Gender Issues in Online Communities

Gender Issues in Online Communities

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The Internet is imagined as an all-inclusive technology that will allow everyone, regardless of social status, gender, or ability, to communicate equally. The full title of a recent book is The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know. But has the offline world really changed? Or is what is happening online merely a reflection of real-world power structures and communications?

One possible answer is: the world has changed because online communities allow geographically diverse people to form relationships, whereas previously the mere accident of living in the same town or some other artificially constructed border conferred a sense of belonging.

Another possible answer is that nothing has changed. The same people who hold power in the real world do so online as well. They are the same people who created and control the technologies that make up the Internet. Only when other groups have a say in how and which new technologies are implemented will the world begin to change.

A combination of these two answers leads to this examination of gender issues in online communities. The physical isolation from peers felt by many women leads them to explore new technologies as a way of reaching others. The environment they discover in the traditional Internet forums is, in many ways, hostile to their interests and discussions.

Should women learn to adapt to the prevailing style of discourse online? Alternatively, should they instead strive to create their own spaces, whether specifically women-friendly or women-only? Are online communities of any sort better than traditional, public areas for gender-equitable discussions?

This article discusses theories of online communications as they relate to community and gender, what makes an online community different from other areas on the Internet, my own experiences in various online communities, both women-only and mixed-gender, and will examine my experiences in relation to the theories, and attempt to draw some larger lessons.

This article is part of a special issue of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) Newsletter.

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2000