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Gender & Community in the Social Construction of the Internet

Author: Leslie Regan Shade
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2002
Review Published: July 2002

 REVIEW 1: Tara Kachgal
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Leslie Regan Shade

In Gender & Community in the Social Construction of the Internet, Leslie Regan Shade, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Ottawa, states her mandate early on: "If, indeed, cyberspace is a metaphor for community, if it constitutes a network of varied relationships, and if digital citizenship is a prerequisite for participation and engagement in society, then we need to look closely at who is being included, and who is being excluded" (2). Taking up the task, although a bit too modestly, Shade explores women's access to and participation in Internet society, in both "developed" and "developing" countries, using a critical feminist, political economy, and social constructionist approach. Shade views women (who constitute a diverse category, she admits) as active media users, whose empowerment through Internet technologies is often pitted against their incorporation by capitalist interests. To elaborate her argument, Shade specifically juxtaposes feminist uses of the Internet (specifically, women's online communities centering on feminism, political activism, democratic action, and girls' homepages and e-zines) against efforts to "feminize" the technology in the form of commercial portals targeted to women, which encourage consumption and not the opportunity for production and critical analysis that are provided by women's and girls' online spaces.

At the outset, Shade lays out four objectives: (1) provide an overview of how communication technologies such as the telephone, radio, and TV have been gendered; (2) discuss women's Internet spaces, or communities, focusing specifically on feminist, activist, and democratic ones; (3) examine the implications of digital capitalism for incorporating women as consumers by using a critical feminist and political economy approach; and (4) provide a framework and specific suggestions for examining women's access to and participation in the Internet. Shade limits the focus of her book to exclude rhetorical analyses of gendered CMC, the construction of women's identities in communities, explorations of technoscience or cyborgian formulations of gendered subjectivity, and practices such as sexual harassment, privacy, anonymity, identity, free speech, and pornography.

In chapter two, Shade examines the literature on women's uses of communication technologies, specifically, phone, radio, and television, areas that have been unequally researched. The section on the phone is (perhaps surprisingly) the most interesting. Here, Shade cites several case studies that examine women's uses of the telephone for communication and social belonging and their concurrent exploitation as lowly-paid labor (e.g., telephone operators) for the telephone industry. Two studies are particularly interesting: Rakow's (1992) ethnographic field work examining "women's talk" in the small Midwest American community "Prospect" and Moyal's (1992) study commissioned by the Australian government examining the implications for women consumers of a proposed pricing change. For the two broadcasting technologies, Shade explores, very briefly, how women have been active users (both as amateurs and as professionals) and, at the same time, target audiences. Although richly descriptive, this chapter would benefit from better synthesis and contextualization. The literature review contains the elements necessary to outline the argument that Shade will later touch on: that women's relationship to communication technologies has historically been paradoxical, potentially a source of pleasure and community-building but also signaling their enslavement in capitalist enterprise. Furthermore, two areas that Shade claims as "blind spots" in research -- women in media institutions and women's activist uses of communication technology -- may have been further developed by other researchers. I am thinking, in particular, of Creedon's (1991) work. With Shade's focus on radio, television, and the phone, the rich area of feminist filmmakers is left unexamined, unfortunately.

After providing an overview of the gendering of this "old media," Shade proceeds, in chapter three, to examine women's uses of Internet technologies (as "cyberagents"). She focuses on four areas in which women and girls have made use of IT: (1) mailing lists for feminist academics and health-related support groups; (2) the use of the web by the women's movement to engage in global cyberactivism; (3) cyberfeminism involving artistic expression and political critique; and (4) e-zines and web homepages created by Riot Grrls' and teen girls. The second section on global cyberactivism ("globalization from below," 37) is nicely detailed. Here, Shade describes how women (both Westerners and non-Westerners) used IT in two specific examples: (1) work surrounding the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and (2) the "social netwar" (41) waged to build favorable public opinion and media discourse of women in the Zapatista movement. The concept of the netwar is very provocative and could have been elaborated on further. The third section of this chapter, the discussion of cyberfeminist uses of the Net, is similarly engaging, with rich descriptions of such groups as VNS Matrix and The Old Boys Network.

Having examined a variety of feminist uses of IT, the fourth chapter now explores digital capitalism's overtures to female consumers. Shade provides a brief overview of market research on women consumers that focuses on several commercial portals targeted to middle-class North American women: Women Central, iVillage, Women.com Networks, and Oxygen Media. She also examines sites targeting girls, such as gURL, Voxxy, and Smart Girl Internette, as well as a new Mattel computer called Barbie PC. With their narrowly-defined target markets and use of advertising, efforts such as these further promote class and geographical inequities, the author argues. Still, commercial interests, as exemplified by entrepreneur Evelyn Hannon's journeywomen.com, can also improve women's lives.

Shade commences her policy analysis in chapter five by arguing that, although a digital divide still exists on gender, the category has been little researched, despite it being central to digital inclusiveness (i.e., ensuring universal access and service) in the promotion of the public good and democracy. The author nicely explores usability issues and, at a more macro level, policies to ensure gender equity. Still, "issues of substance and content" (79), such as etiquette, privacy, harassment, pornography, and free speech, need further elaboration. More discussion of free-nets would also have been helpful. In addition, a stronger linkage could have been made between the gendered aspects of IT telework, which she asserts redomesticizes women, to the discussion of phone technology from chapter two.

In chapter six, Shade explores access for women in developing countries by focusing again on the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, specifically, the secondary findings stemming from its five-year review. Results from an online forum and regional meetings show mixed results in terms of information access, freedom of expression, and representation in new communication technologies. Shade argues that policy recommendations are needed in three areas to ensure gender equity: access to user-centered design; training and education; and employment and workplace issues. The successful South African venture Women's Net was very intriguing and could have been elaborated. In addition, more emphasis could have been made of consumer efforts targeting women in developing countries. In addition, the brief section exploring the politics of knowledge dissemination seems key and should have been developed.

In her conclusion, Shade argues for a critical stance in examining the role of the Internet to promote women's rights and citizenship. She briefly discusses the possibility for instituting a universal Right to Communication, which would encompass access to technology and information as a vital part of citizenship. The author suggests seven areas for future research: governance, labor, women in technopoles (i.e., "smart communities"), qualitative studies, civil discourse, design, and representation. The work ends on a hopeful note (in one of its bolder pronouncements): "But, despite Steve's, and Bill's, and Oprah's incursions onto the World Wide Web, despite synergistic couplings of television broadcasters and telecom giants, despite the rapid development of broadband applications (and the increasing domestic placement of high-speed modems), I believe that feminist communication, and the use of the Internet by a diverse range of civil society, will be sustained" (111).

A quick read and with clear writing, Gender & Community in the Social Construction of the Internet is a good primer on gender and technology. I wish that the work were more provocative and bold, though. Though Shade notes her critical feminist and political economy focus, she does not fully conceptualize these, unfortunately. Bourdieu, Castells, and Habermas are barely mentioned, if at all. Though the author briefly discusses Escobar's (1999) work, it would have been interesting to have applied his concept of meshworking to a study of Internet activism. In addition, extended discussion of Web advertising and the commercialization of search services (Hargittai, 2001) would have enriched the study. Also, the inclusion of illustrations could have made the work more tantalizing and easier to process.

Creedon, P. J. (Ed.). (1993). Women in Mass Communication (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Escobar, A. (1999). "Gender, Place and Networks: A Political Ecology of Cyberculture." In Harcourt, W. (Ed.), Women@Internet: Creating new cultures in cyberspace. New York: Zed Books.

Hargittai, E. (2000). "Open Portals or Closed Gates? Channeling Content on the World Wide Web." Poetics, 27(4).

Moyal, A. (1992). "The Gendered Use of the Telephone: An Australian Case Study." Media, Culture and Society, 14, 51-72.

Rakow, L. F. (1992). Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone, and Community Life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Tara Kachgal:
Tara Kachgal is a Park Doctoral Fellow in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  <tkachgal@email.unc.edu>

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