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Open Systems and Glass Ceilings

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Posted on Apr 11, 2014

Image by ssoosay (CC BY 2.0)

By Astra Taylor, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Rebecca Solnit’s introduction here.

The Web is regularly hailed for its “openness” and that’s where the confusion begins, since “open” in no way means “equal.” While the Internet may create space for many voices, it also reflects and often amplifies real-world inequities in striking ways.

An elaborate system organized around hubs and links, the Web has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture. Its traffic, for instance, tends to be distributed according to “power laws,” which follow what’s known as the 80/20 rule—80% of a desirable resource goes to 20% of the population.

In fact, as anyone knows who has followed the histories of Google,  Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, now among the biggest companies in the world, the Web is increasingly a winner-take-all, rich-get-richer sort of place, which means the disparate percentages in those power laws are only likely to look uglier over time.

Powerful and exceedingly familiar hierarchies have come to define the digital realm, whether you’re considering its economics or the social world it reflects and represents.  Not surprisingly, then, well-off white men are wildly overrepresented both in the tech industry and online.

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Just take a look at gender and the Web comes quickly into focus, leaving you with a vivid sense of which direction the Internet is heading in and—small hint—it’s not toward equality or democracy.

Experts, Trolls, and What Your Mom Doesn’t Know

As a start, in the perfectly real world women shoulder a disproportionate share of household and child-rearing responsibilities, leaving them substantially less leisure time to spend online. Though a handful of high-powered celebrity “mommy bloggers” have managed to attract massive audiences and ad revenue by documenting their daily travails, they are the exceptions not the rule. In professional fields like philosophy, law, and science, where blogging has become popular, women are notoriously underrepresented; by one count, for instance, only around 20% of science bloggers are women.

An otherwise optimistic white paper by the British think tank Demos touching on the rise of amateur creativity online reported that white males are far more likely to be “hobbyists with professional standards” than other social groups, while you won’t be shocked to learn that low-income women with dependent children lag far behind. Even among the highly connected college-age set, research reveals a stark divergence in rates of online participation.

Socioeconomic status, race, and gender all play significant roles in a who’s who of the online world, with men considerably more likely to participate than women. “These findings suggest that Internet access may not, in and of itself, level the playing field when it comes to potential pay-offs of being online,” warns Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University. Put simply, closing the so-called digital divide still leaves a noticeable gap; the more privileged your background, the more likely that you’ll reap the additional benefits of new technologies.

Some of the obstacles to online engagement are psychological, unconscious, and invidious. In a revealing study conducted twice over a span of five years—and yielding the same results both times—Hargittai tested and interviewed 100 Internet users and found that there was no significant variation in their online competency. In terms of sheer ability, the sexes were equal. The difference was in their self-assessments.

It came down to this: The men were certain they did well, while the women were wracked by self-doubt. “Not a single woman among all our female study subjects called herself an ‘expert’ user,” Hargittai noted, “while not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or ‘not at all skilled.’” As you might imagine, how you think of yourself as an online contributor deeply influences how much you’re likely to contribute online.

The results of Hargittai’s study hardly surprised me. I’ve seen endless female friends be passed over by less talented, more assertive men. I’ve had countless people—older and male, always—assume that someone else must have conducted the interviews for my documentary films, as though a young woman couldn’t have managed such a thing without assistance. Research shows that people routinely underestimate women’s abilities, not least women themselves.

When it comes to specialized technical know-how, women are assumed to be less competent unless they prove otherwise. In tech circles, for example, new gadgets and programs are often introduced as being “so easy your mother or grandmother could use them.” A typical piece in the New York Times was titled “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.”  (Assumedly, dad already gets it.)  This kind of sexism leapt directly from the offline world onto the Web and may only have intensified there.

And it gets worse. Racist, sexist, and homophobic harassment or “trolling” has become a depressingly routine aspect of online life.

Many prominent women have spoken up about their experiences being bullied and intimidated online—scenarios that sometimes escalate into the release of private information, including home addresses, e-mail passwords, and social security numbers, or simply devolve into an Internet version of stalking. Esteemed classicist Mary Beard, for example, “received online death threats and menaces of sexual assault” after a television appearance last year, as did British activist Caroline Criado-Perez after she successfully campaigned to get more images of women onto British banknotes.


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