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Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace

Editor: Lynn Cherny, Elizabeth Reba Weise
Publisher: Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1996
Review Published: July 1998

 REVIEW 1: Janis Butler Holm

When did you last read an anthology of sixteen essays and enjoy every one? I found Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace to be an unexpected pleasure--an engaging, balanced, and comprehensive primer that I would happily recommend to both students and colleagues. Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise have edited a series of pieces that successfully blend personal narrative with the best kind of instructive discourse: the kind that doesn't bore. The narrators offer differing perspectives on gender issues in the electronic world (some are clearly feminist; others, less so), and together the essays provide an extensive insiders' introduction to the ways and means of the digerati.

What, in brief, does this book tell us? The bad news is that cyberspace is indeed a bastion of misogynist culture, of arrested development cases with adolescent fantasies of sexual domination and violence toward women. The good news is that cyberspace is large and that women are continuing to create room for themselves in the online world, claiming and redefining what was primarily a masculine domain. Most of the authors in this anthology are seasoned pioneers in cyber exploration, and their collective message is that women must join the electronic revolution in order to ensure a voice in the future.

Elizabeth Reba Weise's introductory narrative, "A Thousand Aunts with Modems," explains the process by which this particular group of essays came together--a story that is framed by another story, that of Weise's own move online and of her eventual position as national cyberspace reporter for the Associated Press in San Francisco. The essay, which begins "I got online so I could break up with my girlfriend" (vii), is in fact about connections, about the ways electronic networking extends and enhances essential conversation. It introduces four groupings of essays: "Reflections on a New World," "Communities of Interest," "Male and Female the Net Created Them," and "Textual Realities."

The first grouping opens with Ellen Ullman's surprisingly poetic account of the software engineer's social/physical isolation and consequent dependence on cyberspace communication, "the latest form of phone yakking" (11). Ullman relates how she fell in love by e-mail, with an unusually kind and sympathetic male engineer, and discovered that the relationship was possible only by e-mail, through "the body in the machine" (19). Her description of less friendly online exchanges, vicious and arrogant masculine battles, prepares the reader for Paulina Borsook's "The Memories of a Token: An Aging Berkeley Feminist Examines Wired" and Karen Coyle's "How Hard Can It Be?": Borsook exposes atavistic sexism at the trendy techno-mag, and Coyle examines what's behind the macho facade of computer culture at large. Following these grim reminders of male privilege, Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall's account of their highly successful collaboration as artist and computer scientist, through the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center's Artist in Residence Program, is especially heartening. Their interactive presentation describes/embodies the associative process by which these two have generated a new hypertext art.

Under the "Communities" rubric, Susan Clerc explores the roles of women in online fandom: as perceived interlopers, as objects of desire, and, increasingly, as creators of new fantasy worlds. Next, Gray Areas journalist Netta Gilboa provides a chilling tale of her investigation of the hacker underground, an experience that resulted in large-scale personal harassment, a phone-line invasion of monstrous proportions. (Gilboa's continuing defense of, and admiration for, these netherworld outlaws will make some readers uncomfortable.) In happy contrast, L. Jean Camp's "We Are Geeks, and We Are Not Guys: The Systers Mailing List" speaks to the joys of a supportive women's electronic community, one that has proven to be not only a haven for women in computer science and related fields but also an active agent for social change. (Systers initiated the successful campaign against Talking Barbie's sexist prattle, "Math is hard.") The last essay in this section, however, cautions against ghettoization in women-only groups. In "Not for the Faint of Heart: Contemplations on Usenet," Judy Anderson argues that, while newsgroups can be nasty, participants who bother to learn the conventions of a particular forum can reduce the risk of being flamed and can benefit from the group's collective wisdom.

The third section of Wired Women, "Male and Female the Net Created Them," offers further discussion of gendered behavior and sexuality in newsgroups. In a lucid and thoughtful presentation, Stephanie Brail discusses her much-publicized experience of online harassment, considers the complexity of free-speech issues, and makes a case for community responsibility instead of censorship. Donna M. Riley, recounting Carnegie Mellon University's efforts to censor sex-related Usenet groups in the name of protecting women, celebrates the consequent rise of a feminist pro-sex action group: "The Clitoral Hoods seized the opportunity to do more than merely react to the administration's censorship; we were proactive in creating sex-positive spaces for women and raising issues around female sexuality" (166). Riley's concern that women not be denied access to online dialogue is echoed in Laurel A. Sutton's essay on newsgroup netiquette, a succinct guide to appropriate CMC (computer-mediated communication). Given gendered style differences and some very real, very pointed attempts to keep women out of the electronic conversation (current estimates suggest that less than ten percent of newsgroup postings are written by women), Michele Evard's observations of grade-school children's behavior on a local network come as a surprise. In "'So Please Stop, Thank You': Girls Online," Evard describes how fourth and fifth-grade boys and girls used the system in similar ways: the boys were often helpful, and the girls did not withdraw when confronted with rudeness: "I believe 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 boys' activity and the girls may have acted differently--and vice versa. Of course, as we know, most of the early Usenet participants were male" (201-02).

The final essays in this collection address women's experience on MUDs, originally "multi-user dungeons," online interactive role-playing sites for games like Dungeons and Dragons. (Now also known as multi-user "dimensions" or "domains," MUDs currently serve a variety of purposes.) Lori Kendall begins this section by pointing to women's relative lack of presence on MUDs, imputing this absence to the hostile and gender-stereotypic interactions that dominate many MUD forums, even those that encourage female characters. A more egalitarian experience is related by Tari Lin Fanderclai, a college composition teacher who has used MUDs to link writing classes from different universities for collaborative learning and peer review. Fanderclai found that MUD novelty and anonymity encouraged some of her quieter students to speak up: "they felt as if they were being listened to according to what they said rather than according to how they looked, how they sounded, whether they were male or female or black or white and so on" (232). And Shannon McRae suggests that, despite the prevalence of gender stereotypes, MUD participants' experimentation with gender/sex roles and erotic pleasure "may well afford some measure of resistance against social and technological forces that would divide us from each other and prevent us from naming and shaping our own experience" (262).

As I have tried to demonstrate by giving each a voice, the essays in Wired Women function dialogically--they speak to and augment one another, illustrating the same phenomena from many points of view. Together, they elucidate the delights and the perils of a new frontier, one where women's participation is essential though not always comfortable. The book's effect, ultimately, is to encourage, to make it clear that staking a claim in cyberspace is well worth the frustrations. (To aid the reader's exploration, a "Resources" page provides useful information about web sites and lists pertaining to women and/or gender issues.) The writers in this collection are concerned to help others find their electronic destiny. In Laurel Sutton's words, "The future is going to be online, and there has never been a better chance for women" (185).

Janis Butler Holm:
Janis Butler Holm writes and teaches in Athens, Ohio, where she also serves as Consulting/Contributing Editor for Wide Angle, the film journal.  <jholm1@ohiou.edu>

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