Women's Access to On-Line Discussions about Feminism
Ellen Balka Memorial University of Newfoundland
While the use of computer networks has become increasingly popular in the last decade and research concerned with both women and technological change and the social implications of computer networking has proliferated, the use of computer networks by women, and the use of computer networks in the context of feminism, have seldom been subjects of study. In light of this omission and an extensive body of literature which suggests that men and women have different experiences in relation to technology, the author examines the use of computer networks by individual women and women's groups who use this technology to either discuss feminism or facilitate feminist organizing. In Womantalk Goes On-line: The Use of Computer Networks in the Context of Feminist Social Change (Balka, 1992), four related issues were examined through case studies of four computer networks that varied in structure. These issues were: (1) the relationship of the structure of the computer network to the array of communications possibilities available; (2) who users were and what they discussed in on-line feminist groups; (3) the types of communication that occurred on-line in these groups; and (4) the processes in which each network group engaged in order to maintain their communications environment. This article presents results from that study organized around the theme of access. Four related layers of access are considered: (1) access related to network structure; (2) access to an array of communications options; (3) access to technical competence; and (4) access to computer networks in the context of organizational structure. The context for this discussion is set through a brief description of each of the networks examined in Balka (1992). Results suggest that the success of appropriating computer networks for feminist organizing in the future will reflect the extent to which women's access to computer networks is addressed by future users.
Public figures as diverse as Tony Benn (a former British Minister of Technology) (Ruthven, 1983) and Timothy Leary (Leary, 1984) have argued that computer communication technology will provide the means for an effective, participatory democracy. Benn argued that the emerging computer communication technology could "be used to inform citizens about government activities, to allow them to exchange opinions, and to make it possible for them to play a more direct role in decision making" (Ruthven, 1983: 57). An advocate of open government, Benn focussed upon the ability of emerging computer networking technology to support a two-way flow of information between citizens and the state. Along with Leary (1984), Gabree (1984) and others, Benn argued that computer networks would widen the range of comment and opinion easily available to the general public (Ruthven, 1983). Computer networks were seen to have the potential to render political decision-making more democratic (Gabree, 1984).
As the use of personal computers has increased and computer networks have become more widespread, so too have claims about the liberatory potential of computer networking technology. Computer networks were viewed early in their evolution as convivial and participatory, and antithetical to the dominant uses of electronic communications media that were centrally controlled (Rossman, 1979). Described as a "communications medium that can be shared by all" (Knight, 1983: 123), some viewed computer networks as a challenge to conventional hierarchies of control (Rossman, 1979).
McCullough (1991) points out that as the cost of personal computers has declined, resource-poor community groups engaged in organizing for social change have become the unexpected beneficiaries of computer technology. Computer networks, viewed as having the potential to "make a horizontal cut through the standard vertical organizational chart" (Brilliant, 1985: 174), are particularly appealing to social change organizations, which are frequently structured and managed non-hierarchically.
At the same time that they acknowledge that computer technology is embedded in economic, political and cultural structures of domination, Downing et al. argue that computers "can now be appropriated into organizing for progressive social change" (1991: 8). These assertions are supported by widely held cultural views of technology (Balka, 1986; Bush, 1983) which suggest that many see it as neutral and value-free, and believe that how it is used determines whether any new technology is a desirable development or not.
Popular debates about computer networking technology suggest that it ought to meet a diverse array of needs, including those of women's organizations dedicated to feminist social change. In theory, computer networks ought to be consistent with the democratic, decentralized, participatory structures of women's organizations dedicated to feminist social change. Theory suggests that computer networks should be accessible to a wide range of women, and that they can enhance the flow of information between members of women's organizations as well as between organizations.
Although the use of computer networks has become increasingly popular in the last decade and research concerned with both women and technological change and the social implications of computer networking has proliferated, the use of computer networks by women and the use of computer networks in the context of feminism have seldom been subjects of study. Questions raised by Kramarae (1988), together with an extensive body of literature which suggests that men and women have different experiences in relation to technology, provided a stimulus for an investigation into the use of computer networks by women in the context of feminism. Kramarae points out that women's speech and technology are richly interconnected, and that technological processes have lasting impacts on women's communications. She argues that all technological developments can be usefully studied with a focus upon women's interaction, and points out that all technological practices (including the processes of innovation, creation, production, maintenance and use of technology) affect the ways, places and content of talk, writing and publishing in a feminist context. For Kramarae, social relations are organized and structured by technological systems.
In Womantalk Goes On-line: The Use of Computer Networks in the Context of Feminist Social Change (Balka, 1992), the use of computer networks by individual women and women's groups who were using this technology to either talk about feminism or facilitate feminist organizing was examined. Four related issues were considered through case studies of four computer networks that varied in structure. These issues were: (1) the relationship of the structure of the computer network to the structure of messages; (2) who users were and what they were talking about in on-line feminist groups; (3) the types of communication that occurred on-line in these groups; and (4) the processes in which each network group engaged in order to maintain their communications environment. This article presents results from that study organized around the theme of access. Four related layers of access are considered: (1) access related to network structure; (2) access to varied forms of communication; (3) access to technical competence; and (4) access to computer networks in the context of organizational structure. The context for this discussion is set through a brief description of the four networks investigated in greater depth in the larger analysis (Balka, 1992).
Overview of the Study
While several examples of computer networks used in the context of feminism were discussed in the larger analysis, four networks were investigated in depth: Soc.women, the Femail Mailing List, the CompuServe Information Service Men's and Women's section of the Issues forum, and the Women's Bulletin Board System in New York City. Criteria used to select networks for the study were: first, that group participants themselves consider the purpose of their communication to be the discussion of feminism or feminist issues; and secondly, that networks reflect a diversity of physical computer network structures. The rationale for using network structure as a selection criterion is addressed in the section titled "Theoretical Overview." A brief description of each of the networks follows.
Usenet is a university/institutionally-based computer network developed in 1979. Thousands of multi- user computers located primarily in universities and scientific institutions use the same software (Unix) and regularly pass messages between nodes. It is possible to send mail from any Unix system to any other Unix system, provided that one knows the address of the destination system. Messages are sent in a leap frog fashion from one node to the next, until they reach the desired destination. Often calls made between two adjacent nodes are local calls. When two adjacent nodes are further apart than a local calling area, the cost of passing messages between nodes is absorbed by the institutions where the nodes are located (Anderson et al., 1987). Usenet, probably the largest computer network in the world, did not spring from the desire to bring computer access into the home. Instead, Usenet grew out of workplace access to a computer system (Unix) that was developed in a largely unorganized fashion by hackers who constantly modified the system. Unix was originally conceived as a research project by two workers in Bell Labs in 1969. Throughout the 1970s Unix was licensed almost exclusively to universities, since AT&T was prohibited from competing in the commercial computer industry (PC Week, 1988). Perhaps consequently, Unix has never been supported by AT&T as a profit-oriented product (Waite, 1987).
Usenet began when two graduate students decided to try hooking two Unix-based computers together in order to facilitate the exchange of information within the Unix community. A third student wrote what has become known as the news (or netnews) software that forms the keystone for Usenet (Spafford, 1991a). The development of Usenet has proceeded very much like the earlier development of Unix; it is constantly modified by programmers. In 1980 the news programs were re-written and made publicly available, free of charge :1:. In 1982 the programs were again revised to accommodate a better organization of topical newsgroups and the growing number of sites receiving Unix newsgroups (Anderson et al., 1987). By 1984, the increasing volume of mail had become problematic, which led to the addition of a feature that would allow moderated newsgroups, inspired by ARPAnet mailing lists (prior to that point, all Usenet content was unmoderated) (Gilmore and Spafford, 1991). By 1987, over 5,000 sites were participating in Usenet, with over 150,000 readers. Most sites are in North America, although Usenet is growing in Australia, Asia and Europe (Anderson et al., 1987).
Unlike most personal computer-based bulletin board systems or commercial computer networking services, Usenet is not controlled by a single person or group which establishes policy and rules for use, and maintains the message base and equipment. Usenet requires no membership screening, no dues, and boasts little organization. It has been described by De Marrais (1984) and others as an administrationless volunteer-maintained computer network of information anarchists. Viewed as a valuable source for the dissemination of knowledge and an aid to researchers, the costs of running Usenet are absorbed by the institutions where Usenet sites are located (Anderson et al., 1987).
Discussion of women's issues and feminism on Usenet first occurred in the Net.women newsgroup (its name was changed to "Soc.women" in 1986). Net.women began in 1982 or 1983, prior to the development of software that supported moderated newsgroups. It was an outgrowth of Net.singles (Gregbo, 1991), a newsgroup for single people (Gilmore and Spafford, 1991). Some discussions pertaining to women and relationships occurred in Net.singles, and a place other than Net.singles was deemed necessary for the discussion of these issues (Gregbo, 1991). Woods (1991a) points out that in those days, with only a few hundred sites on the Usenet network, all that was required to begin a new newsgroup was a little discussion in what was then called "Net.news.groups" and someone willing to send a newsgroup. Net.women appears to have been somewhat controversial from the start, and remained a confrontational arena of communication throughout its existence.
The Femail Mailing List (Internet)
One of the more successful and enduring alternatives to Soc.women is the mail-feminist (often referred to as the Femail of feminist) mailing list. By February of 1984, several women felt that Net.women was not meeting their needs, and were both sufficiently frustrated with Net.women and apparently, sufficiently confident that computer-mediated communication could meet some of their needs, that a moderated group was set up to be distributed through network carriers other than Usenet. The formation of Femail began when an electronic questionnaire, about starting a new feminist computer networking group, was posted on Net.women by a frustrated network user. The questionnaire elicited opinions about whether men should be included, whether the list should be restricted, and whether it should be moderated. Based upon the questionnaire responses, the new list, mail.feminists, began as a public mailing list with the thirty-eight electronic questionnaire respondents (eight of whom were men) as participants, along with three others. Some participants on the new mail.feminist list continued to follow the dialogue on Net.women and others stopped; all seemed to share a vision of a place to communicate about women's issues that was different from Net.women (Femail transcripts, 1991).
In response to a message in the first batch of mail.feminist, asking participants why they sought an alternative to Net.women, many dissatisfactions with Net.women were voiced: it was offensive, chaotic, the discussions were boring and endless, and women's opinions were treated as dumb, stupid, or ignorant by men. One woman had grown tired of debating assumptions she took for granted. Some women sought electronic communication with others that would not be accessible to their bosses and co-workers, as was (and is) the case with all of the Usenet newsgroups (Femail transcripts, 1991) :2:.
The Femail Mailing List is a wide area multi-node network, yet it differs from Usenet in some significant ways. Unlike Soc.women, the Femail Mailing List is moderated, and distributed through a designated central node. Assuming that nodes used for distribution of the list are functioning correctly and all mail is distributed, users at different sites receive the same "bundles" of messages, usually ordered chronologically. The Femail Mailing List is distributed through the Internet, which links institutionally-based computer systems and large corporate computer systems throughout North America. Although membership in the Femail Mailing List group is potentially available to all Usenet users as well as institutionally-based users at non-Unix sites, access to the group as a contributor is monitored and at times restricted by the moderator. While all "readers" are requested to "join" the list by notifying the moderator, it is impossible to monitor and control who reads (but not who contributes to) the Femail Mailing List. This situation exists because potentially anyone at any site receiving the Femail Mailing List can go undetected in forwarding the bundles of mail to other users.
Men's and Women's Issues Section (CompuServe Information Service)
CompuServe Information Service is a commercial wide- area central node network that began in 1979. Wide-area and local central node networks (such as CompuServe Information Service and the Women's Bulletin Board System, respectively) accommodate a greater array of communication options than multi-node networks (such as Usenet or Internet). In contrast to Usenet and the Femail Mailing List (which can only accommodate private electronic mail, newsgroups and file transfer to network users), CIS offers users a multitude of services.
CompuServe Information Service began as an in-house data processing centre and with the availability of timesharing computers moved into the computer service industry, initially selling time only to commercial clients. To facilitate this end goal and to avoid the difficulties associated with depending on another commercial enterprise for the provision of packet switching services, before entering the home information and personal computer market, CompuServe had developed its own packet switching network. CompuServe became a publicly held company in 1975. In 1978, commercial electronic mail services were introduced to its timesharing clients (Gerber, 1989). Shortly after its major competitor in the home information market (The Source) began operation in 1979, CompuServe Information Service began to offer bulletin boards, databases and games targeted to computer hobbyists in twenty-five cities served by the CompuServe packet switching network (Gerber, 1989). By 1980, CIS was accessible to its 4,000 customers twenty-four hours a day. The subscriber base reached 10,000 a year later, perhaps reflecting a marketing arrangement between CIS, Tandy Computer and Radio Shack. Also in 1981, electronic mail became available to home users through CIS, and CIS became available in Canada. In 1983 an on-line mall was introduced. By 1984, CIS had 100,000 subscribers, and a year later CIS boasted 250,000 users. In 1987 CompuServe expanded its services to Japan, and by the time it acquired The Source in 1989 it had become the largest commercial computer information service in the world, with a half million users. Services had grown to include 180 special interest forums; news, weather, sports and flight information; access to several newspapers and magazines that could be searched for keywords; an electronic version of a CB radio; and a variety of other services (Gerber, 1989).
The use of base level CIS services is billed by the hour. Other services (such as an on-line version of Books in Print) require a sign-up fee and carry additional charges. Initially, Canadian users could only gain access to CompuServe through a Canadian packet switching network (Datapac) that tied into the CIS packet switching network. Users paid an additional hourly fee for the use of Datapac (Kleiner, 1981). CompuServe introduced and then withdrew direct access to its Ohio computer in some Canadian cities, only to re-introduce direct access (which saved Canadian users Datapac charges) a few years later.
The women's section on CIS began officially when Pamela Bowen
submitted a proposal to CompuServe in late 1982 or early 1983
proposing the formation of a women's forum. Prior to Bowen's proposal
to CompuServe, several women who had met through the on-line CB "were
gathering every Saturday night and
scrambling for private chats.
That was not satisfactory, however, because men kept sending talk
requests and interrupting" (Bowen, 1991a) :3:. When Bowen initially
submitted the proposal for a women's forum, she was told by CompuServe
that there were not enough women on-line to justify it. Bowen
commented in 1988 that "they still say that, but I say that's a bunch
of balogna because most families have one account, and that account is
usually in the husband's name, even if the wife spends much more time
on-line, so there's no way CompuServe's demographics can pick that up"
Despite CompuServe's refusal to begin a women's forum, they did consult Georgia Griffith, who was (and still is) the head sysop of the Issues Forum. Griffith agreed to have one section of her forum used for women's issues; Bowen became sysop of the women's section and the assistant sysop of the Issues forum. Griffith hoped that if the section was popular enough it could branch into a separate forum. Many CompuServe Forums had in fact followed this pattern of development (Bowen, 1991a). Once the women's section of the Issue's Forum had been established, many of the women who had been "gathering" on the CB Saturday nights moved to the new women's section (Bowen, 1991a). In addition to one-to-one electronic mail, one-to-many electronic mail (referred to on CIS as a "topic-specific bulletin board area," but similar in practice to what other networks call "conferences") and document transfer, the women's section featured weekly "real-time" conferencing, analogous to a voice conference call where several geographically dispersed participants could communicate simultaneously with a barely noticeable time delay. In addition to discussing issues in the bulletin board area of the women's section, participants during weekly real-time conferences either "chatted" amongst themselves, or talked to an invited guest speaker about a wide range of women's issues. Bowen (1991b) recalls that about twenty women regularly participated in the women's section, and five or six women regularly participated in the weekly conferences.
I remember the women's section as an active discussion area (I "visited" it occasionally in late 1985 and early 1986). It was closed sometime in late 1986 or early 1987 (Casal, 1991a) after a few weeks when participation was low. Casal was an assistant sysop of the men's and women's issues section in 1988, an area originally established for mixed gender discussions about women's issues that "WAS dominated by men and was eventually re-named the Men's/Women's section" (Casal, 1991b; capitalization in original). She recalls that, although the women's conferences were regular weekly events for at least three years, in the last few months of the section, she and Griffith "had trouble getting even ONE woman to come ... In the end :they: had to open the conferences to men also in order to have a conference at all" (Casal, 1991c).
The Women's Bulletin Board System
The Women's Bulletin Board System (WBBS) was devised in 1985 and began operation in 1986. Unlike most computer networking services, the system was proposed and started by nine women from the social change community, rather than the computer bulletin board community. These women discussed the formation of the WBBS via a computer network, and after selecting the hardware and software for the WBBS, spent two months learning their way around the system before publicly announcing it through flyers and mailings to women's groups and contacts in the New York City women's community. Founders of the WBBS anticipated that potential users might lack the knowledge to use a computer network with little assistance. In an effort to eliminate this barrier, one of the founders based in New York City reports that she has provided extensive support for potential users of that system, including on-line help, hard copy help and in-person help (Interview with Angela Leucht, November 1988). This no doubt contributed to the success of the Women's Bulletin Board System.
The founders' initial goals were to provide a bulletin board for organizing around women's issues and to share information between women's groups. The bulletin board allowed users to send electronic mail to other users, post public messages on a variety of topics of concern to feminists, and upload and download files (document transfer). Unlike most bulletin boards in operation in the mid-1980s (that did not easily accommodate the organization of messages), the Women's Bulletin Board was split into twenty-seven posting areas, each set aside for a different set of topics. Consequently, the public messages posted on the Women's Bulletin Board read more like a computer conference than a bulletin board, and users could more quickly locate information of potential interest, as well as avoid some topics altogether. Among the existing bulletin areas were areas for action alerts (time-dated public notices); discussions about women and AIDS, parenting, recovery from sexual abuse, recovery from alcohol abuse, and general women's issues; notices about conferences; and areas for adolescents, women of colour, and groups that wished to have restricted (rather than public) communication.
Several things distinguished the Women's Bulletin Board System from other bulletin boards and computer networking services. The WBBS was established and operated by a group, rather than an individual. This is in marked contrast to most bulletin boards which are operated by a single individual, who often thinks of the board as an extension of their house, or as their kingdom (WBBS Transcripts, 1991). Instead, group management of the system was a major factor in the selection of software for the WBBS. Unfortunately, women's groups have not used the system as much as was anticipated. One of the co-founders attributes this to the software that she feels was not designed for, and does not fully accommodate, group communications. Another co-founder felt the largest obstacle to the System's use by groups is that most women's organizations (in the U.S.) do not have computers, and those that do often do not have modems (Group Interview, November 1988).
The Women's Bulletin Board has avoided many of the problems that have plagued other attempts to provide an electronic women's meeting place. Although women users of other computer networks frequently complain about attacks upon their views by men, their continuous struggle to keep the "conversation" focused upon women, and their boredom with debates about fundamental assumptions (that men should help change diapers, that daycare should be more accessible), newcomers to the Women's Bulletin Board frequently commented on the congenial atmosphere that characterized this system. Despite these strengths, founders of the WBBS were at times discouraged with the changes that occurred over time. All but three of the board's original moderators and sysops, all of whom originated from the social change community, left. They were replaced by women who have come from the bulletin board community, and one co- founder feels that these two communities do not often see ideas or processes in the same way (Interview with WBBS Co-founder, November 1988).
In the fall of 1990, the WBBS was temporarily out of operation. The modem used to operate the system was damaged when lightning struck the building. A few of the sysops had left the WBBS, and the founders sought replacements. The founders also investigated the acquisition of new hardware and software. While weary, the group still felt that the WBBS was a valuable community resource that could contribute to the New York City women's community.
Data Collection and Analysis
Information about the networks was collected mainly from the networks themselves. On-line sessions were both saved to a file and printed. Data were analyzed both via computer (for example, searching for message header information and storing it in files for further analysis) and on paper (for example, reading and coding the transcripts according to message structure and content). Information available in network transcripts was supplemented with on-line queries to group users, published accounts of the networks, and personal interviews. Theoretical perspectives that informed data analysis included Noble's (1979) concept of social bias in machine design, and Smith's (1990b) argument that text is a means of access to the relations it organizes.
Noble (1979), Linn (1987) and others :4: argue that there is more to technology than hardware. For women, technology never exists in an asocial sense. It is reflected in social practices, including language and other forms of representation; in traditions of use, techniques and training practices; in domains of knowledge; and in relation to production and consumption. Technology is, in short, a cultural product (Linn, 1987). Along similar lines, Noble (1979) and Karpf (1987) both argue that it is people and social forces that shape and create technology; technological products both bear the imprint of their social context, and themselves reinforce that social context. Technology is constituted by, and also helps constitute social relations.
Smith (1990) argues that texts are situated in and structure social relations. Treating text as a constituent of social relations encourages the researcher to investigate the social organization of its production, as it is a prior phase in the social relation. Smith advocates looking beyond text for evidence of the social relations that resulted in the production of specific texts. In the case of computer networks, one can begin an inquiry through the texts that participants in on-line discussions produce, and explore the actual practices that engage people in the relations that organize their lives. In applying Smith's (1990) approach to the analysis of computer networks, it was necessary to focus upon network structure. During analysis of network transcripts, it became clear that the text produced in on-line discussions reflected the physical structure of a network. Network structure in turn had implications for where and to whom networks were accessible. Network software is designed in response to both the physical network structure (which poses both opportunities and constraints in terms of communication options available) and social goals that are often not explicit. These factors combine to create the taken-for-granted world that network users encounter in their everyday production of computer network transcripts.
Network structure not only had implications for who had access to a given network (and where they had access from), but also proved useful in explaining differences in the structure of messages. To varying degrees, issues related to the structure of the networks and/or social decisions incorporated into software design (for example, the use of aliases on Usenet) are implicitly addressed in the content of messages. Additionally, some combinations of network structure and software seem to accommodate certain forms of communication better than others.
(1) Access Related To Network Structure
The structure of a computer network has implications for where a network is accessible (for example, in universities but not women's centres), and to whom it is accessible. The gender composition of participants varied from network to network, as did participant's patterns of response on a network. Each network had a somewhat distinct group of participants, although some overlap existed between networks. Participants in each of the networks are described below.
Information about Soc.women participants was gleaned from a number of sources, each of which yielded a different type of information. Message headers provide a source of information about participants' points of access into the Usenet system, where they work, and often, in the absence of unusual circumstances or the use of aliases, the gender of message authors. To a certain extent, message headers make it possible to determine what time of day messages were sent. Information of a more personal nature about participants is sparse in Soc.women messages. If it exists at all, it is often included incidentally in message text.
Reading Soc.women headers gives one a sense that Soc.women contributors mostly gain access to Usenet and Soc.women from their workplaces (primarily, corporations engaged in computer-related work and science and applied science departments of universities). While readership of Usenet is worldwide, most contributors are resident in the United States. The organizational affiliations listed in Soc.women headers read like a combination of Who's Who in Corporate and Academic America, and a contest for aspiring stand-up comics. In three weeks of Soc.women messages, participants from over seventy businesses and over fifty universities contributed messages. In addition, over forty different organizational aliases :5: were used, and at least seven people gained access to Usenet through computer bulletin boards and commercial services offering electronic gateways to Usenet.
From message headers, one gains a sense that Soc.women contributors are well-educated, and those who are no longer students are likely to work in the computer industry or in academia. Based on an examination of times included in Soc.women headers (in cases where the geographical location of a contributor is known), it appears that participants are to a large extent submitting messages to Soc.women during normal business hours. Popular times for submitting messages appear to be mid-morning, around lunch time (1:00 p.m.), and mid-afternoon. Occasionally messages are submitted in the early evening, suggesting that contributors are either working late (this is a frequent occurrence in the computer industry) or have computers at home through which they gain access to their work-based Usenet systems.
By examining names found in Soc.women "From:" headers, and by referring to message text for clues about the authors' gender in the event of gender-neutral names (such as Chris, Pat, Jesse) or aliases, the gender composition of Soc.women contributors can be estimated, along with message sending patterns. In the Soc.women sample, out of a total of 258 contributors who contributed a total of 650 messages over 44 days :6:, 63 per cent of the contributors were men, 27 per cent were women and the gender of 10 per cent of the contributors could not be determined. Just over half of the messages were authored by men, and just over 44 per cent of the messages were authored by women. The gender of the authors in slightly over 5 per cent of the cases could not be determined.
The Femail Mailing List
Reading Femail messages, one gains a much more in- depth sense of who participants are and what their lives are like. Although the removal of message headers strips messages of what little surface clues about participants inherently exist in messages on a distributed multi-node network, at the same time it protects participants from having the identity of their employer known, as well as from receiving unwanted electronic junk mail. The removal of headers (both a technical decision related to the use of non-Usenet software, and a social decision related to the emergence of Femail out of dissatisfaction with Soc.women) contributes to the more personal tone of messages that make up the Femail dialogue in general, and the greater abundance of personal information contained in Femail messages in particular.
Like Soc.women contributors, Femail contributors also gain access to that group through nodes of wide area networks (such as UUCP and ARPAnet) in their workplaces. However, with the removal of headers from Femail messages, in the absence of any knowledge about network structure, this would not be as obvious as it is in Soc.women messages. In general, the individuals who come together to form the Femail mailing list are in some cases former and/or current Soc.women readers, or they may have heard about the list from a friend. Although the removal of message headers in the Femail group makes it more difficult to capture a sense of the places that Femail participants work compared to Soc.women contributors, we get a much more detailed sense of what their work lives are like. Because headers have been removed from Femail messages, we know less about the time of day that messages are submitted to the group. However, Femail messages contain references to submitting messages from work, and Femail participants occasionally indicate that they are dependent upon workplace computers for access to the group.
Given that the nodes which carry the Femail mailing list are located in similar places to the Usenet nodes which accommodate access to Soc.women (academia, the corporate sector), it is not surprising that Femail contributors have a great deal in common with Soc.women contributors. Like Soc.women contributors, Femail participants tend to be highly educated; they are likely to be students, professors, or professionals working in areas related to the sciences. In contrast to Soc.women messages that provide a wealth of information about contributors in headers and a minimal amount of information about contributors in text, Femail readers can easily gain a sense of who contributors to that group are from the text of messages submitted to the group. The tradition of including "personal data" in Femail messages began quite early in that group's history. A Femail contributor requested demographic information in the fifth message submitted to Femail, and in the third message submitted to that group a contributor presented demographic information in the context of a story. By reading through the remainder of Femail Message Excerpts 4, we see that Femail contributors appear to be quite candid in messages they submit to the mailing list. Personal data may include a synopsis of a contributor's past relationships, an overall profile, or a personal commentary (lines 18646-18655). Although the inclusion of personal information appears to be almost secondary in Soc.women messages, personal information appears to be primary to the Femail mailing list.
The probable gender of message authors can be determined with greater accuracy in Femail messages than in Soc.women messages. First, a contributor's ability to submit messages to the Femail group anonymously (or with an alias) is controlled by the moderator in conjunction with the group. Secondly, the emphasis upon personal issues in the Femail group (beginning with introductions) accommodates an easy assignment of gender to both gender-neutral names and anonymous contributions. In contrast to Soc.women, where nearly two-thirds of the participants were men, just over one-fourth of Femail participants were men. Women constituted slightly more than one-fourth of the contributors to Soc.women and they contributed nearly half of that group's messages. In contrast, the number of messages contributed to Femail by both men (25 per cent) and women (74 per cent) over four years closely approximated the representation of men (26 per cent) and women (71 per cent) in that group :7:. The gender composition of the Femail mailing list group has from time to time been a topic of discussion in that group. Of the forty-one subscribers who responded to a message on Soc.women about beginning a new group, three-quarters were women. Within three months, two-thirds of those known to be reading the list were women and one-third were men. At that time, 82 per cent of the contributors were women and 18 per cent were men. In other words, shortly after the group began, the number of men reading Femail increased. However, contributions to Femail by gender did not reflect that change. Unlike Soc.women where women contributed more messages per person on average than men, the contributions to Femail by gender have remained in proportion to the number of men and women contributors in that group.
Ten months after the inception of Femail, the percentage of contributions by men had increased slightly, from 21 to 27 per cent. On average, men contributed more messages per person to the list than women. The slight increase in contributions made to Femail by men continued into April of 1985, when the moderator again presented a gender breakdown of contributions to the group (see Message 613, April 1985, line 13854 of Femail transcripts, 1991). At that point (fifteen months after the group began), 30 per cent of the contributions to Femail were authored by men. However, a four-year review of contributions to Femail by gender indicates that contributions by men constituted only 25 per cent of the total. The extent to which men and women "speak out" to Femail readers fluctuates over time.
Compuserve Information Service Men's And Women's Issues Section
Of all of the networks considered in this section, we know the least about participants in the CompuServe Men's and Women's Issues section. Although a sense of participants can be gained from a range of message headers in Soc.women messages, as well as through text in Femail messages, CIS messages offer scant information in either message headers or text. As a single node network, CIS participants submit their messages to the Men's and Women's Issues Section of that network through CIS software. All participants potentially access CIS from different physical locations, and once they have connected to CompuServe, their messages are moved around by the CIS software. The headers supplied by that software do not betray the location through which the author of a message has gained access to CIS. Consequently, we know virtually nothing about the locations from which message authors are contacting the network.
A review of the time and date message headers from messages submitted to the Section over a one-month period showed that 30 per cent of the messages were submitted between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), and 70 per cent of the messages were submitted between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. EST. The CIS rate structure, with lower hourly charges at night, encourages higher use during night hours. Keeping in mind that CIS participants are potentially located in all time zones, but that their messages are stamped with whatever time it was in the eastern time zone when their message was submitted, we can make some rough assertions about where CIS participants are when they submit messages. Assuming that most of the participants hold jobs requiring their presence at work during normal business hours, it appears that the majority of participants access CIS from home computers after their workday ends.
Unlike the other networks discussed here, one's access to CIS is dependent upon steady access to cash or credit. Upon joining CompuServe, prospective users must supply either a credit card number for direct billing or a chequing account number for direct withdrawals. If a subscriber is outside of the United States, the only billing is a credit card number. This requirement, along with the hourly fees charged for CIS use, ensures that regular users are relatively affluent.
Over approximately a one-month period :8:, 353 messages were contributed to the Men's and Women's Issues Section of CompuServe. These were organized into three threads. Seventy per cent of the participants (n=7) were men, who contributed 57 per cent of the messages in the section. Women, who constituted 30 per cent of the contributors (n=3) authored 43 per cent of the messages. While the gender composition of contributors was similar to that of the Soc.women sample, and the CIS section showed a similar pattern to Soc.women in terms of women contributing messages in a higher proportion than their representation in the group, a significant difference exists between the Soc.women and CIS samples. In the former case, the ratio of contributors to messages was 1:2.5 compared to a ratio of 1:35 in the case of CIS.
Moreover, a large number of people were engaged in debates in the Soc.women newsgroup while only a small number joined in the dialogue of the CIS Men's and Women's Issues Section. Of the 353 messages that comprised the CIS sample, 272 or 77 per cent were contributed by two people: a man who authored 126 messages and a woman (also the sysop) who authored 146 messages. The woman sysop's messages, together with those from two other sysops involved in the maintenance of the Issues Forum (where the men's and women's issues section is located) accounted for 48 per cent of the total message flow in the men's and women's section. By the time CIS was monitored for this study, the number of women using it to discuss women's issues had fallen off dramatically.
The Women's Bulletin Board System
Women's Bulletin Board messages, like CompuServe messages, contain limited information in message headers about participants. WBBS participants, however, tend to be more candid about themselves in their messages. Where CompuServe message threads often read like a conversation already in progress, in contrast, reading the WBBS is more like entering a small town, and getting to know people as you run into them in a variety of settings. This sense is facilitated by the separation of the WBBS into several topically distinct areas. Contributors may offer extensive personal information in some areas but not in others. As participants explore the WBBS, they "run into" contributors in different contexts, and are able to gain a sense of what participants are like.
Because of the limited information contained in WBBS message headers, we know very little about where that network's users gain access to it. Most users appear to call the system from within the New York City local calling area, where the WBBS is located. Occasionally users mention in message text that they are calling from outside of the New York City area via PC Pursuit, a value-added carrier service that allows users to make calls to and from selected American cities for a flat monthly fee during evenings and weekends. A review of the "Date:" header in 990 messages indicates that 41 per cent were placed there during normal business hours (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and 59 per cent of the messages were posted between 6:01 p.m. and 7:59 a.m. :9:. WBBS contributors appear to gain access to the network from both home and the workplace. Several contributors appear to work for women's organizations. At least one contributor regularly posts informational messages of interest to the women's community on the WBBS as part of her job. In addition, feminist organizations appear to be points of access for some contributors.
As of 27 February 1988, the WBBS listed 639 users in their directory. Based upon the assignment of gender to names, 26 per cent were men, 61 per cent were women, and 13 per cent had gender-ambiguous names. The directory lists those who have become permanent users of the system. However, it neither lists those who access the system, look around and do not return, nor does it indicate who contributes messages. A scan of 990 message headers, however, indicated that seventy of the contributors were women (61 per cent), thirty-six were men (32 per cent), and eight or 7 per cent had gender-ambiguous names. Only 114 of the 639 people who signed on to the WBBS left messages that remained on the system during the data collection period. Clearly, a large number of people read the WBBS or visit it but do not contribute.
Organizers of the WBBS observed that over time the use of the system changed. The system was established by a group of activists with organizational affiliations interested in creating a resource for the New York City women's community. Gradually, however, the WBBS was used less by feminist activists and more by members of the bulletin board community. During a group interview (25 November 1988, New York City), WBBS organizers commented that as more bulletin boarders began to use the system, the representation of the women's community declined. Moreover, in the words of one organizer, "these two groups just did not see things the same way ... we were more concerned with providing a service, and group process among the sysops; the BBSers were more concerned with the hardware and software...we did not see things the same way at all."
(2) Access To Varied Forms Of Communications
Network users' access to an array of communication options is restricted on at least two levels. First, each network structure accommodates a different array of communication options. For example, using a distributed multi-node network (with or without a moderator) allows only one-to-one and one-to-many electronic mail, and file transfer. Within Soc.women, messages are not organized by topic. Although the Femail Mailing List messages are organized to a greater extent than Soc.women messages, this is done by the moderator rather than through an automatic software function. In contrast, a central node system (such as CIS) allows additional communication possibilities, such as computer conferences and databases. This may seem to be an elementary point to a veteran network user, yet novice users encountered in on-line feminist groups often failed to realize that some network structures accommodated a wider range of communication options than others. Frequently, would-be network users were left discouraged when they realized that the network they were using would not allow them access to the type of communication they desired. This limitation is indicative of a general lack of technical information amongst certain groups of users, such as social change activists or staff members of women's organizations.
The second level at which users' access to networks is restricted relates to network structure in two ways. First, network structure in all cases posed some constraints to potential users. Secondly, each network boasted its own message style and tone, which in some cases acted as a mechanism to control women's access. These phenomena are addressed below.
Access Restrictions Related to Network Structure
Each of the networks had features that restricted users' access to the network. In the case of both Soc.women and the Femail Mailing List, users could only gain access to the systems through an institutional setting (although access to Usenet has improved as Unix has increasingly been implemented on home-based personal computers). In fact, many Femail users complained that switching jobs often meant the loss of access to what had become a cherished source of support. Access to the Femail Mailing List was also limited by technical problems related to the construction of addressing paths that could accommodate the smooth distribution of messages around the Internet. Finally, any technical problems with the computer system at the Femail moderator's worksite resulted in a disruption of the group.
In the case of CompuServe, two factors restricted user's access to the service: cost of access and management imperatives. Previous participants in the women's section (which preceded the Men's and Women's Issues Section) mentioned cost as a constraint upon women's use, and speculated that the section failed to generate levels of acceptable profit. One member of the women's section (when it still existed) spent $300 in one month on CompuServe without realizing it until the bill arrived (CompuServe transcripts, 1991). Casal (1991b) raises some important points in relation to gender and the economics of CIS use:
Cost is certainly a factor. We have had several users who have dropped
out because money became tight in their households. A few drop out
when they move to areas where there is no node and use would involve
long-distance access fees. But I have noticed that, whereas most of
the men who have to quit because
money is tight tend to return after
awhile, women are more likely to drop out altogether. This is true
even when the women were very active participants (Casal, 1991b).
In addition to general costs associated with the use of CIS, any user outside of an area serviced by the CIS packet switching network must incur additional charges (either in the form of regular long distance calls or use of a value-added) in order to participate in discussions. In light of women's lower earning power relative to men, it is not surprising to find that of all the networks investigated (despite the fact that it is the largest commercial computer network in the world) CIS had the lowest number of participants in its on-line discussions related to feminism.
The WBBS was the most accessible of all the networks examined. Other than gaining access to a personal computer, local users incurred no costs through use (non-local users incurred costs associated with the use of either PC Pursuit or regular long distance telephone lines). The WBBS also appears to have had the most diverse group of contributors of the four networks studied. However, the fact remains that the bulk of its users were situated in the New York City area.
Access Restrictions Related to Message Style and Content
Each of the four networks included in the study boasted its own message structure and style. Message structure was clearly related to network structure. For example, the protocol used in the transfer of Soc.women messages around Usenet resulted in users at different sites viewing the messages in a different order. As a result, a user might receive a response to a message prior to the original message. In order to contextualize communication under these circumstances, a mechanism was built into the software which prompts users to include a portion of the message to which they are responding in their response. This leads to a convention of attributions, or quotes of previous messages. Partly as a consequence of this Usenet feature, Soc.women messages tend to read like a "he-said-she-said ... but you didn't understand" argument. This, combined with numerous accusations of message forgery (supported by the software feature that allows aliases) and the often contentious nature of feminism in general, contributed to a general climate of antagonism in Soc.women. In a sense, women's access to Soc.women as a discussion space for feminist issues was restricted or controlled through the contentious nature of the dialogue that occurred on the network.
In sharp contrast to the message structure, style and content of Soc.women, the Femail Mailing List read like an on-line consciousness-raising group. Composed mainly of narratives, stories, and questions and answers about feminist topics, the caring atmosphere of the Femail Mailing List was maintained in part by the moderator (who could refuse to include antagonistic messages in bundles of mail to group participants). Users could elect to include or exclude their electronic mail addresses in message text; a decision to exclude an address from message text guaranteed against unwanted electronic mail. Group participants regularly communicated through the group to negotiate standards for group moderation.
Exchanges on the CIS Men's and Women's Issues Section tended to occur between two individuals who would begin a discussion, get into an argument, perhaps have someone intervene, and more often than not, agree to disagree. Many exchanges involved one of the sysops (using the system free of charge) who might bait a group participant. The practice of controversy on-line led to more money being spent on-line. The CIS software (which indicated who authored a message and who it was directed towards), encouraged users to continue to respond to message threads in which they had participated, and encouraged the didactic style of CIS messages. Although this network was billed as a one-to-many form of communication, messages tended to take the form of one-to-one communication, which perhaps acted as a deterrent to some would-be users.
The congenial atmosphere of the Women's Bulletin Board System reflected a number of factors. First, prior to being granted access to the WBBS, users were required to supply a name and telephone number for verification. This undoubtedly encouraged users to use the system under their own identity. Secondly, founders of the WBBS devised a system to reduce conflict on the network. They designated one area of the bulletin board as a battleground. Whenever discussions in any area assumed an inflammatory tone, the inflammatory message and related messages were moved to the battleground. Users wishing to avoid controversy and disagreement could choose not to participate in these discussions, while those who thrived on controversy could indulge. Finally, WBBS founders felt that there were some instances where anonymity was acceptable; for example, in a women-only area of the board that required special clearance). Certain areas of the system allowed users to post anonymous messages, while other areas did not. This practice allowed users to engage in the discussion of difficult topics where anonymity might be preferable, but prohibited users from acting antagonistically (as in many cases they did in Soc.women) under assumed identities.
Message structure and style often reflect both the physical structure of a computer network and a number of social decisions (for example, to permit aliases and anonymity) that are incorporated into the software. For many users, both the physical structure of the network and the social decisions incorporated into the network through software design are invisible. Once these relationships are examined, it becomes clear that some combinations of network structure and software design provide access to some groups of users while deterring others.
(3) Access To Technical Competence
In only one of the networks investigated in depth was it evident that users had regular technical difficulties in using the network. Not surprisingly, it was the Women's Bulletin Board System, which was more accessible to lay users than the other three networks. However, a great deal can be learned by examining some past attempts to create feminist environments on-line, that have fallen short of initial expectations. Three of these are discussed below.
The Amazon Line
One approach to providing a computer-mediated discussion area for women via a commercial computer network was attempted by two women in Toronto. The service, named the Amazon Line, was scheduled to begin operation late in 1985. As of early 1988, it was still not quite off the ground, although its founders had not given up hope. The Amazon Line, it was hoped, would allow women throughout Canada to quickly exchange information relevant to feminist social change. The network was to be operated on a university computer that sells computer time and storage space to individuals and groups with no university affiliation. Software was available that would allow public and private electronic mail, as well as time-delayed and real-time computer conferencing. Locating the Amazon Line on a university computer system meant that out-of-town users could gain access to the system via value-added carriers.
Founders of the Amazon Line targeted their service towards professional women. When asked what factors they felt had kept the Amazon Line from flourishing, two points were raised. First, they found that many of the women they had hoped to attract did not do their own typing, but rather had secretaries who typed for them. They were attempting to introduce computerized communication to a population that did not have a direct need for it. Adoption of their service by the desired population would have required a change to existing work patterns. Secondly, they found that at the time the service was publicized (1985), many women still did not have access to the knowledge required to use it. The Amazon Line's founders anticipated the development of an educational strategy to accompany the re-introduction of the service. Since that time, women's access to equipment has improved, and many women have gained experience and confidence with computers (Personal Communication with Pat Hacker, February 1988).
The Canadian Research Institute For The Advancement Of Women
All of the attempts to create and maintain women's electronic communication space that have been discussed thus far have been either oriented towards individuals or, in the case of the Women's Bulletin Board, oriented towards groups in general, rather than a single group and its specific communication needs. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) has engaged in the process of developing a computer networking system to meet that group's needs. CRIAW was among the first women's organizations in North America to actively adopt computer communication in efforts to reduce the communication difficulties associated with a national organization.
Members of the organization (a diverse group of women inside and outside of academia in both English- and French-speaking Canada) began to discuss computer networking early in 1987. Around that time, a few of the women who had access to institutional computers began to exchange messages electronically. In November of 1987, hands-on training was provided for board and committee members. Since that time, the executive and some members of the board have been brought on-line (Assheton-Smith, 1988). With board members located from the Yukon to the Atlantic provinces, it was hoped that electronic mail would reduce the amount of time required between information exchanges, as well as the expense associated with long distance telephone charges. Other somewhat longer-term goals for beginning a computer network include facilitating the work of individual groups within the organization and making resources (such as bibliographies) more accessible to members of the organization. From CRIAW's initial discussion of computer networking there was an awareness that the technology lacked standardization and that there would be many problems to overcome. In addition, beginning with the first discussion of computer networking at an executive meeting in 1987, there was an awareness that adoption of networking technology could create a two-tiered organization, with women who lacked access to mainframe computers, who were in rural areas (and lacked access to a value-added carrier) and/or working in community groups less able to participate in an on-line communication process. Even though CRIAW was aware that it wanted to build an open communication structure (rather than one that intensified elite processes), the organization did not initially address the problem of differences in access to an electronic communication system based on the preferred language of the speaker (Assheton-Smith, 1988).
A decision was made to first attempt to get CRIAW's executive
communicating via computer. Even though access to and familiarity with
computers varied a great deal amongst members of the executive, and no
real budget for the project existed (repeated attempts were made to
secure external funding to launch the project), in Assheton-Smith's
words, "as frequently happens in women's work, we had to determine how
to make our
real situations work, patching together our anarchic
realities" (1988: 4). Since several of the executive board members
were institutionally-based and a few had begun exchanging electronic
mail, a decision was made to build on institutional access to
equipment, and at the same time secure access to the system for
non-institutionally- based board members. In some cases this meant
access to equipment (such as modems) and in other cases it meant
access to donated university computer accounts. Additional efforts
were made to familiarize board members with the intricacies of
computer networking technology (Assheton-Smith, 1988). In 1988, I
spent a week in the CRIAW office in Ottawa working with the office
staff around computer networking. Between 1987 and 1989 CRIAW
confronted many problems related to computer networking. Not all of
these problems have been resolved. Several problems arose in the
initial hands-on workshop conducted for CRIAW in 1987. These included
an emphasis on IBM-compatible computers (several of the board members
had Apple Macintosh computers and found it difficult to relate the
material presented to their situations), the fact that the workshop
was unilingual, and the unfamiliarity of workshop presenters with
either computer access in Quebec or the availability and intricacies
of French-language software.
With almost no budget, no capacity to purchase needed equipment, and no in-house computing talent, CRIAW board members began communicating via computer. At that time, three women had university access to a mainframe (although each accessed their local mainframe through a unique combination of hardware and software), and two potential participants (one in Inuvik and one in Montreal) had access to computers, modems and software, but lacked access to a mainframe computer that would allow them to communicate with anyone else on the board (Assheton-Smith, 1988). A number of difficulties arose. The three women with access to university mainframes began to communicate relatively quickly, despite problems they encountered related to addressing and computer breakdowns. When Carleton University offered to donate additional computer accounts, a decision was made to use those accounts to provide the non-university women in Inuvik and Montreal with access to other communicators. The Carleton computer was not only difficult to learn and use, but Carleton computing staff also lacked information that CRIAW needed. Finally, the Carleton computer had built-in limitations that made it impossible for CRIAW to easily distribute messages to all potential participants. While the board member in Inuvik had an account on the Carleton mainframe, there was no Datapac node in Inuvik. This meant that there was no straightforward way for the woman in Inuvik to access the Carleton computer without spending large amounts of money on either long distance telephone charges or charges incurred through accessing the Carleton computer via a costly commercial network (Assheton-Smith, 1988). CRIAW staff members at times found it difficult to meet their day-to-day work obligations as they struggled to master the new communication system.
To their credit, CRIAW board members have continued to use computer networking to meet some of their communication needs. The early years of experimentation and a lack of funding with which to further develop the organization's computer communication capacities have led CRIAW to revise its expectations. CRIAW's use of computer networks raises several issues related to access and brings these complex issues into sharper focus. Perhaps more than any of the computer network implementations discussed thus far, CRIAW has attempted to facilitate communication via computer between several distinct (and at times overlapping) groups. Among the differences CRIAW has attempted to transcend via computer networking are linguistic differences, geographic distances, differential access to resources (for example, by providing some potential participants with modems and/or access to university-based computer networks), and differences in knowledge related to computer networking. Their use of computer networking in an organizational context has hinted at issues related to additional demands placed on staff members, and the possibility of computer networking in an organizational context leading to a redistribution of staff responsibilities.
The American Association of University Women
Another women's organization that has attempted to meet some of its communication needs via computer is the American Association of University Women (AAUW). AAUW, like CRIAW, is a national organization. Unlike CRIAW, membership is only open to women with university degrees. AAUW's interest in computer networks and the social impacts of technology dates back to the early 1980s. Interest in computer networking technology resulted in a hands-on computer networking workshop for members of the Idaho chapter in 1986. For a few years it appeared that interest was waning, yet in December of 1989 the Association began to offer computer networking services through an arrangement with The Source, a large commercial computer network.
Although the AAUW National Office has its own mini- computer donated by the Digital Equipment Corporation, in meeting their computer networking needs, they negotiated an agreement with The Source; when The Source was acquired by CompuServe, the agreement was transferred to CompuServe. Perhaps one of the factors that led to AAUW's decision to use The Source was the concern expressed by staff that the office would be swamped with information requests, and the desire to keep their in-house computer system from being overloaded. They had envisioned a computer system that would allow AAUW to drop information onto the network, but would prohibit network users from passing information back to the AAUW office via computer network. As originally conceived, the system was intended for AAUW leaders, who would be trained to use it. If successful, the network would be opened to the general membership.
The board of AAUW, perhaps because they lacked a general understanding of computer networks, was scarcely involved in decisions related to its implementation. One member recalls that the proposal to use The Source was presented to the Board as an "either/or" issue, and the proposal was not discussed by the Board in analytical terms. A member commented that it was just simply doomed from the outset. By the time the network was introduced in December 1989, the notion of developing a core of competent, trained users had been lost. The system was introduced to the entire membership at once. Like the Amazon Line, AAUW had failed to provide training or information about what computer networking required in terms of hardware, software, or access. By June 1990, The Source had been acquired by CompuServe, and only ten people were using CompuServe to communicate with other AAUW members (Sara Harder, Personal Communication, May 1991). By the fall of that year, any visibility AAUW might have had on CompuServe had vanished. CompuServe management was unaware of AAUW's use of that network, and a keyword search for AAUW users in the CompuServe directory produced no results.
Although all of the factors that contributed to the failure of AAUW's efforts are unknown, it is possible that one of the factors was the sale of The Source to CompuServe. Perhaps the initial announcement that AAUW members could communicate via computer encouraged some to acquire access to computers and/or the expertise to connect to a computer netework. The process of acquiring computer equipment, gaining a sense of how it works and beginning to use it for computer networking often takes an inexperienced user a year or longer. It may be that by the time some users were ready to connect to The Source it had vanished. Although anyone who had an account on The Source was given a complimentary account on CompuServe at the time The Source was sold, potential Source users would not have known that AAUW's networking resources had been transferred to CompuServe. AAUW's experiences with computer networking suggest that an issue warranting further consideration is that of who owns the resources that support a group's on-line communication (this issue is addressed again later).
Each of these examples highlights two points that are often left unaddressed in promotional literature about computer networks. First, in order for an organization to obtain or create a computer networking system that meets its needs, it must have a clear example of what any particular system can or cannot do. CRIAW's experiences provide a good example of how a lack of understanding of the relationship between network structure and an array of communication options can discourage potential users. Secondly, as both experiences with the Amazon Line and AAUW attest, a tacit assumption is made that a potential computer network user will be able to manage the negotiation and purchase of a computer system to meet their networking needs, and further be able to set the equipment up and have it function in a home environment. Experiences with each of these networks, as well as the success of the Women's Bulletin Board (founders of which often made "house calls" to troubled users), suggest that such an assumption is inappropriate for women users. While it could be argued that men also need assistance in setting up computers and gaining access to computer networks, as Benston (1988) points out, for men access to assistance is often secured through male peer groups that are not equally accessible to women. Benston (1986, 1989) further argues that the difficulties women experience in gaining access to scientific knowledge are heightened by the notion that scientific experts have both privilege and authority; traditional female socialization often makes it difficult to challenge (or even assimilate) scientific knowledge.
(4) Access To Computer Networks In The Context Of Organizational Structure
With such great variation in the goals of feminist organizations, their infrastructures and characteristics, there are no hard and fast rules to govern the introduction of computers in general, and computer networks in particular, into feminist organizations. Clearly, the introduction of computer networks into feminist organizations will add an additional layer of complexity to what is in many cases already a complex and unstable organizational environment.
Contributors to the collection Computers for Social Change and Community Organizing (Downing et al., 1991) identify several issues that have emerged in their efforts to implement computer systems in social change organizations. Fasano and Shapiro describe these organizations as "small non-profit political and community-based organizations ... with small staffs, low budgets, lack of formal bureaucracies :that are: value- driven" (1991: 130). These organizations are structurally similar to women's organizations, and hence can provide valuable insights into the use of computer networks by women's organizations.
Cordero (1991), in writing about a non-profit community development organization, reports that internal organizational problems related to a new computer system revolved around training and staffing. She found that it was easier to obtain funds for hardware or donations of hardware than it was to obtain funds for staff, training or software. Observations of a St. John's, Newfoundland women's organization suggest that this situation also exists in women's organizations. In the organization Cordero writes about, college interns with little commitment to the organization carried out initial programming tasks. The resultant system had many "bugs" in the form of technical problems. High staff turnover made it difficult to both train people to use the new computer system and obtain information about its effectiveness.
In Cordero's workplace, the organization benefited from having one person assigned the responsibility of maintaining the computer system. In addition, a computer specialist (employed part-time as a consultant) was involved in computer implementation on an ongoing basis. Finally, Cordero (1991) observed that even when a need for computers is recognized and computer facilities exist within an organization, individuals may not use computers because they lack the time to learn (Balka, 1986 reports a similar phenomenon). To counter these difficulties, Cordero advocated computer support groups geared towards non-profit organizations.
Several of the computer consultants specializing in non-profits that Fasano and Shapiro (1991) interviewed reported problems when organizations did not have a person in the organization who was willing to "champion the process" of computerization. A woman consultant stated that:
I, in fact, don't even take jobs now unless an organization has one person who is the computer champion/guru. And if an organization can't come up with that person, then I tell them they're not ready to install a database system (1991: 132).
The quotation suggests that specialization of tasks may be desirable in the implementation of computers within an organizational context. Along these lines, the Femail mailing list benefited from the assignment of group moderation tasks to one person. And, perhaps the greatest problem with the Women's Bulletin Board System was that, although different women performed different tasks related to the maintenance of that system, areas of the WBBS set aside for broadcasting information were chronically under-utilized. The task of placing information on broadcast areas of the WBBS was left unassigned.
Ironically, although collectivist feminist organizations have stressed the development of skill and sharing of work tasks, observations suggest that with regard to the use of computer systems these noble goals have frequently been abandoned. Often male friends of collective members voluntarily maintain an organization's computer systems for a period of time, or consultants are hired to fix what seems like an endless stream of computer problems. In both collectivist and bureaucratic organizations, the skill required to maintain computer systems is rarely available in-house, and despite an awareness of both work processes and group process, computer systems have fallen outside the realm of feminist analyses and practices.
In the few cases where information is available about the use of computer networking systems in feminist organizations, overworked staff members have consistently expressed concern about the increased tasks related to their usage. Despite rhetoric about the equal valuation of traditional women's work and work usually performed by men (such as management tasks), one interviewee (who maintained her organization's computer systems) indicated that in her organization computer work was equated with clerical work, and was devalued. Preliminary research conducted by a student in a communications research methods course I taught at Simon Fraser University in the fall of 1989 indicated that in one Vancouver women's organization, all work that required use of a computer was conducted by volunteers rather than paid staff. In that organization, a paid consultant was responsible for implementing and maintaining the organization's computer systems.
Despite these potential problems, computer networks can potentially be used to perform tasks in which many organizations are already engaged (such as the collection and sharing of information) and to expand the scope of an organization's activities. In the tradition of good feminist organizing, the adoption of computer networks by feminist organizations should be accompanied by a heightened awareness of group process and concern for working conditions. In addition, organizations should engage in an explicit process that allows groups to articulate the social goals they wish to attain in adopting computer networking technology. The adoption of computer networks by feminist organizations should address explicit social goals, rather than foster what merely is possible with off-the-shelf hardware and software. Extensive care should be taken to ensure that whatever system is selected will meet the communicative goals explicitly articulated by group members.
Perhaps the greatest issue faced by the women's movement with respect to the adoption of computer networking technology is access. Access becomes an issue at several levels. The first relates to communication constraints imposed by the infrastructure of data lines and value-added carriers. As discussed, access to computer networks is also determined by the location of networks and terminals: whether they are located in a public place and available for use free of charge as Community Memory terminals were, or whether they are located in a private home or office.
Although many women's centres and organizations in Canada currently own microcomputers and modems, for the most part these organizations do not have access to a computer network. Although the location of computers and modems in women's centres and organizations may be an important step in widening the sphere of access to feminist computer networks, the accessibility of the equipment and the existence of a network to call do not guarantee that potential users will have access to computer networking. The third level of access that must be addressed if computer networks are to be successfully utilized for feminist dialogue and organizing is access to the knowledge and related support mechanisms that will allow a novice user to successfully contact a computer network. The feasibility of providing adequate user support services increases when network use occurs on a co-ordinated rather than episodic basis.
If French-speaking and English-speaking feminists wish to communicate via computer network, steps will need to be taken to ensure that the development of adequate bilingual software is developed. (SoliNet, operated by the Canadian Union of Public Employees currently uses software that allows a user to interact with the computer in either French or English, but offers no translation capabilities.)
Finally, communication by computer offers some interesting communication possibilities that may enhance the ability of Canadian women's organizations to communicate about difficult issues. For example, an implementation of an on-line Delphi polling system that allows unsigned responses might allow system users to communicate candidly and honestly about difficult issues while encouraging participants to think before speaking. A widely accessible computer network could increase the number of voices represented in an organization's decision-making process. To realize these goals, however, feminists will need to apply the insights gained from years of productive organizing, and at the same time investigate the social biases of technological systems that, left unconsidered, threaten to create computer networking systems which reproduce rather than challenge the power relations characteristic of western capitalist societies.
:1: See Chapter 2 of Balka (1992) for a discussion of the history of computer networks which contextualizes the free distribution of software.
:2: The unrestricted readership of Usenet news groups is a social decision, supported by technical design.
:3: "/Talk" is the name of the CompuServe command that invokes private communication within the CIS CB simulator software.
:4: See also Benston (1988), Bernard (1983), Bush (1983) and Cooley (1980).
:5: Usenet software allows users to supply aliases for a number of elements in message headers, including name, organizational affilitation, and name of sending computer.
:6: While an examination of date headers in the sample showed forty-four different days, these messages were collected over fifty-two days. Because Soc.women messages are deleted from the host node regularly and technical difficulties (such as inadequate disk space on the host machine) result in the host node from time to time rejecting its messages, gaps exist in the sample. Data were collected over fifty two days, with no messages from eight days, and a low volume of messages on thirteen of the forty four days. Low message volume may indicate that not all messages were received for those days. Similar conditions are likely to apply to other Usenet sites receiving Soc.women.
:7: One per cent of Femail messages were authored by three per cent of contributors whose gender could not be determined from either names or message content.
:8: Message dates used here span the entire month of February, although access to CIS for this sample occurred between 6 and 28 February.
:9: Since not all contributors are located in the Eastern time zone, these figures should be considered estimates.
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