Cyberacrtivism and Women in the Blogosphere: The Role of a Virtual Wave in the Feminist Movement
Presented by Heba Saleh at James Madison University’s first annual WRTC Graduate Symposium “Communication in the 21st Century: Obstacles and Opportunities” on Friday, April 16, 2010.
Women’s voices have been consistently underrepresented in public discourse, even with the advent of every new medium of information production— first writing, then print, and now electronic. Women have also been hindered from reaching authoritative positions in media and journalism: few were authors when book publishing emerged, even in progressive Western nations. Later, when newspaper printing flourished, women rarely held influential positions in publishing firms. Currently, as electronic media take center stage, women are still being excluded in similar ways. This may seem surprising given the seemingly democratic and transcendent nature of the online environment. However, the reality is that women’s voices are still underrepresented. It may be possible to correct this as women become more aware of the power of interactive online communities – especially the blogosphere – to advance their issues in the public discourse. Specifically, two features of the blogosphere will allow women to enter a new phase of politics distinguished by the opportunity to share opinions and personal stories, and to engage in intellectual conversations. These two features are its self-publishing nature and an interactivity that is not available in other written media.
In this paper, I will show how these features of blogging are perfectly in line with salient features of third-wave feminist theory. Additionally, in moving from theory to practice, I will show how these same features provide a means for overcoming the major obstacles for female bloggers.
With the introduction of Blogger.com, an online blogging website with an inbuilt template, the blogging phenomenon started gaining popularity in the mid-1990s, and thousands of people entered the blogosphere as a result (Wilson). A blog is short for ‘weblog’ and is comprised of entries that appear in reverse chronological order on a personal webpage. As compared to most other literary media, including conventional websites, blogs are distinctively designed to be interactive, encouraging a virtual conversation between readers and blog writers via a comments section. Technorati.com, the most prominent blog search engine, reported in its yearly “State of the Blogosphere” that “more than 133-million blogs have been indexed since 2002 and around 77% of all Internet users read blogs. Also, an estimated 900,000 new blog posts are being created internationally every 24 hours (which equals 10.4 blog posts every second).
As I will be discussing feminism in the blogosphere, here is a very brief historical overview of the feminist movement, which has gone through three so-called “waves.” The first wave began in the 18th century and continued until 1919, the year women received the right to vote. As such, the first-wave focused on liberating middle or upper-class white women in the political realm. Next, spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s, the second wave worked to combat social and cultural inequalities between men and women. Third-wave feminism – starting in the 90s and continuing today – is a reaction to the second-wave, and distances itself from the concept of a universal female identity. Instead, it emphasizes discursive power and the differences between women.
Dubbed as tool for third-wave feminism, the blogosphere serves the same function for feminists that consciousness-raising gatherings did for women in the Sixties and Seventies but with far greater functionality and flexibility. This similar but expanded function of the blogosphere relates directly to the view that third wave feminism is a continuation of the second wave and simultaneously a reaction to it.
Firstly, I wish to discuss the common features between feminism today and feminism in the past, and how the blogosphere contributes to this continuity. Concerning their goals, the first, second and third waves each sought to trounce the hegemonic ideology that women belong in the private domestic sphere, while men are better suited for the public sphere of political and economic influence. In an attempt to converge the public and private spaces, early feminists wrote about the need for a legitimized space in society at large, and more specifically in the literary media, where women’s voices can be freely heard.
Concerning the current wave of feminism, an article written in 1998 by Hawisher and Sullivan, before the blogosphere had flourished, presents a study on women’s “utopian visions of e-space” (Hawisher and Sullivan 178). The women surveyed wrote repeatedly of their need for a space of their own, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, a feminist pioneer of the first wave, who dreamt of a ‘room of one’s own’. Similarly, bell hooks, a feminist theorist of the second wave, expressed a desire for publication space for African American women (178). The study identifies a number of characteristics that the women saw as critical in online environments: firstly, these e-spaces need to enable a supportive community to ease the burdens of professional or personal isolation. E-spaces also need to provide a creative outlet outside of work. Simultaneously, e-spaces should be places for scholarly and professional discussions (Hawisher and Sullivan 178).
In actuality, the blogosphere has become an embodiment of such an e-space that is both public and private simultaneously. Thus, it is an ideal place for women to break away from the persistent patriarchal construction of marking the public space as a male domain and the private space as a female domain. Feminists are able to use the blogosphere in ways that actively destruct that binary.
Another similarity between second and third wave feminism concerns the form of the discussion. In her chapter “Young Feminisms on the Web” (2004), Jane Armstrong posits that third wave feminism should not be understood as representing a radical collective voice that is distinctly different from the voices of the second wave. During both time periods, women’s autobiographies and the sharing of personal experience take precedence over generic political and social discourse (101). In her article titled “Feminist Research in Computers and Composition,” author Lisa Gerrard writes that “early consciousness-raising groups emphasized the sharing of personal experience as a starting point for social analysis and action. In feminist methodology, feeling is looked to as a guide to a deeper truth than that of abstract rationality” (382). Given that discussions in the blogosphere are conducive to sharing and discussing personal issues, feminists can use this feature to raise consciousness in a way that is not possible with other online, print, and broadcast media, which tend to rely solely on what Gerrard refers to as “abstract rationality.”
Now, I will discuss some of the differences in approach and substance between the second and third waves of feminism, and how these differences are also reflected in the use of the blogosphere. Firstly, concerning approach: Instead of the physical forum of the consciousness-raising gatherings, the blogosphere offers a virtual space of speed and simultaneity, where prior limitations of physical distance and time are removed. In contrast to other media, which are managed by organizational hierarchies, the blogosphere also provides the public with the opportunity to have direct, unfiltered conversations in real time on an international scale. Additionally, this occurs at virtually no cost to any of the participants, provided that they have access to a computer and the internet. This stands in stark contrast to all the arrangements that were necessary for organizing consciousness-raising gatherings.
Secondly, concerning substance: Jane Armstrong claims that third wave feminism, apart from being similar to its precedent in its overall objectives, is in fact distinct in its focus on “recognizing the diversity of women’s experience and on differences between women […] This shift in focus is in critical response to the second wave tendency to partly homogenize the category of ‘woman’” (Armstrong 102). Although online communities in general, and the blogosphere in particular, had not yet fully developed in the Eighties and Nineties, feminist thinker and activist Donna Haraway wrote in 1985 about the exciting intersection of feminism and technology in her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway discusses a project which recognizes the necessity for innovative ways of operating and of relating to others in a postmodern world where partial identities are the standard rather than the deviation. She uses the emblematic term “cyborg” to define
a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction […] By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. Ths cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation (Haraway).
This metaphorical description of a cyborg lends itself to the modern-day definition of any female actively involved in a shared community in which she can communicate through her computer in cyberspace. In keeping with Haraway’s vision for a definition of feminism that is “not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints,” cyborg theory accounts for and welcomes so-called ‘contradictory standpoints’ from women who are different in class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, nationality, religious beliefs, political party, and physical ability. Hence, I believe that Haraway’s vision for a reformed, more inclusive feminism can be realized in the context of the blogosphere.
As such, the third wave of feminism celebrates differences in opinion and uniqueness in personal experiences. It is also much more conscious of women’s issues in the developing world. Blogging is and has been a perfect avenue for promoting this new vision of a diversified feminism, and it facilitates a diverse subjectivity that is not entirely dependent on social privilege or substantial agency. Susan Luckman writes: “the socialist feminist cyborg does not need to be young, Western or well-educated to be able to utilize her position to pry open the fissures in the hegemony of the white, capitalist patriarchy” (44).
If blogging truly presents itself as the ultimate opportunity for feminists to speak out and obtain recognition, why aren’t more women taking advantage of this tool? Inevitably, the blogging world is not a panacea to women’s issues, as it comes with a set of obstacles that have yet to be overcome. These challenges must be understood and faced if there is to be any hope for enabling diverse women to utilize these New Media texts more effectively. In 2009, Technorati found that women bloggers make up only 33 percent of the blogosphere. This gender disparity is alarming at first glance, especially considering that the virtual, pseudonymous environment of the blogosphere allegedly presents significantly less immediate threats to women as opposed to other forms of media.
However, the Internet oftentimes replicates power relations and propagates gender stereotypes that dominate in our physical world. First of all, women who blog about personal matters currently face some difficulty in being heard within the political sphere because the existing definition of politics is used in a limited and narrow context that relates to “[national/regional] politics, current events, foreign policy, and various on-going wars” (Breitbart and Noguiera 52). As a result, political discussions that diverge from these conventional constructs continue to be minimized or ignored. In other words, the prevalent political discourse is not currently amenable to a wider spectrum of genres and communication approaches that might not purely fit its narrow conventions.
Carried through from the second wave movement, the long-established feminist lesson stating that “the personal is the political” can easily be applied in this case: blogs need not beexplicitly political in order to make a political impact. For example, women who are blogging about the rising cost of childcare, the healthcare debate through their own experience in fighting a disease, gender and racial discrimination in their lives, and even those writing about the politics of their marriage or divorce, are all tackling issues that undeniably concern society at large. If more women blog, this more personal perspective will enable them to relate to each other more easily than would mere detached political commentary. In this way, they would be able to band together into online communities, bound by their common experiences, and thus will begin to have a larger online presence. This, in turn, may enable more political impact of scale in the long run.
To give examples of this type of community-building, in 2005, three female activists founded BlogHer, “the largest community and media company created in partnership with women in social media, in response to the question, ‘Where are all the women bloggers?’” (BlogHer.com). Today, BlogHer is run by the co-founders and over forty employees. It has developed to be the largest community of women who blog. The website draws over 20 million unique visitors per month, who register their blog and use the website as a forum to seek and share information. BlogHer also annually holds the world’s largest conference for women in social media. There are numerous other up-and-coming organizations that hold gatherings, such as Blogalicious, which places an emphasis on bringing together women of different nationalities, as well as FitBloggin’ and FoodBuzz – concerned with health and nutrition – which have a high female blogging ratio, but are not exclusively for a female audience. This is just to name a few.
The second challenge that female bloggers face is concerned with preferential linking. According to a study by to Harp and Tremayne, old-time bloggers have built a dedicated readership and they selectively link to other bloggers who are similar to them; this is especially true for political bloggers. Since these all link to each other, the world of political blogging has become something of an old boys club much like mainstream media, since being linked is a primary determinant of a blog’s readership. Similarly, the study explains that due to network growth, which favors blogs that have been active for a long time, “the rich get richer, the poor stay poor and an unequal distribution of links and user traffic results” (251).
The problem we have described here constitutes a barrier to popularity. However, it still remains that there exists no barrier to entry for any woman who wishes to create a blog (as long as she has a computer and an internet connection). Therefore, I believe that we are nowhere near the limit for the number of women who could be actively involved in blogging. As more women get involved, and as they link to each other, their readership and perceivable online presence will also increase.
Unfortunately, other challenges await women who decide to enter into the blogging world, such as the insidious harassment and sexism that extend from our physical communities and into cyberspace. In an article titled “Blogging While Female,” John Hawkins interviews five successful women bloggers about gender issues and the blogosphere. Some of the women choose not to reveal any pictures of themselves to avoid inappropriate comments, and some resort to identifying themselves as male in order to circumvent harassment and to be taken more seriously. In dealing with this challenge, bloggers can simply choose to moderate comments; they also have the choice to respond to or ignore unappreciative audiences.
Another challenge is that the blogging world is not as diverse as it could be, and therefore, does not include the full spectrum of voices that would enable the discourse to flourish to its full potential. This is amplified by the fact that it is more difficult to blog in developing countries because of deficiencies in telecommunication infrastructures, and because of censorship, economic hardships, and minimal education about technology. At the very least, women of diverse backgrounds within more privileged societies should start blogs and claim a voice on the internet. In developing countries, efforts to educate women about the impact of blogging can yield a gradual affinity to these online practices. In the future, as communities such as BlogHer grow, they can also begin to finance initiatives to educate and encourage bloggers in developing countries.
An inspiring example of successful personal blogging on a global scale is documented in a study conducted in 2007 entitled “’Telling Our Own Stories: African Women Blogging for Social Change.” In it, author Oreoluwa Somolu explores how African women have begun to embrace blogging as a method to reach a wide audience and to promote the empowerment of women. They are doing this by raising awareness about their persistent political repression in Africa, whereas they have not been nearly as vocal outside of the blogging world. This is because now, they are able to put their voices out pseudonymously or anonymously. Interestingly, Somolu writes that many young African women can neither relate to nor identify with Western feminist ideology, nor do they outwardly label themselves as “feminists” even though “much of the content of their blogs might raise pertinent questions relating to issues of gender-based discrimination that exist within their societies.” The study also reveals that even in societies that are removed from the Western sphere of influence, the power of the blog still exists in its ability to “give a voice to the unheard”.
Finally, a challenge for many women bloggers, including those who are privileged and educated, is the time investment needed to maintain their blogs, and to build up a wide community of readers. The straining time commitment is one which women often find difficult to keep, especially because they often need to fulfill multiple roles as homemaker/ mother/ wife/ career woman. When a blogger finds it difficult to maintain an audience for her blog, she may begin to believe that no one is interested in what she has to say, and so may decide to quit writing, whereas the reality may be that she needs to promote her blog through the available avenues. Therefore, it is important for women to realize that a small effort goes a long way, as readership can only develop gradually over months or years. Therefore, a commitment to blogging about pertinent issues and enjoying the process is the only way to overcome this challenge.
In conclusion, blogs can significantly augment current-day feminist consciousness-raising, as their structure fits perfectly with third-wave feminist theory. The blogosphere also presents a variety of challenges to women—a number of old ones, and a few new ones. However, it still offers an array of benefits, and a new path to overcoming some preexisting challenges. In particular, its dual features of interactivity and unfiltered self-publishing imply that many of these challenges are likely to be overcome simply with increasing involvement and persistent commitment from women all over the world. According to Harp and Tremayne, even though it is undeniable that the Internet has the potential to “revitalize the public sphere, […] this will happen only with greater diversity and volume of discussion” (Harp and Tremayne).
Feminist ideology has always stressed the relationship between awareness and action, and has fought the oppressive discourse of male-oriented media in its critical theory. The arguments presented here have identified the promise of the blogosphere to allow women to put this theory into practice. As feminist theory enters a new phase of critical awareness and sensitivity to discovering shared politics under conditions of difference, the blogosphere offers a specific communicative domain for bringing diverse women together. For this reason, it is promising to speak of a virtual space that can challenge the status quo. It is also a space that subverts the public/private dichotomy, merging the two spheres. While in some ways quite different from what Virginia Wolf had envisioned, here is space that women can finally call “their own”.
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