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Technologies for Social Justice: Lessons from Sex Workers on the Front Lines

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This paper provides analysis and insight from a collaborative process with a Canadian sex worker rights organization called Stella, l'amie de Maimie, where we reflect on the use of and potential for digital technologies in service delivery. We analyze the Bad Client and Aggressor List-a reporting tool co-produced by sex workers in the community and Stella staff to reduce violence against sex workers. We analyze its current and potential future formats as an artefact for communication, in a context of sex work criminalization and the exclusion of sex workers from traditional routes for reporting violence and accessing governmental systems for justice. This paper addresses a novel aspect of HCI research that relates to digital technologies and social justice. Reflecting on the Bad Client and Aggressor List, we discuss how technologies can interact with justice-oriented service delivery and develop three implications for design. CCS CONCEPTS • Human-centered computing~Human computer interaction (HCI) • Human-centered computing~HCI theory, concepts and models
Technologies for Social Justice
Lessons from Sex Workers on the Front Lines
Angelika Strohmayer
Open Lab
Newcastle University
Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
Jenn Clamen
Stella, l’amie de Maimie
Montréal, Québec, Canada
Mary Laing
Department of Social Sciences
Northumbria University
Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
This paper provides analysis and insight from a
collaborative process with a Canadian sex worker rights
organization called Stella, l’amie de Maimie, where we
reflect on the use of and potential for digital technologies in
service delivery. We analyze the Bad Client and Aggressor
List a reporting tool co-produced by sex workers in the
community and Stella staff to reduce violence against sex
workers. We analyze its current and potential future
formats as an artefact for communication, in a context of
sex work criminalization and the exclusion of sex workers
from traditional routes for reporting violence and accessing
governmental systems for justice. This paper addresses a
novel aspect of HCI research that relates to digital
technologies and social justice. Reflecting on the Bad
Client and Aggressor List, we discuss how technologies
can interact with justice-oriented service delivery and
develop three implications for design.
Human-centered computing~Human computer interaction
(HCI)Human-centered computing~HCI theory, concepts and models
justice; sex work; violence prevention;
ACM Reference format:
Strohmayer, A., Clamen, J., Laing, M. 2019. Technologies for Social
Justice: Lessons from Sex Workers on the Front Lines. In 2019 CHI
Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings (CHI
2019), May 49, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. ACM, New York, NY,
HCI has begun to address the design of digital technologies
for justice [17,20] in a number of different settings such as
street or workplace harassment [5,15], and the potentials of
anti-oppressive design [56]. There has also been a movement
in the literature towards topics of sexuality [60], pornography
[55,69], and sex work [59,61]. This paper sits within these
converging literatures, as well as alongside sex work
research from other disciplines, to build a nuanced
understanding of the ways in which digital technologies can
be used alongside other forms of service delivery to advance
and promote social justice.
We premise our understanding of sex work from the
communities that engage in it and build on existing
literatures (eg. [1,19,44]) that recognize sex work as a type of
labour that should not be criminalized, but rather protected
by labour and other relevant laws that promote human rights.
Carol Leigh, feminist and sex worker rights activist who
coined the term ‘sex work’ in 1987, explains that the term
“acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our
status [as a sex worker]”. Motivated by her “desire to
reconcile [her] feminist goals with the reality of [her] life and
the lives of the women [she] knew”, her activism worked to
create an “atmosphere of tolerance within and outside the
women’s movement for women working in the sex industry”
[40]. In its current context however, the term sex work is
used to refer to an activity practiced by people of all genders.
In this paper, we reflect on the use of digital technologies for
service delivery within a peer-led sex worker rights
organisation called Stella, l’amie de Maimie. After an
overview of the organisation, we focus our discussions on
the Bad Client and Aggressor List, which is central to their
services. This tool was, and continues to be developed,
through peer reporting and aims to provide information for
sex workers in Montréal (and to a certain extent in wider
Quebec) about potentially dangerous individuals.
The contributions of this paper are twofold: (1) we contribute
to the growing debate around using HCI for social justice.
While there have been various interpretations of this, there
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has yet to be an analysis of the ways in which digital
technologies could facilitate engagement with alternative
narratives of justice, particularly in settings where workers
may be criminalized. (2) To address this gap, we provide
implications for design framed in Fraser’s idea of
multidimensional and ‘abnormal’ justice that will support the
development of digital technologies for settings where
restorative justice may be prioritized. This is a particularly
timely contribution based on current political, social, and
criminal justice debates at national and international scales
related to wider issues of nationalism, racism, or the prison-
industrial complex.
First, we contextualize our work in HCI literatures, Canadian
legal structures, and Stella’s organizational practice. Second,
we describe our methods and outline how service delivery
relates to restorative justice. Third, we develop three
implications for design aimed at researchers seeking to
develop technologies that supports service delivery with and
groups that are stigmatized or criminalized.
HCI has been conceptualising justice through the
development of a framework for Justice-Oriented Interaction
Design [17], social justice in UX [48], the connections of
storytelling and social justice [68], or implications for HCI
specifically related to sex work [59]. While the debates
surrounding justice and HCI have been useful in laying the
groundwork for the relationship between ‘justice’ and HCI,
we believe more nuanced discussions of what ‘justice’
actually means in relation to digital technologies, and the
ways in which humans interact with it are needed. In this
paper we focus on this, and how it relates to the
consideration of restorative justice necessitated by
engendering identities that are stigmatized or are made
marginal by other socio-cultural means.
We hope to address part of this gap in the literature by
using Fraser’s ideas of three-dimensional justice [22]. In
this framework, justice is seen as a constantly evolving
process that works towards a more just world on three
levels. These relate to three questions that can be simplified
to the following: What does justice look like? How can we
move towards this idea of justice? And who decides what
the answers to these two questions are? After describing the
nuances of these questions and their meanings, there are
instances where institutional ideas of justice are
incongruent with what those affected by these frameworks
consider ‘just’ Fraser calls this ‘abnormal justice’ [23].
We must also acknowledge that “social justice is not an
outcome of design in itself” [59], but the processes, as well
as the wider work of research collaborations involved in
these designs in and of themselves are also seen as part of
this ‘social justice’ outcome. We want to also raise the
importance of technologies that are useful for research
purposes and wider civic and rights contexts, to move
towards an understanding of civic design [16], and more
thoughtful engagement with Third Sector Organisations [60].
We do this by bringing to the fore the importance of ‘just
sustainabilities’ which “demand new ways of accounting for
difference and inequity at the societal scale as cornerstones
of truly sustainable design.” [17]. Furthermore, it is
important to not only engage in respectful and ethical, as
well as trusting [12] conduct, but also to ensure the
sustainability of these projects in different ways [17]; to
engage in holistic explorations of the research collaborations
as justice-oriented within which support organisations
activists, researchers, and others work.
Bringing Fraser’s framework into conversation with HCI
literatures, we learn to foreground collaboration and
collective, situated work to design technologies with
communities in mind and with differential understandings of
justice - to collectively answer Fraser’s three questions not
only of wider political structures, but also of our research in
and of itself. Furthermore, using multidimensional justice
[21,22,71] provides us with a way of unpicking what we
mean with ‘justice’ in HCI and how it relates to wider socio-
legal structures and political frameworks. Using this lens to
look at sex work specifically, we learn that Canadian sex
work laws can be interpreted as an example of abnormal
justice: where the government uses criminal law to address
sex work, claiming that criminalization of sex work will
protect sex workers (institutional ideas of justice), while
organisations run by sex workers, like Stella, argue that
protection requires removing criminalization (sometimes
known as decriminalization). In fact, it is well recognized by
social justice movements fighting for the decriminalisation of
sex work, that the criminal justice approach is not a way of
achieving justice for sex workers [3,37]. Instead, justice for
sex workers is seen as being able to work free of the threat of
police repression, criminal and other convictions, violence,
discrimination, and stigma.
2.1 Sex Work, Support, and Technologies
Like other industries, the sex industry, and practices of
buying and selling sex have evolved alongside societal
developments, perhaps most importantly technology
[32,52]. Although sex workers are often seen as being
marginalised in society and “hard-to-reach”, in regards to
technology sex workers have been found to “represent a
unique demographic for high technology penetration,
[having] multiple devices per person, and intensive usage
in their everyday practices” [50]. Sex workers have moved
online to advertise or provide their services [14,51,52] and
despite legal frameworks which criminalize their work,
they are making use of digital technologies such as social
media in innovative ways [32,52]. Cunningham and
Kendall [14] raise important legal and regulatory questions
surrounding the advertising and exchanging of digitally
mediated sexual encounters for this growing online market
that incentivises reputation-building as well as screening
practices. Furthermore, digital technologies have been
designed to support peer-sharing [49], to track health
information in developing contexts [67], or to support
sharing of safety information [59]. What may be lacking in
the current research however, is the development of digital
technologies with sex workers directly that take into
account their agency and skillsets.
The interplay between change and control in developing
potential futures with digital technologies in organisational
contexts is vital in engaging this more nuanced approach
[63]. This is because these digital technologies and
infrastructures can themselves generate new infrastructure
to challenge wider existing structures such as legal
contexts. Technologies are also scalable, and possess
upward flexibility; providing us with new opportunities for
sex work support services in rethinking organizational
control [63] or potentials for justice [59]. One example of
this is the creation of a Sex Work Database in Canada. This
database brings together “academic research, print and
visual media, grassroots activism, and commemorative
responses related to missing and murdered women and sex
work” and functions as an activist archive that brings
together documents produced by sex workers that
deliberately assembles “an anti-colonial feminist argument
that highlights marginalized voices, and embraces
principles of social justice and reciprocity” [19]. Learning
from this collaborative project, we see that technologies are
not only built with embedded values [24], but also that
these can support wider political struggles in this case the
‘tagging’ of archived documents was seen as activism for
sex worker rights [19].
The technological context for the sex industry and the
capacity for sex workers to use technology in their activism
and service delivery will vary by region and is impacted by
the legal context for sex work. In Canada, sex work is
criminalized. In 2014, the Conservative government
implemented a ‘Swedish inspired’ legal regime that made
the purchase of sexual services illegal, and also
criminalized advertising, material benefits (earnings from
sex work), or procuring. They also made changes to the
communicating law, which effectively criminalized the
exchange of sexual services for the first time in addition to
communication and third party involvement. There are a
myriad of academic and non-academic debates surrounding
‘what works’ when it comes to regulating the sex industry;
but many sex workers and allies would support, and
campaign for a decriminalized approach [2,10,37]. Further
to this, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform
state that in addition to removal of all criminal laws against
sex work, “[e]xploitation in the sex industry can be
addressed using a labour framework that engages
provincial legislation related to public health, occupational
health and safety, and employment law” [10]. Ultimately,
laws impact on the ways that sex workers can share
information, communicate about potentially dangerous
individuals, engage with clients and employ vital safety
strategies in their work.
2.2 Stella, l’amie de Maimie
Stella, l’amie de Maimie (or Stella) is a sex worker led
organisation and registered charity that provides space and
support for sex workers in Montréal, Canada. The
organisation was founded in 1995 as part of a HIV-related
public health participatory action research project that
placed sex workers at the centre of HIV prevention [13,62].
Members of the organisation also played a major role in
mobilizing additional narratives and communities in the
Bedford vs. Canada legal case [72], which delivered a
landmark decision declaring three of Canada’s most
commonly used prostitution laws as unconstitutional, and
through that recognized the human right of safety and
security for sex workers. As the organization is made up of
a majority of sex workers, Stella’s team brings unique
knowledge and strategy to fighting violence against sex
On their website, Stella state the following as their primary
mission: “to improve quality of work and life for sex
workers, to educate the greater public on the different ways
that sex work happens as well as about our lived
experiences as sex workers, so that sex workers might also
enjoy and benefit from the same rights to safety and
security that are commonplace for other people.” [57]
Stella works towards this mission through service delivery
and activism, underpinned by “solidarity amongst sex
workers and by creating spaces where sex workers can
access power.” [57].
2.2.1 Service Delivery. Stella provides a number of
different services to reach their goals, and integrates a
rights based approach into everything they do. To further
not only their own goals, but also wider-reaching goals of
the sex worker rights movement, they build local, national,
and international networks and collaborations.
Stella produces an eclectic yet unified image of the
organisation through their use of artefacts and publications.
Seeing these as an artefact ecology, allows us to move
beyond understanding the objects as physical artefacts with
some level of digital interaction, and instead supports us in
considering the ways in which people interact with them in
different contexts of everyday life [7,33].
Stella use artefacts such as condoms, crack pipes, or
publications that relate directly to their organisational
goals. For example, small cards that Stella created to
increase sex workers’ knowledge about their rights and
legal context were designed and formatted intentionally for
sustainable use: they are sized like business cards to fit
discreetly into a small bag and can easily be passed on to
others. The language that is used on the cards to
disseminate legal information is easy to understand, colour-
coded, and translated into four languages. Working
alongside Stella staff to analyse their use of this artefact
ecology [7] helped us identify different uses for the
artefacts, especially when discussing their political nature.
We use this analysis to better understand the use of the Bad
Client and Aggressor List described below.
2.2.2 The Bad Client and Aggressor List. When sex
workers experience violence on the job, they are able to fill
out a short form where they are asked to describe the
incident and alleged perpetrator. Sex workers are able to
report such incidents with Stella through a number of
channels (in-person on outreach, by dropping into the
office, via e-mail or phone call). Following this, staff
remove any identifying information about the sex worker,
and write a brief but detailed description of the alleged
perpetrator, which is then added to The List. As such, The
List is made up of edited versions of informal reports from
sex workers about incidents with presumed clients which
either move beyond their agreed boundaries, involve
violence, or disrespect. Often these experiences are shared
amongst the community, so The List functions both as a
warning system and to promote solidarity. To share this
information among sex workers, it is incorporated into the
monthly Bulletin created by and for sex workers in
The bulletin also contains many other pieces of information
on services available and activities for sex workers, as well
as a regular advice-column written by a well-known sex
worker columnist. The bulletin is printed and shared in the
drop-in centre and on outreach, and is also e-mailed to sex
workers and other organizations in the area. Staff were
interested in finding out how they could improve this
service by considering the use of digital technologies to
collect and share this vitally important information to
increase its usage and reach.
Sex workers have been sharing this kind of
information informally for as long as they have been doing
their work. Penfold et al. found that inter-agency working
supported through a similar system resulted in increased
reports of violence in the UK [46]. Bringing together this
learning with digital technologies, Strohmayer et al., have
explored the use of digital technologies by a UK-based
charity to carry out a similar kind of reporting and alerting
process [59]. Learning from the work carried out in the UK,
we reflect on the current use of non-digital technologies,
and have also taken into account the implications for design
as outlined by [59] to imagine digital futures with Stella.
To foreground collective knowledge-building surrounding
Stella service delivery and the potential of integrating
digital technologies to facilitate a movement towards
multidimensional justice [21,22] with and for sex workers,
we used a Participatory Action Research (PAR) framework
[9,36,47]. Stella staff were involved in the development of
the overall research questions, the methods, interview and
workshop schedules, the process of analysis, and writing a
charity report as well as this paper.
Our fieldwork took place over 3-months at Stella from
April to June 2018. We carried out 3 interviews, 3
workshops, observations, a collaborative analysis of the
artefact ecology produced by the organisation, and various
informal chats with members of Stella staff. The majority
of data collection took place in English, though some
discussions in the workshops took place in French and were
later translated into English by the authors. Audio
recordings from the interviews and workshops were
transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis [8]. We
have loosely categorized the work into three distinct but
interconnected stages of research: (1) sensitization of the
first author within the organization to contextualize the
political and social implications of our three questions of
justice within the context of Montréal (observations and
informal chats); (2) collaborative artefact ecology analysis
to better understand the ways in which Stella creates and
utilizes key artefacts for service delivery and activism
(similar to the work carried out by Bødker et al. [7]); (3) a
series of three workshops with staff to discuss in detail the
processes and experiences around the Bad Client and
Aggressor List, focusing in particular on staff experiences
with digital technologies.
The workshops each included a diverse group of roughly
12 members of staff including outreach workers,
communications staff, and management. Each workshop
was based on a flexible schedule of activities and
concentrated on different aspects: (a) understanding the
information flow involved in producing and sharing The
List through a card-based mapping exercise and
discussions; (b) understanding the form used to collect this
information by reflecting on the existing form in small
groups prior to a group discussion based on staff
experiences of using the form; and (c) potentials for novel
interactions using design fictions that were developed
based on the analysis of the two prior workshops and other
data collection as a way of facilitating discussion around
digital technologies, justice, and the future of service
delivery. This paper focuses on the data collected through
the workshops, but the researchers’ prior experiences and
staff’s historical understanding of the organization
contextualizes this data; affecting the ways in which we
understand, interpret, and analyze the data.
Restorative justice, though sometimes understood simply as
an alternative to the criminal justice system, is defined as
“an approach to justice that focuses on addressing the harm
caused by crime while holding the offender responsible for
their actions, by providing an opportunity for the parties
directly affected by the crime victims, offenders, and
communities to identify and address their needs in the
aftermath of the crime” [34] by the Canadian department of
justice. The term ‘restorative justice’ was often used by
staff when talking about the ways in which their work fits
in to wider justice debates, as well as sex worker rights
activism. They also discussed The List specifically as an
element that contributes to the restorative justice of sex
workers who have experienced violence. While it does not
provide a space for perpetrators to be held accountable, it
does provide a space for sex workers to seek and
implement protections in a context where they themselves
are often sought out as criminal, where they are not
provided with a context to restore the injustices they
experienced. It also provides an opportunity for the ‘victim’
and the ‘community’ to identify and address their needs in
the aftermath of violence [34]. On top of this, restorative
justice is built on principles of “respect, compassion and
inclusivity to encourage “meaningful engagement and
accountability and provides an opportunity for healing,
reparation and reintegration [34]. Looking at this then, we
see that The List provides an opportunity for sex workers to
create alternative forms of reporting violence, in a context
where the justice system too often either rejects sex
workers’ experiences of violence or does not account for
their realities. As it does not provide a space for
perpetrators to be held accountable though, we argue that
instead of seeing The List as a representation of restorative
justice in its full form, we see it an example of an
alternative approach to justice seeking, based in part in the
ideals of restorative justice.
As shown above, justice correlates to the ways in which
Stella work, and how, as one member of staff said:
“everything we do is activism, our existence is the
revolution.” This was said in a joking way, while also
maintaining an air of seriousness. What it does however, is
clearly show the link between service delivery and activism
in the organisation. Service delivery feeds into activism, and
vice versa, while also maintaining them as distinct. For
example, Stella’s weekly health clinic is a direct way of
delivering non-discriminatory and anonymous medical
services, and is appreciated as such by sex workers from all
parts of the industry. At the same time however, and while
understanding that creating separate and isolated services for
sex workers is not necessarily the end goal, its existence is a
form of activism, as this is the only place where sex workers
(particularly including those without official documents) can
receive anonymous and non-judgemental health services in
Montréal. This kind of service delivery then becomes, in
itself, part of a process of restoring justice to the lives of sex
workers. At the same time however, those using the services
do not necessarily see themselves as engaging in activism or
a revolutionary actthey are attending a sexual health clinic.
In this way, the organisation engages in a kind of
prefigurative politic, or what we term ‘tacit activism’, that is
embedded and necessary, implicit in the actions taken to, in
this case, deliver services. Below, we address in more detail
how operating in a context of criminality affects the ways in
which service delivery, and The List specifically, contributes
to creating alternative forms of justice for sex workers.
4.1 Operating in Criminality
In Canada and many other parts of the world, sex workers
operate within a legal system that delegitimizes and
criminalizes their work. As explained earlier, the laws
introduced in 2014 criminalized for the first time the
exchange of sexual services by introducing a variety of
criminalizations against advertising, receiving a material
benefit from prostitution, procuring, and the sale of sexual
services near a park, playground or daycare. Despite an
included immunity where sex workers cannot be arrested
and prosecuted for advertising and receiving a material
benefit from their own services, sex workers are still
committing a crime through their involvement in sex work.
It is this context that creates isolation, targeted violence,
discrimination, stigma and a host of other impacts.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that the
criminalization of any element of sex work negatively
affects the workers, and creates dangerous conditions (e.g.
One member of staff said in an interview, “I think anything
you do when you're operating in criminality, you just need
to know the risks and then make your decisions based on
what you know about those risks.” Advertising, and
receiving a material benefit from the exchange or purchase
of a sexual service is illegal in Canada. Despite the
aforementioned immunity in Canadian criminal law,
activities related to advertising and other aspects of the
work remain a crime. This impacts on how sex workers
use, and feel about technology (perhaps especially privacy)
and influences the ways in which sex workers organize and
undertake their work.
Operating within systems that criminalize them, sex
workers are limited in how they can communicate and
undertake their work. This criminalisation and their
surveillance under protection by law enforcement means
sex workers try to avoid detection and apprehension from
authorities in their work and personal lives. Alongside a
variety of other reasons, this means sex workers rarely
report violence through official channels. Stella staff
explain that sex workers have reported being arrested or
surveilled when attempting to report violence, rather than
receiving support. Despite this, “there's a system of
reporting that needs to happen so we [as sex workers] can
communicate [with] each other.” This communication
however, needs to exist outside the context of
criminalization and the criminal justice system, or as a
member of staff explains, “outside of a context where we're
talking about arrest and jail and all this shit being the
response to violence.”
Peer-communication of a criminalized and highly
stigmatized community such as sex workers, functions as a
reflection of what justice reform in this space could look
like. Or at least, it could be seen as an impulse for
discussion of alternative responses to violence prevention
and reporting. Ultimately, The List is a response to the
fundamental question: “in a context of criminality, how do
we get this information [about potentially dangerous
individuals] around?This person subsequently stated that
the human interaction and other forms of communication
surrounding The List is “the closest you're going to come
for [this sharing of information].”
A core element of this communication however, is that it
considers but is not limited to an officially recognized
group that can follow up and provide a holistic approach to
The List. Stella staff explain that this does not require an
‘organization’ per se as many sex workers have informal
online lists where they support each other and collect
information about bad clients and aggressors. It was
however also noted that Stella holds an important position
in this context of criminalization as they bridge two very
different positions: (1) they are a registered charity, holding
powers and privileges that come with this recognition. At
the same time, (2) Stella is led by sex workers who may
also work within the industry and intimately know the
impacts of criminalization. Ultimately, Stella’s status
provides an experiential view of the industry and different
community reporting systems that a sole worker or group
of workers sharing information about alleged perpetrators
of violence may not have. Part of the tradition of the way
that violence reporting tools like The List are created and
distributed in Canada is to maintain the element of ‘by and
for’ sex workers an element central to Stella as an
organization and The List specifically.
Stella staff also highlighted the importance of accountability
to community members that they have as an organization, to
ensure complete anonymity and to provide a safe space for
sex workers. As part of the work to navigate these
protections and risks, staff undergo various steps: “We try to
scan [the report] for information that would identify workers
and where they are, and eliminate that information from
reports” As an organization, Stella also knows that different
workers and workspaces require different levels of
anonymity and protection from surveillance, and know that
“nobody is immune, right?”
4.2 The List as Alternative Justice
Understanding what it looks like to operate in a context of
criminalization provides insight into why technologies like
the Bad Client and Aggressor List are so necessary. Sex
workers’ own threats of criminalization, and a mistrust of
the criminal justice system makes clear why they prefer to
communicate with each other about ‘bad clients’ and
‘aggressors’ in an alternative system and outside the
constraints of surveillance, arrest, and risked jail time. With
this in mind, we provide a reflection on how The List in and
of itself is “profoundly, profoundly political”, and a very
good example of a restorative justice approach, because it's
an alternative way of dealing with crime against a person”
and seeking justice for sex workers.
The List operates in a system of “abnormal justice” [22]
(which can also be understood as injustice here) while
preventing violence, redistributing power to sex workers,
and engaging community. All of these are deeply political
acts, and demonstrate the need for alternatives to
institutional justice seeking. One participant said: “this List
is a really good way to meet the human rights needs of sex
workers, it's sort of like some people want [perpetrators of
violence] to go to prison, and some people are like 'it's not
actually working for my community cause it's only certain
people [from certain communities] going [to prison]'.”
From this, we learn that a degree of nuance is necessary
when addressing criminal justice for sex workers in relation
to perpetrators of violence. Prison sentences for
perpetrators are not the only option, not only because it
does not address systemic issues around violence against
sex workers, but also because it does not address their
racial and social profiling by law enforcement. Staff
recognize the dilemma in aiming to prevent and proactively
advocate against violence while also understanding the
injustices surrounding traditional models: People don't
think of alternative ways to address violence except police
and jail and this shit. When we think about [the Bad Client
and Aggressor List], it's a very innovative tool.” Another
participant continues, saying it may be “more important
that we know who the violent people are and maybe we'll
deal with it in our own way.” This demonstrates that in
addition to being a communication and important working
tool for sex workers, The List is also a “very political tool”
that enables sex workers to reflect on the injustices of the
justice system and to support the imagination of more just
alternatives. As researchers and designers we need to learn
from this reflexive understanding of violence prevention,
especially when designing digital technologies to facilitate
movements towards more ‘just’ worlds.
4.3 Raison d’être for The List
Throughout history, sex workers have communicated with
one another about potentially dangerous individuals,
situations, groups, and other threats outside of the
constraints of criminal justice systems. The first Canadian
version of this was published in Vancouver by the
“Alliance for Safety of Prostitutes” (ASP) in 1983. The
Prostitution Collective in Victoria, Australia developed the
first Ugly Mugs Scheme in May 1986, using the term ‘ugly
mugs’ to describe clients who become violent [65].
Artefacts such as the Bad Client and Aggressor List are
vital in a context of criminalization, where sex workers
may not want to engage with police to formally report
violence because of previous or expected discriminatory
and stigmatizing treatment. These ways of communicating
allow sex workers to maintain confidentiality, community,
and to keep safe at work. They are also recognized as
effective violence prevention tools and in 1996 Stella’s Bad
Client and Aggressor List (then the “Bad Trick List”) won
the “Prix Sécurité des Femmes” from the Montréal City
responsible for the security of women in urban settings
One participant explains, “this kind of communication
tool...the written, this typed version is probably the closest
to its original intention [communication about potentially
dangerous individuals among sex workers] which was
started in many different places around the world because
sex workers cannot [openly] communicate amongst
ourselves.” She also made clear this was necessary: “we
need to communicate amongst ourselves.”
Most academic discussions and literature around tools such
as The List or the Ugly Mugs scheme [46] assume they are
developed solely for the purposes of harm reduction or
violence prevention [43,59]. Our conversations with the
team at Stella however, made it clear that there are
multifaceted and more complex reasons why sex workers
use such peer-communication tools. Here, we describe only
a few of these reasons: violence prevention, recognizing
agency, affirmation, and community communication.
4.3.1 Violence Prevention. One of the core reasons for The
List is to prevent violence perpetrated against sex workers
a way to share information, to help sex workers avoid
particularly dangerous individuals. One participant reminds
us that the collected information must be useful to sex
workers when she asks: “Would it help prevent someone
seeing a client?” or would the information and details
collected help identify a client, an aggressor, or a specific
situation? Even though The List is a tool for violence
prevention, Stella staff understand that there may be
barriers to this, and that the reports do not always result in
sex workers avoiding a particular client or violent situation.
One participant stated: “realistically, maybe some sex
workers can afford to just say no to a bunch of clients, but I
think the reality is that people still see those guys.” Despite
this, The List may still prevent violence, even if a sex
worker chooses to see a client they know to be violent.
Stella staff explained that sex workers are prompted to take
more safety precautions because of The List: “they change
their routine, they take different measures, they make sure
the money they have on them is with a friend before they
get in a car, they go only to a place, they tell a guy to park
and they walk to him to get in his car, or whatever. But yea,
they'll still take his money.”
4.3.2 Recognizing Sex Worker Agency. Stella promotes sex
worker self-determination and agency; the Bad Client and
Aggressor List is an integral part of this work. Its intent is not
to encourage or discourage sex workers from working, but
rather to provide an opportunity for sex workers to make
more informed decisions about their work, the clients they
see, and what precautions to take in a negotiation process.
Making informed decisions means recognizing the decision-
making process through a sex workers’ deliberation. One
participant explained: “maybe it didn't prevent the assault, or
maybe the second you recognize [the resemblance to an
aggressor] you were like 'fuck this shit' and you got out of
there before something bad happened.”
4.3.3 Affirmation. The List can also function as an artefact of
self-affirmation. Reading The List may help affirm sex
workers in their experiences, which they may describe as
‘creepy incidents’. On top of this The List also functions as a
reminder to trust one’s instinct about clients, as one of the
participants pointed out: “I think it can help just like, if you
had creepy incidents with clients that didn't quite make it to
[the Bad Client and Aggressor List] maybe they could have,
but you didn't report them but then you see a description that
matches the same guy you've seen.” Linking this back to the
importance of agency in sex work, as well as Stella’s main
aims, this helps support sex workers not only directly, but
also more emotionally as it is among the most important
skills that a sex worker has and needs to remain safe at work.
It also helps affirm sex workers in their experiences of their
work, rather than promoting the harmful discourse of sex
work as violence: sex workers need to maintain the right to
recognize violence when it occurs, rather than have all of
their experiences defined as violence for them.
4.3.4 Community Communication. Sex workers rarely
report violence they may experience to police and other
officials [27] for a variety of reasons ranging from
discriminatory treatment and stigmatizing responses, to
outright dismissal from authorities of violence against sex
workers. One participant said, “[sex workers] don't want to
press charges to the police in general. It doesn't mean that
they won't, but in general.” Instead, many prefer reporting
to support organisations such as Stella in Montréal (or for
example National Ugly Mugs in the UK [38,59]). Other
times, they may also report the violence in online forums or
through social media channels. Using The List allows peer-
to-peer reports where sex workers attempt to prevent
violence with each other. They must do this ‘for
themselves’ as it is not always something they can rely on
from others outside of the sex industry. Particularly, where
police may reproduce stigmatizing treatment to sex workers
who want to report, this channel for community
communication really allows sex workers to communicate
with each other and prevent violence, or as one participant
stated: “it's really to get that power and give back to
somebody else so [aggressors] cannot be harmful.” This
individual power, when collectivized in community via a
widespread communication like The List, then becomes
important not only for the individuals making the report
and those reading the alert, but also for the community as a
whole. This also highlights that The List is a sex worker
led, community initiative, and that this is seen as central to
its success.
4.4 Humanity in Service Delivery
The Bad Client and Aggressor form and list are used by sex
workers who come to Stella and by staff to fulfill all of the
above aims. It is part of an ecology of service delivery,
where human interaction is essential. The ways The List is
formatted and distributed is essential to consider, and the
Stella team made clear the importance of people within this
process. Here, we relate this humanity to human
interaction, care, trust, or other related ‘human’ elements of
service delivery. Using The List as a communication tool
(as a way to connect and talk with other sex workers) is
equally important to its distribution.
When we look at The List beyond its existence as a tool,
and instead see it as part of a wider ecology [42], we see
that human contact is the start and end-point of the
production of the monthly list. In-person, phone, or in other
ways digitally mediated human contact is often how
information about incidents is collected. It is also often how
this information is shared among sex workers. A member
of staff explained part of this process: “So there's the
listening part so we can do the intervention with someone
who's reporting, and then there's the part where we're like
okay, what's the objective of diffusing this information.” It
is within this context that we must evaluate the use of The
List, and to innovate potential new avenues for collecting,
sharing, or using the information. The list needs to be
viewed as a holistic technology that takes humanity into
consideration. Several members of staff made this
imminently clear: We're talking about heavy shit, you
know” and sex workers who are engaging with a support
service, particularly if they have experienced any form of
violence, need to feel like they have options to talk to
someone who is supportive, if they choose to do so.
While discussing possible digital interventions to make The
List more accessible, we discussed the importance of
people, solidarity, care work, and trained staff. This is
because they “need to be careful around [discussing] bad
clients and aggressors.” Conversations about violence in
the context of outreach work need to be nuanced and must
consider the context in which this takes place. For example,
during street outreach, when people are working, “it's not
usually the appropriate time to fill out the form. […] people
won't fill it [out]. People may be high, or in a rush. We
need to be careful in how we do it, because you don't want
to [say] 'let's talk about what happened to you' and then go
[away], you know.” Furthermore, there may be situations
where the ways in which questions are asked towards the
people who have experienced violence may awaken
previous traumas, so the interaction must not only be on a
caring and human level, but must also be trauma informed
[28]. One member of staff said that an outreach worker
cannot just ask a person whether they have experienced
violence because “it can awaken all kinds of things for the
person.” The List, or any other digital innovation that may
carry out similar work, cannot only be a tool for violence
prevention. Instead, they are part of an ecology that
supports the facilitation of connections, relationships, and
human interaction.
While human contact is important to the use of The List,
Stella staff does not presume that sex workers want to
discuss the incident or engage in follow up interventions
such as counselling or completing a police report. When an
incident is reported to a member of staff, they are trained to
engage in conversations with the individual, to ask them
questions such as: Do you want to press charges? Do you
want us to accompany you all the way [through the criminal
justice system]? If they want, that's part of our job.” Many
however, will not want a follow up or an accompaniment
from staff, even if they fill in a report form. The choice to
request or decline further support from Stella or other
organizations must be respected “because we can't assume
that everyone wants interventions [or support], if it's just a
4.5 Posting Information Online
Much of our discussion was focused around putting the
information shared via the Bad Client and Aggressor List
online, as well as how we could design novel technologies to
make it more useful. Privacy risks were often flagged around
this, and one participant stated being online “risks identifying
workers.” This shows how anonymization becomes
important in a context where service users may be
criminalized, particularly when designing digital
technologies to support peer-communications akin to The
List. But ultimately the following statement from a member
of staff brings the importance of technologies to the fore:
“we cannot say [online technologies are] not an option.
[They are] an option, definitely, because that's where it's all
going.” This understanding lead to wider discussions of
technologies in society, and the ways in which sex workers
use and appropriate them; smartphones are becoming more
affordable and available to sex workers in all parts of the
industry, internet access more ubiquitous, and peer-alerting
networks through forums and social media are being used.
Stella currently use some digital platforms and technologies
to share information and communicate with sex workers. For
example, Stella staff uses a mobile phone application to
communicate with a group of sex workers, but at the same
time, it is understood that this particular app is “not [a]
community for everyone” and that not all online applications
work for every sex worker or sex working community. To be
able to access mobile applications, sex workers “need to
have internet access, a cell phone or laptop, and not
everyone has that.” The Bulletin (with the Bad Client and
Aggressor information) is also e-mailed to sex workers and
distributed by other organisations.
Our discussions on innovative technologies concluded that
regardless of whether information is posted online,
remained in the current paper and PDF format, or whether
we created a hybrid form of these two options, we needed
to ensure sex workers were able to obtain, read, store, and
use this important information. In discussing this, it
reiterated the Stella mandate, that the “inclusion and
diversity of sex workers” is essential to service delivery.
While online service delivery may be useful in some ways,
it cannot replace existing practices “because of the sex
worker on the street […] they don't have access to [reliable
and continuous] online anything. And they're the ones
really using [The List].”
When discussing different potential designs for digital
improvements to The List with staff, the diversity of the sex
industry was raised again: “there is something interesting
in terms of who uses [the different] formats and how the
different formats [of information sharing] suit the different
kinds of workers based on levels of criminality, levels of
literacy, based on a whole whack of stuff.” As we were
talking about increasing the inclusion of sex workers who
contribute to and receive The List, one participant stated: “I
think all these different platforms were made for different
people. Like, this one [the paper version of The List] is for
the people on the street, the people who [don’t] have
access to anything or for the people in a crack house [that
are visited as part of the outreach activities], this [the
proposed online database, one of the imagined futures for
The List] is more for maybe escorts or maybe masseuses”
who may have regular access to computers or indoor spaces
to look at the information.
Expanding on this point, it was raised by others that the
inclusion and exclusion of certain groups by each separate
technology was not necessarily a problem though, as long
as other options remained available. This opened
conversations about the necessity of multiple technologies
to record and collect information about bad clients and
aggressors: “we need different types of platforms for
different types of sex workers. So, I think we need all of
them [the imagined technologies] in a different way.” This
statement is important, because it makes clear that sex
workers are a diverse group of individuals who have
different needs, access, and approaches to technologies.
Having a more complex understanding of the access to and
use of digital technologies beyond the artificial dichotomy
that street sex workers do not have access to these
technologies and that escorts do, would allow us to build
more useful tools for service delivery. This more complex
understanding would provide us with a reason to diversify
not only the kind of information that is received and shared,
but also the ways in which it is received and shared for a
potentially digitally enhanced Bad Client and Aggressor List
(or similar). One way of building this necessary but complex
understanding is to look beyond traditional boundaries and
explanations of the different areas of the sex industry.
Instead, we can build ecologies of understanding that take
into account multiple realities and mixed accessibility to
digital technologies. These should not be based on place of
work as is traditionally done in sex work research (and to a
certain extent service delivery), but instead could be
considered in separate but connected areas such as: place of
work, digital infrastructures, and access to hardware and
software. Instead of seeing these three things as entirely
separate from one another, or that one implies the other, we
argue that we must look at these three areas together and
with an intersectional lens that accounts for the different
positionalities and experiences of sex workers.
Based on the above findings, there are a number of
different opportunities for future developments in the use of
digital technologies to support the ongoing use of the Bad
Client and Aggressor List and similar justice-oriented tools
for service delivery. Designing for alternative forms of
justice is incredibly complex, but also necessary for the
future of the design of digital technologies in social, third
sector, or civic contexts. As we have demonstrated
throughout this paper, digital technologies can play a part
in these justice-oriented collaborative efforts in supporting
the ongoing labour of volunteers, staff, and sex workers
accessing services. In the case of this paper, this has related
primarily to violence prevention, solidarity, or rights
advocacy. Looking at these three areas in particular, digital
technologies can support the work in collecting, sharing,
and using information especially when this is collected and
contextualized by human interaction. This human
interaction may be digitally-mediated, but as we argue
below, should not be replaced with novel digital
technologies. Instead, we provide implications for the
design of these within a framework of restorative and social
justice seeking.
Using the Bad Client and Aggressor List as a starting point
to reflect on the kinds of technologies that could be useful,
we have developed three implications for design: (1)
technologies need to be adequately contextualized; (2) the
need for multiple formats and types of service delivery to
reach as diverse an audience as possible; and (3) a
recognition that technologies in and of themselves will not be
able to solve complex issues of calls abnormal justice. We
believe that these implications will support meaningful
engagement to design digital technologies with support
services, or others engaged in justice-oriented work.
5.1 Contextualizing Technologies for Justice
When designing technologies for social justice, we must
ensure we adequately understand the contexts in which we
design, including but not limited to the social, historical,
political, and legal circumstances. To do this, it is helpful to
keep in mind the three questions Fraser [22] poses to build
a more just world: What is justice? How is it decided what
this justice looks like? And who decides the answers to
these two questions? Looking at these questions, one must
understand the contexts not from privileged positions as
researchers and designers, but rather from the position of
those one is designing and innovating with and for. In some
ways, participatory design and related research approaches
(see for example: [11,53]) may be useful for doing this. For
example, Kensing and Blomberg have analyzed the ways in
which participatory design (PD) relates to issues of politics
of design, participation, and methods across personal,
organizational, and national levels [35]. Others expand the
discussions of PD to public rather than work-life [6] (HCI,
rather than PD, is later also expanded towards explicitly
civic contexts [45]). PD is often design-focused, the
explicit motivations of such work however also exists to
“strengthen workers’ control over their work lives and to
create more democratic work environments” [6]. This paper
does not discuss PD directly, but we believe that as a
growing community of justice-oriented HCI researchers,
we can learn from Beck [4], Irani et al. [29,30,31],
Björginsson and Ehn [6] or others to explore the politics in
our research and to develop digital practices and ‘things’
that support workers’ engagements with political processes
on personal, organizational, and national [35] (arguably
also international [21]) levels. Following these scholars, we
also encourage researchers working in wider justice-
oriented research approaches to HCI to also consider the
political and activist potentials in their work. The following
questions may be useful for reflection: how can the
participatory processes affect not only the lives of those
directly involved, but also those associated with those
individuals? Who is not participating, and how does their
absence affect the project?
Seeing technologies for justice within the sex industry
specifically as an example for this contextualization, we
look into the ways in which legal frameworks in particular
can affect research. Not only have Cunningham and
Kendall raised legal questions for online markets associated
with sex work [14], but with the introduction of laws
specific to advertising in a Canadian context, and similar
laws implemented elsewhere in the world, we must
consider what kinds of technologies are designed. We have
to consider how they sit within existing and evolving legal
frameworks, and the ways in which they either support or
counter these developments. While working within
institutions such as universities or NGOs requires us to do
work that is legal, we do question to what degree we are
able to subvert the legal status quo, to move away from the
existing abnormal justice [22,23,41], and instead move
towards systems that are just (and sustainable [17]). We
urge researchers and designers to question political and
legal structures that maintain systems of abnormal justice
and ask them to not be afraid of disobedience to these
systems when necessary.
While seeing digital technologies or platforms as tools for
translational service delivery [45] or citizen-led
developments [25], the collection and dissemination of
information related to alleged crimes or in stigmatized,
marginalized, or criminalized communities, brings about
particular necessities. Here, we must ensure that whatever
digital technology we design is more than ‘a tool’ and
instead see it as part of an ecology [42] that is based in
social, historical, legal, or ethical contexts as well as personal
experiences of those that are part of the ecology itself [29]
and wider community [54]. To do this, we must understand
the ways in which humans interact with it, how it fits in with
other existing digital and non-digital service provisions, and
how it sits within particular social, political, historical, and
legal contexts.
5.2 Multiple Formats and Shifting Paradigms
We also argue that when designing digital service delivery,
we must understand that one approach will not work for the
complex and interconnected ecology of existing services,
service delivery, and heterogeneous experiences of
individuals accessing these services. When designing
technologies for restorative or social justice, digital
platforms, tools, or ecologies may be useful in some ways,
but we also must ensure that we do not exacerbate or
amplify the digital divide [64]. Rather than unifying
services, we argue for the need to diversify service delivery
to ensure diverse groups of individuals are reached, but also
to allow for people with different degrees of access,
interest, time, or money to be able to make use of the pieces
of information that they feel is important and useful to
them. To provide services that empower their users to make
decisions about their own needs [18], and to ensure
accessibility for different parts of the community.
Our point of view seems to be in direct contrast with some
current trends in HCI to build generalizable technologies
and platforms that can be easily translated to different
contexts and countries, but correlates with other spaces of
HCI that relate to designs with ideals of justice at their core
(e.g. [17,56,59]). While building a digital platform to
collect and share information about potentially dangerous
individuals on a national level may work in some countries
such as the UK [59], it is important to acknowledge that
this may not be translated to other contexts easily. For
example, looking at the potential to design a digitally
mediated national Bad Client and Aggressor List for
touring sex workers in Canada, there are a number of
immediate legal concerns (different provinces and
territories have different laws surrounding sex work), as
well as pragmatic issues (who is going to fund and maintain
this service?), or risks associated with such digital tools.
These risks and issues become exacerbated in spaces where
community members participating in any design work or
research are structurally disadvantaged through
stigmatization, marginalization, or criminalization.
When exploring both the importance of designing for
different parts of a community, and the trend of designing
globalized technologies, we argue that the humanity of
service delivery must not get lost. Ultimately, we urge
designers to design for particular communities, in an
informed and respectful, ethical, and just way, rather than
attempting to design all-encompassing generalizable digital
tools that aim to solve complex issues. In relation to
designing with and for sex workers, this might mean moving
away from designing technologies only to protect or reduce
harm to sex workers (which may reinforce the idea that sex
work is inherently dangerous) and instead work towards the
normalisation of sex work as a design space by designing
technologies for sex workers’ unique business models. In
turn, changing the design paradigm in this way could help
tackle the stigma and abnormal justice endured by sex
workers, which are propped up in some ways by the focus on
globalised and protective technologies.
5.3 Technologies are not Solutions
Building on the importance of adequately contextualizing
technologies, and advocating for the use of multiple
formats of service delivery, we now also want to address
HCI’s tendency to assume that technologies are able to
solve complex issues. In this paper, we have described
multiple uses and purposes of a particular (partially
digitally-mediated) technology (the Bad Client and
Aggressor List) as a way of imagining processes that are
more just for sex workers experiencing violence. We argue
that The List has been successful in achieving its many
purposes exactly because it does not strive to solve the
problem of violence, but rather because it is recognized as
an intervention that can support the ongoing battle for sex
workers rights. It is pragmatically, aesthetically, and
emotionally situated within Stella’s aims; embracing the
humanity and peer elements necessary for The List to do its
work [57].
Similar to The List, finding new ways of communicating
among groups that are forced to use underground channels
is invaluable for these same communities to thrive; this
takes place alongside technological and legal developments
[14]. What is imperative when designing digital
innovations that aim to support these existing channels of
communication (especially so if these novel technologies
aim to replace existing structures) however, is that we must
ensure that the original purpose of these often-analogue
systems cannot get lost [65]. For example, in the case of the
Bad Client and Aggressor List, the focus on informing,
communicating, and empowering must remain. This is
similar but distinct to the implication that technologies (and
also non-digital interventions) in sex work support services
should aim to facilitate the fighting of stigma related to the
industry [27,59], regardless of what kind of digital
innovation we develop. This is translatable to many
technologies we wish to design within the context of
restorative or social justice. Again, raising Fraser’s three
questions [22,41], we believe that thoughtfully answering
the ‘what, how, and who’ of justice in our research spaces
will lead us to genuinely take into consideration rich
accounts of the context in which these may be designed. To
do this, we should reflect on our privileged perceptions as
researchers, and instead foreground those adversely
affected by abnormal justice [23]. Building robust and
interdependent relationships with the communities we aim
to support can help inform this broader awareness of the
politics involved in the designs and engagements. Using a
participatory framework could also allow us to advocate for
change in political and legal structures that build the
context within which these designs are created. Through
this, we can then use design processes with the affected
communities as a way of pinpointing routes towards and
enacting genuine political change to tackle the injustices at
their roots, rather than designing technologies in an attempt
to rectify some of the symptoms of abnormal justice.
While we have a rich history of participatory action research
and design in HCI and related fields (e.g. [11]), we believe
more nuanced justice-oriented research and methodologies
must be developed alongside organisations, groups,
volunteers, or workers who are embedded in the design space
to be able to meaningfully innovate [39]. To do this, it is
important to be in constant communication and collaboration
to ensure the context, histories, empowerment, and
community that are so necessary to make such technologies
useful remain at the center of the innovation. We must not
replace existing communication strategies, but rather we
need to ensure the developments make sense in the
immediate ecologies within which they are placed.
This paper highlights findings from a participatory action
research project between two universities and a sex worker
rights organization in Canada. Together, we reflected on
the organization’s existing use of digital technologies for
service delivery, and also imagined possible digital futures.
Framing our work in Fraser’s ideas of multidimensional
justice, and particularly her idea of abnormal justice, we
use the learning from this particular example, to develop
three implications for the development of digital
technologies with, in, and for communities who are often
misrepresented, stigmatized, or criminalized.
Bringing together our three implications, we argue that
nuanced and justice-oriented design of digital technologies
can be made possible if we start to see technologies not as
solutions to complex social problems, but rather as aides that
can support the humanity of service delivery and the people
who engage in this kind of work. By developing tools that
are multifaceted (yet mundane enough to be easily adopted)
in themselves, and developing multiple of these technologies
for different audience we are able to develop services that
cater to the needs of individuals while simultaneously being
useful in working towards justice for the often stigmatized
service users. Ultimately, we stress the importance of people
not only in the development of digital service delivery, but
also in the delivery of these services, as well as their
continued adoption and adaptation of use.
We would like to thank all of our participants for the time
and energy spent to make this a meaningful project, and to
Rob Comber and Rosie Bellini for providing thoughtful
feedback on the manuscript. Parts of this research was
funded by the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in
Digital Civics (EP/L016176/1). Data supporting this
publication is not openly available due to confidentiality
considerations. Access may be possible under appropriate
agreement. Additional metadata record at
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... Dombrowski et al. [13] related their research on the sociotechnical practices of low-wage workers to an emerging strand of HCI studies focused on social inequality (cf. [14,54]). Our work now draws more specifically on feminist (CSCWrelated) literature that has addressed the invisibility of women's work [4] and some other forms of marginalised work [49,51]. ...
... In this way, our work also connects to the growing body of feminist HCI and CSCW literature (cf. [5,43,44]) which has not only criticised issues with patriarchy in technosciences and industry [44,53] but also expressed a pronounced motivation to put research into the service of social justice [54]. Furthermore, our aim to reveal this technological dimension aligns with classic studies of women's work. ...
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Community + Culture features practitioner perspectives on designing technologies for and with communities. We highlight compelling projects and provocative points of view that speak to both community technology practice and the interaction design field as a whole. --- Christopher A. Le Dantec, Editor