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How the Internet Turned me into a Girl (I Think)

“How the Internet Turned me into a Girl (I Think)”

When I was eight, my parents bought me Rockett’s New School, a videogame targeted at young girls that allowed them to navigate the first day of eighth grade as a new student at Whistling Pines Junior High. At the time, I thought this game (and subsequently the entire series) was the absolutely neatest thing since chocolate pudding, since all I’d ever seen had been the first Pokémon games to hit North America and an all but broken Atari system stashed away under the TV. After successfully completely the game, a process that took roughly two hours of playing time for the truly diligent, the credits screen directed players to the now-defunct Purple Moon’s company website. This site was set up to be part social network and part interactive adventure for young girls to chat, collect virtual items, and of course keep up to date with the next software release. I was a religious member of the Purple Moon site until Mattel bought out the company and shut down the community, possibly for the sole reason that no one but no one can challenge Barbie in the arena of grabbing young girls’ attentions and expect to come away unscathed.

Exposure to this site ended up setting a pattern for my online activities that continues to this day. While I’ve been in a lot of company over the past ten years, I’ve been happiest in online social environments where I assume most others are female. Since my real world interaction had, until a few years ago, been focused solely within a male realm, my question is this: did I use the internet to fill a girl-shaped void and express my XX in ways I couldn’t with my card-carrying membership of the boys-only club? Or did my persistence at staying within a realm dominated by young women shape me into someone who would feel comfortable being female in the real world?

After Purple Moon, actual interaction on the internet was sparse as I proceeded to hop between about twenty different forums in the space of a year looking (I now realize) for a new home. Long perilous searching finally lead to the discovery of the wild, untamed wilderness that is Fanfiction.net, an absolutely massive archive of fiction based on TV shows, books, movies, and the like. Here I made several discoveries: (1) reading material; (2) people interested in the same books and such I was; (3) a way to communicate with these people through a review system and, eventually, writing my own stories. I stayed with Fanfiction.net for well over five years and occasionally return, mostly to marvel at the sheer amount of Harry Potter fanfiction- nearly 400,000 unique stories, last time I checked (Fanfiction.net).

Exposure to Fanfiction.net brought me into the world of fandom, communities based around works of fiction to exchange ideas, news, stories, and art. While I found the key parts of any important social experience – shared community based around common interests – I also found that the majority of people with whom I would interact were female. In fact, I can think of only three identified males in or around my social group over the last three years, and only one within my current group of friends. It’s gotten to the point where I assume people I meet within these larger circles – members of various fandom groups over the LiveJournal, Inc. weblog company and related sites – are female, and I am considered female in return. I didn’t consciously seek out a female-dominated arena, nor do I consider many of these arenas to be feminine at all. Many of my communities center around science fiction television shows, books, and movies. We write about alien survivors traveling through time and space, saving the universe from doom and destruction; we discuss the probability of engineering a device capable of using spider silk to hold several tons of weight; and, of course, we have heated debates about the eternal, ultimate battle of Kirk versus Picard. So why on earth then can’t I find more than a handful of guys who want to play in our sandbox?

My hypothesis at the moment is there are both surface and core values in how society says that boys and girls should view the world. Girls like cute fuzzy Neopets, shopping, and possibly illegal amounts of pink. Boy like guns, explosions, and lots of wardrobe malfunctions. Beyond that, girls should be socially-oriented, concerned about friends, family, and relationship, usually with no actual motivation to do anything “real”; boys get to be action heroes and actually do things, usually by being incredibly obtuse about girls and how to interact with others nicely. Looking at my online experiences in this perspective, I can see that it’s not so much the surface of my internet groups that matter, since clearly “aliens + explosions + Batman” should be a sure draw to everyone with testes, but rather the core of what these communities accomplish. Despite sci-fi trappings, they’re very much concerned with the emotions and motivations of fictional characters involved and analyzing relationships and group dynamics. These communities are very concerned with people, in a way that one could certainly interpret as stereotypically feminine.

What would help me in developing this idea would be to explore the other side of coin and find online communities that have either a balanced gender representation or are predominantly male. My expertise in this area has been limited to a few gaming- or anime-centered forums and a few months with the online game World of Warcraft; the former were unable to keep my interest long enough to stay in the communities while the latter led to several bad experiences with other players that led me to conclude the game wasn’t worth a $15 monthly charge. Looking back, I wonder if my reaction to these situations was related to my desire to push away from outwardly “girly” characteristics online, like those of the Purple Moon site, but still searching for a community that was inwardly more “feminine.” Once I settled in my current home on LiveJournal, I was able to form strong social bonds with people I’ve now known for years, with whom I’ve exchanged letters, phone calls, and actual visits, and consider just as important as friends I’ve made “in real life.” It would be interesting to determine exactly what, if any, universal difference there is between male and female socialization online. Do boys do this too? Is it because I’ve been “raised” in a primarily female environment online that I feel the need to even ask this question? Am I reading too much into my own experiences, which are infinitely tiny in comparison with the millions of internet junkies who run in completely different social circles, feminine or otherwise?

The answer to all these questions: probably yes. I just don’t know right now if the fact I identify as a girl means that I seek out certain environments and interactions online, or if the fact these things appeal to me and have shaped me make me into a girl. It’s probably a chicken-egg argument that could go on long past anyone continues to care. What I can definitely say is that I have grown more comfortable accepting a female identity over the past few years, in part due to having a large net of positive female interaction online.

Works Cited

Books – Fanfiction.Net. 13 Feb 2009. Fanfiction.net. 13 Feb 2009 < http://www.fanfiction.net/book/>.

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    February 16, 2009

    To The Doctor--

    The territory you trace here, from an almost-entirely-personal point-of-view, has been very well traversed elsewhere; an awful lot has been written about the differences between male and female socialization online.
    You might want to look particularly @ James Brook’s and Iain Boal’s collection, Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information, which includes Laura Miller’s piece on “Women and Children First: Gender and the Settling of the Electronic Frontier” (I think of this particularly because you speak of finding a “new home” in the “wild, untamed wilderness of Fanfiction.net”), as well as Ellen Ullman’s “Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life.” Another volume that speaks directly to the issues you raise is Mary Flanagan’s and Austin Booth’s collection, Rethinking Women + Cyberculture, which includes Sharon Cumberland’s piece on the “The Five Wives of Ibn Fadian: Women’s Collaborative Fiction on Antonio Baneras’ Web Sites.”

    What strikes me in all this material, as in your essay, is how much emphasis is placed on having access to the “like-minded,” on communities that grow up around shared interests, communities based on similarity. Can we talk some more about the possibility of fostering communities based on difference, those in which we are drawn to one another not because we confirm and affirm what we already know and are, but because we stretch those things…?

    The other spot where I’d nudge you has to do w/ your both setting up and ending your paper in terms of a binary question (the same one): are you shaping or being shaped by feminine cyberculture? Certainly what our work in this course has suggested so far is that the interaction is always bi-directional: we both shape and are shaped by our technologies.

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