This article was originally posted on Yahoo! Accessibility.
What kind of virtual world do women inhabit, and what are the implications of their increasingly diverse online activities? This is a difficult question to answer, because there is no singular “virtual world.” The Internet is a tool for people to create communities of their own, not one unitary community. While there are a lot of very big and open common spaces, it is also entirely possible to create a fairly insular community online where the participants work together to create whatever kind of virtual space they want to (Youngs). This is particularly beneficial for marginalized groups, such as women and people with disabilities (Herring et al.), who can create spaces in which a shared experience can lead to building identity and a sense of empowerment from being able to work through barriers with others who understand.
In many (maybe even most) virtual spaces, there is still quite a bit of hostility towards women and women’s issues. Discussion of women’s issues seems to draw trolling behavior (Herring et al.). When gender equality is discussed in many online spaces, it is met with disbelief and resistance, particularly in the context of developed, industrialized nations. There seems to be a general response of, “What are you whining about? You ‘feminist types’ have ruined everything.” Doubly so when you consider disability issues on top of that, as our whole group is often judged by people who don’t know us to be a leech on society, rather than considered as valuable individuals who are full members of society. This hostility, often termed ableism, is never easy to see, let alone overcome, particularly for those who are not entirely sure where they stand.
However, many women have managed to carve out relatively safe spaces in which to build community and discuss issues that are important to them, using a combination of traditional community-building practices learned from offline spaces and thoughtful use of new online opportunities and moderation tools. The implications of the spaces that are being built by women and allies are at once amazing and needed, but also highlight progress that needs to be made. Online communities have taken spaces for woman-identified people from the relatively small, hidden, local community-dependent places of the 1960s and 1970s (which Tracey L. M. Kennedy calls “consciousness-raising groups”) to a medium that reaches out internationally to where people are in order to find truly like-minded individuals to form a community with (or “feminist virtual consciousness-raising”) (Youngs). Finally, all of those issues that women have really wanted to discuss with other people for so many years are being discussed in a relatively welcoming environment.
However, the ability to find people who do very much agree with you has also sometimes led to online communities and blogs being solipsistic, extremely insular and exclusionary – creating an “echo chamber” effect. Miller and Shepherd describe this as a sort of “intensification of the self” wherein identities become highly internally mediated and focused on their chosen goal or acceptance by a group. They can become something like a cult of personality wherein you are not welcome if you have different ideas, even if your desires and goals are very similar. This practice is somewhat understandable considering many people crave commonality in which to “share stories” and explore self-expression, but it may not lead to real change in the world in any direct sense (Miller and Shepherd, Kennedy, Youngs). Also, inclusion is not easy for anyone. The Internet allows for a great deal of diversity, which can be overwhelming. It takes a great deal of consciousness, outreach and intention to be welcoming to a broad range of people, even just within the women’s community.
This concept of forming women-centered virtual spaces has even been formalized by organizations like BlogHer, which brings together women who blog about a wide variety of topics together at conferences every year to network, built projects, and work towards common goals. They also have a website where blog feeds of all members are integrated with networking and community tools. Our own organization, GimpGirl, allows for women with disabilities to connect for mutual support and networking. There are also several organizations that support women in traditionally male-dominated technology fields, such as The Anita Borg Institute which focuses on connecting women in computer science through their numerous initiatives such as a yearly conference and discussion lists.
Thankfully, these virtual spaces also provide many opportunities for inclusion and outreach if the effort is made, as well as an amazing opportunity for surprisingly intimate dialogue and content friendly to women (Kennedy, Tobias). You can network with an endless variety of people that have similar or parallel goals, and work together with them to reach larger audiences.
Know of other women-centered communities or have something to say? Feel free to comment below!
Herring, Susan et al. Searching for Safety Online: Managing “Trolling” in a Feminist Forum. The Information Society, 18:371-384. 2002.