Online Information Sources (Short) Paper

In this paper, I present a comparison of Internet Newsgroups and America Online services from a female perspective, to help isolate some of the reasons the Internet is only 10-15% female by most estimates while commercial on-line services are achieving significantly higher gender diversity.


One of the more prevalent cliches about the differences between men and women is that men never ask for directions and women can't read the map someone draws for them. If this is true, it may explain in part why women are generally more comfortable with on-line services. AOL's interface is quite simple to navigate. I can use keywords to locate topics of interest, or simply click through buttons that look interesting. Within a particular location, such as Education, I can scroll through postings pertaining to particular educational topics. To locate a similar UseNet news group, I have to scroll through a list supported by my server and select one that sounds remotely like what I'm looking for. The process can be rather hit or miss, as I discovered the time I thought I was subscribing to a news group discussing the future of cellular communications, only to find it was some sort of hacker group ostensibly offering tools for eavesdropping on cellular conversations.

The AOL interface may still be a bit patriarchal however. The interface is completely linear and offers no option to find out where you are and how to get where you want to go. The continual pleas to " wait while we add more graphics" are infuriating, especially given the graphics are quite simple. I've no incentive to wait other than the fact that I need a button to click- I'm not rewarded with awe-inspiring artwork or cute cartoons, or anything except another linear menu.

I remember my first hesitancies on the Internet. I laughed at my husband and myself as we tried to get out of a trivia game (can't remember where we were). No one knew who we were, they couldn't see us, they couldn't ring the doorbell, they couldn't call us, but we were terrified they'd discover we were neophytes because after saying good-bye, we were still hanging around, unable to find the way out. We finally resorted to unplugging the modem. The GUI has everything in the world to do with reducing this type of neophyte anxiety. The new user doesn't care that she can't be seen, the intimidation of virtual flaming is quite real, and potentially damaging to one's self-esteem. On-line providers seem to understand this basic need. They've improved upon the Internet model by reducing fear, making it more comfortable, but perhaps they've gone too far. Women also want to be challenged. We want to stumble across unexpected bits of information, voyage into the unknown.

All of this leads us to the WWW: A vast new experiment in GUI's. Thousands of individuals, institutions and businesses are developing their own unique interface. Some are flashy to appeal to the techno-hip; others are geared toward luring in neophytes willing to plunk down their credit cards; still others are customized, personal Web pages intended as a jump-off point for the creator and a few friends. Because this environment is new, women have a greater opportunity to participate in its evolution. They can also choose interfaces with which they are comfortable, or create their own.


AOL makes it easy to trace the history of a discussion, starting with the most recent postings and tracing back as far as I like. One difficulty, however, is in tracing who said what to whom. UseNet news groups also lack a simple interface for following responses to postings and recovering the history of a group. The WWW news group postings maintained for our class, on the other hand, allow the user to see who replied to their comments and follow the trail of a specific strain of comments.

I have found the types of people participating in Internet and AOL to be quite similar. I've stumbled upon inane, sophomoric conversations in progress on both AOL chat lines and Internet MUDs. I have also followed a particularly emotional and supportive discussion about abortion on alt.women.attitudes and a similarly emotionally based conversation on AOL about when a mother should tell her son he was adopted.

I generally prefer to chat rooms in both domains. I cannot help feeling like a virtual eavesdropper in chat rooms. I do not trust that people are who their description says they are and I am particularly suspicious of claims about gender. I tend to place greater trust in the authenticity of postings primarily because they aren't real-time. Much of the pressure to develop an appealing personality and form is removed and more emphasis placed on the quality of the written comment. I also feel more comfortable about reading a posting and taking the time to think about it before responding. The person who posted a heartfelt note won't question me as I read it and I'll have time to slowly consider an appropriate response if I desire to respond at all.

The Impact of Media

In addition to facing difficult navigational issues on the Internet and patronizing interfaces on AOL, women face acceptance barriers created by the mass media. Many women I talk to who've never even ventured onto the Internet are convinced it's a forbidding place for women. They're certain they'll be harassed, virtually raped and relentlessly criticized for every posting they make. The source of their fear is the newspaper, magazine and television portrayals of the Internet as an uncivilized frontier, dominated by men. In the typical fashion of its genre, the mass media has focused on the tantalizing, the eye-catching, and the controversial. Commercial providers offer some protection from this untamed world, and women have responded with greater patronage. Other services, such as "Womenıs Wire", offer a separate on-line service specifically for women.

The Future and the WWW

The WWW offers improved, innovative GUIs and the opportunity for women to participate as creators. As the on-line providers offer access to the WWW through their own browsers, women will begin to claim their space on the Internet and will desert the on-line providers who offered a sheltered, but also separate, place.