Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class and Gender on the Internet
Editor: Bosah Ebo
Publisher: Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998
Review Published: April 2000
The digital divide that currently exists between different races, income classes, and genders is increasingly becoming a more focused topic as we enter a "must know" knowledge towards computers and computer use. Current research points to particular racial minorities, women, and members of the lower classes using the Internet less and having fewer resources to access the Internet. Bosah Ebo's Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class and Gender on the Internet is a collection of thirteen studies that attempt to detail specific aspects of race, class, and gender that account for the disproportionate numbers in Internet use.
Before reading the book, it is important to consider the title and what it specifically means. I had never heard the term "Cyberghetto" or "Cybertopia" before, and was immediately hooked. These words are a great description of what the Internet has the potential to become (or not become). So, after reading (and re-reading) the title, I thought that Cyberghetto would be a book that describes how Race, Class, and Gender are or are not determining factors of Internet use. I expected theoretical discussions about why a difference is occurring and what we can expect in the future concerning these three areas of research.
The book is divided into three sections: Class on the Net, Race on the Net, and Cybergendering. Each section contains four or five studies contributed by various scholars in this field. They are qualitative and quantitative studies that employ different methods to demonstrate the disparities. In the first chapter, Ebo lays out the goals and aspirations for Cyberghetto. At the end of Chapter 1, it is clear that one goal of the book is to give the reader a feeling for what the Internet can bring about in terms of a more egalitarian online world. Another goal is to address the all-too-ignored question, will the Internet lead to another aspect of society where oppression and differences will go unchanged?
Part 1 is comprised of five chapters covering class on the Internet. Unfortunately, the chapters selected for this section fall short of giving a true feeling for emerging class difficulties in relation to computer affordability and Internet access and use. For example, Chapter 2, "Ensuring Social Justice for the New Underclass: Community Interventions to Meet the Needs of the New Poor," does not address the Internet and the Class issue directly; instead it addresses information technologies, which, although similar, are not the same as Internet technologies. It is important for scholars to distinguish between the two and not to assume that these two types of technologies are in fact the same and have the same implications in society. The third chapter, "The Challenge of Cyberspace: Internet Access and Persons with Disabilities," also falls short of giving a description of class differences on the Internet. The chapter provides a detailed description of the history of the rights of persons with disabilities until the conclusion, when the author suggests "computer-mediated communication could end the isolation experienced by many people with disabilities by allowing them to build online communities" (61). This is the first idea that links this chapter with the Internet and, unfortunately, it does not appear until the next to last paragraph. A quantitative study addressing military email entitled "Cyber-Soldiering: Race, Class, Gender, and New Media Use in the U.S. Army," leads to some insight into a class difference within the military in terms of Internet use. At the same time, however, the chapter does not connect the findings to class differenceswithin non-military sectors of society, which comprises the majority of the U.S. population. Finally, Part 1 closes with the chapter "How the Web Was Won: The Commercialization of Cyberspace." This chapter attempts to test a theoretical model that users of the Web are not ready to embrace the Internet because of its difficulty. The chapter tests hypotheses by using a sample drawn from a mail survey and statistically analyzes the results. Unfortunately, the conclusions do not offer any insights into class differences between users of the Web or Internet. This chapter serves more as a description of how the Internet is viewed compared to other forms of media (i.e. television, magazines, newspapers).
Part 2 of Cyberghetto, Race on the Net, is a collection of research involving use of the Internet by users of different races. The best by far is the second chapter, "Domination and Democracy in Cyberspace: Reports from the Majority Media and Ethnic/Gender Margins." This chapter directly details the challenges that racial minorities have in today's Internet world. It addresses the issues of masked identities that can help (or hinder) ethnic and racial barriers and demonstrates this through an online case study of a woman's newsgroup, (name of newsgroup). The remainder of Part 2 is weak in comparison. The final two chapters do not provide much on the topic at hand. They address race as a side issue and would be better suited for discussion about computers and distance learning in classrooms. This is the weakest section in Cyberghetto. The fact that half of the section does not directly deal with race as the primary unit of analysis will leave the reader baffled if not a bit angry.
Part 3, simply titled "Cybergendering," deals with its topic more closely than Part 2 does. It gives a great description of gender differences on the Internet and how women are using the Internet as a source of empowerment and trying to create a more equal "cyberworld." Some chapters, however, do this better than others. The first chapter to address this issue is Chapter 12, "Communicative Style and Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communications." This is a quantitative study which focuses on participation in Internet use by gender. The study fails to produce statistically significant findings. This chapter raises important issues but, unfortunately, does not help us with formulating new knowledge and evidence of gender differences. Chapter 14, "Embracing the Machine: Quilt and Quilting as Community-Building Architecture," is a case study of one woman's use of the Internet to create an empowering, online "quilt" to rally support for her husband, who was being held captive in Iraq. This chapter is what I was looking for throughout the book, and finally got at the end. It shows us that the Internet can be empowering for women, despite the fact that it is traditionally portrayed as a network for and by men.
Cyberghetto or Cybertopia? Race, Class and Gender on the Internet attempts to address key questions surrounding the intersections between race, class, gender, and the Internet. Unfortunately, as a whole, it fails. While the individual chapters are theoretically and methodologically sound, they rarely deal directly with the topic at hand. Accordingly, I believe they did not help to answer -- or even stimulate much thought about -- the questions Bosah Ebo raises in the first chapter. Maybe I just read too much into the title.
Mike Ayers is currently a Masters Candidate in Sociology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. His research interests include: Race, Gender, and the Digital Divide; Social Movements and the Internet; and hopefully one day, Popular Culture.
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