This Thursday, January 20 was an exciting day for me and, hopefully, for the students at the Calgary Girls’ School. The staff and students there collaborated with many community and even distant figures to put on a Digital Citizenship Symposium at their middle school. I had done a presentation there a few years ago and so when they approached me to join in on a panel during the event, I was excited to go back. They had given me a warm welcome the first time and this visit was no less inspiring. I love talking to students and hearing both their questions and answers. I always learn when I go into schools or other groups. I jump at nearly every opportunity to get out into the community.
I flew back to Calgary for about 18 hours, leaving Wednesday night, and the event started at 8:00 am, so it was a lot to take in so early in the morning. However, there were some great topics brought up. One I found really complex and interesting is how women and girls have a different experience online from others. How is gender performed online? How does a picture of a girl on Facebook receive different responses, and what does that look like?
The Internet offers amazing opportunities for people in many marginalized groups to begin representing themselves, putting them in the seat to determine what messages about themselves they want to see in the media landscape, and so I think the activism potential is really important to consider. However, it brings us to a lot of questions: If women can start to represent themselves in a substantial way, on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, message boards, gaming chat rooms, etc, how are they going to choose to represent themselves? Are we seeing women branch out and show new, more complex ideas about women in these moments, or is it same-old same-old? Why? Do women have the kind of options yet that they need to do what they want to represent themselves?
For example, how are the players available for women in online games portraying women’s bodies? Sexism in the gaming industry is both obvious and infamous. Chain-mail bikinis? Are you kidding me? And of course all the sexism in real life translates online – it’s the same people on the Internet as in the real world, so how would we expect sexism to disappear once we’ve gone digital? – but now there’s the benefit of being anonymous. It doesn’t do anything positive for upholding a standard of equality. If no one can personally call you out for being sexist, a community that is at least vaguely hostile to women can easily develop, just as there are racist and homophobic communities online. It reflects larger society.
How new media and Internet technologies affect women is a huge discussion that I won’t get into further right here, but I think as digital citizens, we do have a responsibility to take a look at our online culture. It’s easy to assume that the status quo is just normal – it’s just the Internet! – but twenty years ago we didn’t have this kind of commonplace access to the virtual world. This is new and still in the process of being defined. How do we want to define it, and gender, online? It’s a big question that no one person is going to ever answer. The answer will only be seen much later, when we all look back at what we’ve done with all these new tools and gadgets.