Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity
Editor: Mia Consalvo, Susanna Paasonen
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002
Review Published: July 2005
First I would like to thank Deborah Clark Vance, Sarah Whitehead, and Kris Byrd for their reviews, and RCCS for both commissioning these and enabling a response. This is not to say that writing one is easy, since the reviewers really do a good job presenting the book, its aims, sections and individual articles, and I have little to add to this, let alone debate with. Also, since it is almost three years since the book first came out, there is some distance involved. (My teachers told me that meaning takes place in encounters between the reader and the text, at which stage it's too late for the author to intervene... and the book has been out there for a while. But this need not keep me from trying!)
Mia Consalvo and I started working on the book in 2000: we wanted to make available some of the work from the first Association of Internet researchers conference in Kansas that Autumn, as well as to include a more international group of writers with an open call for chapters. We felt that the quotidian and the commercial were themes central in terms of women's Internet usage, yet little discussed in the research literature to date. Basically, it felt like a book that should be out there, and we tried to get it out there as soon as we could. Getting a book out in two years total meant running a tight schedule (Mia has since continued her impressive pace in putting together the two Internet Research Annuals). This resulted in some writers dropping off, and consequently in a more explicit focus on North America and Western Europe than intended. Considering the unequal access that women have to the Internet (or had five years ago) on a global scale, this is perhaps also illustrative of a broader context.
Certainly the range of questions raised by the book title is nothing if not broad (women, the everyday, Internet, agency and identity are all fairly difficult concepts), and the writers investigate how these themes inter-connect and signify within specific case studies. The broadness of the title raises the inevitable question of what remains excluded from its chapters, and produces the equally inevitable answer: a great deal.
In her review, Sarah Whitehead raises the option of a second edition, and the centrality of female bloggers to the phenomena discussed in the book. As editor, I would of course be more than happy to see a second edition coming along: after all, in addition to blogging, fan communities and gaming, to mention only a few examples, are constantly reworking understandings of women's internet usage and the Internet as an everyday medium.
These developments are connected to the commercialization of the Internet -- and the Web in particular -- which both Deborah Clarke Vance and Kris Byrd address in their reviews. A recurrent theme of the book is the targeting of women as consumers and Internet users, in addition to addressing publicly funded information society projects, more independent forms of networking, and self-presentation. I believe that consumerism should be conceptualized in Internet research far more than it tends to be, given the centrality of consumer culture to ways of understanding the Internet as a medium, its histories, possibilities and potential dangers. Consumerism is certainly not an "other" to the Internet, but central force and logic behind its development; it enables certain things and disables others, but does not necessarily work in obvious ways. But this does not mean it's necessary to accept it as something transparent or value free.
I am reminded of Anne Cronin's (2000) wonderful work on advertising and the "compulsory individualism" of modern consumerism: she investigates ways in which the freedom of choice has become an imperative, while the possibility (or freedom) to not choose is effaced from the agenda, as well as the gendered discourses that this involves. This kind of analysis might have a lot to offer to feminist studies of the Internet, especially under the themes of everyday use, identity, and agency. From presentations of the self in dating ads, Orkut, Friendster, and "Hot or Not" sites to the address and targeting of Internet users as consumers (in email spam, advertising, portals), notions and possibilities of online identity play and character construction, discussion forums, and e-shopping, compulsory individualism seems to lurk somewhere in the picture, take new turns, shapes, and forms.
As Mia and I write in the introduction, we hope this book inspires new research into the themes and questions it raises, and I am of course extremely happy that the reviewers find this to be the case. These reviews make me feel inspired myself.
Cronin, Anne (2000), "Consumerism and 'Compulsory Individuality': Women, Will and Potential." In Sara Ahmed, Jane Kilby, Celia Lury, Maureen McNeil and Beverley Skeggs (eds.), Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism. London: Routledge, 273-287.
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