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Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online

Author: Lori Kendall
Publisher: Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002
Review Published: October 2007

 REVIEW 1: Ben Krueger
 REVIEW 2: Molly Swiger

Lori Kendall's Hanging Out In the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online provides an ethnographic examination of how participants in an online community in the 1990s made sense of their social world -- both online and offline -- and concomitant issues of gender, race, and class. Although text-based forums seem moderately quaint by 2007 standards, Kendall's analysis provides theoretical insight that may guide future ethnographic studies of social interactions in online environments.

In chapter one, Kendall begins by introducing BlueSky, an online community known as a MUD, an acronym for "Multi-User Dungeon" or "Multi-User Domains or Dimensions" (4). Arguing that BlueSky constitutes a unique social space, Kendall aims to highlight how BlueSky's participants make meaning of their online interactions. As she notes, "participants bring particular backgrounds and understandings to their interpretations of each other's presentation of self online" (12). Chapters two and three provide additional history and context about BlueSky and MUDs in general, while the remainder of the book explores the various social features and implications of the online community. Chapters four and five analyze the role of gender on BlueSky, chapter six explores online relationships, chapter seven examines issues of race and class, and chapter eight attempts to synthesize the implications of these topics. Throughout the book, Kendall assumes that mudding provides insights about how participants socially construct reality: "Because BlueSky participants have integrated muds into their social lives over a prolonged period and have maintained their online relationships through a variety of life changes, the group can reveal much about the advantages and disadvantages of online social life" (19). Through engagement in online discussions and a series of offline interviews with BlueSky participants, Kendall documents how these participants create and assign meanings to an online social space.

As the book's title might suggest, Kendall's strongest analysis stems from her observations about the performance of gender in these online environments. Claiming that BlueSky is a masculine space, Kendall makes two particularly salient arguments. First, she asserts that the masculine identity of the MUD's participants can be linked to technological expertise:
    In addition to their socializing on BlueSky, many participants employ computers for other leisure uses, including playing computer games at home and participating in networked games on the internet. Blue Sky participants thus enact a form of masculinity congruent with computer culture, itself a largely masculine domain. (73)
Consequently, displays of technological expertise become a particularly visible way for BlueSky participants to validate their masculine identities. Second, Kendall argues that BlueSky participants make sense of their identity as "nerds" in relation to their masculinity. As she notes, "the nerd stereotype includes elements of both congruence with and rejection of hegemonic masculinity. Its connection to a reconfiguration of middle-class male masculinity partly redeems its masculine status" (82). Through her analysis of MUD user's jokes and language choices, Kendall highlights how BlueSky participants both enact and reject hegemonic conceptualizations of masculinity. Kendall also draws attention to the sexuality of BlueSky participants. Though a majority of MUD participants are heterosexual, a small number of gay and bisexual participants frequent BlueSky as well. Kendall also observes participants who she terms "heterosexual dropouts," men in their late twenties who claim to have given up entirely on relationships with women. As Kendall observes, "in occasional discussion on this issue, these men complain of rejection that derives from their nonhegemonic status" (90). Such statements draw attention to the shared frustrations of many BlueSky participants while also highlighting problematic elements of societally-acceptable definitions of masculinity.

Although a majority of BlueSky's participants are men, Kendall also examines the experiences of female users as well, who constitute approximately one-quarter of BlueSky's regulars (95). While agreeing that BlueSky is a male-dominated space, some female users express the belief that their gender does not play a significant role in how they are treated socially by male BlueSky regulars (95). However, Kendall's analysis reveals that acceptance of female users frequently hinges on their willingness to perform masculine roles that reinforce social structures that allow hegemonic masculinity to dominate BlueSky: "Women who are able to do so find acceptance within the group, but their acceptance reinscribes masculine norms, which continue to define women as assumed outsiders and outsiders, by definition, as not men" (100).

Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub makes at least two theoretical contributions to the growing body of scholarly literature about cyberculture. First, Kendall succeeds at disrupting the assumption that cyberbspace is somehow more egalitarian than offline culture. Noting that previous scholars have argued that online environments somehow mask societal markers, she asserts: "Existing research regarding online identity performances does not adequately provide evidence to adequately support assertions that online identity performances subvert hierarchies or disrupt power based on race, gender, and class" (222). Second, Kendall's claims about the enactment of masculinity on BlueSky provides fascinating insights into how new technology has both simultaneously reinforced and disrupted notions surrounding male sexuality. Her observations about "heterosexual dropouts" may provide a particularly useful springboard for further research.

Overall, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub provides a coherent analysis of the performance of gender in online environments, though it should not be taken as the last word on the subject. In particular, further analysis of the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of participants in online social environments seems warranted, given the continued proliferation of web-based communication forums since the book's publication in 2002. As Kendall herself acknowledges in the book's conclusion, "forums such as BlueSky provide a new kind of meeting place, but far from solving some of the problems of the offline world, they may in fact intensify those problems by providing a forum in which the relatively privileged can escape to an arena where their privilege remains relatively hidden (to themselves as well as others" (224). While itself BlueSky no longer exists, the online virtual locker room remains alive and well.

Ben Krueger:
Ben Krueger is a PhD student in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland specializing in rhetorical studies. He currently teaches Gender Communication.   <bkruege1@umd.edu>

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