Wired Women

Cherny, Lynn and Elizabeth Reba Weise, Editors. Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. Seattle: Seal Press, 1996.

A Review by Robin A. Morris

A true story. My neighbor worked with a woman, who, due to a severe weight problem, appeared much older than her thirty-something years; Myrtle slumped her days away at her desk, lifeless and unhappy. Once she had met her childhood pen pal and been so stricken with shyness that she could not speak, thus ending the epistolary friendship. My neighbor lost touch with Myrtle when she changed jobs. Then one day she saw her striding confidently along the street. Myrtle appeared to be a changed woman. Wha t had happened? my neighbor wanted to know. The Internet? Yes, Myrtle had discovered a community of friends on the Internet and as a result felt strong enough to make some important changes in her life. In contrast to the stereotype of the internet addict who cannot function in real life, is physically unattractive and hides behind ornate personae because, as the cartoon has it, "on the internet, no one knows you're a dog," Myrtle's experience fed back into and enhanced her real life.

We'd all love to know what groups Myrtle had logged onto: obviously this is not a typical story. Neither is it one that is likely to seem even remotely possible after reading the accounts of internet experiences in Wired Women. An inordinate number of these stories have to do with online harassment. I don't mean to minimize the seriousness of this problem. I know how much it can hurt to receive even a slightly harsh message: I've experienced this as an invasion of my own home, of my living room where my computer resides.

Because I so hate these fights, I've selected my net affiliations accordingly and have managed to avoid flamewars. Likewise I have not encountered any harassment though I may be somewhat protected by my gender neutral name. But I leapt out of my seat in my local Laundromat when a friend unexpectedly tapped me on the shoulder as I was engrossed in reading Stephanie Brail's story of her online harassment. Have I really been walking so blithely through such dangerous alleys? Not entirely. I naturally hit upon some of the techniques for safe internet use that Judy Anderson recommends in her sensible essay, "Not for the Faint of Heart." She suggests, for instance, that new users read a given newsgroup's or mailing list's entries for a while without posting until getting a sense of the group.

It is true that usenet groups tend to be free-for-alls with an extremely low signal to noise ratio. I have found much more reasoned discussion on email lists. So is deciding that arguing with hot-headed windbags is not worth my time a form of self-censorship? A provocative question that Brail also asks herself. Are we giving over too much Net space to unsocialized losers? Perhaps, but, on the other hand, one does not necessarily look for subtle theology from a soapbox preacher. The Internet is a microcosm of the real world. It is inhabited by the very same people you'd meet out on the streets; the ones who give helpful directions as well as the ones who leer and comment on your anatomy as you pass. Why should this be a surprise? The Net will be as sexist as the world it emerges from. The different styles of communicating that struggle for validation in the real world carry their battle over into cyberspace.

Perhaps my positive experiences are unusual and the balance of essays that focus on the perils of the Internet are, in fact, representative of the current state of affairs. However, the book's contributors do not, in fact, make this assertion: they simply provide more raw data. It's not that I seek extensive theorizing and definitive interpretations heaped upon personal experience, but too many of these essays seemed easily satisfied with essentialist generalizations about the "boys" and us.

From Weise's introduction, it would appear that her encounters on the Net have been mutually supportive and that her intention in assembling this collection of essays by and about women on the Internet is to invite more women to hook up. Perhaps this is why each essay is capable of standing alone, with its own author-provided footnotes defining technical terms. But it seems to me that one glossary would have served well for all the essays and saved those of us familiar with the terms from reading basic explanations over and over. In addition, a little more editorial intervention would have helped make this book even more "user friendly" for "newbies." For instance, the third section of the book, entitled "Textual Realities" contains three essays centered on various aspects of the MUD experience. Surely, a brief introduction explaining mudding would serve better than having each author footnote her piece with her variation on the same definition, and the reader come slowly to understand the connection between the three essays. In addition to eliminating redundancy, a brief overview at the beginning of each section would help a reader choose which essays to read and provide a frame for approaching some of the more intricate issues that Kendall, Fanderclai and McRae bring up. Weise's introduction, accurately setting the tone for the book based mostly on personal anecdote, does not provide much in the way of grounding the discussion. I'm afraid that an electronically unconnected reader will have a difficult time negotiating Wired Women.

All of which is not to say that many of the individual essays were not fascinating. As someone who also teaches writing in a computer classroom, I gleaned many useful tips from Tari Lin Fanderclai's informative essay on using MUDS with students. And Donna M. Riley's account of Carnegie Mellon's infuriating attempts to extirpate pornography from their Internet servers and the ensuing response of those women who refused to be an excuse for censorship helped me to realize that I do, in fact, fall on the "free speech feminist" side of the debate (something readers of this review have probably already realized).

Michele Evard's piece on teaching fifth graders to use a local network also achieves a nice balance between anecdote and interpretation. She studies their interaction, amazed to see them avoid falling into the nasty habits of usenet groups, and tries to derive some insight from this experiment. Evard speculates that "part of the reason for this happy occurrence was that all of the children started using the system at about the same time, and at the same age. If the boys had been online weeks before the girls were, it could have felt like a boy's activity and the girls may have acted differently--and vice versa. Of course, as we know, most of the early Usenet participants were male" (202). This comment, almost tossed away, illumines many of the experiences described by other contributors to the book. Just like all the other structures in a patriarchal society, the Net was designed by and for men. We will have to work to create our own safe spaces, but I believe it is happening. The ability to connect, as many of the writers described, with real life friends and new online acquaintances, makes the Internet a delightful means for furthering women's agendas.

Another true story. The place: Crewtonia, a mailing list composed of people who are creative writers and/or teachers. When failing health forced one member, LuAnn, to quit her job she lost Net access. Warren, an enterprising member of the group who had met her (as I had, the last time I visited the Midwest) organized an online collection. The nickels and dimes accrued via snail mail and LuAnn received her Christmas gift last week--a new 486. She will soon rejoin the group, to the glee of all our little community, even those who argued with her over such touchy questions as whether those little girl gymnasts were being abused by their coach, as we all posted our reactions to the Olympic spectacle. There is real community to be found on the internet.

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