Gender and Digital Culture

With the support of the University of Southampton’s Digital Humanities team and the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, I’m working to coordinate a series of events that attend to the relationship between digital culture and gender. I’m looking for a paid assistant (from the University of Southampton, which is graciously funding the post) to contribute to the initial set-up and preparatory research for these events, and I’ve pasted details below for anyone in the humanities at Soton with an interest in matters of the digital.

I’ve been wanting to blog on these issues for over a year now, but the subject for me has been a sensitive one, and I was never quite sure how to approach it. The potential negative ramifications for speaking out seemed disproportionate to any possible benefit, and so I’ve sat silent wondering how best to manage my concerns. I enlisted help from a couple of my closest friends and colleagues, asking them to look for articles or related discussions about instances akin to mine, and simultaneously I started to do my own research.

Unfortunately, but meaningfully for me, over the past few months, several very high profile incidents have presented themselves that resonate with my experiences. Indeed, just today, the Times has published an article (not open access, disappointingly) on a comparable theme, headlined: “British universities in grip of ‘lad culture’ of misogyny, according to NUS”. Others, like Anita SarkeesianMary Beard, Sarah Parmenter, Leigh Alexander, and see here, have all actively—and inspiringly— responded to what is disturbing but clearly indisputable gender-related harassment via digital/web-based media.

As for me, since 2011 I’ve experienced a series of separate episodes of being subjected to email or other social media-driven judgments on my appearance and sexuality. These were not simple, innocent remarks by friends and family, but often long, detailed descriptions and fantasy-like reflections about me sent in private messages direct to my personal email/Facebook accounts from colleagues around the world. The first incident was so absurd and unexpected that I just told a couple of my girlfriends at Southampton about it and had a bit of an uncomfortable laugh. The second incident was even more awkward and I began to feel incredibly self-conscious and embarrassed about how I was projecting myself to others. The third incident led me to silence – I no longer wanted to discuss it with anyone because it had become such a point of humiliation. All three of these incidents happened in 2011, and they were only the start of a trend that has continued since then.

But I’m exhausted now of burying the subject, and I wonder who it’s profiting to not attend to something that is demeaning and inappropriate both personally and professionally.

When I mentioned to others that I wanted to begin to think about how digital culture is implicated in these exchanges, I was met by a variety of reactions. Some rightly pointed out that digital media have far more connection to – and relevance for – gender than merely their application in derogatory ways. In other words, the conversation is a wide one, and I should think about how these tools can be (and are) wielded meaningfully, strategically, productively in other contexts.

At once, others implied that it was nonsensical for me to air my frustrations in public because it would lead people to question how they might appropriately address me in the future. On this point, I have to assert myself by saying that one could not possibly mistake innocent flattery (that is expressed publicly and is witnessable to all) with the types of private, explicit, long-winded, repeated and persistent messages that I’ve received through email. This is not debatable.

To that end, the University of York and the University of Southampton are coming together to talk through some of the many intersections, contentions, problematic and productive dimensions of gender and digital culture. Further description is below, including reference to other very visible cases of gendered abuse on the web of late. My experience is more in line with that of Leigh Alexander, but it impacts upon my life and my career, and as such, it is important to me.

Thanks as always for your support and constructive advice – I am so grateful. I am always keen for links, research articles, videos, and contacts on these issues, so please don’t hesitate to send them to me.

Gender & the Digital Events

Issues of gender and their relationship to digital technologies have had some presence in the news media lately, with Mary Beard and Sarah Parmenter being two amongst many individuals from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds who have actively responded to gendered and digitally fuelled character attacks. Such episodes are among a series of matters arising from applications of – and interactions with – digital tools that impact upon the professional and intellectual lives of scholars, and which consequently have implications for research, teaching and related practice.

In light of the University of Southampton’s and University of York’s growing digital humanities and digital heritage streams, Sara Perry (York) and Graeme Earl (Southampton) seek to organise a cross-institutional, live-streamed seminar (or series of seminars) in the spring time that bring(s) together specialists working in both the humanities and sciences for a critical conversation about their engagements with digital tools. We are looking for a postgraduate student to assist in coordinating the event(s) and to prepare a draft discussion document to help structure the debate. Work must be completed by 31 March 2013. The event will run after the Easter vacation.

Our interests are in exploring the (gendered) relationships between people and digital technologies: how, in tandem, they variously facilitate, exacerbate, rethink or replicate diverse behaviours. More specifically, we are interested in how these relationships operate in different disciplines in terms of professional and personal development, and how we equip individuals to use such technologies productively. The digital humanities have an important cross-disciplinary role to play not only in understanding how men and women engage with digital media – and how the media might recondition our research studies – but in preparing people for those studies themselves and for professional careers in all digitally-mediated disciplines.

16 thoughts on “Gender and Digital Culture

  1. Good for you, Sara. Harassment happens online, without doubt, and almost too easily with the ‘protection’ of our screen against responsibility for those words/actions. I hope you blow the issue wide open. I’m all the way in Canada, but nevertheless you have my support :)

  2. Dear Sara, THANK YOU for doing this! I’ll be following with interest. I too have the same hesitancy about talking about these issues in a very public way (despite wearing my feminist credentials on my academic sleeve in Public Archaeology a few years ago).

  3. Sounds like a great initiative, look forward to hearing more about it. So sorry to hear about your horrible experiences: its impressive as hell that you’re building something so constructive on the back of it all.

  4. Thanks for posting; I can’t wait to read more on it :) I’ve just entered into the Digital Humanities world of research myself and so I find these conversations deeply interesting. I myself am currently examining collaborative writing and issues of authorship/ownership in digital humanities on my blog

    Thanks again!

  5. Bullying, intimidation and harassment in all forms is completely unacceptable and should be addressed where possible. Well done for talking this first step and bringing it the forefront if only we all found such conviction to speak out! Will be watching with interest.

  6. Most interesting. Was just thinking this am about the linkage between gender and internet – and then your blog appears! Will follow with interest, and have some of my own observations coming out of a non-digital western culture – and now living in a (largely) non-digital culture that is changing rapidly.

  7. Go for it Sara. Very courageous and I hope you can raise a storm. Being a man, this is a side of the digital age I don’t get to see. I can’t imagine harassing folk like that, but then I’m naive. Raising awareness that the problem exists and is serious among people like me is an important step. If we know who is doing this, can we out and shame them in public? Or are they always anonymous?

  8. Hello Sara! I have been following your blog for some time and am a mutual acquaintance of Alice Watterson. I am very sorry to hear about your unfortunate encounters via the digital realm and I look forward to following your pursuit of this problem and potential solutions. If only I were a student at Southhampton and not stuck in America, I would gladly assist you. Good luck with your research!

  9. Hi Sara, this is a great initiative, I look forward to hearing more. I’m always surprised when I hear of this kind of harassment, and sad that anybody would ever be subjected to it, which I suppose only shows how naieve I can be. But honestly, if it wasn’t for people writing publicly about their experiences, I would have no idea – or reason to suspect – that this happens. It is absolutely the right thing to speak up, and to examine why this is happening. There are clearly some big conversations we need to be having. As Gabe said, it’s fantastic that you can build something so positive out of your experiences. Good luck!

  10. Thank you all so very much. I feel like I can’t possibly express all my gratitude to you, because words could never match the profound appreciation I have for everyone who’s stepped forward to express their support. It’s been embarrassing and deeply awkward to come to terms with, but it’s now happened so many times that I think it’s the right moment to stop feeling like I’m the shameful person here.

    It’s part of a larger discussion, I think, that Gabe and other close colleagues of ours have been pursuing around communication and means of communicating, so I’m looking forward to investing further in that dialogue.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m forever grateful.

  11. The following idea is from the book Rule 34 by Charles Stross (it’s super geeky and will probably make most people glaze over!), so I don’t know what the real research has to say.

    Late in the novel one of the characters talks about the concept of choice architecture and frames. This is the concept that our behaviour relies upon the frame we use for our decisions, such as should I buy the two-for-one offer on a rival brand or a single quantity of the brand I know I like? The frame is usually a bunch of anecdotes and experiences from which we make our evaluation – and consequently advertisers, politicians, family etc. will try to actively influence our choices by modifying these frames.

    An example of how our choices can be nudged by good policy is the recent study into changing the way paracetamol is sold in the UK. packaging. Remarkably, as well putting less pills in each pack, they found that something as simple putting each individual tablet in a blister pack, thus making it a little harder to get a lot of pills in your hand, can be enough to alter someone’s choice to attempt suicide. See:

    In the novel, the suggestion is that when we’re on-line most of the cues that construct our cognitive frame on which we base our behaviour when interacting with others are missing and therefore we lose our inhibitions, our moral compass or even simply our ability to parse information very easily.

    This seems at least plausible to me on the basis that the more I read and understand about the psychology, the importance of faces for cues to our behaviour comes up time and again. This was illustrated at Richard Wiseman’s talk I attended last week several times where he presented examples of how much of our evolved information processing ability is based around faces. (And that’s before you get to all the auditory and other body language information that is missing on-line.)

    Plus, obviously, it is very easy to be behave badly on-line – as all crime fans know: means, motive and opportunity are all that is required. And the internet provides at least two of those instantly to anyone.

    I’m not sure what the solution is ( although xkcd did a good cartoon about a program that reads your YouTube comments back you! ) and I do feel a bit like I’m saying that inappropriate online behaviour is inevitable, but the positives to take from this hypothesis of loss of inhibition through loss of face to face cues – if you accept the proposal – are that:

    One: if we do identify the cause of the problem, we have a hope of finding a solution rather than dealing with the symptoms. Or at least anticipate what problems might arise before we post, tweet, email etc.
    Second: dealing with people face to face is likely to be the most effective way to ever communicate anything, so if it’s really, really important, make sure it’s done face to face.

    To finish on a positive and address your post directly, I mentioned social proof in my last email as key to influencing individual human behaviour in a given situation. I wonder whether what you’ve posted is an example of the emergence of social norms and if enough people also voice their concerns and experiences or campaign, then the body of social proof grows to the point that social behaviour and beliefs changes? e.g. the civil rights movement in the USA, feminism or anti-drinking driving campaigns.

    Which is a long winded way of pointing out the bleeding obvious – things change when enough people are brave enough to stand up and be counted. So I hope more women follow your lead….

  12. I’m really sorry that you’ve had to endure this, but really glad that you’re addressing it. It’s important to show the reality of (primarily) women’s experience even in “enlightened” arenas such as academia; to show (primarily) men what is unacceptable; and to help others build the confidence to speak out. As you say, you shouldn’t feel ashamed; they should.

  13. Thank you so much again everyone for taking the time to respond and express your support, I really do appreciate this. I’ve managed to hire two brilliant research assistants to help organise an event related to these issues, so I’ll post more on my blog when we’ve gotten further along in the process.

    Also, Anonymous sent me the following links to complement the point about seeing/engaging with/responding to/seeking out faces:

    So many thanks again – I’m keen to continue the conversation with you all ++

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