This is part 3 of a series of critical questions. You can find part 1 and part 2 here.
“Is the internet for women and gays?” may seem like at odd question at first – but there is a story behind it. I am coming at the question as a researcher. I am doing research design at UCLA right now in preparation for my dissertation next year. One of the research questions is in relation to technology, the community of users interacts with the technology, and possible issues related to who conceived of and designed the technology.
An interesting case study is found in the Grindr social network community. Grindr is a widely popular mobile, GPS-enabled hook-up app for gays. The folks at Grindr had the idea to launch a ‘straight’ version called Blendr, and it has been massive failure. [You can read about why it failed here and here and here ]
One of the theories is that Grindr was conceived of and designed by gays. A hypothesis we were testing is that embedded in the ‘DNA’ of the technology was something inherently ‘gay’ that resonated with its users but was lost in translation when the conversion to Blendr was attempted.
During this research I have also become aware of a growing problem of cyber-bullying, particularly of women and LBGT persons. It shows up on Facebook, Xbox chat rooms during multi-player games, and blogs.
One article about women bloggers contained two different women’s experience.
“The death threat was pretty scary,” says HollaBack! cofounder Emily May. “And there have been several rape threats. But it’s mostly ‘I want to rape you’ or ‘Somebody should rape you.’ Most are not physical threats–they’re more about how ugly I am, how nobody would bother raping me because I’m so fat and hideous. Once, after reading all these posts, I just sat in my living room and bawled like a 12-year-old.”
Jennifer Pozner agrees. “Very rarely have I gotten negative feedback that doesn’t include either a rape threat or calling me ugly and fat. Or sometimes they tell me I’m hot, but they hate what I’m saying– they’d rather watch me on TV with the mute on.” Pozner’s threats have not been limited to online: One man left a letter at her door saying he’d “find you and your mom and rape you both.”
Ponzer says “It’s about the policing of women … using threats to keep us silent.”
It is clear that many of the same oppressive behaviors, patriarchal attitudes and hurtful rhetoric that plague us in the ‘real world’ show up in cyberspace. Is a matter for concern? Is this a surprising reality? Does this need to be addressed?
The question “Is the internet for women and gays?” seems to have 3 initial answers that each expose some significant underlying assumptions.
- The first possible answer is “Of course it is! In fact, it is a powerful leveler of the social hierarchies and power structures that dominate our inherited cultural history” . The internet is seen to be a democratic space that allows for harmful elements to be exposed and for the community to vocalize and govern in ways that are newly empowering. It allows us the possibility to combat bullies and shame those who are hurtful to others.
- The second possible answer relates to the idea that embedded in the DNA of technology are the values and priorities (as well a biases) of it’s designer. In this case, it would make sense that many of the same problems in Western culture are carried over into the technologies that are conceived of and designed by folks from the culture. It is the same shit by different means. Same prejudice – different medium.
- A third possible answer is that technology is an empty vessel when it comes to values and we, as users, supply it with meaning and content. So a message board, Facebook page, blog and XBox chat room are just spaces that we utilize. They are neutral and can be used in socially positive (welcoming) or negative (aggressive or discriminatory) ways.
Why am I concerned about this?
This issues concerns me in two ways:
1) I am deeply troubled to read of women bloggers being threatened and intimidated – even virtually. I am concerned about stories I hear from the girls in my youth group about their Facebook experiences. My wife has worked in both Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Counseling while I have been in youth ministry. Issues related intimidation, violence and oppression-suppression are serious and deeply impact the quality of someone’s life, their mental and emotional health and their capacity to participate in family, church and society.
2) Technology seems to be a good test case for a much larger concern that I have regarding leadership and community development in the next generation. This particular issue gives me great hesitation about getting too excited regarding this potential new era of open-mindedness, equality, acceptance and freedom. The issue is simply this:
We who have been trained, groomed, shaped, and socialized into the old forms – bring with us into the new forms, our patterns, values, ideas, permissions and prejudices.
It’s like whenever someone complains about a perceived shortcoming in the Emerging Church, I find myself saying
“yes … but part of that has to do with that which we are emerging from. These are inherited patterns because we are all embedded in systems that contain inherent values. It will take a while to entirely emerge out of that.”
To take this back to our initial question about technology. Technology isn’t the solution to the problems that haunt us. They may be helpful for bringing about the solution – but simply have an open room – Facebook, Xbox chat or blog – is not a fix in itself. The prejudices and issues of power that are ‘outside’ the room are brought in with the people who come in to use the space.
This seems to me to be an import issue to vocalize. My hope is that in simply naming it to raise awareness that technology is not inherently neutral, safe, or equal. There is more going on in our use of Facebook, Xbox chats and blogs than just our use of those technologies. They are not absent of the values, patterns, prejudices and social power dynamics of the world and culture that made them.
We need to be vigilant to address hurtful and harmful material in our technologies. Technology is not neutral – it is embedded with meaning and value.