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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

Moving beyond the groundwork laid by researchers who dealt with issues regarding whether or not gender matters on the internet, Women and Everyday Uses of the Internet: Agency and Identity, edited by Mia Consalvo and Susanna Paasonen, deals with questions regarding how gender matters. The editors begin with the premise that gender does matter, differentiating the research collected here as distinctly different from what David Silver (2001) describes as the first and second waves of internet research. Furthermore, the work collected in this volume seeks to explore the everyday experience of women, the ordinary.

In their introduction, "On the Internet, Women Matter," Mia Consalvo and Susanna Paasonen provide a brief history of research regarding gender and the internet. However, the purpose of their book is to take the topic further, in a new direction towards understand how gender matters. They describe the purpose of their addition: "We believe this book is a step in that direction, taking feminist theory and Internet studies beyond the (important) pronouncement that 'gender matters' online, to determine how it matters, how other factors influence its expressions and composition, and how feminist theorizing of the Internet can respond to this new challenge" (1). Throughout the collection, an interdisciplinary group of researchers tackle these goals, most quite insightfully. The editors also indicate that they hope to "contribute to the diversification of internet studies, in terms of gender as well as other identity positions and markers in difference, in the context of everyday life" (14). In this respect, this collection of essays could be compared to Beth Kolko, Lisa Nakamura, and Gil Rodman's Race in Cyberspace. Both books seek to move beyond the most basic theoretical discussions to answer the question of how one's identity matters on the internet.

The focus on the everyday use and experiences is another element that differentiates this collection from many other books that approach the topic of women online such as Frank Schaap's The Words That Took Us There: Gender on the Internet or Lynn Cherny and Elizabeth Reba Weise's Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace. The range of topics includes such things as chat discussions, personal web pages, web cameras, online communities, and marketing directed at women. The approaches are just as varied as the topics included. Researchers from a variety of academic backgrounds, such as anthropology, communication, and cinema studies, contribute to the collection. Many of the pieces included here began as papers read at the 2000 Association of Internet Researchers conference. To organize this wide range of topics and disciplinary approaches, Consalvo and Paasonen arranged the thirteen essays into four thematic parts: "Defining Gender," "Addressing Women," "Everyday Uses," and "Gender, Agency, and New Media." These themes work better in some parts of the book than others to organize the essays into groupings that give the reader common elements about which to think.

Section one, "Defining Gender," includes four essays about "how gender, and particularly the category of women, is 'made to matter' online." The essays deal with personal home pages, web cam sites, women in the Information Technology (IT) profession, and gendered web site design. The underlying theme in this section is how gender categories are constructed and how those categories work.

Co-editor Paasonen and Kate O'Riordan both offer insight into amateur representations that seek to create female characters for an internet audience. Both of these essays will be of particular interest to those interested in constructivist theory and the performance of gender. Also dealing with the construction of gendered characterizations, Johanna Dorer examines the work experiences of women in the IT profession. Finally, Noemi Sadowska presents a study of a popular British women's website in which she analyzes the design in relation to print magazines with the same target audience.

The second section, "Addressing Women," treats the topic of women as media consumers. Essays included here treat topics such as historical parallels of the internet with other media in terms of the construction of female consumption, an analysis of "community" at Oprah.com, and an analysis of coding on women's internet sites such as iVillage.com, Women.com, and Oxygen.com. Researching and writing about specific websites can present a unique challenge in that they are ever-changing and sometimes even disappearing.

Still, the essays collected in part two provide important windows to the study of gendered consumerism. The historic overview of women as media consumers presented by co-editor Consalvo is most insightful in regards to helping to understand current gendered consumption on the internet and in placing this consumption into a historical framework. This chapter is perhaps one of the most significant from the perspective of media studies. Chapters 6 and 7 both explore the meaning of "community" in several key women's websites. Leda Cooks, Mari Castaneda Paredes, and Erica Scharrer provide an in-depth analysis of Oprah.com which ends up exploring the relationship between creating an online community and marketing strategies. With a very different approach, Karen Gustafson explores several key sites and provides insight regarding the physical coding of the "community" spaces while questioning how well they actually serve women.

In part three, the reader learns about three very different case studies organized around the theme of "Everyday Uses." Perhaps the tightest of the four themes used, the everyday places explored here include a lesbian chat room, a virtual gaming site for girls, and an online community for female Vietnam War veterans. These very different everyday uses by very different female internet users are brought together by each considering, "how women view the internet and its promises (occasionally, its empty promises)" (12).

The essays in this section of the book do the most to promote to purpose of the collection to explore everyday uses and examine how women really use and perceive this unique media source. The most interesting of all the four sections, the case studies presented here give the reader some very specific examples about everyday use and its importance. These case studies also reveal the vast opportunities available in terms of new research. Virpi Oksman's study of young females and internet virtual gaming taps into a previously unexplored territory in terms of female agency. Jennifer Tiernan's research regarding female Vietnam War veterans and their use of the internet would be of particular interest to those readers interested in agency as well as those interested in exploring the concept of communities online. This online community, created for the purpose of providing a network and connections, differs greatly from the market-driven communities discussed in part two of the book. Finally, Jamie Poster provides a fresh look at the role of identity in online environments in her interpretation of the community established in the lesbian chat room "#LesChat."

The final section of the book, "Gender, Agency, and New Media," includes essays that explore female agency in various settings. Two of the essays included here look at programs which provide internet access for low-income groups of people while the final essay looks at how the emerging medium of interactive television affects young, mostly middle-class, heterosexual couples.

The writers in this final section all treat the media and technology as something that users respond to and interact with. When new technologies are introduced into a household or community, the users act and react based on their perceptions and experiences. It is that agency which defines this last portion of the book. For example, Elizabeth Bird and Jane Jorgensen analyze the reflections and experiences of mothers of children who have been provided computers in their homes after being selected based on class and educational markers. In chapter 12, Marja Vehvilainen explores the located agencies of gender and citizenship in relation to information access and usage within women's information and communication technologies (ICT) groups in Finland. Finally, Liesbet van Zoonen and Chris Aalberts provide an overview of a technological convergence that they believe to be a premier emerging media form, interact television. While they explore the gendered impact of the medium in everyday lives of young heterosexual couples, the topic of interactive television provides a vast array of research opportunities for media and/or internet researchers.

All in all, the variety of topics and approaches presented here go far to accomplish the goal of the volume's editors by moving in new directions. Furthermore, this book would be particularly useful to those interested in the culture of consumerism from the perspective of gender as well to those interested in analysis of the concept of communities. It is an important contribution to the diversification of internet studies and is particularly distinct in its international and interdisciplinary approaches.

Silver, David (2001). Evolving Digital Discourses: Community Rhetoric and Commercial Practice. Presentation at the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.

Kris Byrd:
Kris Byrd is a doctoral candidate in Communication at the University of South Florida. Her research interests include media, gender, and everyday life. Currently, she is studying the culture and significance of the contemporary drive-in movie theater.  <klbyrd@tampabay.rr.com>

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