There Are Indeed Women on the Internet

October 1st, 2007

Just came out of a very busy weekend leading into a very busy week, but I wanted to drop a couple quick links before they fall off my radar:

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about Lori Kendall’s most recent article on nerds and race. If you’re interested in learning about what other people have to say about her earlier nerd-oriented research, check out some reviews of her book Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub, online through the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies. (Thanks to Bill Herman for passing along the link, and reminding me I need to sign up for the cyberculture listserv!) Ben Kruger and Molly Swiger contribute reviews, followed by a response by the author.

One of the interesting things about Lori’s book is that it challenges the popular joke that “On the internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog”—or, for that matter, a man, a woman, a teenager, etc. Check out this thread at the XKCD forums, too, for some personal responses to a recent comic about how men often treat women as sex objects (or boys pretending to be girls) on the internet.

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8 Responses to “There Are Indeed Women on the Internet”

  1. Church Says:

    Oh great. Gender and Fan Culture part six hundred, round twelve.

    I have a tough time reading this stuff, as it tends to be a lot of stating the bleeding obvious in a way that puts your own (or worse, your discipline’s)bias on display.

    Bizarre reference to race for no reason? Check. Equation of white maleness with having the power of Galactus? Check. Really twisted language explaining why, in spite of it all, these particular white males do not, in fact, have the Power Cosmic? Check. Snarky accusation that they’re world-eaters anyway? Check.

    The observation that people do, in fact, tend to choose online identities that are a lot like their real ones? I’d call it obvious (the tendency of Second Life avatars to be idealized representations of the players has been noted more recently) but in 2002 it was probably worth a mention.

    I can’t tell from the reviews what ‘masculine’ behavior the female members of BlueSky were expected to adopt. (One review makes it sound like it was proficiency in technical skills.) Obviously, such claims can be problematic. (Comparative essays are more interesting to me for that reason. Potterheads vs Trekkies, e.g.)

    Once again, the really interesting thing was mentioned in passing: the “Heterosexual Dropouts” (not sure why the orientation is important, but OK.) Are these online communities a help or a hinderance? Do they reinforce the sorts of behavior that alienate women IRL? Again, hard to tell from the reviews, but as it was mentioned as a possible ‘springboard for future research’ I suspect it was a minor portion of the book.

    Come to think of it, why is a 2002 book being reviewed this year?

  2. Jason Tocci Says:

    I think the point the reviewers make is that the observations in this book—based on research from the late ’90s on an internet venue (MUDs) that now seems quaint—still holds up surprisingly well.

    A lot of this stuff might seem obvious to those who have long been embedded in online cultures, but I think Lori came to the topic as something of an outsider, and she definitely presented it in such a way as to be relevant to other researchers and outsiders. The book has a glossary explaining simple commands and concepts familiar to computer programmers, for example, and the bit about how we construct avatars come as a corrective to some very popular (and still pretty interesting) research by Sherry Turkle.

    Also, remember that reviews of a book are necessarily going to present only a reductive view of the book’s actual points. I do recommend checking out the portions on “heterosexual dropouts” and race. (And if you happen to be reading, Lori, feel free to jump in.)

    One thing that interests me is a parallel I’m seeing in my own observations and something Lori notes: Plenty of male geeks are aware (if sometimes unapologetic) about the male-dominated character of computer nerd culture. Even though this culture is comparably dominated by white people in the US, though, race is treated like an invisible category. When somebody does bring it up, the responses sometimes seem bored and/or frustrated. I’m wondering, Church: The “bizarre reference to race for no reason” might seem out of place in the review, but does it seem out of place in the overall conversation?

  3. Church Says:

    Again, it’s hard to judge a book by a review (although, wouldn’t that be the point of a review?)

    I’m not saying race is out of place in the overall conversation. It’s just not relevant for every conversation. When you’re talking about a bunch of white people confronting each other, race doesn’t really enter into it (at least in America.) But there seems to be this need to find a way, any way, to work it in. It’s just weird.

    (BTW, if this dupes, it’s a browser error, so just delete this one.)

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    Again, it’s hard to judge a book by a review (although, wouldn’t that be the point of a review?)

    Hm. You got me on that one.

    When you’re talking about a bunch of white people confronting each other, race doesn’t really enter into it (at least in America.)

    Well, here’s the thing: When we’re talking about a racially mixed group, I can see not making a point about race. But if we only talk about race when you’re talking about homogeneous, non-white groups, then we’re treating ‘White’ as an invisible or default category. Isn’t ‘White’ a race too? And when you’re talking about online communication, where you’re supposed to be allowed to take on any identity you want (according to some research/accounts), it’s arguably pretty relevant that you see people gathering in the same cultural groups they’d gather in offline.

    I do agree that a lot of cultural studies research in particular discusses certain social/cultural categories just because they’re the de facto standards of discussing culture — gender, race, and (more so in the UK) class. With regard to geek/nerd cultures, for example, I wonder a lot whether age/maturity is no less important than gender as a point of discussion. I think that sort of an unfortunate backlash to the overwhelming focus on the aforementioned categories, though, is that people kind of get sick of hearing about this stuff even when it is relevant and important to discuss. And I imagine that those who get sick of it fastest are White men, for whom questions of race and gender aren’t matters of frequent personal preoccupation.

    That’s not meant to be directed at you or anyone else around here. For the record, I’m a White guy myself. My race/skin color, however, doesn’t consciously figure into my self-identity — perhaps because, coming from where I did, Whiteness was never constructed as something to be proud of.

    But I digress: My point is just that, to some extent at least, skin color affects the way people treat each other and what social situations we least stand out in. Nobody “stands out” because of their skin color online, so why is it that nearly everyone on Blue Sky was White? Seems worth asking to me.

  5. Church Says:

    Yup. Good question (don’t know the answer, but in the nineties, that was a pretty progressive mix.)

    My point is, as you’ve said, if you’re white, you don’t think about it unless dealing with someone who isnt. So for someone to spin a fantasy about white people talking to each other to negate their whiteness is just crazy talk. (at least in a MUD in the nineties, it may possibly be relevant in some other sub-demographic) Sorry, but the emperor has no clothes here.

    To make this more useful to you, I find that the culling point in any conversation betwixt real geeks is the age of the reference.

    And now that I think about it, that completes the circle. If you’re a twelve-year old who had the good fortune to watch all the episodes of The Prisoner, you’ll be able to relate to the old bastard who’s maintaining your network.

    Hrm. Have to think about this more.

  6. Church Says:

    OK, let me try to make that second part a bit more coherent.

    In my experience, age isn’t really a factor online. After a certain point (tweener perhaps) it’s very difficult to tell how old someone is. This is especially true if the older person is conversant in topics the younger one was exposed to, and vis versa. In nerdier circles, this is more often the case than in the population at large. Older geeks are likely to be familiar with “Red vs Blue” and Harry Potter, while the nerdlings are often caught up with the original Star Trek (and these days, the original Star Wars.) Unless age is explicitly mentioned, it’s hard to suss out.

    Race actually works very much the same way online. It’s pretty hard to tell a person’s race from what they type. But if the subject comes up, people will typically identify themselves. Nobody really knows if they’re telling the truth, but most people don’t bother to lie. (Actually, the only time I see anybody question it is when one black person is arguing with another black person.)

    Gender is odder. Everyone treats men and women differently IRL, to some degree. That’s generally muted online, since it’s easy to forget or not know the gender of the person you’re typing at. But it’s still there when you do know, and gender is easier to detect than race or age. It’s easy enough to hide, but unlike the other two it does take active effort. There’s no incentive for men to do this because online, “gender neutral” is equivalent to male. (There’s some incentive for some men to impersonate women, but that’s a different thing.)

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