May 5, 2015
Open Systems and Glass Ceilings
Posted on Apr 11, 2014
By Astra Taylor, TomDispatch
Young women musicians and writers often find themselves targeted online by men who want to silence them. “The people who were posting comments about me were speculating as to how many abortions I’ve had, and they talked about ‘hate-fucking’ me,” blogger Jill Filipovic told the Guardian after photos of her were uploaded to a vitriolic online forum. Laurie Penny, a young political columnist who has faced similar persecution and recently published an ebook called Cybersexism, touched a nerve by calling a woman’s opinion the “short skirt” of the Internet: “Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill, and urinate on you.”
Alas, the trouble doesn’t end there. Women who are increasingly speaking out against harassers are frequently accused of wanting to stifle free speech. Or they are told to “lighten up” and that the harassment, however stressful and upsetting, isn’t real because it’s only happening online, that it’s just “harmless locker-room talk.”
As things currently stand, each woman is left alone to devise a coping mechanism as if her situation were unique. Yet these are never isolated incidents, however venomously personal the insults may be. (One harasser called Beard—and by online standards of hate speech this was mild—“a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth.”)
Indeed, a University of Maryland study strongly suggests just how programmatic such abuse is. Those posting with female usernames, researchers were shocked to discover, received 25 times as many malicious messages as those whose designations were masculine or ambiguous. The findings were so alarming that the authors advised parents to instruct their daughters to use sex-neutral monikers online. “Kids can still exercise plenty of creativity and self-expression without divulging their gender,” a well-meaning professor said, effectively accepting that young girls must hide who they are to participate in digital life.
Square, Site wide
Over the last few months, a number of black women with substantial social media presences conducted an informal experiment of their own. Fed up with the fire hose of animosity aimed at them, Jamie Nesbitt Golden and others adopted masculine Twitter avatars. Golden replaced her photo with that of a hip, bearded, young white man, though she kept her bio and continued to communicate in her own voice. “The number of snarky, condescending tweets dropped off considerably, and discussions on race and gender were less volatile,” Golden wrote, marveling at how simply changing a photo transformed reactions to her. “Once I went back to Black, it was back to business as usual.”
Old Problems in New Media
Not all discrimination is so overt. A study summarized on the Harvard Business Review website analyzed social patterns on Twitter, where female users actually outnumbered males by 10%. The researchers reported “that an average man is almost twice [as] likely to follow another man [as] a woman” while “an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman.” The results could not be explained by varying usage since both genders tweeted at the same rate.
Online as off, men are assumed to be more authoritative and credible, and thus deserving of recognition and support. In this way, long-standing disparities are reflected or even magnified on the Internet.
In his 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, reports that of the top 10 blogs, only one belonged to a female writer. A wider census of every political blog with an average of over 2,000 visitors a week, or a total of 87 sites, found that only five were run by women, nor were there “identifiable African Americans among the top 30 bloggers,” though there was “one Asian blogger, and one of mixed Latino heritage.” In 2008, Hindman surveyed the blogosphere and found it less diverse than the notoriously whitewashed op-ed pages of print newspapers. Nothing suggests that, in the intervening six years, things have changed for the better.
Welcome to the age of what Julia Carrie Wong has called “old problems in new media,” as the latest well-funded online journalism start-ups continue to be helmed by brand-name bloggers like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver. It is “impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively—and increasingly—male and white,” Emily Bell lamented in a widely circulated op-ed. It’s not that women and people of color aren’t doing innovative work in reporting and cultural criticism; it’s just that they get passed over by investors and financiers in favor of the familiar.
As Deanna Zandt and others have pointed out, such real-world lack of diversity is also regularly seen on the rosters of technology conferences, even as speakers take the stage to hail a democratic revolution on the Web, while audiences that look just like them cheer. In early 2013, in reaction to the announcement of yet another all-male lineup at a prominent Web gathering, a pledge was posted on the website of the Atlantic asking men to refrain from speaking at events where women are not represented. The list of signatories was almost immediately removed “due to a flood of spam/trolls.” The conference organizer, a successful developer, dismissed the uproar over Twitter. “I don’t feel [the] need to defend this, but am happy with our process,” he stated. Instituting quotas, he insisted, would be a “discriminatory” way of creating diversity.
This sort of rationalization means technology companies look remarkably like the old ones they aspire to replace: male, pale, and privileged. Consider Instagram, the massively popular photo-sharing and social networking service, which was founded in 2010 but only hired its first female engineer last year. While the percentage of computer and information sciences degrees women earned rose from 14% to 37% between 1970 and 1985, that share had depressingly declined to 18% by 2008.
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