Academic Pointillism

April 17, 2007

Why are there so few women on digg?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Academic Pointillism @ 12:17 am

Introduction
I joined digg a year or so ago after my boyfriend kept calling me over to look at interesting things he had dugg. Even before I became a member I realized that as a woman, I was perceived as part of a minority on digg. Kevin and Alex frequently complained about the lack of female diggers on diggnation, and comments and stories occasionally would mention the lack of women. At first I started to wonder where the other intelligent, geeky girls were, but after the site opened up to more than just technology news I haven’t noticed an increase in female digg users. Now, I would like to acknowledge first off that there is a chance that I am mistaken in thinking this. Since there is no place within digg profiles to designate gender, and most user icons are gender-neutral, there could very well be a larger number of women diggers than anyone recognizes. It is also a fallacy to assume that I can assume that my readings of digg and diggnation will be the same as other women’s, or even that women aren’t participating in digging up stories and comments that contribute to the overall context of digg that I am viewing as hostile to women. Women also may be deliberately hiding their identities in hopes of flying under the radar and fitting in, lest they become targets of negative personal attention themselves. This appears to be a more common practice for women online than many realize. [1]

I know that I probably will come under attack just for posting this, because I know what I have to say will make many people uncomfortable. The fact that I’m citing feminist sources will probably be considered relevant by many of you, although before I get branded as ‘just another angry feminist’ I would like to make clear that the feminism I advocate takes the point of view that in the Western world these days men have less freedom of choice under the patriarchal system than (most) women, as least when it comes to choosing where to work, whether to have children or not, and how they want to dress. I also recognize that there are many men, as well as women, out there who don’t participate in digg in the ways I am talking about. I have included a discussion of strategies that might be useful to help make digg a more inclusive environment, and I hope that they will be useful for other digg users who are as frustrated as I am about this.

What I want to talk about:

Interested in reading more about this topic? Visit the “take back the blog” blogswarm.
Read comments on digg.com.

Why I Feel This is Important
I am bringing this up for several reasons. The first is that there seems to be this general understanding that there are more men than women on digg, but never have I seen an explanation of why that might be. Since this is something that is complained about by users, I assume that they would prefer it if this were to change. I assume this because being ‘cliquey’ and excluding women doesn’t seem like a principle that a geek-culture community like digg would be proud of, especially since so many geeks know what it feels like to be harassed by their peers. [2]

There appears to be this myth that because there are no cues to race, gender and social status the web is an equal playing field for everyone to interact on an equal playing field. [3]. The dark side of this anonymity seems to be becoming clearer lately, and there seems to be something of a movement within the online community to work towards having civil interactions. Recently O’Reilly and Jim Wales, creator of wikipedia.org, have worked together to create a code of conduct that they hope will increase civility in the ‘blogosphere.’ [4] Clay Shirky writes about the patterns that emerge in social networking sites in a paper that he originally gave at the O’Reilly “Emerging Technology” conference in 2003. In this paper he draws on the work of psychologist W.R. Bion and talks about how groups tend to be their own worst enemy when it comes to interacting online, and offers several historical examples of how online communities have failed due to a lack of ability to self-regulate against “trolling” and inappropriate comments. [5] He advocates that this is something that must be accepted, because history shows that if it is not, large socially driven sites are doomed to failure.

Secondly, although this is highly contested, digg theoretically works on the principle of democracy. All users have the ability to submit stories, vote on which stories they are interested in by ‘digging’ them up, and digging up or down comments that they agree or disagree with. This is linked to the “architecture of participation” that O’Reillydefines as an essential part of Web 2.0. Also connected to this is the idea that the more people that contribute to the website the better, both in terms of software and the ability to harness the collective intelligence of users. If these are principles that digg is being founded on, I want to question how they are failing if there are women who are being excluded from digg.

All of this adds up to the fact that this “social” news that is being produced is really only part of the picture because women are being excluded from contributing the process in fairly insidious ways. I call them ‘insidious’ because I do not believe that there are a group of male diggers who are posting comments that are deliberately and consciously constructing this environment. Instead, this is part of a larger system of informal mechanisms that are operating subtly to create an environment that is hostile to women. [6] It is my hope that by pointing out some of my observations, and offering some potential solutions diggers might be inspired to engage with the topic and put our collective brainpower together towards finding a solution that works for everyone.

History
First of all, is acknowledging digg’s history as a website dedicated to tech news. The unfortunate truth seems to be that there are fewer of us geek girls than there are geek boys. This reflects the larger picture of the technologically inclined. The average reader of Wired, a technology magazine, is male, 39, a college graduate and makes over 80,000 a year [7]. Although I would expect that the users of an online forum such as digg is probably younger, this profile appears to reflect a similar class and gender profile. Although there have been increased numbers of women enrolling in other traditionally male-dominated fields like science and engineering, the numbers of women enrolling in computers science programs have actually been on the decline. This is suggested as like being due to the and high level of involvement and competition that careers in the technology industry demand, which doesn’t necessarily fit with the lifestyle choices that many women would prefer. [8]

Which stories get promoted
As a side effect of having such a male-biased population to begin with, stories that get promoted frequently tend to have a male bias to them as well. For example, here are the top stories from the previous week as of Friday,
March 16, 2007:

  • pick images and it will tell you about yourself (cool)
  • Advice to Young Men from an Old Man

  • Pictures of the Craziest Urinals From Around the World

  • The best feature of Vista that you never knew about!

  • Most realistic CG render

  • (pic) A cartoon illustration of digg & other social media site

  • The “300” Workout

  • Picture: maybe they should have blurred something out? [LAPTOP]

  • A boyfriend’s public revenge on cheating girlfriend

  • Best Slashdot comment ever

  • Ever Wondered who the RIAA really are?

  • Show your support for topless women!

  • Screencaps of Fox news lies

  • Google: we will anonymize our server logs!

Although some of the stories dugg on that list are gender neutral, especially if the technology-related stories are considered in this category, however there are quite a few stories that reflect a masculine world view. This isn’t to say that those stories weren’t interesting, nor would I assume that women wouldn’t be interested in some of the stories that appear to be manly—I myself dugg up the craziest urinals story, for example. However, I am arguing that the lack of female diggers leads to stories that might get promoted if digg was gender-balance never making it to the front page. This might be resulting in women who casually browse the site never signing up for an account, or women who have previously signed up becoming disinterested, because they don’t see stories they are interested in making it to the front page.

Sexist, Racist and Homophobic comments
Despite a recent article on businessweek.com claiming that interactions on digg are “surprisingly civil” this does not seem to always be the case. Stories that make it to the front page that have a wider base of appeal also tend to be stories that are more controversial, and tend to attract comments that are vehemently entrenched in one side of the issue. Although some people might consider the mac vs. pc debates to be something of a geek version of ‘ethnic’ war, and admittedly the discussions in those threads can get pretty heated, there is a big different between the types of insults that pass between windows users and mac users and the type of language that is used against women, gay men and people of colour, especially those who are of middle-eastern origin. I have read stories that have a large number of sexist, racist and/or homophobic comments that are dugg up far higher than the comments that challenge the comments or the story as sexist (etc). While sexist stories may silence some users, racist and homophobic stories increase that number further. Users who may fit into multiple categories, such as lesbian women, gay men of colour, or lesbian women of colour may feel even more excluded from digg.

Two somewhat recent stories show how sexism and homophobia are functioning simultaneously. In one story, titled “Lesbian accuses innocent stranger of rape to win back lover” from the Daily Mail, UK got 1600+ diggs. The comment “Does it really matter so much that she’s a lesbian?” got +79 diggs compared to the comment below it “They should put that cunt in the chair. What a fucking bitch.” which got +154 diggs. Many comments slurred her using the word “dyke” and called her for her to be raped and/or killed. Regardless of the morality of the women’s actions, her sexuality has no bearing on the story other than giving rise to “lesbian=man hating” comments. The story also reinforces the idea that women are lying when they claim they have been raped. The lives of women who have been ruined by being raped by men are completely ignored in virtue of this one extreme example. The anger directed towards this woman was quite extreme, and very violent.

In comparison, a story about a man whose two attempts to drug his date’s drink were foiled by a waitress received 1900+ diggs, but comments were much less hateful; far fewer comments suggested that he be raped or killed, and a number people contested the fact that he should be punished beyond prison, which is interesting since all kinds of extra punishment (including rape) went virtually uncontested in the rape-accusation story. Very few people contested his 6 month sentence, but many people contested 18 month sentence of the woman who made the false accusation in the previously discussed story. Although I don’t deny that both crimes are horrific, nor do I want to deny the fact that the man who was falsely accused did suffer because of it, the crime of falsely accusing someone of rape seems to be seem by the digg population as a far greater crime than actually trying to rape someone. Although we don’t know what the man who attempted to drug his date’s intentions were the fact that he had multiple methods with which to drug her suggests that he was pretty serious, and the potential power he had to ruin his intended victim’s life is exponential in comparison to the effect a false accusation of rape.

Violent comments against women on the internet has been a hot topic lately. A female tech blogger, Kathy Sierra, received death threats and went to the police, prompting Joan Walsh, the editor of salon.com to post about her own observations of violent comments directed towards herself and other women writers at salon.com in an article titled “Men who hate women on the Web.” Walsh discusses how for a long time she pretended as if misogynistic attacks by men against women online wasn’t a problem, and how she told her female coworkers that they simply needed thicker skins in order to deal with it. She says that she hesitated for a long time to speak up because she didn’t want to sensationalize, or overstate the problem, but that she has noticed a pattern in which she and her colleges received letters from men who responded to their writing not with constructive criticism, but in ways that demeaned the women sexually, morally, and through the use of childish nicknames as well as comments about how they are “ugly and wrinkly” in order to delegitimized what they have to say. [9] Despite the “thick skins” that many women do have, it does not take long for these types of comments to add up to the point where it becomes a turn off, and as a result turning digg off.

Objectification of women’s bodies
Since geek culture is predominantly male-dominated, it is not surprising that sites like digg feature quasi-pornographic images on the front page, or that geek conventions feature booths with bikini-clad babes pushing products and computer games that even have female characters generally sexualize the hell out of them. [10] Reverting to “sex talk” in groups is also one of the patterns that Bion identified in his study of groups. [11] I am not arguing that praising women for their brains and beauty are a bad thing, but I am arguing against the unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies that diggers frequently perpetuate. This may not be surprising, but when the smart women start to go elsewhere because of a blatant objectification of ‘style’ over ‘substance’ maybe there needs to be some room for some reflection on why this might be, and if fantasy women are worth driving the real ones away.

Pictures of women get posted on digg quite frequently, many of them are of celebrities, and quite a number combine sexy women with computers, or feature intelligent and beautiful women. This is a step up from the dichotomy played out in the media, such as the television show “Beauty and the Geek,” in which the men are smart and the women are vivacious and scantily clad women on digg who are not smart and sexy are cruelly judged. [12] In the anthology “She’s Such a Geek!” Annalee Newitz, a technology and science writer whose work has appeared in Wired and New Scientist (just to name a few) talks about her articles appearing on slashdot.org, and how her appearance mattered more to those who commented than the value of what she had to say. [13] I see the same thing frequently reflected in the comments on digg. If a story or article has an accompanying picture of a woman that does not fit into a very “hollywood”-ized beauty ideal she is often torn apart in the comments. Even the bodies of celebrities are criticized by diggers, and although sometimes it is a critique of the beauty myth itself often it is a critique of their beauty, such as a recent digg article that featured a list of celebrities who are only hot “from the neck down.” Although female diggers themselves are not being judged in those comments, they may be opting out of contributing to the idea that any woman who doesn’t conform to an idealized, virtually unattainable standard beauty is worthless.

To cite another example of how cutting down women based on their looks might turn women off of digg I would like to cite a recent episode of diggnation. During the fan letters section Kevin and Alex showed a letter from a male user posing with two of his friends and a diggnation poster they made for their dorm room. After some general chatter about how they should do a diggnation tour so they could fuck all the college women, they proceeded to comment that they would both “take” the one on the right (ie not the one on the left), which they found to be so hilarious that Kevin nearly threw up from laughing so hard. I hear Kevin and Alex claim that they love their female fans, and just the week before I heard them say that guys should hang onto smart, geeky women because they’re hard to come by, but now I wonder if they only mean “hot” women? The episode made me wonder if the female diggnation fans who are self-conscious about the way they look will be brave enough to risk be judged in the way that woman was, simply because she wasn’t Kevin and Alex’s idea of beautiful. The fact that she is probably a smart, capable, geeky young woman who was very likely watching what they said about her didn’t seem to matter.

Possible Solutions
The internet facilitates an ease to commenting on news stories that has never existed before. In the past, when readers wanted to respond to something they had read they had to put time and energy into finding the supplies they needed to write the letter. The letters were also filtered through an editor before being published, so not only did angry or violent comments make it past that filter, but readers were encouraged to think about how to write comments that were thoughtful, constructive criticism so that they would be printed. Online technology is also evolving at an increasingly rapid pace, due to decreasing overhead costs.

I would like to be clear that these are suggestions for possible solutions; I am not advocating that all of these solutions, or even any of them, are viable. I present them in the hope that they will be discussed by the community, and if found wanting, that new and better solutions will be created.

Create a better, more inclusive space: I put this solution first because I’m not sure what it might look like. I am hesitant to suggest to create an alternate social news website that is female-dominated because this does not seem to solve the problem of creating an inclusive site. The website helium.com, claims to have a much more even ratio of men to women. Helium is a web-based article publishing site that pays users for their content, and is something of a blend between wikipedia, in that the content is created by users, and digg, because users vote on which content they prefer. Unlike digg, however, there is no ability for users to comment on articles. This may contribute to a safer space for women because they are protected from being the recipients of comments that make them uncomfortable. While this is a good strategy for minimizing the negative experience of women who publish on the web, it does nothing to challenge the underlying causes of the problem in the first place. It also doesn’t protect women in all cases, for example some of the comments and threats made about Kathy Sierra were made on blogs other than her own that allowed comments. [16] Ultimately I like digg, and there are many wonderful aspects of it that work just fine, so trying to rethink digg seems to be a better solution than trying to recreate a new and better space.

Recruit more women: To some extent this is a number game. Women make up approximately 50% of all web users. [17] If there was a more balanced gender divide on digg, perhaps there would be a shift in the hostile climate that I have been describing. However, this is making a large number of assumptions. This is assuming that women want to come to digg in the first place, that it has something to offer them, and fits with the way they want to access the web. [18] It also assumes that women will perpetuate sexism, racism and homophobia less than men, which may well not be the case. It is likely, however, that having more women participating in digg would decrease the tolerance for discussing women in ways that does violence to women’s autonomy and self-respect.

Fight back strategically: There are a number of ways that the current system could be better used by diggers to combat behaviour they find offensive. The first and most important point is to pick your battles. Walsh wrote in her editorial:

“Attitudes toward women have improved dramatically just in my lifetime, but still the world has too many misogynists, and the Web has given them a microphone that lets them turn up the volume on their quavering selves, their self-righteous fury, their self-loathing expressed as hatred of women. And yet, mostly, women on the Web just have to ignore it. If you show it bothers you, you’ve given them pleasure. Life is too short to think about… trolls” (2007). [19]

This method can be effective for dealing with trolls. Although the ability to digg comments up and down is useful for filtering out the conversation to make it more readable, when it comes to trolls I suggest that the most effective strategy is to use the “block users” feature to block them, thus not even giving them the satisfaction of being dugg down. [20] There are cases in digg history when this has proven to be an effective strategy to stop users who spam or behave in generally disruptive ways. There is no use in wasting a well thought out response with someone who is only interested in provoking a reaction.

Another strategy is to fight the urge to walk away in defeat when comments on a topic offend. Often by the time I come to a story comments that make me angry have already been dugg up to the point where it feels like my one digg down will make no difference. This is counterproductive. It is important that the ‘democratic’ aspects of digg are leveraged by everyone on digg to an equal extent if the site is going to reflect the opinion of those who read it. As Walsh advocates, thicker skins are needed to get beyond this type of knee-jerk reaction. It is important that the ‘democratic’ aspects of digg are used to their full potential by everyone on digg to an equal extent if the site is going to reflect the opinions of those who read it.

It would also be effective if like-minded diggers made more of an effort to network themselves through the ‘friend’ feature in order that stories that may be interesting to a subset of digg users have a better chance of making it to the front page. If you see a user make a comment that you strongly agree with on a topic, consider adding them as a friend so that you can join them in other similar discussions in the future. In addition to this, once these networks have been established it would be easier to leverage the power of digg to promote stories that are of similar interest to you in the future. As numerous front page articles have discussed in the past, most of the stories make it to the front page now are as a result of a set of users who use exactly this tactic.

Increase accountability: The implications of being able to converse anonymously include feeling freed from stereotypes, allowing for increased sharing of information that would otherwise not be discussed. It also causes reduced feelings of accountability, allowing people to be free to express their personalities in ways they don’t in face to face interaction. [21] In a community as large as digg it is difficult to foster the connection between people that exists in face to face interaction, but there are core users that have more influence than casual members.[22] As with the bloggers who rejected the code of conduct recently suggested by O’Reilly and Wales I am hesitant to advocate censorship. I agree with O’Reilly and Wales that we shouldn’t say things online that we wouldn’t say offline. I don’t assume that everyone will have the same opinion, or that we shouldn’t argue, but I think that users of digg should make an effort to encourage their fellow users to behave respectfully, because this will only contribute to a better community for everyone. Shirky argues that there has to be some sort of agreed upon set of rules or code of conduct in place in large groups in order to protect themselves from self-destructing due to their size (2003). This has to be a collective decision as well as a personal one, but until some sort of internal standard for behaviour is in place there is little impetus for members to think about how their comment contributes to the larger discussion. [23]

Change the structure of digg: As Shirky discusses in his paper, it is impossible to abstract the social aspect from the creation of the technologies that host the interaction, and although I don’t discount the fact that the digg team has clearly have put a lot of work into creating the algorithms that drive digg at the moment, perhaps this is an aspect that has been overlooked. [24] Although digg is currently primarily moderated by users, Jay Adelson, digg’s co-founder, admits that newer moderation tools are in the works to help deal with the problem of “flaming trolls” [25]. If the digg team is concerned about how comments by users may be creating a hostile environment for other users it is highly likely that they will have to change their algorithms and create new and creative moderation tools in order to combat this. Once again, I am not advocating censorship, but better tools for diggers to use to make digg a more inclusive community.

I would also like to reflect that currently there is only one women working for digg, and she is listed as the “digg ambassador,” although further reading of her job description hasn’t enlightened me about what exactly that might entail. I would suggest that perhaps a digg team that was more diverse might aid in thinking about the ways that the structure of digg is currently allowing racism, homophobia and sexism to be so pervasive. This seems to be supported by research done by the Stanford Graduate School of Business which reports that start-up companies that have women involved in their inception predicts how woman-friendly these companies will be in the future. [26]

Footnotes:
[1] Jaffe, J. Michael, Yough-Eum Lee, Li-Ning Huang and Hayg Oshagan. 1999. “Gender Identification, Interdependence, and Pseudonyms in CMC: Language Patterns in an Electronic Conference.” The Infor imation Society 15:221-234.
[2] Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[3] Postmes, Tom and Russell Spears. 2002. “Behavior Online: Does Anonymous Computer Communication Reduce Gender Inequality?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(8):1073-1083
[4] Stone, Brad. 2007. “A Call for Manners in the Nasty World of Blogs.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/09/technology/09blog.html).
[5] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[6] Hercus, Cheryl. 2004. “Up against It: Opposition and Control” pp. 81-108 in Stepping Out of Line. New York, NY: Routledge.
[7] Hawthorne, Susan. 1999. “Connectivity: Cultural Practices of the Powerful or Subversion from the Margins?” Pp. 119-133 in Cyberfeminism: Connectivity, Critique and Creativity. Hawthorne, S. and R. Klein, eds. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press Pty Lt.
[8] Hughes, Donna M. 2003. “Changing a Masculinist Culture: Women in Science, Engineering and Technology” pp. 393-400 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
[9] Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[10] Hughes, Donna M. 2003. “Changing a Masculinist Culture: Women in Science, Engineering and Technology” pp. 393-400 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press and Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[11] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[12] Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[13] Newitz, Annalee and Charlie Anders, eds. 2006. She’s Such a Geek!: Women Write about Science, Technology & Other Nerdy Stuff.” Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
[14] Hercus, Cheryl. 2004. “Up against It: Opposition and Control” pp. 81-108 in Stepping Out of Line. New York, NY: Routledge and Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[15] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[16] Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[17] Richards, Amy and Marianne Schnall. 2003. “Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net” pp. 517-525 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
[18] Richards, Amy and Marianne Schnall. 2003. “Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net” pp. 517-525 in Sisterhood is Forever. Robin Morgan, ed. New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
[19] Walsh, Joan. 2007.“Men who hate women on the web.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2007/03/31/sierra/?source=whitelist).
[20] Holahan, Catherine. 2007. “Cleaning Messy Message Boars.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/apr2007/tc20070406_101803.htm).
[21] Jaffe, J. Michael, Yough-Eum Lee, Li-Ning Huang and Hayg Oshagan. 1999. “Gender Identification, Interdependence, and Pseudonyms in CMC: Language Patterns in an Electronic Conference.” The Infor imation Society 15:221-234.
[22] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[23] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[24] Shirky, Clay. 2003. “A Group is Its Own Worst Enemy.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html).
[25] Holahan, Catherine. 2007. “Cleaning Messy Message Boars.” Retrieved April 9, 2007. (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/apr2007/tc20070406_101803.htm).
[26] Lee, Shireen. 2004. “The New Girls Network: Women, Technology and Feminism” pp. 84-104 in The Fire This TIme. Labaton, V. and D.L Martin, eds. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

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