Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 2/ February 1, 1995 / Page 12


On "Bob," "Thomas," and Other New Friends: Gender in Cyberspace

by Laura J. Gurak, PhD (

A few weeks ago, I read an article in our local paper about Microsoft's new "Bob" program: a GUI that apparently helps users learn their way around the computer through the assistance of a character named Bob, who speaks to users through little cartoon-like balloons and moves around through various rooms to illustrate his points. The system is actually named "Bob." Then, about a week later, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich announced the "Thomas" project, which, though I have not yet seen it, is an information base linked to various government information sources. It is named after Thomas Jefferson.

"Bob?" "Thomas?" Where are the women, anyway? The situation strikes me as closely related to what has long been an anecdotal idea but is now becoming a research question about CMC: where are all the women? Is cyberspace a gender-biased place? Are the new social and political spaces in the online world populated primarily by men? If so, why? And is this how we want our cyberspaces of the future to look?

During my case study of the protest over Lotus MarketPlace, I noticed that it was primarily women who used lots of smileys and other emoticons. The rhetorical purpose of using these symbols often seemed to be that described by researchers of gender and communication as "deflective." That is, the smileys were often being used to deflect from the seriousness of the women's argument or point. This usage is similar to what women often do in oral communication when they end a statement with a question-mark inflection, which takes away from the emphatic nature of the statement and instead turns it into a question that is seeking approval.

My observations were purely anecdotal, however. I did not pursue this question during my research of the Lotus case. Yet lately, as I continue to work, play, and research on the Internet, I become increasingly concerned and intrigued with the notion of how the new cyberspaces may in fact be gendered places.

There are researchers who are actively pursuing this issue. Most prominent among them are Susan Herring, a linguist from the University of Texas at Arlington, and Kimberly Matheson from the psychology department at Carleton University. Along with others, these researchers are seeking to ask and answer the hard questions about gender bias in cyberspace. Herring's work is especially interesting because she performs close language analyses of women's and men's conversations on the net and attempts to categorize the types of language used (aggressive versus passive, for example).

One problem, of course, in this sort of research, is that it is difficult to really know the gender of a person on the net. Even a name in the "From:" line that is clearly female still does not mean anything, since the author may in fact be a male in disguise. There is the famous case of a man who signed on to an all-women's list as a woman only to reveal himself later as a sociologist doing a study. The women were not amused, in part because of the tacit sense of trust and community that has evolved in many places throughout the Internet. Researchers, therefore, have to cross-check their analyses using surveys and other methods to be sure their accounts of a person's sex are accurate.

In my article in last month's issue, I talked about our culture's tendency toward thinking that technology is neutral. I suspect CMC, like any other technology, has components of gender, class, and racial biases and is not, as my previous article refuted, a completely egalitarian space. It is reflective of our social values as a whole, and since gender bias exists in the broader culture, it surely exists in cyberspace. Furthermore, since most of the early Internet inhabitants were computer scientists, and since most computer scientists were then and are now men, it is probably accurate to assume that until recently, the sheer number of men on the Net has been responsible for the tacit net-rhetoric that has become the dominant rhetorical form.

Is "flaming," for example, a gendered behavior? These and other questions are all in need of serious thought if we are to work toward cyberplaces that accommodate all users, both current and potential. One interesting idea is to work more closely in the grade schools to be sure that young girls are receiving the skills they need to participate and bring their voices to the new public places of the Internet. These skills include technical competence as well as social and intellectual confidence. Another is for developers to include multiple perspectives and voices on their design teams and in their focus groups so that new CMC systems reflect a broad appeal. From pure research to pure application, there are many ways we can work to be sure cyberspace is a space for all.

Like naming our systems, for example. How about a new service called "Elizabeth" (as in "Cady Stanton")? She could stand along side "Thomas" as a provider of information about the history of the United States. Or the herstory, I guess. Or how about "Hillary," a potential web page and resource about successful American women? The possibilities are endless. It's up to us to define this new communication forum, especially now during these early stages of CMC development. So let's take a critical eye to this new technology. Let's think big about a place where not only the Bobs and Thomases, but also the Janes and Sallys and Elizabeths and Hillarys can talk, play, exchange information, debate, and share in the potential of this new communication medium.

Oops. I forgot about Betsy Ross, who's probably a better parallel for the Thomas project. But you get the picture. ¤

For more information about online gender issues, see Ellen Spertus' collection, Women and Computer Science.

Laura Gurak is Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota (Scientific and Technical Communication Program). She has published in journals and collections in technical communication and online networks. She is currently working on developing a broad research agenda to study the rhetorical dynamics of computer-mediated communication.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura J. Gurak. All Rights Reserved.

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