About digital heritage, algorithms, and success.
Investigating something, reporting on it, and sharing my findings in an engaging manner are just in my blood. So, when I kept hearing that “everything was better in the past,” but no one could tell me what was so remarkable about the past, I started my own research in 2008 into the history of the LGBTQ+ learning and fetish scene in Amsterdam. I searched through libraries, scoured newspapers and magazines, conducted interviews, had access to personal collections, and compiled my findings on a website.
Even though it was a niche topic, publishing my findings did not go unnoticed. I gave interviews and lectures about my research and discoveries in both national and international settings. The university (University of Amsterdam) was also enthusiastic, and in 2009, I graduated with a double thesis on the subject.
Even after my graduation, I continued with the website, which now had a broader scope. In October 2011, I decided to establish a foundation to support the site: Stichting LeatherHistory.eu, with the goal of “mapping, preserving, and sharing the history of the leather and fetish scene in Europe.”
What started as a solo initiative gained support and recognition across Europe and beyond. More interviews, insights into personal collections, more content for the site, and more collaborations with other interested individuals and organizations followed. I received material from abroad, and the foundation became a reference and contact point for international media, students, and scholars from prestigious institutions like Harvard and Cambridge.
On October 10, 2018, exactly ten years after I launched the first version of the website (back then under a different name), we received an email from the Head of Collections at the Royal Library in The Hague. They asked if we objected to having our site included in their collection as “digital heritage.” We didn’t need much time to decide. What an honour and a crowning achievement of years of work!
However, a year later, we received completely different news. In late 2019, I received a call on behalf of ABN AMRO, as our foundation had a business account with the bank. They were conducting an internal investigation into possible fraudulent accounts, something that had been reported in the media. The company conducting the investigation used several algorithms and ended up targeting our foundation. Not because there was suspicious activity on our account, but because, in the eyes of the algorithm and the bank, there was too little activity.
Initially, they reacted understandingly when I explained what we did, that we were a niche foundation, happy with any donations, and actively developing new fundraising opportunities. They assured me it was not a problem and that our foundation wouldn’t have to go through the whole fraud investigation process. But unfortunately, in the spring of 2020, just before the world realized the severity of COVID19, I received another call from the company that conducted the algorithmic fraud investigation for ABN AMRO. They asked why I hadn’t responded to their letter and provided the requested information. I was taken aback. Weren’t we supposed to be left out of this? Wasn’t my explanation sufficient? Since the foundation was still domiciled at my home address (also visible in our online banking environment), I wanted to know where they had sent that letter. But this time, the tone was very different. They didn’t disclose where the letter was sent, but they strictly reprimanded us for not providing the requested information. The previous assurance that we wouldn’t be involved in the investigation seemed to have disappeared. So, they asked for various documents and statements related to our activities.
Calling the Bank
Initially, I reacted somewhat bewildered and confused to the call from the fraud investigators, but not long after, I started to get angrier with ABN AMRO. We were not only a business customer; I was also a personal customer and had previously had a business account with them. I had always been satisfied with their service, and I knew ABN AMRO sponsored LGBTQ+ events like the well-known Amsterdam Pride. So, what went wrong here?
Not only did this feel like a direct attack on my integrity; who said that my nationality, or worse, the nature of the foundation and the subject of our research, had nothing to do with it? We had no insight into what that algorithm was searching for, and for all we knew, ABN AMRO could have used it to get rid of some “undesirable” customers. We had no concrete evidence for this, but it wouldn’t be the first time a bank tried to get rid of an LGBTQ+ initiative, let alone one focusing on leather and fetishism.
Eventually, I spoke to an employee who said they could understand how I felt and offered apologies but also stated that there was nothing more they could do. They were willing to believe that there had been a phone call in late 2019, but nobody had made a note of it. So, now we were caught in the maelstrom of that fraud investigation. “But if you just provide all the requested documents, everything will be fine,” I was told. When things would be resolved and how long the process would take? No idea.
People I tell this story to sometimes ask if we could have handled it differently. I can’t answer that question properly. I had just received unpleasant personal news, the world was facing a pandemic, and this situation caused stress and drained my energy. I considered going to the press or to the European Court of Human Rights due to the suspicion of discrimination, but I also dreaded the prospect of seeing my name linked to terms like “fraud” or “fraud investigation” on the internet. We went into lockdown, life was challenging enough, and I had no energy left for all of this. So, I decided to pull the plug, dissolve the foundation, and take down the website.
In 2023, I still look back on the whole affair with mixed feelings. However, I have also learned that it is better to focus on what I gained rather than what I lost. Just because something didn’t work out doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful.
On the contrary, here are some (random) examples:
- The ten years of leatherhistory taught me a lot, not only about conducting research and publishing it but also about myself, my skills, and setting up a network and organization.
- Through our work, we contributed to the discussion about preserving LGBTQ+ history, particularly the history of the European leather and fetish scene. Our initiative inspired others to engage with the subject, and I am immensely proud of that.
- I have met so many fun and interesting people and had numerous engaging conversations. I visited places I couldn’t have imagined going to back in 2008, a true privilege.
- I created a website in my life that is designated as “digital heritage.” How many people can say that?
Whether I would ever want to resume the research and the site, I don’t know. The fact that people sometimes ask me that warms my heart, as it shows that we filled a gap and did good work. But now, I have other things on my mind. I find it fascinating to explore the harmful things algorithms can do. Maybe I should pursue that further. Conduct research, present findings on a website. Or establish a foundation to combat discriminatory algorithms. But if I do the latter, I’ll definitely choose a different bank. Absolutely.