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Letter from the Guest Editors: Laura J. Gurak and Lisa Ebeltoft-Kraske

15(3) 1999

Special Issue: The Rhetorics of Gender in Computer-Mediated Communication

Early commentary about online communication suggested that cyberspace was a utopian place, where ideas, not social factors, were the key features of these new discourse settings. Research on computer-mediated communication (CMC) actually offered some support for the notion that the technology might allow women, who traditionally do not speak up as often or with as much vigor as men, to participate more equally in online conversations. For example, there are descriptions of more equal participation in group decision making (Siegel et al. 1986) or of women students who spoke up more frequently in online chat sessions than in the physical classroom (Faigley 1992). Yet for several years, research as well as media commentary has suggested that in fact, online communication is gendered. At the heart of this interest are several key questions: Do women and men communicate differently online? Is there something inherent about computer-mediated communication that inspires gendered behavior? Is flaming a male style of communication? Most of the research to date has tended to suggest that computer-mediated communication does in fact include gender bias in many regards: access to technology, dominance of discussions, misogynist attitudes, language use, and message content. One of us (Gurak 1997) has documented such trends in her case analyses, and scholars like Susan Herring (featured in this special issue) have also documented many cases of gender bias in CMC.

Although we have observed gendered communication via computer and have seen the research, we are troubled by the tendency of such findings to be taken rather generally. Just because certain sites of computer-mediated communication exhibit gender biases does not mean that it is appropriate to extrapolate to all online sites or situations, and we feel that research should now begin to focus on the dynamics of specific cases. Our feelings in this regard parallel the general trend in CMC research away from attempts to generalize and toward studies that are situated in specific contexts and specific technologies. It is no longer possible to comment on all CMC, because there are too many contextual factors involved. Different discourse communities (scholars, high school students, people participating in an online chat about beer making) will necessarily exhibit different communication styles. Different contexts (solving a task, having a light discussion, collaborating on a research paper) will invoke different communication norms. There are simply too many technologies, audiences, purposes, and contexts for researchers to be comfortable with generalizations about gender and online communication.

Nonetheless, anyone who has followed the research in gender and CMC can not help but be swayed toward believing that there is something to be examined here. It was with these observations in mind that we suggested a special issue on the rhetorics of gender in computer-mediated communication. In particular, rhetoric is an appropriate rubric for framing this discussion: rhetorical criticism has always been an empirical method but with a focus on case studies. Rhetoric also recognizes the deeply contextual nature of human discourse situations, providing us what one scholar (Melia 1984) calls a "relative fix": grounding that is useful in certain circumstances but is always relative to the specific case. By studying the word choice, persuasive features, motives, appeals, contexts, and arguments in the online language of specific instances of CMC, we can begin to understand how these multiple "rhetorics" may be affected differently by gender in certain cases under certain conditions.

All of the papers in this collection share a critique of utopian claims about the Internet. Yet each takes a different approach. We begin our collection with three papers that emphasize traditional definitions of "masculine" and "feminine" in their attempts to tease out the gender issues in CMC. Susan Herring's "The Rhetorical Dynamics of Gender On-line" examines interactions on an academic listserv and IRC channel and finds that both cases were characterized by harassment of female by male participants. The male participants invoked what Herring calls a "rhetoric of harassment," which constructed the males' actions as freedom of expression and correspondingly portrayed the women's resistance as censorship. Herring finds that while the harassment took different forms in each environment -- "kicking " in the synchronous interactions and flaming in the asynchronous interactions--the pattern of "repeated episodes designed to irritate, enervate, and ultimately exhaust female participants" was consistent. The targeted female participants dropped out or accommodated to the dominant group norms.

In Charles Soukup's "The Gendered Interactional Patterns of Computer-Mediated Chatrooms: A Critical Ethnographic Study," the author compares the nature of interpersonal communication in a female-dominated women's issues chat room and male-dominated sports chat room. He finds that masculine forms of interaction such as competitiveness, argumentativeness, and sexual humor dominate both spaces because the women's chatroom constantly faced the outside influence of males. His findings suggest that interactions in CMC contexts can often fall back on hyperbolized constructions of masculinity and femininity.

Beth Kolko's study ("Representing Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design") goes beyond text-based mediums by examining how bodies are gendered in graphical virtual realities (GVRs.) She asks how "the visual affects the verbal when both are mediated by technology" and considers aviator design as a rhetorical act. Her examination of Active World, a social GVR, confirms that the avatar design "conforms to a predictably narrow band of stereotypes." No surprisingly, she finds that avatars are patterned after stereotypical versions of femininity and masculinity, and that gender is undertheorized or underarticulated as a variable. She argues that avatars are thus "visual aphorisms" that reveal what the culture takes as self-evident truths about gender.

The next two papers take a slightly different approach, focusing on factors other than gender to explain group dynamics. In Christine Fredrick's rhetorical analysis of two popular feminist news groups, "Feminist Rhetoric in Cyberspace: The Ethos of Feminist USENET Groups," the author concludes that the two groups, soc.feminism and alt.feminism, have very different ethos. Using liberal feminist and postmodernist feminist criteria, she defines a "feminist ethos" as one that includes women and respects individual experience. She found that although both of the groups included women, alt.feminism does not respect individual experience. While soc.feminism displays rhetorical language feature like supportive comments that fostered a feminist ethos, alt.feminism exhibits features that undermined a feminist ethos such as sarcasm, flaming, and tolerance of sexist comments. Fredrick shows that the non-hierarchical and democratic potential of CMC "does not guarantee a more feminist philosophy -- even on a newsgroup dedicated to feminism."

We end our collection with Sibylle Gruber's "Communication Gone Wired: Working toward a "Practiced" Cyberfeminism." Gruber focuses on the multiple rhetorical strategies available with CMC in her case study of one African American woman's contributions to a college course's online community. Gruber presses at the issue of gendered CMC by concluding that the women's interactions are "not only determined by her gender but by a multitude of factors." She then encourages cyberfeminism to consider the challenges faced by a diverse student body when constructing theories of women's positions in cyberspace. We conclude with her piece because it emphasizes the complexities involved in constructing theories of women's positions in cyberspace

In summary, then, this special issue of The Information Society challenges utopian claims about cyberspace and illustrates the gendered nature of online communciation. Yet, rather than making a series of overly broad causal statements about women, men, and computing, these papers begin to explore the complexity of the effects of gender on CMC. As cyberspace technologies continue to evolve (such as the rapidly changing nature of the emerging technologies of virtual reality), close case analyses of the relationship between rhetoric, gender, and cyberspace will be critical pieces in an ongoing research mission to understand, design, implement, and use online communication.

This special issue of The Information Society also includes a book review, written by Nancy Baym, of Laura Gurak's Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace. The book uses rhetorical theory to presents two case studies of protests via the Internet: the 1990 protest over Lotus MarketPlace and the 1994 protest over the Clipper chip. Both cases illustrate the power of online communication to inspire bottom-up protests but also demonstrate that online, misinformation can spread easily and with great emphasis. In addition, Chapter Seven of the book has particular resonance with this special issue: the chapter, "Gender in Cyberspace," challenges the notion that the Internet is a bastion of open, egalitarian communication. Examples from both the Lotus and Clipper cases illustrate differences in women's language and show how women were treated in these debates. As Baym notes in her review, "dissent from women was particularly trivialized": during the Clipper case, noted cryptography expert Dorothy Denning, for example, became the subject of a thread called "the wicked witch of the East."

We hope that the papers and book review in this special issue inspire ongoing research on gender and computer-mediated communication.

References

Faigley, L. (1992). Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Gurak, L. J. (1997). Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: The Online Protests over Lotus MarketPlace and the Clipper Chip. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Melia, T. (1984). And Lo the Footprint . . . Selected Literature in Rhetoric and Science. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70, 303-334.

Siegel, J.,Dubrovsky, V.,Kiesler, S., & T. W. McGuire (1986). Group Processes in Computer-Mediated Communication. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 37, 157-87.

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