Problems with Virtual Space

While advocates of on-line writing instruction claim that computer-mediated instruction creates "egalitarian discourses" (Cooper and Self) and "new understandings" (Langston and Batson) , I think we are far from being take such safety for granted. Feminist scholars of virtual spaces argue that the Internet is, like real life, a very sexist and hostile environment.

In her address at the Virtue and Virtuality: Gender, Law, and Cyberspace conference, Ellen Spertus suggests that sexism and harassment on-line is a reflection of the immensity of these problems in off-line society . In other words, our on-line communities are conditioned by the same socialization patters that occur in our society at large, and a significant factor in that society is discrimination and harassment of women. While taking place through the medium of computers, virtual communication--be it email, web documents, MOOs, MUDs, or synchronous chat--remains human communication that is shaped by our beliefs, biases, and (mis)understandings.

However, computer-mediated communication differs in some important ways from face-to-face communication. Karen Coyle explains that the on-line "exclusion of women and femininity is as obvious as the inclusion of male imagery. And when women do appear, it is often as objects of desire." She says, "As if the more subtle ways that computer culture excludes women were not enough, the frequent presence of pornography in the computer culture alienates many of us as well. . . . Computer trade shows are one of the few 'professional' situations today where women are confronted with pornography being displayed and sold openly. At a recent MacWorld exhibit, two booths sold CD-ROMS with such titles as Anal ROM, with the actresses present to sign copies" (WW 50) . The exclusion of women in discussions about the computer world is illustrated most strikingly by Bill Gates who invited only two women out of 103 participants to his recent technology summit (Utne ).

While I don't want to diminish the important contributions of women to computer technology, virtual reality is still seen as a masculine space, and both real and perceived differences in computer expertise between the sexes may contribute to discrimination against women on-line. Because computer-mediated communication often takes place anonymously, speakers/writers may feel less responsibility toward their immediate audience and show less consideration for that audience. And finally, problems women experience on-line are often disregarded because, after all, it's only email.

Rather than creating a space for "egalitarian discourses" then, virtual space may actually intensify the problems faced by female teachers of writing. Though these categories are certainly not exhaustive, I examine four conditions of virtual space that may prove to be problematic for female teachers:


Masculine Space | Real and Perceived Differences in Computer Expertise |
Responsibility--Or Lack Thereof | Invisibility: It's ONLY Email | On to What Can We Do?