Thursday, March 20, 2008

a sticky web

The New York Times asks why, if so few women work in the computer technology industry, do so many more teenage girls use the internet than teenage boys? They ask the question but are tentative in offering any answers. The reason for that is, as they say, because...

"Teasing out why girls are prolific Web content creators usually leads to speculation and generalization. Although girls have outperformed boys in reading and writing for years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, this does not automatically translate into a collective yen to blog or sign up for a MySpace page".

There have always been generalisations down sex and gender lines on this topic, because girls' prevalence online has been long noted, even back in the days before the giant social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Beebo: more girls had 'homepages' than boys, and a big deal was made about the name, 'homepage', and how girls' apparent 'nesting' inclinations have translated into digital homemaking. It is possible, I suppose, as female children are, generally-speaking, brought up on a diet of dolls-houses and Fisher Price kitchen sets, and so extending domestic idealisation into a digital home would be a natural extension of childhood practices. But if this is true, then it's quite disturbing.

Internet enthusiasts and propaganda espousing the possibilities of the internet have always emphasised its 'freeing' potential:- promising a place of escape, from 'reality', from routine daily life, and from virtually all conventional societal roles; including, of course, gender roles. But if what the 16-year-old website contributer interviewed in the article says about why girls are more active online is true, and “girls like to help with other people’s problems or questions, [in order to be] kind of, like, motherly, to everybody" then this vision is in trouble.

If her view is shared, then not only are all female babies born instant mothers (in other words, destined always, inevitably, without question, for motherhood, and never allowed to be anything other, even in childhood), but all online social networking does, or is for, is to perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes. We are all still men and women online - men and mothers - men and sex objects - and we have not deviated from any of the normalised models of gender. The web is a trap... its net is tightening...

I would like to believe this isn't the case. I have never believed it before. Perhaps I have what is now an old fashioned 90s view of what forms of liberation the internet could offer society: I believed identities could shift and merge and transform in cyberspace. But when I was looking for images for this post and, inspired by the title the New York Times had given its article's subjects, I googled 'cyber girl', all I was presented with was page upon page of porn. According to the majority of web content creators, 'cyber girls' are not girls who blog, or network, or write content, or create web pages, 'cyber girls' are sexualised images of women you can access digitally. And that's all. So much for gender liberation in cyberspace!

(I picked a tame one!)

Apart from the small image taken from the New York Times article itself, these are the only non-pornographic 'cyber girl' images I found:

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exoteric said...

Did you try searching Google for "cyber boy"? it is not a whole lot better (though I agree it loses out) - as a hint, if you were unaware, "cyber", in the context of "to cyber" has derived a new definition as a verb form of "cyber sex", hence the search results. That said, searches for "tech girl", "geek girl" and "wired girl" didn't do all that much better ("geek girl" wins), though interestingly, you could say, each yielded quite different result sets.

If anything, the greater online presence of girls particularly, as the the article suggests, on social networking sites is due to girls being more socially orientated than boys. I don't think that this is a terribly new notion. As to the design and content creation tendency, girls are generally the predominant gender in school art classes, and I think that they are simply using and adopting web tools for their own self expression.

Whilst I respect the theory, I doubt that we can really say that girls are treating their websites and facebook pages as children, but rather as an expression of personality, preferences and artistic expression.

jennifletzet said...

You're right - to give a fuller argument - I needed to google the male versions too...

I have a really big problem with the self-perpetuation involved in categorising boys and girls into different skills boxes - it's a really popular thing to do at the moment and I don't really know why - it's also happening a lot in social studies of adults - about women multi-tasking and men problem-solving and all of that. So, defining girls as more socially oriented and more creative from an earlier age and then leaving it at that - like that's the answer - is a problem for me. For me, it's not an answer - it just poses more questions. I strongly believe that boys and girls are not born this way - the differences between the sexes at birth are minuscule - if even detectable at all - and so all these things - about girls homemaking and socialising - and boys being active more outside and less interested in aesthetics - all happen later, through socialisation into specific gender roles. In time, seemingly harmless activities done separately by boys and girls lead to greater divisions between the sexes in adulthood. I want to know why this happens...