The internet is hardly an equal space. Nor is it apolitical. The internet has opinions. The sheer variety of these might lull you into thinking that diversity here might actually be considered desirable. However, the fact is, everything on the internet is governed by normative notions of acceptable information and conduct. One only needs to type in “sex work” or “porn” on Google search to find that the suggestions will mysteriously cease to appear.
The internet is sexist. It discriminates. It perpetuates stereotypes. That it uses censorship as a means to perpetuate normative notions which are invariably patriarchal is clear. The editors on Wikipedia for instance, had moved women, from the “American Novelists” category to the “American Women Novelists” subcategory. According to Amanda Filipacchi, who first broke this story; the intention was to “…to create a list of “American Novelists” on Wikipedia that is made up almost entirely of men.” Following this, Deanna Zandt brought up crucial pitfalls of labelling spaces like Wikipedia as sexist as they can be edited by anyone. She wrote an impassioned article titled “Yes Wikipedia is sexist—that’s why it needs you” which urges people to warm up to technology and gives out neat little guidelines on how-to-edit on Wikipedia.
However, this is easier said than done because the problem has deeper roots. An important thing to consider is the misogyny rampant in social interaction on the internet. Like public spaces, some places on the internet are inarguably hostile towards women. This is manifested in humour, insults and even threats. A case in point is when the admin of a popular page on Facebook called “I fucking love science” faced an onslaught misogynistic slur when the followers found out she was a woman. The people who commented couldn’t believe that a woman could run an informational page on science! Many comments which are meant to be in jest betray a deep rooted culture of misogyny. For instance, on Troll Tennis- a humorous page about Tennis- pictures of Serena Williams are greeted with slurs of “Serena the man” or “Serena the eunuch”.
A study conducted by Plan (an international non-profit organization working to empower women and children) in 2010 also highlights the dark side of cyberspace. It argues that the internet currently is not a space for opportunity but exploitation for young girls. In the report “Because I am a Girl- The state of the world’s girls in 2010”, these exploitations are seen both as a result of interaction with strangers as well as peer to peer sexual harassment.
Stereotypically too, women are seen as being “techno-challenged” and technology is seen as something only men would be interested in or would be adept at.
A crucial question to ask then is- if the access to spaces on the internet is fundamentally unequal, then how can women embrace technology and view the internet as empowering?
An equally problematic practice is that of selective censorship. MotherWise parenting is a page on Facebook which is run by women who are mothers. It is a forum to discuss evidence-based parenting and the rights of children. When the admin of this page posted an anatomical diagram of genitals with the intention of disseminating information about women’s bodies, Facebook removed the content saying it was “objectionable”. In response to this, the admin wrote “An Open Letter to Facebook” where she cited the existence of many pages like ‘Big Boobs and sex’, ‘Sexy asses’ and said, “I am wondering why pictures of women stay up if it is visually stimulating to men, but a cartoon drawing that will help women empower themselves and gain knowledge is considered pornographic, and gets removed? I am asking you to please remove the ban from my profile. I do not feel that it violated any terms, and frankly I think you are being completely unreasonable and hypocritical.”
While the critique against sexual objectification need not be accepted without question, the larger issues of selective censorship remain perplexing. Is the internet not open to giving out scientific unbiased information about bodies which could potentially empower people? It seems not.
On the up-side, worth consideration is the increase in internet campaigns which question this gendered access to online spaces and turn it on its head by dramatically altering the nature and scope of internet and technology. For example, LinuxChix is a community for women who like Linux and for anyone who wants to support women in computing. Another, the Internet Democracy Project seeks to unearth both the changes wrought by technology to democracy-as-we-know-it and the implications of these changes. Tactical Technology collective is an organization dedicated to the use of information in activism by using data, design and technology in campaigning.
Other examples of online activism include the hugely successful campaigns GotStared.At , Change.Org and LoveMatters. You can read more about them here:
These initiatives are doing the crucial job of rethinking and restructuring online spaces. But larger issues of unequal access to online spaces for women need to be raised and addressed both at an individual and the collective level. It begins by accepting that the internet isn’t as engendered a space as you might think.