Although the Internet started out as a forum for scientific research, it has since become a very social place. From its inception, where users were almost completely male researchers, to the present day, with an ever-increasing number of casual users, including greater numbers of women and students on the net, its emphasis has changed rather dramatically. Users today focus more on the social aspects, ranging from email to irc (Internet relay chat), from MUDs (multi-user dungeons) to usenet groups. Indeed, the common phrase when people ask for accounts these days is "may I have an email account?", which implies that the accounts are useful primarily for their access to email. Significantly, many, if not most, of the college students who have accounts are largely unaware of the many options available to them on the Internet. However, there is a specialized subset of people, often those interested in computer science, who are more likely to use more of the Internet's resources. Many of these students are members of the Computer Science Undergraduate Association, and as such have computer accounts at soda.CSUA. The CSUA organizes social activities and also provides a forum for on-line socialization which is, I believe, rather different from the vast majority of systems on the net. In addition to providing the usual amenities for its users, soda has a thriving social aspect including nwriting, "talking", a newsgroup, and the "wall", a sort of electronic bulletin board or party-line phone call in which everyone "listening" to walls receives messages from other people who choose to send them. It is important to realize, then, that the soda community and the soda user is rather unique when compared to other systems and their users.
Because of the specialized aspects of the soda community, I focused primarily on this subset of the Internet community (although I did stray outside of it for some of the material). Looking at the power computer user, or as is sometimes called in the vernacular, the geek, I focused on soda for several reasons: I know the system rather well, many people there trust me and would be willing to take the time to answer my questions thoughtfully, and, logically, soda is the system where I spend most of my time so I am most familiar with the environment there. Although the CSUA has more than 1600 members with accounts, only around 1000 of these people log in within any given 2-week period. A much smaller percentage of those people compose what I would consider the active user community, made up of 40-60 members who attend meetings, wall (discussed later), and generally make themselves known. These people tend to have a fairly high level of knowledge about both computers and the Internet, and soda is fairly often used as a means of transmitting this information. Additionally, active users tend to know each other, if not in person then definitely online, and very often socialize within this group. Many have similar jobs or fields of study, and soda serves to provide a forum within which they can interact with people of like mindsets. (As an example of this, one survey respondent said he liked soda because "it is a social-type hangout that doesn't require physical presence (and is therefore convenient)") As a sort of indicator of this, one of the more common uses of soda's walls is to find people who want to go out to eat with you, because it is almost guaranteed that someone will be hungry at any given time. Thus soda is much more than simply a machine; for some "sodalites" it provides their only social interaction, and as such studying it can be quite valuable. Although it is possible to have an account on the Internet and never actually interact with other people (which you can do by not accepting messages, writes, or talk requests and not attempting to make yourself known within the community), I am focusing on people who do not choose to do that, people who interact, to some extent, with other members of the community.
Several idiosyncrasies set soda apart from the rest of the computing community, and prove very important when considering the gender-related issues that this paper treats. One significant difference is the availability and inordinate use on soda of a program called wall, or wallall, which broadcasts a message to all users who are currently logged in to the machine, interrupting what they are doing so that the message pops up on their screen. This can be considered invasive by some, since it is an interruption, mangling the screen and intruding on the privacy of the users. However, recently (within two years or so) the program was modified so that people who do not wish to see the messages flashing by can configure their system to turn them off, or become anti-social, as it is called. Entire conversations are often conducted between various parties over the wall, sometimes by people who have never even met in person (it bears to mention here that the average population of soda -- that is, the average amount of users logged into the machine at any one time, probably lies around 70-80 during the normal hours of the day, and 40-50 in the middle of the night. The average amount of people listening to walls at any given time fluctuates between 15-20 during normal hours down to 2 or 3 in the middle of the night.). Arguments,friendships, and even hatreds can flare completely in this virtual world.
Though walling was originally used primarily as a way to transmit computer knowledge -- asking questions and being answered very rapidly -- and find people to eat with, its focus has broadened over the past few years. Walls today serve many functions, including the traditional "foodP" (This is the syntax used when requesting company for a meal; the expected response is either "#t"signifying "I would be interested in joining you," or "#f" meaning "sorry, not interested." These symbols have their origin in computer programming, where the "P" stands for Predicate signifying a question that must be answered with either true or false. It's a typically "geeky" joke.) and technical questions, but also incorporating gossip, random trivia, discussions about current news and scandals, flaming, and other types of communication.
Another aspect of social life on soda that exists on other machines, though to a much lesser degree, is "nwrite," a hacked version of the "write" command present on so many machines. The write program sends a message directly to the screen of another user on the same system, preceded by a line indicating who the message is from and the time. Write in its normal form is usually used for a short, one-line comment to someone; as it just appears on the screen with nothing differentiating it from the plain text after the initial line, it can be confusing but is nonetheless a useful tool. Differentiating soda's version from that on most other machines is the fact that each line after the original "from" message is preceded by the person's login name. This makes it possible to differentiate an nwrite from other things that may be happening on your screen; an example of an nwrite conversation follows:
Message from norby on ttyrj at 11:55:39 ... norby> Morning Tara ... how's your paper going ??? 11:55pm soda% nwrite norby hi peter... papers are evil. how's work going? norby> Yes, they are. norby> Work's hectic ... people are having lots of network problems oh dear. so it's not only soda, eh? norby> My boss is doing several things at once, as am I. hmmmm. then i'll leave you alone. talk to you later? norby> I think today just isn't a good day for networking. *sigh* how evil. norby> Yup, I'll see you later ... bye... norby> nice talking with you ... ^D 2:57pm soda% EOFIn that conversation, every line written by the person who wrote me, Peter Norby (login name norby), is preceded by a " norby>", and similarly, every line that i sent him, once it appeared on his screen, was preceded by a " tabloyd>" (my login name). This simple innovation makes it possible to carry on long-term conversations while simultaneously doing other things; being able to suspend an operation to do something else is quite helpful. Additionally, it is quite possible to carry on multiple nwrites, or to have conversations that simply keep going for hours but with fairly long pauses. When I log into soda, I tend to receive at least three or four nwrites within the first few minutes, and the majority of the time that I'm logged in I will have at least one conversation going, if not more. Nwrite, then, is simply another aspect that allows interaction and communication within the soda community.
Other aspects of communication which proliferate on the net include the "talk" command. Talk allows users from different systems to communicate real-time with each other; when someone talk requests you, assuming you are accepting messages, an alert appears on your screen telling you who talk-requested you and what to type to "talk" to them. If you choose to do so, your screen will divide in half; what you type appears on the top of your screen, and what the other person types appears on the bottom. The talk function can be very useful when you want to communicate with friends on another system; however, it has also become the refuge of people who, often bored, randomly choose people to talk to just to pass time. This is rather easy to do, by just fingering a certain system to see who is logged in, selecting a person based on the information that appears when you do this. An example of a finger@ command would be the following:
5:07pm soda% finger @csua [csua.Berkeley.EDU] Login Name Tty Idle Login Time Office Office Phone aaron Aaron C. Smith pv 8 Dec 13 16:40 CEA 2N 643-7295 adoruk Jon Masami Kuroda pP Dec 13 16:45 2035 Chann appel Shannon D. Appel rp 19 Dec 13 14:46 CEA 643-5650 ausman James Ausman p3 1 Dec 13 16:21 3rd Floor 642-0720 bob Bob Chang rM 5 Dec 13 14:54 D614-Unit1 chiapet David San Chia qr Dec 13 17:07 343 Soda 642-7453 choice Andrew Choi pV Dec 13 15:21 BARRA 649-4223 clee Cornel Lee *pY Dec 13 16:53 coganman Andrei Cogan pj 22 Dec 13 15:11 642-7453 cristine Christine Lee *q2 Dec 13 16:55 CKC East 664-3248 dim D. Gerasimatos *pr Dec 13 16:33 dpassage David G. Paschich rN Dec 13 14:55 642-7453 dsiu Danny Siu *p7 36 Dec 13 16:23Notice that the command gives both the login and the person's real name, which sometimes makes it possible to tell things like gender and ethnicity. With this information, you can send a talk request to a person, and, assuming the person responds, start a conversation. This can be useful; however, notice also the fact that out of twelve people logged in (actually, far more were logged in, but space constraints led me to select the first twelve), only one is obviously female (Not only is Shannon a gender-neutral name, but I also know Shannon and he's definitely not female.). This means that if the person looking to talk with someone wants to talk to a woman, he or she will have a much smaller pool to draw from than that of men. Because of this, then, women online tend to get talk-requested much more frequently than men do, to the point where they are sometimes driven to turn their messages off or put a message in their .plan (the file that appears when an individual is fingered) explaining why they are sometimes antisocial, like yumin's .plan. Some women who don't know much about the Internet may choose a name that attracts quite a bit of attention, for one reason or another; they are often the ones who end up refusing to receive talk requests, who ask people not to talk-request them (assgirl), or who rapidly get their login names changed (there was a sex@uclink2, but she got so much harassment that she fairly quickly had her login changed).
Although other aspects of life on the net do affect women, the different methods of communication discussed above seem to contribute most strongly to the quality of life for women on soda. For that reason, then, these are the aspects of the net which will be drawn on most frequently for specific examples. Before looking at my specific project, however, it is important to have an idea of some of the theoretical background for such studies. Obviously, the study of interaction between people of different genders has been very popular historically and remains so today; tomes upon tomes have been written on the subject. Examining gender on the net, though still in its nascent stages, looks to become an equally common topic for academics. The focus of Lewis and Clark College's Eleventh Annual Gender Studies Symposium -- The Electronic Salon: Feminism meets Infotech -- reflects this new concentration in academia, as does the proliferation of other articles, sites, and servers relating to women and gender issues, many of which specifically focus on the net.
The survey questions began with simple demographic information, asking for name, gender, age, occupation/major, Internet accounts, etc. This was aimed at determining the variance in user background. I also asked for information about how much time people spent online, and how they used their time while online. I then moved to more complicated questions, less easily-answered, asking about people's perceptions of the different roles men and women fill on the net; how they behave and how they're treated. Finally I asked for any overall comments about gender on the net. Though people had problems with the phrasing of each of the questions, the specific questions seemed to vary and even the most vague produced a few very valuable comments.
Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 28, with the majority being between 19 and 22. As previously mentioned, most were male, and the majority are either currently studying some aspect of computer science (including EECS, L&S CS, etc.) or working in some sort of computer-related field. Interestingly, the women who responded were much less likely to be CS majors; there was one female EECS (electrical engineering and computer science) major, and one each in the chemistry, physics, and chemical engineering majors, while the remainder were English (three), psychology, mass communications, and other liberal arts majors. Men, however, were much more computer-science related; 23 were either EECS or L&S CS, and very few were liberal arts majors. The CSUA is an ethnically-mixed group, though the majority of members are either Caucasian or Asian. Most respondents seem to have several e-mail accounts, which makes sense because undergraduates tend to get uclink or OCF (Open Computer Facility) accounts first and later possibly get a soda account if they begin to feel constricted with the rules and regulations that constrict the other systems. Respondents had used computers for between three months and fourteen years, with the average being around three years.
Responses differed greatly, from people who insisted that there is little, if any, difference between the way men and women act and are perceived on the net to those who see soda society as a microcosm of the culture in general and thus subject to the same stereotypes, prejudices, etc. Finally, some respondents very vehemently point to discrepancies in treatment and behavior, and consider the on-line environment very harmful to women in general. Generally, women saw a larger gap in their treatment and the expectations of them than men did, for what some might consider obvious reasons. But the particularly interesting part of this survey comes not in a general recital of overall trends, but from hearing people's own responses, and looking from the specific to the general. That, then, is the focus of the next section.
"Women are MUCH more productive than men, because they actually do something. Men just sit there and act like a total moron"(from a male user), but the majority of respondents gave some variation on the following:
"Hmm . . . men are perceived as knowing what they're doing, it seems to me. They have some legitimate reason for being on the net; they're working on some vital project. Women, though they may be just as serious and knowledgeable, seem to be perceived as being in male territory.... I'd say that men are expected to produce more, to create more new programs, etc. Whereas if a woman comes up with some amazing new way of doing things, it's a huge wonderous event, and she'll get lots of media attention because she's female and she's thought up this new thing, not just cause she thought up this new thing."People did seem in general to agree, though, with the idea that, as one respondent put it,
"On soda, the active males tend to be very much into the 'I have clue, I am a power-user, I can COMPILE THINGS' mode of thinking; women are less like this."Men, they believed, tend to be very proud of what they can do and to work to learn more; as a corollary to that, many women seem to simply want to accomplish a task. On a very personal note, last week I was with three friends, two men and a woman, and the conversation turned, rather naturally, to computers. The men immediately began comparing who had more accounts, who had root on more systems, who had access to more disk space, and who had compiled more programs; my female friend and I simply started laughing, as we both recognized it as a stereotypically male conversation. Thus, whether or not the observation is universally true (and that I strongly doubt), it does have a certain amount of resonance for many of the people who use the net, or at least those on soda.
The idea that men do more advanced things has far-reaching implications, because it directly impacts how people treat women when they ask for computer help. As previously mentioned, part of the function of soda's walls is to answer questions; additionally, people will very often just ask a friend or acquaintance for help when confused. Many survey respondents noted a difference in the types of question women asked ("There seems to be a trend among women to know less, or just enough to do what they want to do, as opposed to some men's almost obsessive interest in the most minute details of the systems they use. Whether or not those are really useful for what the computer is ultimately used for."), as well as the responses they were given. Indeed, quite a few of the respondents admit to answering women's questions differently than those of men. People write,
"women who post to alt.sex are seen as 'loose' and get lots of 'wannafuck' [messages] from random net people. i've seen posts saying how they have accounts with assumed id's to spare them from people trying to mail/phone them. pretty scary. gender often becomes a scary issue. i had a female acquaintance at UCSC who told me she often got random talk requests when she logged on, and that they told her there was a "list" of asian women/logins on the net, even broken down by ethnicity. she would get quit a bit of random talks/mail from these people. i think people like this make the net a hostile place for women."This is not unusual; women on the net do get harassed to the point that there are procedures in place at most, if not all, systems to deal with this sexual harassment. Berkeley systems are subject to the same rules and regulations as all campus departments are, as well as the campus computing regulations. As another example, the document new soda users read includes the following statement:
 SECURITY / PRIVACY ISSUES
Soda should be a reasonably comfortable environment, so protection of user privacy is taken seriously. Any user who intentionally violates other soda users' privacy will be squished. Any user who uses soda to violate the privacy of users on other machines will be squished. Any user who makes repeated violations of net.etiquette will be squished. Your soda account is not a birthright, and it's much easier for us to squish you than to worry about Yet Another Problem User.
At least one respondent has taken disciplinary action against a male harasser; interestingly, in this case both participants were male. The respondent wrote:
"In my opinion, there is definitely some sort of harassment problem on the net. I have the misfortune of having a gender confusing first name. I am male, but because of my first name, I am often mistaken as female. After adding my middle name to my name field, I had a significant drop in the number of random talk requests. I have also been sexually harassed by another male, thinking I was a female. I had his account turned off by his local site manager, and disciplinary action was taken by their office of student conduct."Indeed, the newsgroup alt.sysadmin.recovery had an ongoing thread about men randomly talk-requesting female users, and what could or should be done about the phenomena.
Because of the "pathetic horny geeks who try to hit on anything female, and find it easier to do if it's not face to face," many women choose to take measures like choosing a generic, asexual login name to save themselves from the harassment that some find so pervasive on the net. One woman wrote,
"You told me to change my login to my full name, instead of my initials, but I really would not like to do this. While it may be making a statement of feminity to change it, I am happy with my neuter, lurking personality. I am similarly genderless in the forums (fora?) I frequent on the net, and it has suited me just fine. I feel somewhat special to be part of the (quickly?) shrinking minority on the net, but I wouldn't want to flaunt it because I would be afraid of the responses I would receive. Which is pretty sad."