The Web is often optimistically thought of as a liberatory space. In the 90s, it was thought that people would be able to break free of the rigid strictures of race, class, and gender and assume alternative or hybrid identities. However, the freedom to fashion identities was often used to exaggerate, rather than challenge, real world biases and polarities. As Lisa Nakamura noted in her seminal 1998 article Race In/For Cyberspace white males could be found role-playing samurai, ninja, or Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu:

This type of Orientalized theatricality is a form of identity tourism; players who choose to perform this type of racial play are almost always white, and their appropriation of stereotyped male Asiatic samurai figures allows them to indulge in a dream of crossing over racial boundaries temporarily and recreationally.

The (double) appropriation of race and gender was also not uncommon wherein men masqueraded with names such as AsianDoll, Miss_Saigon, Bisexual_Asian_Guest, and Geisha_Guest.

They describe themselves as, for example, a “mystical Oriental beauty, drawn from the pages of a Nagel calendar,” or, in the case of the Geisha_Guest, a character owned by a white American man living in Japan: “a petite Japanese girl in her twenties. She has devoted her entire life to the perfecting the tea ceremony and mastering the art of lovemaking. She is multi-orgasmic. She is wearing a pastel kimono, 3 under-kimonos in pink and white. She is not wearing panties, and that would not be appropriate for a geisha. She has spent her entire life in the pursuit of erotic experiences.”

So much for the 90s! In this decade, enthusiasm has turned from personal identity to community, including the production of all manner of content. In the rhetoric of openness and freedom, it is assumed that boundaries to participation disappear and resulting social structures are then the natural result of autonomous and free participants. Yet, the well known gender imbalance in computer related fields (approximately 28% female) is further exacerbated in the FOSS community, with females making up about 1.5% of participants . That is, despite a voluntary, egalitarian, and meritocratic ethos, women are less likely to participate in FOSS! One would hope Wikipedia would be closer to balanced participation, yet, surveys indicate that women constitute around 13% of Wikipedians . (Even the Onion jests .)

In the past, I have argued that the very notions of equality and freedom might inhibit constructive action towards mitigating bias. After interviewing male and female students about computer usage and its larger culture (e.g., reading computer magazines), Fiona Wilson argues that women who might otherwise object to informal bias might simply accept the presumption of equality or not want to challenge it so as to avoid being singled out. On this note, a large study of FOSS participants found the presumption of freedom and autonomy caused “most F/LOSS participants think that it is the women who decide by their own free volition not to contribute. There is a strong desire to believe that gender has nothing to do with the choices people make because it threatens this notion of individual autonomy” . Furthermore, the prevalence of “flaming” or offensive jokes – likely consequences of a community that values autonomy and speech – can render the environment inhospitable. The accepted censure of trolling would not apply to genuinely held – though no less objectionable – beliefs. Interestingly, even the “ambient environment” (e.g., stereotypically masculine posters and toys) have been found to affect female interest in computing . This is perhaps related to the (controversial) concern by Clay Shirky that “not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks,” which is typical of some men in these communities .

However, in the past year we have seen a number of events in which presumed male-normativity was exhibited in prominent venues, and challenged and widely discussed within the community . This follows upon the continued line of *chix lists and the GeekFeminism wiki (began in ~2008).

Consequently, in the session I would like to ask the following questions:

  1. Does a new Web exceptionalism of openness and freedom exist relative to questions of gender, age, class, and race? (I can talk about a Wikipedia promotional video I saw recently, or the WikiChix list.)
  2. Do the very ideas of freedom and openness inhibit diverse representation and participation?
    1. Culturally, by creating speech and other norms which can be alienating?
    2. Rhetorically, by suppressing the ability to speak about imbalances?
    3. Other means?
  3. Was 2009 the year of “something,” where that something is a change in sensitivity to male-normativity?
  4. Is there anything we can do about this?
    1. Closing the boundaries of community, akin to Sunstein’s argument for enclaves, as was the case in the WikiChix list.
    2. …?