Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace

Reviewed by Marcy Bauman

I loved this book. I don't know about anybody else, but I get tired of looking to the popular media to find images of women in cyberspace and seeing us only portrayed as giddy, guilty participants in Dave-Barry-style e-mail romances or as vicitms of heinous computer-aided sex crimes. Neither of those profiles fits my experiences. The experiences of the women writing for this collection, however, nearly all resonated with mine; and even when they're writing about areas of cyberspace I've never been to, I recognize the terrain. I read the book through (the first time) in one sitting.

My favorite essay in the book is the first one: "Come in CQ: The Body in the Wire," by Ellen Ullman. It is a masterful, poetic essay which introduces and sets the scene for nearly all the essays to follow. Ellman frames her story -- part romance, part cultural anthropology, part techno-apologist, and entirely, wholly and completely evocative of the beauty and mystery of cyberspace -- by telling us about Eugene, "the boy next door who was a ham operator," and his quests to find companions in the airwaves in the still of the night: "The heart of Eugene's world was the radio room: a dim box filled with equipment, all of it furnished with dials and toggles and switches. It was there he spent his Saturday nights, alone in the dark, lit only by small red lights and a flex-arm lamp bent low over his operator's guide."

The essay essentially tells of Ullman's experiences meeting an online colleague/correspondent whom she'd hoped would become a lover, but along the way she introduces what is to me the most pressing and intriguing question about living dual lives in cyberspace and the physical world. Writing about the discrepancy between "talking" to a colleague online at night and seeing him the next day, she says, "Some implosion may occur, some Star-Trek- like breach of containment fields may happen, if the two universes meet. No, the persona online must not touch the person at the table . . . He's inches away from me, but in what way am I permitted to know him? And which set of us is more real: the sleepless ones online, or these bodies in the daylight, tired, primed for a mind-fight?" It's the familiar old mind/body problem, this time with a new twist.

All the other essays in the book take up that question in one form or another. What does it mean to inhabit a female body in the physical world, with all that world's familiar freedoms and restrictions, and also to be freed from those restrictions and subject to new constraints in cyberspace? Which space, which persona, is the more real? What does it mean to be a female participant in a take-the-law-into-your-own-hands online world which one contributor likens to the Old West and another calls the wild, wild west? When the rules for interacting in cyberspace are so different from the rules for face to face interaction, how do you negotiate the passage between the two places?

In some cases, the passages seem easy. Susan LeClerc's essay on "Estrogen Brigades and 'Big Tits' Threads: Media Fandom Online and Off" explains that online fandom for women is really not so different than its physical-world counterparts, which have always depended on alternative print sources -- home-grown 'zines, for example -- for the dissemination of information and sharing of culture. Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall's contribution, "Closure Was Never a Goal in this Piece," a discussion of their Xerox-PARC- sponsored artistic and technical collaboration, elucidates the ways in which the easy transition between online and face to face lives can lead to surprising and unsettling anomalies in communication. The women had decided that the artistic work they produced under the PARC program would be drawn from their own lives, in which they found parallels that served to strengthen their ties but also, almost, to blur the boundaries between their separate selves. For example, Cathy writes that the text screens they shared grew from similar themes and some became nearly indistinguishable: "The screens grew to be a collage of (sometimes overlapping) memories. A brief screen about a waterbed [in Albuquerque) seemed eerily familiar when I read it during a later editing pass. I mistook it for one of my own . . . What, I wondered, was I doing in Albuquerque?" And how much of this sort of interweaving and overlapping of experience and memory, I wondered as I read, has to do with Cathy and Judy's similar life experiences and personal compatibility, and how much has to do with the fact that their communication took place in a medium where reading the words of another is not so very different than thinking your own thoughts? Does the medium lend itself to the weakening of personal boundaries?

In other cases, though, the transition between online and face to face life does not come quite so smoothly. Where conflicts occur, they seem inevitably gendered in familiar, aggravating ways. Sometimes the sexism is obvious, as in "Elites, Lamers, Narcs and Whores: Exploring the Computer Underground," where Netta "grayarea" Gilboa, writing about hackers, explains that some of the women (most of whom are "accepted to a point in the community" but who generally are there "as groupies") who hang out with hackers "seem to have no enemies or at least none that stalk them. However, that is the exception rather than the rule." When Gilboa lists the catalogue of abuses she herself suffered ("[T]hey called me pretending to be salesmen to see if I would give them credit card numbers or to see whom I lived with, what hours I kept, or just to hear my voice . . . They deleted my email, preventing articles, advertisers, and important business messages from reaching me. They conference-called my answering machine with insults, threats, and outright lies . . . "), she is careful to point out that this sort of treatment is commonplace for newbies in the hacker community irrespective of their gender. But such treatment, as many others in this collection attest, is typical of all-male or mostly-male computer enclaves. Thus, despite her desire to deflect issues of gender to some extent, her comments lead me to conclude that the sexism in the hacker community is both overt and structural.

At other times the sexism women experience in cyberspace intersects the physical world in familiar ways. One such example is the subject of "Sex, Fear, and Condescension on Campus: Cybercensorship at Carnegie Mellon." Here we have the familiar paternalistic university administration acting with a strategy that author Riley terms " . . . an ancient one: Blame the woman; she spoiled our fun. As usual, women are the objects for discussion, the subject of the images to be banned, the subject of male protection and the object of blame and scorn." The news in this story is the intelligent action by the women of the Clitoral Hoods, a group formed to demonstrate to the CMU administration "that women matter, that we refuse to be silent objects in this debate and that we are claiming our voice," and who were "proactive in creating sex-positive spaces for women and raising issues around female sexuality."

If there's one criticism I have of this collection, it's that sometimes it enacts the very stereotypes it purports to dispel. Karen Coyle, in "How Hard Can It Be?" reminds us that in 8.3 million households in America a woman is the primary home computer user," and yet if you read the essays in this collection you'll get the strong sense that cyberspace is, as one contributor puts it, "not for the faint of heart." I got the real sense that in order for a woman to succeed in cyberspace she has to do twice as much as a man (and fortunately, we're told, that's not too difficult if you don't mind taking a little verbal abuse now and again). But I confess, I am faint of heart most of the time; and while I admire and respect these writers' net-savvy, I was often left with the sinking feeling that homesteading most of this electronic frontier is going to take more determination and tolerance for abuse than I have. I think the writers hoped to portray a more positive image of cyberspace and women's possibilities there.

And they've missed some of the possibilities, too. They've focused on technology-heavy cybercommunities, on the streets and avenues where technical expertise count for a lot. They're women moving into turf that has traditionally belonged to men, and this collection reflects that commonality. But there are other cyberhoods where women gather in ways and for reasons which have traditionally drawn women together: for example, I belong to a weaving list and to a knitting list where women share expertise, tell stories, work collaboratively to gain new competencies, and where men hardly ever go. The view of cyberspace -- and women's place there -- seems vastly different from those venues.

But still, one collection of essays can hardly be expected to cover everything. And this one is so stellar at portraying life in cyberspace as nuanced, complex, and interesting that complaining that something's missing seems more like mourning the paucity of intelligent, thoughtful reflections on being a woman on the net than a criticism of this particular book itself. Finally, I have to say of this book what Tari Lin Fanderclai's student said of MUDding: "It's like magic, only real, and you can figure it out and learn stuff from it that you weren't even trying to get." I think everyone should read this book.