Copyright © 1994 David Balcom. All rights reserved.
Back to db
Back to db
"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." -- Joseph Conrad
"Get a life." -- William Shatner
Finally! An egalitarian space, gender indifferent, one where ideas are considered before bodies are once- and twice-overed. You have a voice, you're heard, your presence is felt. It's e-space, and it's equal, right?
If you're a woman, just log onto the Vax at night and see which guy PHONEs you, asks you "Whatcha doin here tonight? Wanna talk?" and this liberating e-space starts to look like a singles bar, one where you're just another chick on a stool. "Wanna talk?"
We get enough talk about the "information superhighway." In fact, we're doused with it, how this new network of networks is going to change the way we think, live and work. True, computer-mediated communication (CMC) offers new paradigms for thought and communication, opens up new possibilities for human interaction. So busy hyping our "new" (it's not new at all, actually) superhighway, we are, that on the way we're miss something very important - the construction workers stopping to whistle. The construction, period.
I was on phone (Vax PHONE) with a friend of mine a while ago. It was late, around midnight, a common time for late-night Vax chats with friends. "Hold on," she says. "Someone's phoning me."
What she meant is that a message appeared on her screen indicating that another user was trying to phone her. The person's username accompanies the phone request (kind of like Caller I.D.). My friend didn't recognize the username, so she didn't answer the "phone." Using the FINGER command, we determined the mystery caller was a man, someone she didn't know.
"Happens to me all the time," she wrote me. "Almost every night."
This was new to me. I'd been a CMC junkie for three years by then, spending, on average, an hour or two a day online, at all different times of the day. Never had I been randomly phoned by someone I didn't know.
"What do they want?" I asked her. Duh, apparently.
"They usually just start asking questions: 'what are you doing?' 'how come you're up so late?' 'do you go to Mason?' dumb stuff like that. But it usually ends up like this: 'What do you look like?' 'Do you have a boyfriend?' It's pretty sad. Finally I stopped answering the phone. It's totally annoying, though. I get sick of it, seeing that message flash across the screen all the time. I always check to see who it is with FINGER. It's usually at night."
I started asking my female friends about it, the ones with Vax accounts. A lot of them had been phoned late at night, usually by the same people. Turns out the guys would find out who was logged in, with FINGER, then they would go down the list, literally, pick out the women, and phone them.
The last time it happened to the friend I mentioned above, I was on the phone (Vax PHONE ...) with her. Same deal - she didn't know the username, so she checked, with FINGER, to see if she knew the person. She didn't know him, so she didn't answer the phone, but his plan file contained this quote, spread obnoxiously over four screens:
Shark is on the prowel! [sic]
Feeding frenzy at GMU tonight.
Fins to the left Fins to the right.
Freshman are the only bait in sight!!!!!!
We can conclude intent here, I think.
Denise Albanese, a professor of English at George Mason, says this of her own random phoning experiences:
As far as I am concerned, phoning a complete stranger on the Vax - especially when it's a male phoning a female - is as unwelcome and as illegitimate an intrusion as dialing a female student you haven't met, at home, just because you have her number in that new (and rather problematic) directory the university has put out. Using the Vax means nothing about availability to chat, or be interrupted ... There is a serious lack of consideration to issues of privacy - especially as they are inflicted by gender - going into this (DALBANES, 2/19/94).
Dr. Albanese raises some provocative issues about privacy and gender online. What can be classified as intrusive behavior online? Who decides? Because she has a public university account, is she structurally available to a bored kid cruising the Vax?
"It is not," Albanese continues, "a tacit admission that you want to connect up with new unknown people."
But in some ways it is exactly that - access. E-space is access. You can "travel" the world through these lines, you can go anywhere. Boundaries are eroded - national boundaries, social boundaries, authority hierarchies, they're all gone (or dis[mis]placed, at least). And there she is, on the screen. What's wrong with reaching out and touching her?
Is gender even an issue here?
Net demographic suggest an overwhelmingly male presence in the virtual world, and that won't change any time soon. Walk alone at night, and you're going to get bothered.
No, "harassment" (can we call it that?) has not been evaded or even subverted by electronic communication. It's here, and it's here to stay. What can we do about it?
Learn your system. If you don't want people to bother you, don't let them. The command SET BROADCAST = NONE, when entered on the Vax, will disallow any interactive communication to your account. You can turn it on and off when you choose, and select what kind of communication you want to let through. You can make it an option at login, so that you're automatically unavailable to other Vax users, every time you log in. This does not include e-mail, but on some systems you can "bounce" (return to sender) mail from specific users. Learn your system. Learn the words, the language.
Beth Armitage, a George Mason undergraduate English student, says this:
This unwanted attention is interesting in relation to the silencing, by ignoring, women's "voices" in some electronic conferences, lists, and bulletin boards. I say "some" because this certainly doesn't happen in many spaces, but it happens enough to be noted, so in some ways I think e-space - this supposed body-less space - is all about bodies, or perceived bodies. This sounds like a gender/body collapse, but I suppose that is the point - e-space is also about assumptions, in some ways.
Even the way we talk about e-space or moving around in, it we imply some type of body. We occupy it, we occupy gender online (BARMITAG, 2/24/94).
The idea of occupying a gender in a virtual world is not a new one. Gender-bending happens in MUDs and computer bulletin boards (BBSs) all the time, that is, choosing a gender (i.e., not always your "actual" gender), choosing an alternative sexuality. It's easy to see the freedom in self-assiging an identity - you can be whomever you want. You can escape the confines of your assigned attributes, leave the ones you don't like at home, while your words are transmitted across T1 lines, and suddenly (or always), you're someone else. You can write yourself, any self, online.
What does being online mean? Specifically, what does it mean to be a man or woman online? What cues are present that indicate sex, sexuality, gender? In the virtual world, text is all we have. We are what we write, signifying with words, words signifying other words.
We are forced, in this new space, to think about our / selves online. The split there is intentional, a choice. I choose to split my / self into these words / and the person who writes them. Self, identity, persona.
The paradox is clear, a perceived "body-less" space, you are your text (you are only your text), yet the "language" of e-space and bodies is clearly gender and body infused. Gender matters here, in this space. Perceived gender, anyway.
We create build this space (these spaces) with our words, we refer to it with the same words we use IRL (in real life). When you talk about an e-encounter, what do you say: "You're not going to believe what happened to me?"
Happened? Strictly speaking, nothing happens at all, save computers trading 0s and 1s at high speeds. It's only text, right? How does experience online translate IRL? You read a piece of interesting e-mail, you want to tell a friend about it. What do you say? "I saw this great thing on the net." They reply, "Yeah, I heard it too." Worlds out of words, down to the senses. Saw it, heard it. It happened.
"Sticks and stones," they tell us, "will break my bones / but names will never hurt me."
Why is it called FINGER, anyway? Whose choice was that?
Many commands and programs indicate a textual proximity to the real world (this supposed "bodied" space?), to other systems of communication: talk, send, mail, phone. Familiar terms close, rearrange, chase, the distance separating reallife and e-land. Recover the names, and you get back what you gave away. Catch the hopelessly fluid electronic text. It's so temporary, so approximate. So real.
It happens, for the most part, in our heads. A cognitive mapping of experience, available as input from one screen to another, always with a slip, a window to the real by its effacement. The ephemeral text. You have new mail. You exist.
It's liberating, all right, you can't deny that. Voice, community, equality, collaboration - e-comm favors these things, promotes them. It offers new spaces to explore and invent, new ideas to discover, new paradigms for living and working. It connects us, you and me.
But we're back to this: it comes at a price when you can't check your mail at night without someone trying to pick you up. Next time you see workers whistling at you, stop and stare. Take a look, and talk about what you see.
Establish conventions, stick to them. Often times it's a case of not knowing the "proper" conventions to follow, that randomly phoning someone is thought of as intrusive and bothersome. The newbie user doesn't know this, so they must be told. That's how it is around here, conventions aren't announced, you pick them up, it's word of mouth [sic]. If you get approached by the midnight callers, tell them it's not polite. Tell them to send e-mail instead. Just tell them. If a convention isn't in place, establish one. They'll listen, and if they don't, learn the commands to make them go away.
It's not the unassailable text I'm after - it's realizing the limits and points of resistance within our existing notions, and trying to expand and improve those notions (those texts). E-space gives us each some new voices to try out, and with those voices we must write ourselves into new narratives, and rewrite old ones. We can carve out new spaces, or carve up existing ones. It's easy to do - just start writing. Start, and don't stop.
 Vax refers to GMUVAX, a mainframe computer operated by George Mason University. All current GMU students, faculty and staff members may get an account on GMUVAX.
 PHONE is a utility allowing two to four people to communicate interactively on the Vax, in real-time. Unix systems feature a similar utility called TALK. All instances in this paper of the term "phone" (phoning, phoned) refer to VaxPHONE, unless specified otherwise.
 FINGER is a common network utility allowing users to get information about other users in a given system. On GMUVAX, FINGER returns the full name of each user, whether they are currently logged in, the number of unread messages they have, the last time they logged in, and the contents of their plan file. A plan file is user-defined text file, usually containing a .signature file or personal quote.
 Multi-User Dimensions - accessible through the Internet, MUDs are virtual, inhabitable text "worlds" (they're computer programs, actually) where people congregate to create various role-playing or research scenarios.