Our beloved former intern Ethan gave Christina and me an intro to the electronic bulletin-board concept. Huh? you may ask. Well, it’s a great big opinionated jabbering technotronic community. With a computer and a modem (a wee device that hooks computers to phones), you can talk to people all over the world about art, music, sex, boogers, politics, technology, why you hate 90210, the meaning of life.
There are maybe 45,000 bulletin-board services (BBSes), but Ethan suggested we get MindVox. It’s newish (less than a year old), it’s hip and it was started by two guys who are by all accounts foxes. Cute cyberpunk alert.
MindVox supposedly attracts thoughtful types of people with an in-your- face, anti-authority attitude who are both suspicious about the future and hopeful that they’ll be on the cutting edge of it. Artsy Voxers include (I hear) members of Information Society, Deee-Lite, Psychedelic Furs, a Grateful Dead lyricist, well-known sci-fi writers and assorted hackers and academics. The newness and undergroundness of it sounded intriguing. Whee, another culture to co-opt!
So we got hooked up.
First Ethan led us into IRC (the Interactive Relay Channel). It’s a live conversation, a whole bunch of people sitting around interrupting each other. Threads of different discussions spooled around us; we started to type, someone else’s words butted in, people entered and left at random. It was very anarchic. There were two teenage girls on-line that evening, one whose handle (computer name) was amada and one called newt. Basically, our conversation went, “Hi!” “Hi!” “This is so cool!” “Yes, it’s really cool!” “We’re doing an article for Sassy on girls on computers!” “Wow, that is so cool!” “Yeah!” Needless to say, it was hard to get into a meaningful conversation.
Ethan then led us into some of the forums, which are channels devoted to specific topics. There you post messages, agreeing with what earlier writers have said, attacking them or bringing up a new point. (Unlike IRC, these aren’t live discussions.) He also showed us how to e-mail, write and send electronic “letters” to a bud’s computer as far away as the other side of the world.
That was the last day of Ethan’s internship, so we wailed and gnashed our teeth. I tried to e-mail amada, but in Ethan’s absence, I forgot how and managed to broadcast my message to the entire MindVox community:
“Uh oh, am I doing this right? I want to write to amada and newt I have no idea if I’m wasting my breath here ’cause I don’t know for sure if I can figure out how to send this. In case all the jerky nerd boys are reading this, I AM NOT OUT TO DO A SLAM ON HACKERS/PHREAKERS/ DORKS. All I want to do is talk to the minority of girls who are out there (I know you are) to see why this is fun and what it is like to be a minority on a BBS. So don’t erase my life as some nutty hacker prank, you kooksters. okay? r darn!”
(Actually I ended with an undeniable swear word.) All heck broke loose.
People started writing incredibly hostile messages about Sassy all over the forums, making fun of how dippy I was, saying our article was gonna suck and how I was mindlessly invading their space (that, at least, was sorta true). Forbes and Time magazines had just done stories on cyberpunk culture (meaning that of smart-ass hardcore technofreaks) that were seen as condescending and/or misleading, so it was a particularly anti-journalist time. People automatically assumed I was going to A) try to prove they were all criminals using computers to transmit pornography (some people do; very few) and break into phone networks (more common) or B) open their secret society to hoards of dumb-bunny giggling teenyboppers getting mascara stains on their external drives.
One (only one) truly nasty post came from a woman: “SASSY, the essential thing you haven’t clued to yet is that in here, we’re not girls and boys, we’re beings. Any damn thing you want to be, you can be. If you’re the girl who was always smarter than any of the guys, and they knew it, in thypherspaze [random spelling is big here] you can become an all-powerful dominatrix with dozens of virtual slaves. I know one girl who can blue box [break into phone systems] with the best of them, and she would probably be more interested in the passkey number to your magazine’s PBX [private branch exchange; accessing it would let her make illegal phone calls on us] than anything that’ll ever appear between the Clearasil and Jovan ads.” Not sisterly. Later I learned that this woman runs her own forum. Like some women who reach the top of the corporate ladder, she’s achieved so much because she hasn’t shown an ounce of fragility or softness.
Getting suddenly bombarded with all this virulent anti-Sassyism gave me stomach pains. But I took deep breaths and focused on learning the system and interviewing the few girls who’d posted proSassy messages. As I talked to them, both by phone (“voice,” as the Voxers say) and e-mail, I started to learn more about the social rules of this community. Such as “roasting the newbie.” It’s a charming tradition, like fraternity hazing or getting jumped when you join a gang. If you weather the attack, you’re accepted. If you whine and flee, later for you. And I learned that the level of sniping, swearing and personal insults is higher than in real life, since you aren’t face to face. The nasty mode is known as flaming. What I experienced was a veritable flamefest. Another thing I discovered was that you have to trust that people are who they say they are. Either that or be totally cynical about everyone. It’s common for people to have multiple identities; they pretend to have different ages, jobs, genders. Sometimes ’cause it’s fun to recreate yourself (especially if you’re a tiny teenboy nerd); sometimes ’cause people get off on deception.
I checked out the Women On-Line forum. Even there, the posts were overwhelmingly from guys. Someone guessed that “less than one percent of the people on line are actual females, and only one tenth of those I would actually describe as women. The rest are feminazis and bored obese trashbag- wearing housewives…” Very nice. Another person said that 20 percent of MindVox subscribers were chix. However, not more than 10 or I5 percent of the posts were from women, so women are obviously doing more reading than posting. I guess cybertalk mirrors conversational patterns in real life: Women listen more and are often more hesitant to leap right in with a strong opinion, whereas guys are less shy about spouting off.
I also read a post from someone called reive on what it was like to be a chica using a computer: “We’re women in a society that has given us claim to certain territories and tried very hard to remove us from others. If you’re a girl on the net [network] you get sexual advances, you get told you’re not as good as the guys. This world is seen as a private men’s club (or boys, as the case may be). Maybe we deal with enough s__t on the street that the last thing we want to do when we get home is turn on the computer so some 15 year old boy can proposition us for MUD [Multi-User Dungeons: interactive computer games] sex. The thing is, despite all the crap, some of us still want to turn on the computer. Some of us still want to explore. Some of us still believe that technology can help break down our barriers rather than find new ways to put them up.”
I sent her e-mail asking why she was into this scene, if it was such a minefield. She wrote back, “Computers are useful, and it’s just cool that I can relax with them too. A lot of stuff I do on computers I can’t do in rl [real life]. I can’t randomly find 70 people willing to play an adventure game with me in the face to face world, or know that if I walk into a real room versus a virtual room that I’ll be able to find someone who can talk to me about Canadian immigration laws or Wicca or the cyberpunk movement. BBSes and the Internet [the humongous university-driven system linking three million computers] and MUDs and IRC is the closest thing to what our futures will be like, and when I’m logged on, my imagination just sort of runs away with it. It’s like getting to be one step ahead and have fun with technology before it becomes a necessity.” She uses her computer to talk to her boyfriend in Kentucky (cheaper and more fun than long distance), to play games and to learn.
Immensely cool. I asked reive if we could talk voice. (Notice how suavely I used that Vox terminology.) She said yes, and I was psyched to discover that her voice persona was exactly like her net persona: perceptive and smart-mouthed. She’s a former dancer, a journalism and sociology major. How’d she get into this scene? “I was into technology when I was little. I went to computer camp; in junior high I went to a girls’ school…I was the science person, I was considered a geek.” Then she went to a coed sci-heavy high school where, because she was a girl, she wasn’t as encouraged in the hard sciences. These days, having read a lot of cyberpunk literature, like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, she’s getting techno again. I asked for specific instances of the difficulty of being an XX chromosome on-line. “I was on a MUD a few weeks ago and somebody was like, ‘Oh, I heard you were real easy, I heard you spread like peanut butter.”‘
Subtle. “And frequently, you’ll get paged by somebody who just goes through paging all the girls, seeing who they can get to talk dirty to them. Usually you say no and they’ll just go away and they’re polite about it. But there’s always that person who pages you 40 times in a row. Which happened to me [not on MindVox]. I’m like, what’s your problem?! I wrote a note to the sysop [Systems Operator], who e-mailed me back saying it was my own personal problem. I was totally aggravated. I ended up sending mail to this person saying ‘Look, I consider this harassment,’ and I got this letter back from him saying ‘You’re a bitch.”‘
Still, “if you know your stuff and you’re female, you will get a great deal of respect on line. But if you screw up, you’ll get slammed harder [than the guys].” She went on: “You have to be aggressive, and that can be hard for women. You have to establish your turf and hang on to it. There’s a lot of gang-up-type behavior. If you lurk too much [read without posting], you’re looked down upon. If you post too much, you’re looked down upon. There are all kinds of social structures. And there’s often the assumption: oh, you’re a girl, you’re not dedicated to the movement.”
I think these guy attitudes are partly responsible for women’s small representation in computerville. The techie stuff can look intimidating and isolating; it’s not until you get inside that you see how social it is. Maybe women just do not get off on boy dominated convos like MindVox’s ever-present gross-out bodily secretion jokes. Also, many in this community are obsessed with being elite and exclusive, exactly like fans of alternative music. Many girls may not feel like braving the aggravation of being roasted for not being an expert.
Reive isn’t the only kind of compubabe out there. Less techno- literate girls like newt and amada may be more common. For them, the computer is purely a social tool. Newt is 17, kinda giggly, on-line and by phone. She does theater at her high school and is ed-in-chief of the school literary magazine. “I don’t utilize as many capabilities as I should, mostly just mail, forums and IRC,” she said apologetically. Amada, 18, added, “I love IRC; it’s so cool to know you’re speaking to people all over the world. I really want to travel. I’m sick of Kansas City.”
Have they had guy trouble on-line? Amanda laughed, “We want to make a forum of all the pickup lines. ‘So, what do you look like?’ You just know when there’s a leer in someone’s voice, and you’re like, ‘Go away.”‘ Newt added, “It’s like the real world: you have to be careful. I’m always asked, ‘Are you cute?’ I get… not status, but attention because I’m female.” She quickly added, “Most guys are totally normal.” But neither has ever gone out with someone they met on-line. As amada said, “I know people have net relationships where they never meet face to face, but I need real people I can look at.”
Still other girls are hardcore net-nerds who don’t have many female friends and use the computer as a substitute for realworld interaction. An 18-year-old girl I talked to was more that type. She lives in Florida, but I don’t think she goes outside much. She told me, “On a public network guys just sit in there and wait for compusex, and when a girl comes in they say ‘Let’s go in a private room.’ They just sit and wait in a hot tub [definition: channel to talk sex in].” Notice how she talked of cyberspace as if it were an actual physical place? Many BBSers do this. It perplexes me. Reive told me about a friend who called her up and said, “I met this guy last night, and we fooled around.” Reive assumed she meant in real life, but she was talking about this guy she’d had a pornographic conversation with online. “I just could not believe it was comparable to her.” Me either.
Lest it seem like most computer boys are sex-crazed dorks, I should say that a great many I talked to were really nice. And as more girls enter computerland, the environment will get more inclusive and tolerant. So despite the hostility and macho/ geekazoid posturing you will initially encounter, I think you guys should check this scene out. Guest-visit a BBS; it doesn’t have to be MindVox. I am the biggest technophobe imaginable, and I totally grooved on the system’s vastness and speed of communication. And this is the future.
As one woman BBSer put it, “We’ve seen where technology can lead when it’s left in the hands of men.” If we let ourselves be scared away, we’ll never be at the forefront of the electronic community. We’ll just be massaging the shoulders of the guy at the keyboard. Yuck.