Masthead CMC Magazine / March 1, 1996


Why Bring Gender Online?

by Lisa Schmesier

Gender is an elusive paradigm. We may be born with a particular set of reproductive equipment, but biology doesn't make things clear cut. For years, people have debated how much of a gender identity is biologically derived, and how much is socially constructed through external cues and influences.

Then came computer mediated communication, where visual and auditory cues were irrelevant. As contributer []Leslie Regan Shade noted in a talk, " Community Networking: the International Free-Net Conference," "One of the characteristics of computer mediated-communication (CMC) is its lack of easy social contextualization."

But in a medium where one can construct or discard identities at whim, why are people bringing a gender identity online?

The drawbacks have been meticulously documented in popular media: people harass women in certain forums, others list women in a "Babes of the Web"-style pages. But what benefits are there to being a woman, part of a visible minority, online?

The visibility is part of the attraction: the most active woman-centered sites online center around building a community and promoting women as socially and professionally equal to men. Contributor []Mindy McAdams writes "The drawback to any attempt to remain un-gendered is the inability to declare oneself. As soon as you announce that you are a woman, you are one. So long as we have bodies back here in real life, we will want to speak up for them online."

Forging an visible gender identity online can also be a means of reinforcing total identity--a cultural feedback loop. In [] examining the nrrdgrrl phenomenon, Amelia DeLoach explains why women have created aggressively female, uniquely tailored identities online: "the Web fills a need for self expression, self empowerment, and creative pleasure."

We've only begun to explore the implications of pulling physical gender identity online in this issue. Yet from what I've seen in the articles, constructing an identity in a computer-mediated context may yield results for settling the elusive question: why gender? in the physical world.

Lisa Schmesier ( works for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 1996 by Lisa Schmesier. All Rights Reserved.

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