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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

 REVIEW 1: Deborah Clark Vance
 REVIEW 2: Sarah Whitehead
 REVIEW 3: Kris Byrd
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Susanna Paasonen

The internet opens a wealth of portals into interpersonal relations and cultural understandings on an unprecedented scale. In the few years since its inception and its adoption by more and more users -- mostly among the more privileged classes around the world -- there has been a phenomenal amount of explorations and interactions in cyberspace, a place where disembodied minds are thought to meet.

Focusing on the ways in which women interact online every day in chat rooms and web pages, Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity addresses the sorts of questions that the daily web surfer might ponder: How do we know who’s really male and female, Lesbian or straight, or even a believer or non-believer in the chat room and how much does it matter? How can women get a foothold in a technological realm that is popularly thought to be the province of males? And the question at the heart of the discussion, to what degree do we bring our bodies with us in internet intercourse?

The title indicates the authors' assertion that we do not leave our bodies behind, but that gender indeed matters on the internet. This collection of thirteen chapters from scholars working in North America and Western Europe, edited by Mia Consalvo and Susanna Paasonen, covers a range of issues surrounding internet use but centers on how women are "defined, marked and understood" (6). Each chapter is a case study that explores how women have claimed dominions in and around cyberspace. The volume combines research in the relatively new area of cyberfeminist studies with that of traditional feminist media studies, both of which address how audiences use and derive gratification from media.

The editors posit that whereas previously the internet was thought to be a place where identities could be set aside, now it seems to be one where users seek to reassert themselves and their identities. They also consider the internet's commercial side, and address ways in which the commercial intents of a message sender might mislead or perhaps mistreat a web surfer.

The book is organized into four parts, though arguably some of the chapters could as easily fit into parts other than the ones assigned to them. "Defining Gender" opens the discussion, with its first two chapters mulling over issues surrounding gender identity on the internet. Both chapters examine ways in which women display their bodies, starting with Paasonen's "Gender, Identity, and (the Limits of) Play on the Internet," which explores how web pages portray their femaleness. Paasonen is careful to distinguish between identity and playing with different characters, but asserts that many users represent themselves as they are, since web pages are so often used to self-promote and to meet others with whom to establish serious relationships. In these cases, one is interested in selling oneself.

In "Windows on the Web: The Female Body and the Web Camera," Kate O'Riordan explores nonsexual images of the female body by looking at web pages that portray women in everyday activities such as getting dressed and working in the kitchen. She counters the myths that the internet is gender-free, and that computer-mediated communication is disembodied, and concludes that gender is not so easy to shake as feminists once had thought.

The next chapters examine structures wherein messages are made, starting with the internet's association with computer hardware. Johanna Dorer's "Internet and the Construction of Gender: Female Professionals and the Process of Doing Gender" tackles the patriarchal idea that the internet has to do with technology, traditionally thought to be a male domain and thus not amenable to women. Such socially constructed gender positioning does not go away easily.

Noemi Sadowska, in "Women's Internet Sites: A Search for
Design Strategies to Engage the Female Viewer," studies how web pages are designed and proposes a new approach which would allow female users to personalize and customize sites they visit. Doing so would be socially responsible, argues the author, in that it could free women from being subjected to gendered attitudes.

Co-editor Consalvo's "Selling the Internet to Women: The Early Years" provides a smooth transition into the book's second section, "Addressing Women," which explores women's and girls' uses of web sites. Consalvo traces a history of rhetoric found in news magazines, describing women's activity on the internet, from days when the web was thought to be hostile to women, to the frontier metaphor, to the information super-highway. The rhetoric has changed along with women's involvement.

"There's 'O Place' Like Home: Searching for Community on
Oprah.com," by Leda Cookes, Mari Castaneda Paredes, and Erica Scharrer, provides an ethnography of Oprah Winfrey's web site, "O Place" where women forge a community that is structured around the person of Oprah Winfrey and affected by external forces as well. The authors question whether the commercial nature of the site is able to take a back seat to the community that the participants build.

Similarly, Karen Gustafson, in "Join Now, Membership is Free: Women's Web Sites and the Coding of Community," rhetorically analyzes factors that monitor behavior on women's sites and argues that in some cases the sites are managed for marketing purposes rather than solely for women's use, and therefore that they cannot be fully successful as communities of interest. Participants' behaviors on these sites are engineered visually and structurally, thus limiting them even though the rhetoric on the sites is about empowerment.

The third part of the book, "Everyday Uses," touches on ways women and girls assert their identities by exploring web sites that provide them with a community of similarly interested females. Against a backdrop of a world relatively empty of computer games targeted at girls, Virpi Oksman's ethnography of the computer culture of creating virtual horse stables ("'So I Got It Into My Head That I Should Set Up My Own Stable...' Creating Virtual Stables
on the Internet as Girls' Own Computer Culture") shows how such sites successfully involve adolescent girls with computer technology.

"Women Veterans and the Net: Using Internet Technology to Network and Reconnect," by Jennifer M. Tiernan, discusses ways that women connect over the internet, focusing specifically on Vietnam War veterans. Women apparently feel out of place at other Vietnam veteran web sites that focus exclusively on the male experience or where men hijack the women's discussions. Tiernan concludes that the internet provides a welcome tool for marginalized groups.

How has the anonymity of the medium affected the ways in which individuals present themselves? What happens when you do not have to reveal your face and your body to your conversational partner? "Trouble, Pleasure and Tactics: Anonymity and Identity in a Lesbian Chat Room," by Jamie M. Poster, deals with Lesbians on their own websites and as performing guerilla politics on Christian women's sites. Poster grapples with anonymity and identity by performing an ethnography on a Lesbian web site and chat room. This chapter explores a marginalized group's dealing with identity, both questioning and embracing the notion of "fixed" identities.

The last group of chapters concern "Gender Agency and New Media," taking a macroscopic view of women and technology. These chapters place the female subject of the book back into the "non-virtual" world where she lives. In "Extending the School Day: Gender Class, and the Incorporation of Technology in Everyday Life," S. Elizabeth Bird and Jane Jorgenson address how working class women may view the everyday computer technology differently from middle class.

Marja Vehvilainen' "Gendered Agency in Informaiton Society: On Located Politics of Technology" looks at how social structures still tend to prevent women's involvement with technology. The author believes that in encouraging women to become connected in a positive way with technology needs conscious effort.

The final chapter, "Interactive Television in the Everyday Lives of Young Couples," provides an exploratory study of couples' uses of interactive television, including the VCR and the computer, a technology in its infancy. Liesbet van Zoonen and Chris Aalberts' study among couples in Holland found that couples can share experiences using the TV/VCR and the PC/Internet in ways that bring them closer together.

As deep and rich as the individual chapters are, altogether the volume presents but a snapshot of the myriad issues concerning women and the internet. It seems clear that the internet has not provided an escape from gender issues, but that that will probably require more of a change in the social structure in order for its importance to disappear on the internet. That said, it also seems clear that the research reveals areas of triumph for women, and that embracing their femaleness on the web may not present a detriment.

Although this may not have been the primary goal of the editors, the volume also warns that internet users need to guard against the negative effects of commercialism on the web. Fears that the internet might be hostile to women can easily become fears that it may become hostile to community building because of hidden commercial motives. That of course would affect men as well.

Deborah Clark Vance:
Deborah Clark Vance, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Communication at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.  <dvance@mcdaniel.edu>

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