they shoved it to the margins).
This post introduces an element of the Myanmar tragedy that turns out to have echoes all over the planet, which is the coordinated covert influence campaigns that have both secretly and openly parasitized Facebook to wreak havoc.
I also get into a specific and I think illustrative way that Meta continues to deceive politicians and media organizations about their terrible content moderation performance, and look at their record in Myanmar in the years after the Rohingya genocide.
Starting with the recommendations of Burmese civil-society organizations and individuals plus the concerns of trust and safety practitioners who’ve studied large-scale hate campaigns and influence operations, I look at a handful of the threats that I think cross over from centralized platforms to rapidly growing new-school decentralized and federated networks like Mastodon/the fediverse and Bluesky—in potentially very dangerous ways.
It may be tempting to take this last substantial piece as the one to read if you don’t have much time, but I would recommend picking literally any of the others instead—my concluding remarks here are not intended to stand alone.
I also wrote a short post about my approach, language, citations, and corrections. That brings the total word to about 44,000.
Thanks additionally to the various individuals on the backchannel whom I won’t name but hugely appreciate, to Adrianna Tan and Dr. Fancypants, Esq., to all the folks on Mastodon who helped me find answers to questions, and to the many people who wrote in with thoughts, corrections, and dozens of typos. All mistakes are extremely mine.
Many thanks also to the friends and strangers who helped me find information, asked about the work, read it, and helped it find readers in the world. Writing and publishing something like this as an independent writer and researcher is weird and challenging, especially in a moment when our networks are in disarray and lots of us are just trying to figure out where our next job will come from.
Without your help, this would have just disappeared, and I’m grateful to every person who reads it and/or passes it along.
“Thanks” is a deeply inadequate thing to say to my partner, Peter Richardson, who read multiple drafts of everything and supported me through some challenging days in my 40,000-words-in-two-weeks publishing schedule, and especially the months of fairly ghastly work that preceded it. But as ever, thank you, Peter.
…the tendency of jobs to be adapted to tools, rather than adapting tools to jobs. If one has a hammer one tends to look for nails, and if one has a computer with a storage capacity, but no feelings, one is more likely to concern oneself with remembering and with problem solving than with loving and hating.
Tomkins’ observation, which comes in the middle of an extended meditation on computer personality that is a wild ride for lay readers interested in AI, has concentrated my thinking about the tools that made our current networks: An ever-accelerating explosion of technical possibilities. Silicon Valley relationship networks. Venture capital’s it’s a fountain of money or a failure mandate. Open source’s programming-first culture. A lot of defensive libertarianism, a little charisma. The emotional range of a wellness beverage.
Consider the difference between two places: The first is a courtyard ringed in verandas or porches that provide shelter from rain and bright sunlight—a half-outdoor experience; it also offers views onto a street or open square, and is criss-crossed by pathways between multiple entrances and exits. The second is a fully enclosed courtyard with a single way in and no views into other open spaces; it has an abrupt transition from inside to out, with no arcade or partial cover at the edges.
In The Timeless Way of Building (last discussed here), Christopher Alexander writes about the first courtyard as alive and the second as dead, for several reasons, all of which I find illuminating.
First, Alexander says, the closed-off courtyard is dead because it produces—and prevents the resolution of—conflicting desires in the people meant to use it. People want to go out, but the stark contrast between out and in is too abrupt to be inviting, and the total enclosure and lack of views produces a claustrophobic feeling and quickly sends those who do venture out back indoors. Without functional pathways that bring people into a custom of crossing through the courtyard, the building’s inhabitants also spend less time there, and the courtyard is outside patterns of daily habit. In these ways, the courtyard fails to strengthen the life and wholeness of the people for whom it was made.
Second, the courtyard is dead because it fails to be self-sustaining. Because it’s uninviting, unpleasant to stay in, and removed from the normal walking patterns of the building, the courtyard becomes neglected. (I would add that commercially maintained but dead-feeling spaces, which are very common in many institutions of modern life, reflect intense upkeep and still project a sense of standoffishness or gloomy abandonment.)
Finally, the dead courtyard is dead because it pushes conflictedness out into the surrounding spaces. Alexander makes a precise argument about this, so I want to quote it at length in all its 1970s-gender-norms glory:
We try to go out, but are frustrated, because the courtyard itself pushes us away. We still need, somehow, to go out; the forces remain within us, but can find no resolution here. We have no way of resolving the situation for ourselves. The unresolved conflict remains underground; it contributes the stress which is building up. First, it reduces our capacity to resolve other conflicts for ourselves, and makes it even more likely that unresolved forces will spill over in another situation. Second, if the force does spill over, it may create even greater tension, in another situation, where there is no proper outlet for it.
Suppose, for example, the people who want to be outside go out instead and sit on the road, where trucks are going by. It is OK. But then perhaps a child gets hurt. Or, even if a child does not actually get hurt, the mother fears for it, and shouts, and conveys a continuous sense of unease to the child, so that his play is spoiled. … In one fashion or another, the effects always ripple out.
You may say—well, people can adapt. But in the process of adapting, they destroy some other part of themselves. We are very adaptive, it is true. But we can also adapt to such an extent that we do ourselves harm. The process of adaptation has its costs. It may be, for example, that the child adapts, by turning to books. The desire to play in the street conforms now to the dangers, and the mother’s cries. But now the person has lost some of the exuberant desire to run about. He has adapted, but he has made his own life less rich, less whole, by being forced to do so.
The “bad” patterns are unable to contain the forces which occur in them.
As a result, these forces spill over into other nearby systems […] the courtyard which fails makes children want to play outside and causes stress and danger in the street.
But these forces make other nearby patterns fail as well. The pattern of the street may not be conceived as a place for children to play. So, suddenly, a pattern of the street, which might be in balance without this force, itself becomes unstable and inadequate. […]
In the end, the whole system must collapse.
I think I blew past all of the parent-child stuff the first few times I read Timeless Way, but now it snags me every time. The parent here is not presented as a neurotic mother or its update, a helicopter parent: The danger of the street is not imaginary. The mother responds to the shape of the built system in which she and her child exist—and then her shouts of anxiety become part of the system through which the child’s personality is formed.
When the subject of social media problems arises, commenters tend to divide into one of two very low-level orientations toward attributing problems (or successes) to systems vs. attributing them to personalities.
It’s not always obvious that this happening, because sometimes the surface discussion is more about whether the root problem is, say, interface design or capitalism, both of which are systems. But it’s rare to get through an online conversation without someone proposing that systems talk is largely a distraction, because some people are just assholes. And indeed, many people are assholes. Most of us, even, given the right contexts and deficits, though it’s clearly overrepresented among the leaders of social media companies. But lean hard enough on personality as explanation for mass phenomena and we get arguments that should be all too familiar, in which poor people are individually lazy, Black men individually scary, mass gun-murderers individually mentally ill, and homeless people individually recalcitrant.
I think it’s obvious that it’s always both, systems and people: People and systems can synchronize and strengthen each other (for good or evil); good personalities can patch bad systems, or sabotage them in service of good; good systems can reduce the harm destructive personalities inflict. But unless you work in therapy or social services, I think systems-level work offers the only practical place to put your lever if you want to move the world.
When I write about our networks as haunted machines, I am writing toward the systems sense of the mess we’re in. When I write about Christopher Alexander, it’s because his work has been one of my touchstones for a systems sense of something better—and better in a genuinely different way.
To be alive in the sense found in A Timeless Way of Building, a system would have to:
avoid piling unresolveable stresses onto the people inside it,
maintain its own aliveness through self-sustaining evolution and repair, and
avoid worsening the life of the systems around it, ranging from peer-level technical systems to things like “civil society.”
This framework is so heartening to me because it torches the constructions of a system’s inhabitants’ well-being and the spillover of generated stresses into the wider world as externalities we need not consider.
The Alexandrian orientation puts these factors at the center of the work, in terms sufficiently specific to make them hard to evade—unlike, say, the “triple bottom line” meant to indicate that corporations should consider worrying about “People” and “Planet” in addition to “Profits.” In practice, this has aways been too woozy and vague to do much besides stretching the humanish skin of corporate social responsibility over the usual forms of extraction.
In the same way, tech slogans like “We put users first,” could mean nearly anything, so they usually mean nothing. The first criteria for Alexanderian aliveness, though, translates into something like, “Create only features, interfaces, and systems that resolve conflicting human desires.” I think that’s something we could use.
Moving to the second requirement in the aliveness criteria—being self-sustaining—clarifies problems of organizational character and pulls me back into adrienne maree brown’s sense of fractal trouble. In my own experience, most organizations that genuinely do a good job serving humans and avoid making the systems around them worse exist in a state of permanent precarity. I think this happens both because those orgs burn out the people who hold the place together, and especially because under modern capitalism, it’s nearly impossible to achieve financial stability when funding essential social support work is constructed as charity.
The third requirement of aliveness—to build systems that avoid worsening the world by dumping outward the stresses they create—cuts to moral vacuum at the tech industry’s core, which is the neutrality that sets the burning world at a professional distance behind UV-filtering glass.
Fine, but what does it mean in our actual work? Let’s begin with a person. Since I’m right here, we can start with me. A handful of the conflicting desires that arise on the networks I’ve been using for a couple of decades:
I want to have interesting conversations online without participating in modes of interaction I would never tolerate offline, ranging from brigading to individual abuse to soul-erodingly tedious explanation of my own words back to me.
I want to be visible enough to make interesting friends and attract work that I’m good at without getting stalked, doxxed, or successfully targeted for mass harassment. Relatedly, I want people who are structurally least likely to be heard offline to be granted space and access without being made into sacrificial bait for hate campaigns.
I want to be able to have semi-secluded conversations with variously durable and ephemeral sets of people without giving up my overall ability to participate in a wider, more public conversation. And I want to be able to be a good host, who can invite people into conversations without exposing them to the common brutalities.
A ~product design~ that resolved these kinds of conflicting desires would be vastly more useful than the notions of “healthy networks” that zoom around every time a tech millionaire’s kids turn thirteen. There’s nothing alive about networks that enforce civility over care, and there’s much more life in honest squabbling than in the weird rictus of LinkedIn. But an emotionally and culturally literate form of social design would work toward spaces that let us be our petty, banged-up selves while structurally lessening the damage our bad days do to the people around us, instead of fanning each minor flare of ill temper into a housefire.
Stopping here feels depressing, so I won’t. There’s so much more life to be had if we start with human cultural patterns and try to strengthen what is alive and good in them.
When I’m invited into semi-sheltered spaces or moments, I want it to feel like I’m wandering through a particularly nice party—outdoors, day’s heat just subsiding, one cold drink, maybe some lightning bugs?—catching edges of conversations—and then I want to be able to trace unthreaded clusters of people and meaning back through time so I can perceive deeper relationships and shared interests.
I want to be able to browse through my online acquaintances’ varied interests like I was nosing through their bookshelves while they make coffee without sifting through stilted hashtags or stalking them across sites. I want to skip political slogans in favor of shared pathways into what we actually do in support of the ideas we care about.
I want systems of trust, recommendation, and vouching for people that work at least as well as the ones I use when I need a local dentist or a good lunch without the bandwagon problems that arise when trust gets conflated with celebrity.
I want to be able to summon a cloud of expert discussion on any topic, with each analysis clearly situated within the commenter’s background and history—and I want to do it without becoming a human filter for the corrosive exhaust of misinformation campaigns.
On the purely selfish side, I want social tools to support my cognitive capacity during wide-ranging reading, not to weaken it. I want an easy way to find half-remembered fragments that doesn’t involve me carefully labeling everything I might someday wish to remember. I want a stereotypical little demon to coalesce, sift through what I told people I would email them or promised I’d check out, and send me a list—and then I want it to break down harmlessly into water and salt, retaining exactly nothing, selling out exactly no one.
Tomkins, in the essay I quote at the top of this post, is paraphasing a central idea from George Kingsley Zipf’s Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, a psycho-linguistic treatise that explosively decompresses a single insight about the inter-relation of tools that seek jobs and jobs that seek tools into an argument that includes passages like this one:
As to the incentives, first, of the greedy and venturesome outsider who wants to supplant some y lord of the system, we can see that as the y status of a lord increases, his Ay, income increases proportionally, and therewith his attractiveness to the bold outsider. In short, the y lord’s attractiveness is proportional to Ay. On the other hand, as the Ay, income increases, the number of y lords who have that income decreases according to c/Ay2, with the result that the N, opportunities of supplanting a y lord decrease more rapidly than the Ay, income increases.
…which is the kind of thing you don’t see as much now outside the twenty-five-cent stack at an estate sale, and also extremely funny to me. I’m afraid it’s also reflective of some of the communication problems I have when I try to talk about social forms with people trained to think algorithmically. It’s not the encoding of life’s weird pageant that I’m after; I just want tools better suited to human hands.
Given that we seem to be stuck, as a techno-culture, on something as basic as “don’t actively harm the people whose gift of free labor is your company’s only value,” maybe it’s unhelpful to be thinking out loud about how much better our social worlds could be! I don’t know. But unless we’re going to excise the influence of our networks from our societies entirely, and especially given the whole Gibsonian jackpot situation (spoilers for The Peripheral there), it feels impossible not to try.
A look back at a decade of spontaneous invention at Tillamook, Oregon’s de Garde Brewing
10 years ago, a young couple named Linsey Hamacher and Trevor Rogers launched a brewery whose concept seemed as wild as the spontaneously fermented beers it would produce. Sour beers and wild ales were becoming more popular among an increasingly savvy group of craft beer fans, but the idea of opening a brewery solely focused on these beers was a gamble to say the least. Doing it in a tiny farming town on the Oregon coast known for its cheese and little else seemed downright crazy. Not only that, but the tiny amount of beer that de Garde would produce meant that the vast majority of people who got to consume it would have to travel to the source. The idea of a destination brewery was still a somewhat foreign concept though more of these would come to fruition around the country in the decade that followed.
“Honestly, we had no idea if people would come to Tillamook to try our beer. We didn't have a tasting room or anything, we were just brewing out of our rental house's garage. I think we had kind of imagined we'd be selling our beer to whoever might have an interest locally and in the Portland area,” says Linsey, who handles much of de Garde’s business affairs while Trevor manages the brewing. At just around ninety minutes away, Portland was the closest major city to Tillamook.
“It certainly was a terrifying wager though,” adds Trevor.
At the same time, the unique environmental circumstances of Tillamook also had exactly what they were looking for. From the very beginning, Trevor has been obsessed with harnessing the energy of this landscape as the primary source of fermentation for de Garde beers. In doing so, he has taken the wine-related concept of terroir and applied it to native yeast. This yeast finds the mix of briny coastal air and rainy farmland giving each batch of de Garde its signature funk and minerality.
“We're intrinsically tied to this place. Our area naturally provides the native yeast and bacteria that define our beer, and we'd be making something quite different in a different location. We chose to be here, because we believe it's a great location for this type of craft,” he says, but points out that this all comes at a cost. “There are definitely some additional hurdles and costs to making beer in our location, but it's part of being who we are, where we are. From a purely business standpoint, operating in a larger market would be ideal: Less transport costs, and proximity to a larger audience. While that would be lovely, we opted to pursue unique character and quality over economic ease and feasibility.”
As a former chef at Pelican Brewing, Trevor saw de Garde as a way to explore his love of wild ales and wine. He brewed using the coolship method championed by his lambic-loving Belgian heroes like 3 Fontein, Cantillon and Tilquin among others, then transferred the beer to age in barrels and foeders where it would age for a minimum of one year and often more. Along the way, he might add local fruit and wine grapes to the beer. The result was and still is a beer that is tart, funky and expressive of its time and place.
“I guess we were hopeful and optimistic that there would be an audience for what we made? We started out producing a tiny amount of beer, and really, we still do. We believed that we'd be able to find enough like-minded people to support these efforts, and suspected that our beer would find its way to receptive people,” reflects Trevor.
Luckily, his suspicions were correct and de Garde took off almost from day one, timed perfectly (though not intentionally) with craft beer’s transition into a more adventurous era. Word of the little brewery cranking out delicate wild ales on the Oregon coast was soon spreading amongst a growing number of craft beer obsessives who traded and shipped beer around the world. When they opened their first taproom near where their current taproom stands now, it became clear on opening day that the word was out on de Garde.
“The first [big moment] that I can recall was the 'grand' opening of our original taproom, actually quite close to where we are now. It was an absolutely tiny space. We could somewhat comfortably accommodate maybe ten people? How many people were going to drive to Tillamook for our particular type of 'weird' beer after all?,” he says. “Anyhow, we had hoped a few people would show up for the opening. We ended up with a line around the corner of the block, and quickly realized that we were clearly unprepared.”
Soon after, they moved to a non-descript warehouse space out by an old World War II blimp hangar that houses the Tillamook Air Museum. Their small but airy taproom was no frills, with the emphasis being on the liquids in the glass rather than the decor on the walls. Starting with the kind of respectful awe most breweries can only dream of also came with its own struggles, with Trevor, Linsey and their small but dedicated team focused perhaps more on meeting demand than providing the kind of brewery experience that matched the quality of their beer. This all changed in 2017 when they opened their brewery and tasting room at 114 Ivy Ave in November of 2017 after long delays and budgetary issues.
“Major consideration for our current brewery and tasting room was put into the hospitality and guest experience, largely based on learned lessons,” says Trevor, who cites the opening of the brewery as perhaps their biggest milestone. “We'd gone through a long and frankly terrifying process of purchasing, renovating and adding onto the very old structure and property, but it allowed us to design the brewery and tasting room as we'd wanted but hadn't had the ability or opportunity for prior. It's what we needed, what the folks that choose to come visit us deserve, and what the beer deserves.”
Indeed, the tasting room allowed for more spacious seating, including an outdoor patio. Behind the scenes, hundreds of wine and spirit barrels sit with wild ales happily fermenting away while the coolship lives on the second floor. The early days of the new tap room found eager beer nerds lining up every weekend, but much of the line culture that defined pre-pandemic hype beer culture went away when businesses like de Garde were forced to switch to online ordering and shipping, and quick, seamless pick-up. The decrease in tap room visitation also led de Garde to rely more on distribution, which means that ten years in, their beer is perhaps more accessible than it’s ever been.
“The pandemic changed the landscape, for sure. It's been a difficult few years for pretty much everyone, and I think we're all still finding our footing. Having our beer be more accessible is certainly not a bad thing though. It's been a goal of ours from the start, and one that as a small brewery we've often failed at. So long as beer is getting to folks that want it, we can keep working, and our team is well cared for, then broader accessibility is good. We'll see what future years bring, I suppose,” says Trevor.
Trevor points to the fact that de Garde has actually decreased output over the years though it may not seem like that when you can now find their beer on shelves in bottle shops around Oregon, California and Washington. “Our focus has instead been on refining recipe and process, and maturing beer for ever longer times in barrels, with quality being the driving goal. With a finite amount of space and oak barrel and tank capacity, the longer maturation has necessarily resulted in a decreasing amount of beer output. We're ok with that. Particularly in the pursuit of quality. I like going to bed at night knowing that I tried to do something that I could be proud of.”
It’s difficult to gauge the influence of de Garde, but it seems fair to assume that the fervor it has generated over the last decade amongst beer nerds has pushed many other breweries to dedicate more time and space to crafting wild ales. Alongside peers like Jester King - which also just celebrated a ten-year anniversary - de Garde has helped bring more visibility to the idea of making spontaneously fermented beer using the coolship method, with breweries from coast to coast investing in the ancient style of production.
“There have been some pretty incredible and humbling moments over the years though. Seeing customers line up for releases, winning awards, festival invites, and finishing the renovation on our current building, will always bring me happiness,” says Linsey.
For Trevor, there are a handful of key moments where he knew that de Garde had earned the respect of the same people he once idolized. “Perhaps the most inspirational moment that I've personally experienced happened at the first of the beer awards ceremonies we were invited to, in Santa Rosa, California. It was fairly early on for our brewery. We were awarded a medal as one of the top 10 breweries in the world, and the best in Oregon, amongst a number of other awards. This was as unexpected as it was humbling. Later that day, another Oregon brewer approached me inside Russian River Brewing and said, ‘You know that your awards are bullshit, right? Just want to make sure you know that.’ The awards and the following interaction definitely provided even more inspiration to do better.”
As for his own favorite de Garde beers, Trevor says he’s “a huge fan of the long-aged, unfruited blends we compose, as well as the beers we make that incorporate wine grapes.” Many of these have been the result of collaborations, which also have represented milestones for Trevor and Linsey. “We've been able to blend and collaborate with some of our Lambic brewer friends, as well as numerous other inspirational folks. We've been invited to places and events and traveled around the country and world. Both to learn as well as to work, and we've found a lot of friends along the way. We've served beer with and next to our industry idols and been well received. We've met people in the most random and distant places that were familiar with our brewery and were fans of it. We've partnered with Michelin starred restaurants, and poured beer in numerous rustic beer joints. Every little bit has been an adventure. Every bit has been worth the effort.”
Many of those friends and collaborators will make their way to the Oregon coast when the first decade of de Garde culminates in a blowout anniversary party on May 6 just up the road from Tillamook in Garibaldi. Trevor and Linsey have traditionally kept their beer events low-key and smaller affairs, but the lack of social interaction during the pandemic and their own growth after 10 years signaled that they should throw what promises to be their biggest event to date. To pull it together, they have invited some of their famous friends including Hill Farmstead, Toppling Goliath, Cantillon, Side Project, Hill Farmstead, Monkish, Trillium and Anchorage, to name just a few. There will of course be plenty of de Garde being poured as well. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the event to sell out.
Ultimately, the event will be yet another major moment for a brewery that has earned its way into the upper echelon of craft beer. At the core of this is their unwavering commitment to quality as well as representing their little corner of the world that a decade ago seemed like a gamble for this kind of brewery. For Trevor, the balance of all these things is exactly what he hopes to maintain in the next chapter of de Garde.
“We've built this business on a particular ethos, style and expression, and we're committed to doing it the best that we can. I'd like to say, perhaps to hope, that the future holds more of the same, with a similar focus on continual improvement.”
This guide describes how a small collective produced and distributed transdermal estrogen using reproducible do-it-yourself methods.
What follows here is not medical advice; it is a report on an experiment in process, providing proof of concept. Generally speaking, if you want to take estrogen and you have the option to acquire it through the prevailing medical institutions, we encourage you to consider taking that route. At the same time, it is already difficult for some people who need estrogen to access it that way, and those difficulties may only increase in the future—so we believe that information like this should be distributed widely. Taking a hands-on approach to healthcare can give you a more direct relationship to your agency, which can give you more control over your safety in the long run, provided you learn about the risks and reflect properly on them.
Above all, we believe in gender self-determination: the idea that everyone should be free to position themselves as they see fit within the matrix of gender. Neither governments, religions, patriarchal authorities, nor anyone else should be able to confine us within their narrow visions of who we should be or who we can become.
This guide was adapted from a zine by the Fairy Wings Collective, available here along with related resources.
We made our own transdermal estrogen and started giving it out to people. Transdermal means you just rub it on your skin and that’s it: no needles, no adhesives, no eating it. When we tell other anarchists about this, they’re usually like, “Oh yeah, I talked to some friends about that once, but we didn’t know how to do it.” We got together with about four people and scrounged up a few thousand bucks and decided to figure it out. This article describes what we did, some of the risks involved, and how you can do it yourself.
With access to transgender health care becoming increasingly politicized and restricted, especially in certain parts of the country, being able to make our own hormones is a necessary step towards ensuring that people in our communities have access to the care they need. Doing this project ourselves instead of relying on doctors, prescriptions, and the established medical supply chain offers more privacy, autonomy, and ease of access for individuals who might find it difficult to access hormones through traditional methods. Our primary audience includes young people, people who are transient or without an established address, people who are uninsured or underinsured, and those living in rural or politically conservative areas. We don’t think we can reach all of those people via our little distribution network—that’s why we are proposing that anarchists in other areas start making DIY estrogen in a decentralized way. We encourage anyone who wants to participate in this project to read this guide and start producing their own supply.
First, some good news: it works! Several individuals started using the transdermal estrogen we made without taking any other exogenous hormones. After several weeks, they had successfully raised their estrogen levels. They were able to adjust the dose by taking more or changing the administration site, as different places on your body offer a higher or lower efficacy of absorption. Below, we’ll offer a more detailed report on their experiences.
Estradiol suppresses your body’s production of other sex hormones through a negative feedback loop; an estradiol level of 150 pg/ml is usually enough to suppress your body’s production of testosterone into the female range. However, current standards of care and some individuals’ body chemistry may require an anti-androgen to achieve these levels. Since the dose is flexible and site of administration can be changed to suit your needs, some of this depends on your body and the results you want.
For more information, check out TransFemScience.org—specifically this article.
The process of producing a usable form of estradiol is pretty straightforward: buy ingredients, mix them together in set ratios, apply. Based on our experiences, the hardest parts were researching how exactly to turn estradiol powder into something usable and attempting to find a lab to analyze the estradiol we bought. Now that we’ve done those things, you can copy our steps and end up with about the same result.
We encourage you to do your own research and learn as much as you can on this topic. None of us are experts and we would all benefit from learning from each other. The way we chose to approach this is not the only way. We could have bought a pill press and a binding agent and cranked out estradiol pills. We could have produced injectable estradiol. However, based on our limited knowledge of chemistry and medicine and our cleanliness standards (reasonable, but not a clean room and not sterile), we felt that producing transdermal estrogen was the safest and easiest approach. Contamination risk is very real and injectable products must meet a much higher standard to be safe for use.
You will need:
Secure methods for communication and online activity: encrypted email (Protonmail)1 and messaging (Signal), encrypted document storage (Cryptpad), Tails stick or Tor
Addresses for receiving online orders
Money: roughly $2000 to buy all supplies for 250 bottles of about six months’ supply each
A physical location to make the product and store supplies
A distribution location or plan
Trusted friends to help with production, distribution, and any other parts of the process
Rather than setting up a formal organization, we favor a more decentralized approach. This is why we called our project Boobs not Bombs—an homage to Food not Bombs, a call to action for people in any community to feed their neighbors. Anyone with a small set of supplies can make enough do-it-yourself estrogen to serve hundreds of people. We intentionally chose reproducible methods. Our goal is to equip others to make do-it-yourself hormones as well. You know your community and its needs better than we do. Via direct action, we can secure the autonomy of queer and trans folks, even in the face of an increasingly oppressive and surveilled future.
Disclaimer: Neither the vials we produced nor this text are intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any medical illness. None of these statements has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. They are NOT medical advice.
Boobs Not Bombs is a reference to Food Not Bombs, an anarchist food distribution project dating back decades. Boobs Not Bombs is our name for the idea of distributing estrogen cheaply or for free; Fairy Wings Mutual Aid is the name of our specific chapter. This chapter was created as an explicitly anarchist project and we have sought to organize it around anarchist principles. If anything in here is unclear or confusing don’t hesitate to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
A standard dose is 0.57 ml—about a quarter of a dropper—applied to the scrotum or neolabia once per day. Based on the bloodwork we have done so far, this should be enough to fully suppress testosterone into the female range and induce feminization.
For lower levels, switch to a less efficient application site or reduce the dosage. You can choose from the following application sites, listed from least absorbent to most absorbent: the soles of the feet or palms, abdomen, forearm, armpit, scrotum/neolabia.
If your levels aren’t high enough, you could increase the dosage or apply a dose twice per day. It’s worth noting that once testosterone has been suppressed, higher levels of estradiol have not been shown to produce any benefit and carry additional risk.
Applying lotion afterwards at the site of application will slightly increase absorption. Using sunscreen will decrease absorption. For one hour afterwards, make sure not to make skin-to-skin contact between the site of application and anyone who doesn’t want additional estrogen in their body.
As in many do-it-yourself projects (and most activities), there are risks to making or using this product.
Some risks have to do with the supply chain. For example, we tested the estradiol we bought as raw powder and found it to be 97.2% estradiol. The test also showed that it contained no heavy metals. That being said, we weren’t able to figure out what the remaining 3% was. Is there something dangerous in that 3%? We don’t know.
The same is probably true for grocery store supplements as well. If a company is accused of putting dangerous chemicals in its supplements, it might be investigated, but otherwise, supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. In our opinion, this estrogen is probably about as dangerous as a standard over-the-counter supplement. If you are able to get estradiol prescribed by a doctor and you can afford it, it will undoubtedly be higher quality, and we recommend you do so.
Nevertheless, that isn’t possible for many people. That’s where this guide comes in.
There are inherent risks to taking estradiol, as well. The following is written for AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) people. For AFAB people, the risks are greater and the rewards are very different.
For all people, estradiol is associated with blood coagulation. This can lead to a number of adverse events including heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots, also known as thrombosis. Of particular concern are venous thromboembolisms, or VTE events—blood clots in veins moving blood towards the heart. For AMAB people that take estradiol, the increased risk depends on the dose and the means of administration. The risks are greater with higher levels; some ways of taking estradiol are more associated with VTE events than others. The exact risks are not precisely known, as research on trans people is poorly funded. However, based on the available data, it seems that transdermal estradiol levels within 100-200 pg/ml (and perhaps as high as 300 pg/ml) produce little or no additional risk of clotting events. For a fuller overview of the research, read this.
Another risk to consider is breast cancer. Like blood clots, there seems to be a causal link between exposure to estrogens and breast cancer. This also seems to be dose dependent, so higher doses of estradiol will result in an increased risk of breast cancer. As with blood clots, the exact degree of risk isn’t precisely known; for AMAB people taking estradiol, the risk level is likely to be somewhere between the risk levels for cis men and cis women.
Lastly, the primary effects of estradiol itself—feminization and suppression of your body’s reproductive processes—could be considered risks, depending on your perspective. For better or worse, the vast majority of effects from estradiol, like smoother skin and fat distribution, are reversible. However, some effects are permanent, including breast development and, possibly, infertility. Anyone who might use this product should be made aware of the risks so they can make an informed decision.
Estrogen is not a scheduled substance. It is legal to import it. The other ingredients you need are all legal to purchase. As long as an item is not labelled for medicinal use, it is legal to sell or give away even if it contains potentially bioactive ingredients—think of herbal medicines sold in stores. In many places, you can buy estrogen over the counter to alleviate symptoms of menopause. All in all, we think that the present legal risk is very low.
However, this could change at any time: several states have passed laws against mailing or importing misoprostol and some have introduced new laws restricting access to gender-affirming medical care for youth or even adults. It’s probably better to stay a bit below the radar in case this becomes illegal later. Currently, our chief security concern is publicity from hostile far-right groups: we’re more concerned about showing up on Fox News than FBI raids.
Unlike estrogen, testosterone is a scheduled drug—it is generally illegal to access it without a prescription. Producing and distributing testosterone would involve a different set of legal risks.
As there is insufficient research on trans health, the long-term health consequences of starting and stopping hormone treatment are unknown. Hormones affect many body systems in ways Western medicine still doesn’t understand, and there is little data available on the long-term effects of intermittent hormone use.
So far, the Fairy Wings chapter of Boobs not Bombs has distributed approximately 200 bottles of transdermal estrogen. Early on, we invited several volunteers to switch to Boobs not Bombs estrogen and to test their estrogen and testosterone levels. As more bottles were distributed, people who were starting hormones for the first time also provided lab results. We asked volunteers to wait until they had been taking Boobs not Bombs estrogen for three to four weeks before they tested, in order to avoid lingering effects from other preparations of estradiol they may have been on previously. The results we collected do not meet the rigorous standards of a scientific study, especially considering the wide variety of possible administration sites, dosing, and individual variables including other medical conditions, concurrent medications (hormone-related and otherwise), lifestyle, and the like. However, we can provide the information we received from volunteers.
Since the beginning of the project, five people have taken or switched to Boobs not Bombs estrogen and provided numerical lab results. While we asked a standard set of questions of each person, some people were unable to have their testosterone levels checked and some provided incomplete information. At least one individual never took any lab tests, but did experience breast development and sensory changes.
One person reported applying a quarter of a dropper daily to the scrotum/neolabia, which resulted in estrogen levels of 250 pg/ml and testosterone 200 ng/dl. Two people applied the estrogen to their forearms: one used a half dropper per day and measured estrogen 94 pg/ml, while the other used one full dropper daily for estrogen levels of 125 pg/ml. The two people who administered this estrogen to their armpits were also both taking anti-androgens. Both applied a half dropper per day; one had estrogen levels of 200 pg/ml and the other 842 pg/ml (and testosterone of 33.3 ng/dl).
Commonly recommended ranges for transfeminine people in the literature are 100 to 200 pg/mL (367–734 pmol/L) for estradiol levels and less than 50 ng/dL (1.7 nmol/L) for testosterone levels (Table). However, higher estradiol levels of more than 200 pg/mL (734 pmol/L) can be useful in transfeminine hormone therapy to help suppress testosterone levels. Lower estradiol levels (≤50–60 pg/mL [≤180–220 pmol/L]) are recommended and more appropriate for pubertal and adolescent transfeminine individuals.
If you want to share your own results, email us and tell us how long you’ve been taking this estrogen, any other hormone-related medications, your dose, administration site, and lab results (estrogen and testosterone levels).
For some people, there can be risks associated with not taking hormones, as well, and these can also be life-threatening. Those who want to restrict access to hormones often speak about the “irreversible changes” that are associated with taking hormones. In fact, our bodies are always changing in irreversible ways. Taking exogenous hormones can be a way of intentionally participating in that change in order to move it in a direction that feels more aligned with how you want to be.
While there are numerous barriers that prevent people (especially trans people) from accessing hormones like estradiol, there are comparatively few mechanisms to ensure that everyone who wants hormones has access to them. Furthermore, even when the medical establishment is able to meet our needs, this only occurs on the terms of insurance corporations, medical review boards, the state, the family, and other institutions that have historically served to oppress, exploit, and exclude people. These institutions restrict access to hormones and other resources in order to reinforce cis-heteronormativity (the idea that being cis and straight is the only “correct” or “natural” way to be). They aim to reinforce these ideas and gate-keeping structures in order to diminish our bodily autonomy because that helps them to maintain control of all the other aspects of our lives. Rather than trying to work within and validate the existence of those institutions, we can deliberately choose to work outside of them. We believe everyone should be free of the coercive power of the state and should have access to the tools they need to shape their bodies however they want.
Some people believe that only massive institutions can meet people’s needs and that those institutions have to adopt repressive practices in order to do so. By making estradiol widely and easily available at little or no cost, we can help people access a greater degree of bodily autonomy and give people cause to question the necessity of centralization and control.
The following instructions have been calculated for a batch that starts with 100 grams of estradiol. This number was chosen because it’s relatively affordable and makes the math a little bit easier.
The formula that we used is based on a patent (technically two patents) we found for a transdermal birth control product. The patent describes a product that is 0.24% active ingredient, which is split between a progestin (0.18%) and estradiol (0.06%). We modified this recipe to include only estradiol at 0.24%. We recommend that you look over these patents to get an idea of what we’re doing and to make sure we’re not missing anything. Copies of these patents, the spreadsheets we used to calculate the amounts of each ingredient, and other helpful information are available here.
Before Getting Started
Before embarking on your own Boobs Not Bombs adventure, think carefully about the risks involved and whether you’re willing to take them. Because Estradiol is not a controlled substance, what we are doing is legal—as far as we can tell—given that what we are offering is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any medical illness. Nevertheless, the fact that something is legal has never stopped the state from harassing people. This is especially true because trans people have unfortunately become a target for many conservative politicians. The prospect of people handing out estrogen on the street is ripe to get blown out of proportion by the right-wing media and politicians looking to score points by attacking trans people. If you aren’t comfortable with these risks, consider helping existing BnB efforts by donating to or contacting the authors of this text.
If you decide you are willing to take these risks, watch this video discussing why you should never speak to the police. You can also read this text about security culture.
As a rule, don’t discuss your involvement in this project with people that you don’t trust. Only tell people what they need to know. If you need to discuss the project with others via electronic means, always use open-source encrypted software like Signal, ProtonMail, and Cryptpad. Of course, every approach has limitations and there is nothing you can do to guarantee that you haven’t left a trace. The guidelines we have set out here should be regarded as a solid baseline to add to, rather than a security guarantee. For more information about digital security, read this.
The first step in this project is to get together with your friends and comrades and see who would like to help make it a reality. If you don’t have a network of trusted friends who are interested in helping, try going to the closest anarchist community center or mutual aid project and see what you can help out with. Hopefully, you will develop friendships with people in the course of working together. If all goes well, eventually Boobs Not Bombs can be one of the projects you can add to your shared repertoire!
If you are going to work on this project on your computer, we recommend that you get a Tails stick. This is a USB flash drive with the Tails operating system installed on it. Tails is a secure operating system that only connects to the internet via the Tor network and saves absolutely nothing to your hard disk. To obtain a copy of Tails, have a friend that already has a Tails stick clone it. If you don’t know anyone with Tails, you can download it and read a full set of instructions here. If this process seems overwhelming, find a computer-savvy friend to help you.
Next, start your computer running Tails and create an email account with which to contact vendors. It is strongly recommended that you only sign in to this email from within Tails. Remember, Tails and Tor are not magic. If you sign in to your personal email account at the same time as you sign in to the email you are using for this project, you will have associated the two. Only work on one project at a time when using Tails.
To prepare for ordering and receiving shipments, get together with your friends and figure out how to receive the packages anonymously. The easiest way is to get a friend who isn’t directly involved in the project to receive the package for you. Ship it to them under their own name and then pick it up from them. Receiving packages is a good way people can aid the project while limiting their involvement. Other possibilities include getting packages shipped to a friendly community center or an abandoned house, or dividing up the ingredients and shipping them sporadically to your own houses. For example, one person could order and receive the propylene glycol, another the diethylene glycol monoethyl ether, a third person the alcohol. Doing it in this way reduces the chances that an investigation could determine the pattern of purchases and deliveries.
If someone is receiving a package, it’s usually best that they pay for the package themselves using their own payment methods and then you reimburse them in cash. You can probably send multiple packages to some people if the things they’re receiving are not sketchy, such as scales and glass jars. At the same time, you should seek to minimize your online purchases. Wherever possible, buy things in person with cash. Do you need to buy glass overflow jars online, or can you get them from a thrift store?
You will need a certain amount of resources to get started. If need be, raise funds discreetly among your friends. You should be able to fund the entire project with about $2000. If you can, set aside more than this to allow for unexpected problems. Store these funds as cash in a secure location. Keep track of how much money comes in and how much has been spent on each item so you can see how much money you have left and identify ways to reduce expenses.
Your operation will need a physical location. An empty bedroom is big enough, though we don’t recommend a bedroom that anyone lives in, as it would be difficult to store everything you need in a room along with someone’s personal possessions. You should also think about security here. You could find a friendly community space that is willing to rent a room to a member of the project, come up with a persuasive cover story, and rent it as a personal room. Draft a lease that stipulates that the room is not to be entered without your permission and put a lock on the door. This both protects you and those you are renting from: in the event of trouble, they will have a lease to provide legal cover, confirming that as landlords, they are not responsible for what their tenants do.
You could use cryptpad to create a spreadsheet to keep track of your finances. This includes managing your money and keeping track of prepaid cards—where they are, how much is on them, what they’ve been used for so far, and the billing information attached to them. For example, if a website requires you to put in a billing address for the card, make sure you note which billing address has been used for which cards. This way, you won’t have the card get rejected due to using contradictory information.
1. Purchase and Test Estradiol
Cost: $800 ($300 for estradiol, $500 for the test)
Raw estradiol can be purchased directly from manufacturers listed on the Estradiol PubChem page. The prices they quote are prohibitively expensive, and many manufacturers will only ship to businesses or research institutions. That may not be an insurmountable hurdle—it might suffice to find a friend with a .edu email address and an address to receive packages.
Alternatively, you can message gray market vendors from China, such as Hanzhong Han Traceability Biological Technology Co. Ltd. To find more vendors, try searching “estradiol suppliers china” on duckduckgo. They usually sell bulk amounts of estradiol; however, the quality may be lower as a result. When communicating with a vendor, only email them from your secure email account. See if you can pay via money order. If you can, purchase a money order with cash and mail it to them. If that is not an option, use cash to purchase a pre-paid debit card from Walmart or another big box store. You might be able to pay with bitcoin, but make sure that the bitcoin itself was purchased in a manner that can’t be traced (e.g., with cash).
Purchase 100 grams of pure estradiol, CAS number 50-28-2. Have it shipped to you using one of the methods outlined above. If you used a prepaid debit card, make note of it in your spreadsheet.
If you bought your estradiol from a gray market supplier, you will need to test it when it arrives. Go to toxassociates.com. Order a comprehensive drug analysis: tell them you want a quantitative analysis of estradiol and a test for heavy metals. Pay for the test with a money order purchased with cash and await your results. If the test doesn’t come back clean (e.g., they sold you a bunch of baking soda), go back and start over.
If you can go in on this step with other groups like yours, you could save a lot of money. Assuming multiple chapters place an order of estradiol together, you’ll only need a single test for everyone.
You’re looking for the results to say >99% estradiol and no heavy metals or anything else detected. Ours was 97%. We would love to know what the other 3% is—but after extensive research, it appeared that we’d need thousands of dollars and corporate or academic credentials to find out. If you know of another way to identify impurities in a sample, please contact us!
Purchase the Materials
1. Purchase 6 gallons of 95% alcohol.
You can buy alcohol in bulk online from Laballey.com and organicalcohol.com. Laballey often offers good sales. Depending on the vendor, alcohol may be referred to as ethanol. Ethanol is the name for the kind of alcohol that you can drink. You could also use isopropyl alcohol, which is much cheaper—but not for internal consumption, as it causes organ damage and blindness. We went with ethanol because we wanted to stick as close to the patent as possible. The patent mentions that you can use isopropyl alcohol, but they imply that ethanol is preferred.
If you order from Laballey, bear in mind that they will automatically cancel any order that has a different shipping and billing address. To get around this, have a friend buy alcohol from them legitimately, paying with their own card and shipping it to their legal name. You will need to have alcohol shipped to someone older than 21 and they must sign for the package when it arrives.
You could also get around this step by buying Everclear from liquor stores. This has the advantage of being faster and available in return for cash, but it is also much more expensive—we calculated that it would be roughly three times more expensive to use Everclear.
Alcohol is extremely flammable. Six gallons of it should be considered a major hazard. Do not open the container it comes in until you’re ready to make a batch. Store the alcohol far away from any fire hazards. Never smoke while working with alcohol; make sure there are no open flames anywhere nearby.
2. Purchase two gallons of propylene glycol USP.
Propylene glycol is a very common chemical. You can obtain it via a number of websites, including the aforementioned Laballey. Wherever you get it, make sure that it’s pure propylene glycol, not propylene glycol mixed with something else.
USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) refers to a standard of purity for chemicals. All chemicals should be sold to you as USP. If you can afford it, you should send all of your reagents off for testing in addition to the estradiol.
3. Purchase two liters of diethylene glycol monoethyl ether USP.
Follow the same steps as for propylene glycol to obtain diethylene glycol monoethyl ether. We could not find other vendors for diethylene glycol monoethyl ether besides Laballey.com.
4. Purchase a large wide mouth glass container for mixing.
Throughout the manufacturing process, we use glass because it’s nonreactive.
Realistically, it’s hard to find wide-mouth glass containers larger than two or two and a half gallons. You can find five-gallon glass carboys (the kind of bottles used in water coolers), but it is difficult to mix liquids in them owing to their narrow mouths. You might be able to find a workaround involving a long, narrow stirring stick, a magnetic stirrer, or something else.
We used a wide-mouth glass container of approximately two-gallon capacity. Generally bigger is better, provided that you can find a way to stir it.
You might be able to find a large enough glass container at a store. If you can, use cash to buy it. If you can’t find one in a store, there are plenty of options on Amazon.com.
5. Purchase an even larger glass container for storing the finished product.
The size of this container doesn’t matter so long as it is bigger than the mixing container and it is made of glass. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to purchase this item in person at a store. You can get a five-gallon glass carboy for $60 on Amazon.com.
6. Purchase seven wide-mouth glass containers of medium size.
The size of these containers doesn’t matter as much. Perhaps half a gallon. These should absolutely be purchased with cash at a store. Walmart and ACE Hardware offer six-packs of half gallon mason jars for something like $20. You can likely spend far less than $100 for all of these if you go to a thrift shop.
7. Purchase scales.
One scale will need to be a higher capacity kitchen scale accurate to within .1 g. The other must be accurate down to 0.01 g. Make sure that the higher capacity scale can handle the weight of the mixing jar and water or alcohol. For the batch size we’re talking about here, the scale should have a capacity of at least 15 pounds, preferably 20.
Buy at least 350 four-ounce amber Boston round bottles and an equal number of 1 ml tincture droppers. Make sure that the bottles and droppers have matching neck sizes. In our case, we used the neck finish 24-400.
9. Purchase miscellaneous lab equipment.
For this step, we’re mostly thinking about gloves, goggles, a table if you need one, and any other small items.
10. Buy water.
Buy four gallons of distilled water from any grocery store. It must be distilled water, not spring water, “purified” water, or anything else.
Make a batch
The basics of making transdermal estrogen are as follows: measure out all of the raw materials by mass, add them to a mixing container, mix vigorously, pour into a larger container, and bottle it from there. To bottle it, just pour the mixture out of the large carboy into a smaller wide-mouth container, then scoop it out and pour it into bottles. The point of using the carboy is to enable one team to continue to make two-gallon batches while another team bottles. Based on our experience, the bottleneck in this process, ironically, is bottling. Because we bottled by hand, that part took much longer than preparing the batch itself. Using the carboy is a way to speed up the process. Otherwise, the team making each batch will have to stop and wait until all of the transdermal estrogen has been bottled before they can start making the next batch.
You’ll be making about five batches of two gallons each. The process is actually pretty straightforward—it just takes a while to bottle. You should set aside about four hours for the whole process. Keep in mind that this will likely be messy, involving alcohol spilling over your work environment. You should pick a place where that won’t be an issue and clean up as you go. Don’t work by open windows where passersby can see what you’re doing—they might think you’re making drugs.
1. Label all of your containers.
Once you’re ready to get started, clean your work surface, lay out all of the materials, and label your containers. You should have a weighing container and an overflow container for every ingredient except estradiol. You should also have a two-gallon mixing container, a five-gallon (or more) glass carboy, and a bottling jar.
If you ordered more than one bottle of something, keep only one out on your work surface. This will help keep the space less cluttered. You can also have the bottling station set up separately to keep things organized.
2. Put on PPE
This means long sleeves, gloves, and goggles. If you have long hair, put it up before beginning.
3. Add 16.4 grams of estradiol in the two-gallon mixing container.
Place your estradiol weighing container on the scale and tare it. Then add 16.4 grams of estradiol using a spoon. If you add too much, scoop some back into the container that the estradiol came in. Then pour the estradiol into the two-gallon glass jar. Some estradiol will likely remain in the cup. We will deal with that in a second.
4. Measure out 2872.9 grams of alcohol to the mixing container and mix vigorously.
Place the alcohol weighing container on the larger scale and tare it. Then add 2872.9 grams of alcohol. If you add too much, pour some out into the alcohol overflow jar until you’ve got the number right. When you are weighing out alcohol for the next batch, add this overflow into the alcohol weighing container first. As you pour alcohol into the mixing container, have someone hold the estradiol weighing container in the mixing jar and pour in the alcohol such that it washes it out. Once the alcohol has been poured in, mix vigorously it for one minute using a glass stirring rod. If you don’t have one, use a large metal serving spoon.
5. Add 2585.7 grams of distilled water to the mixing container and stir.
Use the large scale to measure out 2585.7 grams of distilled water. Use the water overflow jar to pour out any overflow. When you’ve got the amount right, add it to the mixing container and mix it vigorously for one minute.
6. Add 1026.6 grams of propylene glycol and stir.
Follow these steps for propylene glycol (PG). PG overflow goes into the PG overflow jar; add it to the next batch. If you want to be especially precise, make sure to weigh the weighing container after you’ve poured the propylene glycol into the mixing container, so you can tell exactly how much remains in the container. Write this amount down and add slightly more than that amount to the PG weighing container. Add this to the mixing jar, then check the weight to see how much actually ended up in the mixing jar. Repeat until you’re satisfied that you’re close enough. Once you are done adding PG, mix vigorously for one minute.
7. Add 342.2 grams of diethylene glycol monoethyl ether and stir.
Follow this same procedure for diethylene glycol monoethyl ether and mix vigorously for one minute.
8. Pour the mixing container into the carboy; begin bottling; start the next batch.
When you have finished steps 1-7, you have completed a two-gallon batch. Using a large clean funnel, pour all of the contents of the mixing container into the glass carboy. The bottling team can then pour the transdermal estrogen out of the carboy and into another wide-mouth container. From there, they can scoop out the transdermal estrogen using a ½ or ¾ measuring cup and a funnel to pour it into bottles. Leave a little room at the top when you fill the bottles—otherwise, when you add the dropper lid, it will overflow. After filling a bottle, dry it with a towel and then add a label. Store the bottle in whatever box or container you’re keeping the transdermal estrogen in before distributing it.
While one group of people is bottling, another group should repeat steps 1-7. Continue to do so until you no longer have enough raw materials to make another batch. At that point, you can either stop and help with bottling or measure out the last of whatever ingredient you don’t have enough of, and then calculate new amounts for all the other ingredients using the ratios provided. For example, if you only have 1500 grams of alcohol, you can’t make a full batch. But since you know that alcohol is 42% of the batch by weight, you can work out what the total weight of the last (smaller) batch should be and make one more batch before you reorder supplies.
9. Clean up your workspace.
When you’re done, clean up your work area. Tear off all of the labels of the packages you received and burn them (somewhere far away from the alcohol). This is to prevent you from putting a bunch of incriminating evidence into the same dumpster. Once all of the labels are disposed of, you can discard the boxes as regular recycling. If you peel the labels off the chemicals you bought (the propylene glycol and diethylene glycol monoethyl ether), you can also dispose of them as normal recycling. If not, dispose of each one in a separate dumpster that cannot be connected to you.
Empty any remaining overflow containers back into their original bottles. Wash all non-disposable lab equipment thoroughly. Return all of your supplies to storage. You should have about 300 bottles filled, though you might have less, depending on whether you worked until you ran out of an ingredient or just stopped when you didn’t have enough for a full batch.
10. Print zines
We made a zine explaining our process and goals to distribute along with the transdermal estrogen. We designed it from scratch because we didn’t have a model to work from. You’re welcome to take the one we made, change out the contact information and any other details, and print your own edition. Make sure to change the title of the zine to “Boobs Not Bombs—[Your chapter’s name]” or something other than the title of our zine, so as to not confuse people. If you’d like an electronic copy of our zine for editing, email us.
Giving the length of this zine, printing will be expensive. We recommend finding someone with a printing hook up.
1. Create a distribution network.
For a clandestine arrangement, keep the bottles yourself and distribute them through word of mouth only. If you’re comfortable with a more public arrangement, you could advertise online and mail the bottles out. If you want to go this route, you could contact hrt.cafe and see if your small operation can be listed on the website. You could also set up a BnB station somewhere presenting the bottles and zines alongside a donation jar. Periodically check the sites to keep them stocked.
You could also offer your wares at Really Really Free Markets, Food Not Bombs servings, drag shows, art spaces, and any other location frequented by people who might like to have access to estrogen. Of particular interest are places (such as Republican-controlled states) that are making it increasingly difficult to access hormones.
The more decentralized the network that is producing estrogen, the more difficult it will be to suppress it.
2. Distribute bottles.
Once you know where to take the bottles/zines, physically transport them to all of the various locations. You could mail them, but that would be expensive, as the bottles are heavy. If you ship bottles, package them so they don’t shatter in transit.
If you’re distributing at physical locations, you could set up a station with bottles, zines, and a donation jar. This might necessitate a folding table or rack for each location. For a donation jar, you could cut an opening in the lid of an old coffee container and write “donations” in large visible letters on it.
Once you have run out of bottles and zines, collect a final round of donations, conduct any additional fundraising necessary, and then repeat the process from the beginning.
transfemscience.org—We recommend this website for your research needs. The site is run by transfemme people for transfemme people and interested medical practitioners. We recommend spending a considerable amount of time learning about feminizing hormone therapy.
hrt.cafe—This site is great for sourcing everything you’d need for feminizing hormone therapy, including antiandrogens. The downside is that the site only includes items that must be purchased online.
A note about email security. The only way to ensure the security of an email server is to run it yourself, and running email servers is not easy. The way that email functions involves a lot of information being transferred in the clear in order to allow for the routing of messages. In this sort of structure, the best we can do is encrypt the message content. Protonmail provides encryption without the users having to do any work, as long as they are messaging other users of the service or have someone’s keys loaded into their account’s keychain. Protonmail does have access to your registration details and the times that certain IPs accessed accounts, and they have provided that information to governments before. If you sign up with information that does not lead back to you and always use a VPN or Tor to check your inbox, this information should not be compromising. ↩
Why Does a Librarian Own a Social Media Site That's Been Around for Longer Than Facebook?
Jessamyn West is not just one of the web’s favorite librarians, but the new owner of Metafilter, an incredibly long-running social network that dates back to a very different Internet. In the first part of our interview with Jessamyn, she tells us just how Metafilter has kept going and stayed healthy since 1999.
Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining The Internet. I’m Ethan Zuckerman. I am here today with one of the Internet’s very coolest librarians and one of the internet coolest people in general, Jessamyn West. Jessamyn is a librarian in Randolph, Vermont, where she leads the Randolph Technical Career Center. She’s a frequent speaker and writer. She wrote the 2011 book Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide. She blogs at <a href="http://librarian.net" rel="nofollow">librarian.net</a>. One of the things we’re going to be talking to her about today is the MetaFilter community where she used to be the community manager and director of operations, is now the co-host of the MetaFilter Podcast and as of very recently, the owner of MetaFilter. Jessamyn welcome. Good to have you here.
Hey, good to see you. Thanks for having me.
You have been highly, highly online and really visible in sort of technology circles, particularly connecting the librarian world to the larger digital world. You’re also very much a rural New England person. And of course you are now CEO, owner, director of one of the Internet’s longest lived and most beloved online communities. What is MetaFilter and how did you end up owning it Jessamyn?
Well, MetaFilter is I think Matt Haughey, who’s the guy who created it, had the best description of MetaFilter, which is a social network for non friends. It’s essentially an online community blog. So back in the early days of blogs, a blog was just a thing that one person did before kind of everybody had one and before you stopped calling it a blog, because it was just what the web was. It was started in late 1999 and it was basically anybody could make a post to the front page about a neat thing you found on the internet that you wanted to talk to other people about. Other people had accounts also, and people could talk in a very text based environment. There were images for a while, but then there stopped being images and it’s grown over time. There’s now the most popular part of the site is Ask MetaFilter, which is like Q&A about, you got a relationship question, you got a cat question, you got a vacation question, ask the community.
And so it’s a longstanding community where it ebbs and flows of who’s there and what they’re doing. But there’s some people who have been a part of this particular online community for over 20 years. Right. And so you get to know people. You have people who have been married and they have kids and then their kids get accounts on MetaFilter like it’s boggling, honestly. And I started out there just as a friend of Matt’s and then over time being kind of a super fan, Matt ran it by himself for a long time. I became kind of the first employee after just Matt and the dev guy, PB, Paul Bausch, and slowly that turned into a little bit of a job.
And then as kind of the great glory days of blogs happened, it was advertiser supported. The ad money was good back in the day. And the site had a team of full time round the clock, 24/7 moderators. We did stuff, spent money on it. And I worked there from 2005 to 2014. When I stepped down to really spend a little bit more time doing libraries, Josh Millard, who was kind of the guy who was hired after me, once Matt stepped away. I mean, it’s all God soap opera-y. Right. Matt stepped away to get a job at Slack. Josh stepped in as kind of the owner and also the guy who ran day to day, did that for four or five years during Trump, during COVID like, oh my God. So hard. It was so hard then. And really it was a lot, it was too much. Right.
And so he had to really pull back and the site has been kind of reconceptualized so that I’m the one who does kind of in the UK, they call it just admin, right, paperwork, legal, vision stuff. But we also have one of the longstanding moderators there who’s really in charge of day to day. Right. So as much as I’m, I guess the CEO, I’m also not the person whose day to day, like we should delete that comment. This is how we should handle this community issue. I’m there as kind of a long time person who understands the community, who has vision, but we’re really hoping to shift to more of a steering committee model where the people who use the site are the ones who really get to help run the site. And it’s hard because it’s been a long time where it’s been not that.
So it’s been like that guy. He’s in charge. This is his fault. I’m mad. Moving on to, okay, well MetaFilter is us. How do we want to handle this difficult conversation? How do we want to handle this weird topic? And that’s kind of where we are now. This all just started as far as my kind of weird return, and we’re still trying to figure out how it’s going to happen. Right now we have a transition team helping ease Josh out, ease this new model in, and then we’re going to move to a steering committee, which is going to hopefully be the legislative body that helps determine what MetaFilter is going to be.
So let’s remind people or introduce people who don’t know Metafilter to a couple of things that are peculiar about it. One is that MetaFilter has been around for 22 years at this point. If you are a logged in user, as I course am, you can click a button showing you what MetaFilter looked like 20 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago. MetaFilter has multiple different sections, but one of them is generally referred to as the blue and these are moderated, but user written short blog posts really just long bookmarks. One today, for instance, is pointing people towards a website that lets you generate Brian Eno’s music for airports or something similar by layering pieces of choral music and sound sort of put together. So these are of delightful links across the internet that MetaFilter’s community is finding and putting up there for each other and for the web as a whole. Who are the MetaFilter people Jessamyn? How many are there? What’s the sort of person who uses MetaFilter and what’s up with the $5?
Good. Let’s address those in order. MetaFilter people in general tend to be people who like myself are extremely online. I mean sometimes in order to put it in context that other people understand, it’s kind of like Reddit if there were only one of them and there were no threaded comments. Right. And there were moderators who got to do that as a job, not as volunteers, et cetera. Right. And maybe a little less of a commitment to all free speech all the time. Right. Not that we’re against free speech, but we believe that in a community you have to balance the needs of one person against the needs of a general community. Right. And so because I mean our user numbers, you get kind of an incremental user number whenever you sign up. Matt was user number one, I’m user 292. My boyfriend is 61170. We don’t refer to each other that way.
But a lot of times your kind of aware of it because it does let you know when somebody signed up. Our user numbers now are in the 300000s. Realistically though we probably have a couple thousand people that are commenting in a given month maybe. I haven’t honestly looked at the stats recently and maybe 10, 15,000 sort of users that comment kind of ever in sort of the current environment. Right. A lot of people just sign up and leave. A lot of people left because the site changed and they didn’t, or they changed and the site didn’t, that kind of thing. Users have a tendency to be extremely online. They have a tendency to be from Western countries, though certainly not for all. And we’d like to work on that, but it’s challenging. Right. It’s almost exclusively conversation in English, just because again, mostly sort of Western countries, we do have a lot of non-English speakers, but they participate in English.
People skew older. Although you do find younger people for whom the site works for them. Often there’s a reason they’re extremely online, which is the thing I always brought to my moderation. Maybe it’s just a kind of reason like, oh, I work on the internet. And so I also hang out and talk on the internet, or it could be a reason like, oh, I’m time shifted from everybody I would hang out with in real life. Or oh, I’m taking care of a family member, which means I don’t get to get out and about. Or maybe I have a disability that keeps me that gives me communication issues if I was talking or interacting in real life that I don’t have when I’m typing into a box on the internet. Or maybe all sorts of things, maybe I’ve got an attitude problem that makes it difficult for me to interact with people in real life.
I think for me, I stay up late and my community doesn’t. So I really like being able to talk to people. And I like people who get my jokes. Right. It’s almost an outcropping of sort of Usenet conversation, very text, very nerdy, very interested in things in that nerdy way. And people who like to share. Right. There’s a huge amount of librarians on MetaFilter.
It definitely feels, so I’ve been on MetaFilter for a long time. I certainly don’t have a number as low as yours, but mine is in the 15000s. I’ve been there for a while. And I remember the internet being a lot more like MetaFilter and there actually being dozens of different sites out there whose primary occupations seem to be to document index and celebrate the supreme weirdness of the world that we are jointly living in. And it is worth reminding people that the first weblog Jorn Barger Robot Wisdom was basically single line descriptions of websites with links to them. MetaFilter in some ways isn’t all that different from that, except that it has a rich commenting culture. And it’s now got communities like Ask MetaFilter that are, I think, warmer and friendlier than just the link exchange piece of it.
Two things I would say about MetaFilter that seem really worth calling out, one is that it’s remained remarkably friendly and unspammy, which has something to do with moderation and something to do with the five bucks. And then the second is that there was a long period of time during which MetaFilter was almost like the secret backdoor into Google. So I’m wondering maybe if I can get you to talk about both of those, the very unusual subscription system and then the relationship between the mass of comments that is MetaFilter and the way that search engines have dealt with it over the years.
Sure. Well, the $5 that you’ve referred to is basically it costs $5 to join. If you don’t have $5, drop us a note, you can probably join anyhow. We don’t want it to keep people out who, especially if you come from somewhere where $5 is an awful lot of money, or maybe you’re in circumstances where $5 is a lot of money, but it costs $5 to sign up. And originally that was literally because, and this is joint with your other question, right, you posted something to the front page of MetaFilter, MetaFilter was a popular website before there were as many popular websites. Think about the early [inaudible 00:13:33]. You post something to the front page of MetaFilter Google would pick that up. That would suddenly become more findable because not only it existed, but it got pointed to because Google used to be all about inbound links with text being the things that Google used in its were not quite smart, but we have a smart idea way so that Google would understand what a page was about. Right.
But so spammers figure that out and they’re like, oh, if I can get my vacuum cleaners on the front page of MetaFilter, my vacuum cleaners are going to shoot way up in Google page results. And that was true, like page ranking. And so people would just constantly be linking their vacuum cleaners and you can see them coming a mile away, right, but it wastes moderator time to have to figure this out each time. And one of the things we know about spammers is, oh my God, they fight, they fight when you ban them. And you’re like, no, and they’re like, I’m just a vacuum cleaner salesman and it’s exhausting.
So we just had this sort of $5 thing and that had a tendency to keep spammers out. Right. Because it’s one thing to spam when it doesn’t cost anything. It’s another, that it’s going to cost you five bucks. Maybe you’re not going to get your five bucks back. One thing I really do need to mention about MetaFilter specifically is it is bespoke, which is also another way of saying rickety and built on PHP and cold fusion. But we built all the tools, which means our tools are the ones we need to do our job, which I think is really an important distinction.
I feel compelled to put in a Jedi GIF at this point here and say cold fusion. Now that’s the name that I haven’t heard in a very long time.
I know. I know.
It is fascinating. I mean, one thing I will say is as someone who’s been part of the community for some years, it is really carefully, thoughtfully and politely moderated. I have had you turn me down on posts that I wanted to put on the blue because they were promoting a paper that I’d written or something along those lines. There was a sort of Wikipedi-ish don’t use this for self-promotion rule for a while. But I think one thing to sort of say about MetaFilter is that it’s not only bespoke, but it feels handmade and handcrafted and deeply personal. My guess is that those spammers that you’ve told to buzz off, it was probably the politest and kindest buzz off that they’ve gotten in the last year or so of spamming. Any thoughts on sort of the community aspect of this Jessamyn? Because it feels very consciously constructed to be welcoming and inclusive in a very particular sort of way. And one that again, feels a little bit old fashioned and a little bit unfamiliar these days.
Well, I will say that we try. I will also say for the people MetaFilter of course has tons of detractors and I’ll be the first to say, we don’t always get it right. But what we hope is that we are in the process of making it better together. And the whole idea about moderation in a paid moderators who don’t have to do things at scale, who can really do it at a human, what I perceive to be a human scale can really take a little bit of time. And if somebody’s irate about something that got deleted, or if somebody’s just having a really bad day, you can maybe understand that through sort of a compassionate lens, even if you don’t agree with somebody or even if they broke the rules. I certainly don’t think I’m an assholes on the internet. I think most people who are assholes on the internet don’t think they’re assholes.
I mean, obviously there’s like trolls and spammers and a whole bunch of bad actors, but one of the things I think that the sincerity in at least more or less kindness from MetaFilter, I mean, there’s definitely some people who are like it’s community of assholes, move on. Right. And I think compared to some other communities where people don’t talk about politics, or they don’t talk about racism, or they don’t talk about difficult issues where reasonable people agree and disagree and fight is that we’re able to come to it with, this is how I would like to be treated. This is how we can work on treating you.
And for trolls, it’s almost not worth it because after a while, they’re like, nah, I’m doing this to provoke a reaction. And it’s like, sounds like you’re having a really bad day. That sounds difficult. And as a community, again, not for everyone and it could be better, but it’s good. We don’t rise to the bait like that. And so you kind of can’t get a rise out of the community in the way that trolls, I think feel rewarded by. And so as a result, it’s just a bunch of kind of dopey, sincere people trying to have legitimate communications and interactions with each other.
The internet is a place where pseudonymous user participation communities go off the rails really quickly. My guess is that roughly 10,000 times as many people know about 4Chan as know about Metafilter. I’m looking at the blue right now, and I’m seeing posts from Rock Lobster, Zamboni, Abe Hammer Lincoln and Ursula Hitler. Somehow the fact that people are named Ursula Hitler doesn’t seem to get in the way of having thoughtful and respectful conversations.
Ursula Hitler is a surprisingly nice person actually. I see them in a lot of Saturday Night Live threads. We’ve also got fanfare, which is for talking about TV and movies. Anybody who still misses television without pity, please come by. It’s not the same, but it’s a place. And one of the things we’ve always talked about at MetaFilter is there’s nothing wrong with pseudonymity. In fact, there’s many good reasons why you might want to be pseudonymous on the internet, but on the back end, again are bespoke nonsense. We kind of know who people are. One of the things we are able to do is we can tell if people have sock puppets, because we can kind of check IPs and that kind of stuff. We don’t use that stuff for anything except ferreting out bad actors.
And to be honest, the $5, which is often payable with PayPal gives us or Stripe or other processing platforms gives us a little bit more information about a person in the event that there might be a problem either with them about them like, oh God, this person’s making kind of suicidal comments. Does anybody know who that person is? It’s a terrible aspect of online community moderation, but one you should be prepared to deal with. And so that helps us kind of steer identity. We basically tell people, you don’t have to tell us who you really are, but you have to just be one person or you have to be one person. And then you could have a sock puppet account for embarrassing questions, but really you got to keep it on the level. And my username is Jessamyn. I have no alter ego on the internet, which is very strange and very true.
So MetaFilter is now 22 years into this project. You’ve been part of it essentially all of that time. Let me ask a question that is perhaps complex and multilayered. Is MetaFilter sustainable?
Oh, that’s it?
Yeah. Well sustainable is a question that has layers. It’s got fiscal sustainability, it’s got community sustainability, it’s got staff sustainability. I’m curious about the interlocking of all those different answers.
I mean my answer in short is yes. And my longer answer is, but not the way it’s been. Right. Because it used to be, we were raking in money, hands over fist. There was a brief period of time I was making six figures as a community moderator on MetaFilter and that wasn’t recently, you know what I mean? It was a long time ago when Google brought in more money than we knew what to do with. And Matt made decisions that we would all get paid really well and have health insurance. And that was great. Those days are in the past. The moderators now get paid decently, but they don’t get health insurance. We have some hours that are currently not staffed that we determine through statistics just have a really low amount of people there. More of the money that goes to support MetaFilter comes in from community donations and not Google.
Right. Google is a fraction now and a smallish fraction of where the money comes from. MetaFilter has some fixed costs in terms of just what it costs to run a server with this stuff on it. I’d be lying if I said I was 100% sure we’d be able to continue with paid staff at this level moving forward. But also one of the things that kind of a change in ownership offers an option for is there were a lot of people who were dissatisfied in what they felt to be a single point of failure person who was in charge. And I don’t think Josh would deny this. I don’t think this is me telling tales out of school. You’d ask for things and they wouldn’t happen. And you’d feel frustrated because you felt like you were participating and helping strategize ways to work on problems.
And then you felt like you hit a brick wall. Right. I mean, especially during Trump and early COVID, right, everybody was exhausted. And that included the staff, which meant the developer who was dealing with challenges in their home didn’t have as much free time for development. And that meant all the staff were like, don’t ask for development stuff because the developers busy and the guy who ran the site was having his own challenges that made sort of executive functioning a little bit challenging. And so a lot of people were like, I don’t know how I feel about giving you money. You’re not a nonprofit. This is going to pay for this. And I don’t know how I feel about that. And what we’re hoping is we can be a little bit more transparent. We can be a lot more responsive. We can have community members who are helping do some of the work, which takes the load off of paid staff.
I don’t know if we’ll ever have community moderators, unpaid kind of the way Reddit does, but it’s on the table. I mean, I think the important thing is the community stays the community, but also honestly, one of the reasons I’m here is to kind of assess what’s the plan and to talk to the community. Look, if we want to stay together the way we are, we need to have a plan for that. I mean, we’re now at the point, which we weren’t six months ago or a year ago where the money coming in is slightly more than the money going out. When I took over, what I was told is it loses money slowly. That’s probably good for your taxes, but not good for other stuff. And we’ve fixed that.
You had this wonderful Quip before we started recording. I was congratulating you on becoming the owner of MetaFilter. And you were explaining that it was more analogous to adopting a puppy, which is to say a lot of work, a lot of late nights, a lot of cost that you’re taking on, not necessarily the best decision for financial success, for instance.
Yeah. More like an elderly shelter dog that needs medicine. Like a puppy is like the world’s your oyster, who knows what’s going to happen. You can make this the way you want to. Shelter dog’s got some stuff in them already, some stuff you’re able to fix and a medicine habit that you need to pay for. But yeah, I mean, I’m interested in it and up for it. MetaFilter’s where I go on the internet, right? It’s not like I was away and now I came back. I never left. I just stopped working there for reasons. But it’s where I like to be. And I believe there are other people who also like to be there and maybe together we can work on a plan. Right. We’re all grownups. A lot of us have jobs now. We didn’t before. We can do things. Right.