The Internet is not a monolith.
Yet even in the tech industry, ostensibly better positioned than any other to provide a nuanced mapping of the social, economic, political, aesthetic topology of the Internet — an industry where the internet is viewed simultaneously as our greatest communal triumph and our judge, jury, market, empire, home, soul; both of us and by us and yet outside of us — we are quick to appeal to a uniform conception.
We see it as almost a type of naturally-occurring, self-replenishing resource. It provides the basis for our economy, but also, simultaneously, a location and a source of identity — “We’re from the Internet.” It possesses changing states, even emotions: “the Internet is angry today.” And on days when cascading failure conditions ripple out from the true monoliths, looming clusters of data centers in Virgina, New York, the Bay, protected by armored guards and backed by corporate interests: “The Internet is broken.”
It is characteristic of the way we will readily absolve ourselves responsibility for the technologies we create, the systems and economies around them. We cannot bring ourselves to view the things we’ve made for what they are: in the case of social media, gigantic surveillance machines first aimed at women and then stolen by the government to use against the people; in the case of the new utopian, California-liberalism economy we hoped for and sometimes promised, a wealth gap of increasingly horrifying severity; in the case of “innovation”, just more products powered by advertising; in the case of “meritocracy”, a system that dutifully forces out the few oppressed and marginalized people that the preceding systems of exclusion and privilege have failed to weed out.
And ultimately the Internet — a complex system of social, political and economic regions, of access and elitism, communication and suppression, opportunity and manipulation, information and advertising — which we provide the infrastructure and structure for, and most days are happy to take credit for… yes, we can reduce it easily enough if it suits us. As if it were a confounding mystery which even its creators had no hope of changing, moderating or explaining — the Internet.
Yet even we in technology have our own parts of the internet, a surface space that we gather in commune in large numbers, small enough to be nearly knowable.
GitHub, Hacker News, Twitter, IRC, r/programming, Slashdot, even Instagram and Foursquare: the online hubs where groups of tech people cluster and network with other tech people.
Here we create, share and comment on news, opinions, best practices, trends. We present our work, and compliment or critique the work of others. These tools are necessary to the social, intellectual and economic capital and commerce of our industry: open source code repositories are “the new resume” for technical contributors; social upvoting sites regularly drives tens of thousands of page views to individuals and companies; micro-blogging services help to organize and amplify the affect, the anxieties and day-to-day opinion wave of our community. They can make or break careers. On photo sharing and location services sites, we record and create artifacts of where we go and what we do… more often than not, lately, the travels, spoils, and delights of an emerging bubble.
We can all agree that the places where a community connects, gathers, communicates and congresses — real or virtual — are critical to that community and to the individuals within it.
And yet: There is reason to believe that women in tech actually have LESS representation in the internet communities relevant to their careers than they do in the tech workforce itself.
For example, in community practice, social coding sites like Github are more than simple storage and version control for code. They provide a data source for analysis of trends in the community. They produce a system of social validation and currency, with the concept of popular projects, following, and commenting built-in. They provide a new type of resume, contributing to the hireability and desirability of technical candidates in the job market, and ultimately to that job market’s inequalities. They have tools for discoverability, for making professional connections with individuals and companies, for building authority in the industry and community.
Yet while 28% of contributors in proprietary software are women, only 1.5% of free and open source contributors are women. Thus, women are even LESS represented on the open source code repository tools now so pivotal to our community then they are in the software industry overall.
What about social sharing and upvoting sites that drive massive amounts of traffic, recognition and exposure to technologists, projects, startups and communities in our field?
Hacker News has 44% of its users in the 18-24 age bracket and is 77% male (Slashdot is 87% male, StackOverflow is 76%). Hacker News further has a well-documented history of hostility and abuse towards women, and posts that speak specifically to the experiences of women in tech have a tendency to be “disappeared” off (good job, Paulg). Meanwhile, sites like Reddit, while having technology channels like r/programming, are well-known to support misogynistic clusters that attack women en masse during high-visibility incidents of sexism.
What about IRC? Users with feminine nicknames recieve 25 times the number of malicious messages as users with masculine nicknames. There are also several high-profile incidents of harassment on IRC documented on the Geek Feminism wiki. Many women report using ambiguous or masculine nicks on IRC in order to avoid this type of harassment- which means that if women are present in IRC channels focused on technical subjects, people inside the room may assume they are just another one of the bros — a form of invisibility that happens around women in online spaces when they obscure their gender identity to protect themselves from gendered perceptions, harassment, abuse and even violence.
Oh, and Twitter. Twitter is integral to the formation and congress of the tech industry. It has propelled many technologists to a new kind of social fame, helps launch ideas and projects viral, and is an important part of having a “presence” or “personal brand” in tech’s professional community. Here again, we find inequalities that may shape women’s visibility, representation and experience on the service. Men have 15% more followers than women, and are almost twice as likely to follow another man than a woman, and data suggests that men get retweeted much more than women — a lot more.
Further outside of mediums specifically devoted to tech or dominated by technologists, tech workers also use more general-purpose social tools, where their network often clusters around other tech workers, even if not exclusively.Here are some things to keep in mind around how women may use tools like Instagram and Foursquare — tools their male colleagues use to share their lives, experiences, and make new connections — differently.
- Because of the frequency of gendered attacks, violence, and stalking of women — by strangers, men they know in their personal lives, and men they know professionally — many women don’t feel safe or comfortable using tools that share their location or presence at events. For example, I have stopped using Foursquare completely, turn off all location-based services on the other services I use, and almost never share where I’m at (including industry-events where I could use social tools to help make industry connections) in order to protect my physical safety.
- Sexist critique of women’s appearance online is frequent, frightening, derailing and humiliating. Many women in the industry may avoid sharing their photos online, or participating in types of virtual media where their likeness is used — which could range from everything from photo sharing sites to video casts to recordings of their presentations. I know that fear of the comments I get about my looks online — everything from comments about how hot or ugly I am, to specific facial features, to how I look when I’m angry, to my hair and clothes — significantly impacts my behavior on the internet. At one point the comments I got everytime I changed my Twitter avatar made me so nervous I would get anxiety attacks about it.
It seems likely that women are actually LESS represented in the online tech community than in the workforce, and that their ability to access and benefit from the professional network represented by these spaces is severely restricted.
In fact, of much interest to activists, feminists, and social justice workers in the field are the ways women’s representations and experiences in the online, professional sphere of the tech industry affect their careers and retention rate over time, as moderated by sexist and misogynist abuse and bullying, threats to their emotional and physical safety from gendered violence, and overall representation in online spaces.