The primary social network for a large and growing community has banned all positive discussion of Donald Trump and his administration. The official explanation proclaims “We cannot provide a space that is inclusive of all and also allow support for open white supremacy. Support of the Trump administration is undeniably support for white supremacy.”
While conservatives and liberals have been warring for control over social media, no one expected the first major political ban to occur on Ravelry, which most of the coverage has described as a “knitting site.”
But it’s much more than that.
I knit and crochet, and I’ve been a member of Ravelry for years. The site is much greater than a place for craft chat; it has over 8 million members. For lots of us, it is our main social media destination. Like other social media sites, Ravelry allows users to create groups—and there are groups for pretty much everything: work, food, travel, literature, relationships, kids, pets. There are members who continue to be active group participants years after they gave up trying to work out how to turn a heel.
I’ve made real-life friends through it—and we rarely discuss actual knitting. I don’t participate in the political groups (the libertarian groups have roughly 100 members and are largely inactive). But even in the non-political groups, politics inevitably creep through.
For the most part, Ravelry’s politics lean left. Before the 2016 election, the pro-Hillary Clinton perspective was obvious across much of the site. When Trump became president, I saw lots of discussions focusing on offering “comfort” in the face of this painful event. Ravelry also became a focal point for people seeking patterns to make the Pussy Hats that many wore to the Women’s March—and photos of members who attended the marches were prominently featured on the home page. Although Ravelry has users from around the world, it is U.S.-based and its political discussions are largely U.S.-focused.
Despite the large size of its user base, Ravelry has a small staff. It started as a project of a husband and wife team, who had no idea they were creating the Facebook of crafts, and it is still run by only five people. Those people have always worn their left-progressive perspectives on their sleeves. They have long made a point of their LGBT-friendliness, with rainbow flags during Pride month—sometimes to the consternation of older, conservative, users. Feminist and pro-choice messages abound. And designers who use the site regularly announce that they are giving a portion of sales to organizations such as Planned Parenthood or the American Civil Liberties Union.
Those who are surprised that the site has declared itself part of the #resistance seem to be people who have never visited Ravelry, and who think it is just some noticeboard for grannies discussing baby booties. But to anyone familiar with the site, such a move does not come as a shock. Even the members who think this ban is ill-judged seem pissed-off, but not surprised.
Ravelry’s success has come as part of a revival of knitting among hipsters—many of whom express left-leaning political positions. Along with retro dresses and cocktails in mason jars, the allure of the handmade (like the local, the artisanal) is strong among the hip and woke. Think Portlandia, not Golden Girls. They are the kind of people who want to find a new knitting pattern from their smartphone, rather than having to shuffle through the yarn-company offerings in the wire rack at Jo-Ann.
That’s the other side of Ravelry. It’s not just a discussion forum but an online store. It offers the world’s largest database of patterns for knitting and crochet, and is the first stop for many crafters looking to buy patterns—even if they don’t participate on the site in other ways. In many independent yarn stores, you can expect to find a computer set up entirely for shoppers to find patterns on Ravelry. As an online merchant, it is the main point of sale for lots of designers. Indeed, offering a pattern for sale on Ravelry is often the first step for a fledgling designer.
This market dominance is what makes Ravelry’s move important. It is a bold move for a site of this size and commercial reach to ban pro-Trump speech. It remains to be seen if large numbers of non-vocal Republicans will leave in protest. The hashtags #byeravelry and #walkawayravelry are active on Twitter, and some angry users are also sharing their thoughts on Ravelry’s Facebook page. These people generally note that banning one political view is not “inclusive” or “tolerant” at all.
I expect the Ravelry owners will stick to their guns—as is their right.
For a large social networking site to ban a political viewpoint might be a bellwether for where the culture war is headed. It is also a test of the “go woke, go broke” theory, which posits that taking a strong political stand will hurt a business’ bottom line. Other social media sites will certainly be watching to see if Ravelry suffers or succeeds.