Dale Spender's Nattering on the Net:
Women, Power and Cyberspace


Originally published in Inkwel 1995/4-6


Nattering on the net is a satisfying, affirming and delightful pastime - or it will be when women are full participants in shaping the system and the rules.

(p xxiv)

A very distorted view of the world is created when only one social group, with one set of social experiences, pronounces on how it will be for all. This is Dark Age behaviour, rather than enlightenment.

(p xxv - xxvi)

Nattering on the Net was a fascinating, rollicking read, but not what I expected from the title or the publicity. Less than half the book - one large, final chapter - is devoted to women online. The first six chapters draw historical analogies between the social consequences of the invention of the printing press, and the revolution currently taking place as a result of the spread of the personal computer and computer-mediated communications. I was (not unpleasantly) taken aback to find myself reading history, and soon warmed to Spender's point: awareness of the parallels between then and now can help us distinguish between negative reactions to the medium itself, and "the negative reactions of a community where the culture is undergoing rapid change" (p xx).

Spender puts forward two main theses: that print has had its day, with many and varied consequences for society, and that women must get out on the so-called information superhighway in numbers, and soon, before road rules keeping them out are laid in stone.

Resistance to the information revolution is following the same lines as the resistance expressed when writing was invented, and when the production of written material was taken out of the hands of the Church. We fear the end of the world as we know it - and Spender says we are right to do so:

Like the monks of old who could not believe that the skills they valued and thought essential could simply be by-passed, so we too will continue to feel dismayed and deskilled. For those of us who were reared on print, much of what we do - and what we are - will no longer command respect in our society. Because so much of our attitude to print is an emotional commitment, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to acknowledge that the old is not as good as the new.

(p 66)

In the future she envisages, TV channel hopping will be evidence of valuable scanning skills rather than an alarmingly short concentration span. The use of non-standard spelling and syntax won't interfere with communication. Literature will be replaced by team-created multimedia experiences. Spender looks forward to the validation of alternatives to received modes of thought (described as linear and "masculine"); she welcomes the possibility of an end to the division and elitism caused by print literacy.

I must confess, I'm one of the dinosaurs: I don't find it easy to accept that clear written communication has had its day. The Internet, the vast electronic communications network which is giving rise to so much media concern lately, is still overwhelmingly text-based. The multimedia aspects that Spender celebrates are certainly taking off - the World Wide Web is full of graphics, and audio material is increasingly available - but such items are very slow to download on the average personal computer. When I'm "travelling" on the Web, I turn images off, ignore downloadable sound files, and read. Spender suggests that "the average personal computer" will change (to include vast storage media, as a result of the huge demand for pornographic images, she forecasts) but at present, multimedia is too slow and too big.

Spender writes in a direct, assertive, conversational manner. For example:

"Man" no more means "woman" than "dog" means "cat" and anyone who keeps on arguing that black is white is very foolish. Yet those of us who protest at such absurdity often find that we are the ones who are labelled as unreasonable.

(p 21)

Her claims about language, long a focus of her scholarship, I find readily acceptable, as I'm sure most Inkwel readers would also. What worries me is that opponents of feminism continue to respond in precisely the way Spender describes, despite thirty-odd years of public discourse about the need for inclusive language. Online, as in offices and pubs throughout the English-speaking world, discussion degenerates instantly to sniping about "personhole covers". How do we progress, and instigate change, when the changes we are trying to make are (in the teeth of the evidence!) popularly held to be silly and unnecessary?

The same sort of credibility gap arises when we consider the problems faced by women online.

Sexual harassment has often been referred to as the systematic means of keeping women out of male territory, and this is certainly how it works in cyberspace. Young women who are distressed by the face-to-face behaviour of males in classrooms and computer labs, and who are shocked to the core by their early experiences on the net, aren't going to be keen to become the computer whizzes of the twenty-first century. This is why sexual harassment should be seen for what it is: the "terrorist" tactic used by some men to drive women away from the centre of wealth and power.

(p 203)

A controversial claim - for anyone who hasn't experienced the phenomenon Spender is describing. The problem of sexual harassment is widely denied, by perpetrators and non-perpetrators alike. It's denied in Real Life, let alone in cyberspace, where "sticks and stones" is a catchcry. The gatekeeping effect of being deluged with sexist jokes and non-consensual flirtations at every turn is unlikely to be appreciated by people who are busy denying that harassment exists at all.

Nattering on the Net has been accused of discouraging women from joining the information revolution by dwelling on the negative experiences they may encounter online. Apparently an ostrich approach would be more constructive! Some dismiss the book as yet another instance of "victim feminism". Users of this popular label are quick to confuse analysis with wallowing. I wonder how they suppose women are to develop a response to verifiable problems?

At the moment there are many barriers to women's participation. One of the most obvious is that it costs money to purchase a computer, training and, for most people, time on the net. Because women have on average less money than men, they can be disadvantaged. When they can't get into this new medium, their disadvantage - and their lower financial rewards - are being compounded.

(p 171)

Once you've found (against considerable odds) the disposable income for a computer; once you've learnt how to use it (despite all the "women aren't technical" brainwashing); once you've come to terms with modems, and all the software associated with online messaging, all the while fending off interruptions because a woman's time belongs to everyone else, an unexpected onslaught of online harassment could very well be the last straw. I believe that Spender has done a valuable service in describing what goes on. Forewarned is forearmed!

I've seen Nattering on the Net being whinged about on the net by one or two people who've read it, and a much larger number who haven't bothered. All they need to know, apparently, is that the author is female and critical of the status quo. The first conclusion they jump to is that Spender doesn't know what she's talking about. (The fact that she has been online for a number of years doesn't count, for some mysterious reason.). The next assumption is that she must in some way have "asked for" any trouble she has encountered - sound familiar?

One absolutely standard element of "criticism" of the book is anecdotal evidence - a single anecdote will do! - that there are women who have not had negative experiences online on account of their sex. The Canberra Times reviewer, for example, announced that a woman he knows told him she'd never had any problems. Well, that certainly demolished every point Spender made! It definitely persuaded me to disregard my own experience and all that I've witnessed over the past four years!

Which is that women are treated very differently from men in cyberspace.

Despite the fact that the net is a communications medium where you're not face to face with your interlocutors, where in many cases you'll never even meet them, and where you might expect that your text would stand on its merits, the fact that you are female seems to attract far more attention than your views. You can attempt to hide behind initials, but your sex continues to be the first thing people want to know about you (closely followed by what you look like).

So when you're identified as female, you won't be surprised at being ignored or patronised. Nor will the substitution of gallantry for intellectual engagement strike you as startlingly novel. The application of double standards (particularly "ladylikeness") to your every utterance will not astonish you, although you may often find yourself wanting to check what century we are living in. What you may find a little more perplexing, however, is the widespread assumption that any nattering you may do on the net constitutes sexual advertisement.

Men don't generally assume that other men are nattering on the net to advertise themselves as potential conquests, but many appear to have extreme difficulty in assuming anything else about women. Cyberspace, despite its lack of physical existence, turns out to be just another public place, where women have to watch their every move lest they be seen as "asking for it". Anonymity seems to reduce the inhibitions which sometimes spare us from being hit on "out there". Distance may render the consequences of online harassment less dire than its Real World counterpart, but that doesn't make online harassment harmless.

"Special" treatment of women is also apparent during conflict. Man-to-man flames (abusive messages) take a scattergun approach, often featuring namecalling and swearing, generally slighting the virility of the opponent along the way, but usually addressing what's been written, if only to call it stupid. The flames women receive focus almost exclusively on their supposed failure to come up to scratch as women - as humble, decorative, virtuous, nurturing, flattering handmaidens.

Of course there are exceptions, but I've experienced all of the above as a matter of routine, and I've seen other women routinely treated in the same way. I can only speculate that women who claim that they've had no negative experiences online never venture into public areas. Or perhaps they're comfortable with the ancillary role enjoined upon them. That is, of course, their problem - but it becomes my problem when they lend their voices to those who would limit all women to such roles.

Operating under sexist constraints beats not operating at all, but it's hardly the same as freely taking up the opportunity supposedly offered by the net for participating in public discourse. Not operating at all remains the norm at present, for a variety of reasons, and here's where Spender sees it leading:

Computer-competency is not an option any more. It is a condition of citizenship in the electronic world. This is why particular emphasis is paid to women and computers in this book. For many reasons - which have less to do with women and more to do with computers - women are not making the shift to the new medium at the same rate as men: the most recent reliable figures indicate that 94 per cent of Internet users are male.

Despite the belief of some individuals, the computer is not a toy; it is the site of wealth, power and influence, now and in the future. Women - and Indigenous people, and those with few resources - cannot afford to be marginalised or excluded from this new medium. To do so will be to risk becoming the information-poor. It will be to not count; to be locked out of full participation in society in the same way that illiterate people have been disenfranchised in a print world.

(p xvi)

These dangers are real. Those who are comfortably ensconced on the net, benefiting and participating and influencing away, seem strongly inclined to dismiss the suggestion that women are being marginalised and excluded. One of the ways they do this is by denying that verbal abuse could possibly operate as a deterrent.

It is received wisdom on the net that electronic messages are mere patterns in the phosphor. One thing that becomes rapidly clear to newcomers to computer-mediated communications is that participants are prepared to wheel out much bigger verbal guns than are generally used in face-to-face communications. The anonymity of the medium is often cited as the reason for the prevalence of flaming. And flaming gives rise to a great deal of bravado to the effect that "words can never hurt you" - despite abundant evidence that people can be, and are, distressed by the content of electronic messages.

An outstanding example of this distress is the large number men on the net who are outraged by anything they interpret as criticism of masculine behaviour. Anyone questioning the status quo is voluminously shouted down. Criticising the treatment of women on the net opens the floodgates for dissertations on the perpetrators' freedom of speech. The irony is that the critic's freedom of speech, as the holder of unpopular (feminist) views, is denied. Women can't possibly claim they're being silenced, because abuse and flames are nothing more than patterns in the phosphor! Meanwhile, hordes of men cry "Freedom of speech!", close ranks, and take up cyberarms when the patterns in the phosphor bother them.

Clearly, all the problems women face on the net are versions of Real World problems, with the added complications of anonymity and a largely uncaring peer group. "That's a problem in the wider society too; you can't expect us to fix it." The majority goes on denying and dismissing - so the makeup of that majority needs to be changed. I would like to see women render gatekeeping redundant by trampling right over the gates. The more women there are online, the more the climate will change.

Porn proliferates on the net, as it does in the Real World, but the treatment of porn on the net is one area where I have some disagreements with Nattering on the Net. While I believe that an atmosphere of enthusiasm for porn works against women's ability to exercise human rights, I would have liked to see some recognition that the problem of porn is located with its purveyors and seekers, rather than with the medium that carries it.

Porn is not "in your face" on the net. If you go surfing at random, there's a slight chance you'll stumble across material that offends you, in which case you are free to move on. You will not generally encounter porn unless you go looking for it. Horrid, demeaning, degrading generalisations about how stupid, vain, trivial, manipulative, grasping, and generally second-rate women are - these will be daily in your face on the net, as they are at work and in the media. But porn on the Internet has to be sought out.

(When I raised this claim with Spender, she pointed out an exception: someone may consider it amusing to e-mail you a pornographic file, which you may unsuspectingly decode. I would classify this distasteful behaviour as harassment rather than as evidence of a particular problem with porn on the net.)

Porn has to be located, and downloaded, and often converted to usable form, and accessed with special software. The media have whipped up a frenzy of alarm, but I believe the question they'd be asking if they were actually interested in solutions is "How do we stop boys from running after porn?", not "How do we regulate porn off the net?" Because it is boys, not "children", that this whole fuss is about - funny how that's never stated. And boys have always managed to access porn, regulation or no regulation. They don't need computers or the Internet to do it.

Software houses are currently breaking their necks to provide programs to control children's access to "undesirable material", in response to media-induced panic about the availability of porn. I believe that such programs, together with parental supervision, are a sufficient answer to the problem. We don't consider it appropriate to dump children, unsupervised and alone, into bustling cities: the net is like a vast city, full of wonderful museums and libraries and art galleries and services, but not without its sleazy areas. Among "netizens", as in the wider community, you'll encounter all sorts of people, from saints to sinners.

As Spender says, regulating the Internet is simply not possible. The only way to cut access to the porn out there is to cut access altogether, and that would be to deny ourselves a phenomenal information and communication resource. It could also effectively remove Australia from world trade and intellectual discourse. The issue should be the quest for porn, not the media which can carry it. We don't consider dispensing with telephones because someone might make an obscene phonecall.

As feminists, I believe we need to bear in mind that regulation and censorship are two-edged swords. Even if we believe that banning porn would benefit women, we interfere with adult freedom of expression only at the risk of losing our own. The opponents of feminism are a majority (particularly on the net!) and would silence us if they could. Who decides what's banned? Where does censorship end? Who watches the watchers?

There are ways other than censorship to deal with bothersome stuff on the Internet. The method of choice, according to most of the male denizens, is "just ignore it" - which is easy to say. There is software around (and more in development) that enables you to filter incoming e-mail and news. Of course you have to see the behaviour of twits at least once before you can program your twit filter to eliminate their messages. Their twittish behaviour will continue, but you will be free to ignore it.

Australia has legal remedies against sexual harassment, although convincing anyone that you have a problem is difficult. In cyberspace, there are further impediments: identity is exceedingly hard to establish, and international boundaries may be involved. It is however possible to complain to a harasser's system administrator (sysadmin). People have lost their Internet accounts for engaging in harassing behaviour. Not all sysadmins, however, can be relied on to take action, and some of them will even turn round and lambaste you for feeling harassed. "Sticks and stones", remember?

Organisations funded by taxpayers, such as universities, have (or should have!) sexual harassment policies in place, and would be hard-pressed to justify applying such policies selectively. The number and range of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) is growing and changing all the time, and threats of government regulation are promoting wider concern about appropriate behaviour online. When you're choosing an ISP, find out how they deal with harassment. Share the names of ISPs who don't regard it as a problem, so that women can choose not to deal with them.

No one could be more surprised than I am that my limited income now runs to the ownership and maintenance of a personal computer. For me, this has become a priority similar to keeping a car on the road so that I can get about. I have some mobility limitations, and my computer has become my window on the world, as it is for many people with disabilities.

I have more of a voice in cyberspace than I've ever had anywhere else, despite the problems that arise on account of my sex, and my feminist views. The absence of physical bullying and standover tactics is a definite advantage over Real World interactions. The collapse of distance brings old friends closer, and it's easy to find others with similar interests, all over the world. There's already more information of interest and use to women than I'll ever have time to find and read, and it's constantly increasing. The net is a vast and exciting place, and I look forward to seeing more of you there.

After four years in the online community, I applaud Spender's book, and hope that it will encourage more women to take up the challenge. The problems of silencing and sexual harassment that she describes are very real, but so are the benefits that computer-mediated communications have to offer:

There are literally thousands of women's groups now on-line: everything from a women's Web Site and Women's Resources on the Internet, through to Jane Austen, Women's Health Hotline, The Ada Project (a collection of resources for women in computing) and a Women Artists' Archive. Everything you could dream of wanting. And more "exchange" than books could ever provide, which is why it is so exciting and gratifying.

(p 237)

- Val
September 1995

Dale Spender
Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace
Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 1995
278pp, RRP $24.95

Page created February 1996; last updated 26 December 2007