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Women's Access to On-Line Discussions about Feminism
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

WOMEN'S ACCESS TO ON-LINE DISCUSSIONS ABOUT FEMINISM


Ellen Balka
Memorial University of Newfoundland


     Abstract.  While the use of computer networks has
     become increasingly popular in the last decade and
     research concerned with both women and
     technological change and the social implications
     of computer networking has proliferated, the use
     of computer networks by women, and the use of
     computer networks in the context of feminism, have
     seldom been subjects of study.  In light of this
     omission and an extensive body of literature which
     suggests that men and women have different
     experiences in relation to technology, the author
     examines the use of computer networks by
     individual women and women's groups who use this
     technology to either discuss feminism or
     facilitate feminist organizing.  In _Womantalk
     Goes On-line: The Use of Computer Networks in the
     Context of Feminist Social Change_ (Balka, 1992),
     four related issues were examined through case
     studies of four computer networks that varied in
     structure.  These issues were: (1) the
     relationship of the structure of the computer
     network to the array of communications
     possibilities available; (2) who users were and
     what they discussed in on-line feminist groups;
     (3) the types of communication that occurred
     on-line in these groups; and (4) the processes in
     which each network group engaged in order to
     maintain their communications environment.  This
     article presents results from that study organized
     around the theme of access.  Four related layers
     of access are considered: (1) access related to
     network structure; (2) access to an array of
     communications options; (3) access to technical
     competence; and (4) access to computer networks in
     the context of organizational structure.  The
     context for this discussion is set through a brief
     description of each of the networks examined in
     Balka (1992).  Results suggest that the success of
     appropriating computer networks for feminist
     organizing in the future will reflect the extent
     to which women's access to computer networks is
     addressed by future users.


                       Introduction

     Public figures as diverse as Tony Benn (a former
British Minister of Technology) (Ruthven, 1983) and Timothy
Leary (Leary, 1984) have argued that computer communication
technology will provide the means for an effective,
participatory democracy.  Benn argued that the emerging
computer communication technology could "be used to inform
citizens about government activities, to allow them to
exchange opinions, and to make it possible for them to play
a more direct role in decision making" (Ruthven, 1983: 57).
An advocate of open government, Benn focussed upon the
ability of emerging computer networking technology to
support a two-way flow of information between citizens and
the state.  Along with Leary (1984), Gabree (1984) and
others, Benn argued that computer networks would widen the
range of comment and opinion easily available to the general
public (Ruthven, 1983).  Computer networks were seen to have
the potential to render political decision-making more
democratic (Gabree, 1984).

     As the use of personal computers has increased and
computer networks have become more widespread, so too have
claims about the liberatory potential of computer networking
technology.  Computer networks were viewed early in their
evolution as convivial and participatory, and antithetical
to the dominant uses of electronic communications media that
were centrally controlled (Rossman, 1979).  Described as a
"communications medium that can be shared by all" (Knight,
1983: 123), some viewed computer networks as a challenge to
conventional hierarchies of control (Rossman, 1979).

     McCullough (1991) points out that as the cost of
personal computers has declined, resource-poor community
groups engaged in organizing for social change have become
the unexpected beneficiaries of computer technology.
Computer networks, viewed as having the potential to "make a
horizontal cut through the standard vertical organizational
chart" (Brilliant, 1985: 174), are particularly appealing to
social change organizations, which are frequently structured
and managed non-hierarchically.

     At the same time that they acknowledge that computer
technology is embedded in economic, political and cultural
structures of domination, Downing et al. argue that computers
"can now be appropriated into organizing for progressive
social change" (1991: 8).  These assertions are supported by
widely held cultural views of technology (Balka, 1986; Bush,
1983) which suggest that many see it as neutral and
value-free, and believe that _how_ it is used determines
whether any new technology is a desirable development or
not.

     Popular debates about computer networking technology
suggest that it ought to meet a diverse array of needs,
including those of women's organizations dedicated to
feminist social change.  In theory, computer networks ought
to be consistent with the democratic, decentralized,
participatory structures of women's organizations dedicated
to feminist social change.  Theory suggests that computer
networks should be accessible to a wide range of women, and
that they can enhance the flow of information between
members of women's organizations as well as between
organizations.

     Although the use of computer networks has become
increasingly popular in the last decade and research
concerned with both women and technological change and the
social implications of computer networking has proliferated,
the use of computer networks by women and the use of
computer networks in the context of feminism have seldom
been subjects of study.  Questions raised by Kramarae
(1988), together with an extensive body of literature which
suggests that men and women have different experiences in
relation to technology, provided a stimulus for an
investigation into the use of computer networks by women in
the context of feminism.  Kramarae points out that women's
speech and technology are richly interconnected, and that
technological processes have lasting impacts on women's
communications.  She argues that all technological
developments can be usefully studied with a focus upon
women's interaction, and points out that all technological
practices (including the processes of innovation, creation,
production, maintenance and use of technology) affect the
ways, places and content of talk, writing and publishing in
a feminist context.  For Kramarae, social relations are
organized and structured by technological systems.

     In _Womantalk Goes On-line: The Use of Computer
Networks in the Context of Feminist Social Change_ (Balka,
1992), the use of computer networks by individual women and
women's groups who were using this technology to either talk
about feminism or facilitate feminist organizing was
examined.  Four related issues were considered through case
studies of four computer networks that varied in structure.
These issues were: (1) the relationship of the structure of
the computer network to the structure of messages; (2) who
users were and what they were talking about in on-line
feminist groups; (3) the types of communication that
occurred on-line in these groups; and (4) the processes in
which each network group engaged in order to maintain their
communications environment.  This article presents results
from that study organized around the theme of access.  Four
related layers of access are considered: (1) access related
to network structure; (2) access to varied forms of
communication; (3) access to technical competence; and (4)
access to computer networks in the context of organizational
structure.  The context for this discussion is set through a
brief description of the four networks investigated in
greater depth in the larger analysis (Balka, 1992).

                   Overview of the Study

     While several examples of computer networks used in the
context of feminism were discussed in the larger analysis,
four networks were investigated in depth: Soc.women, the
Femail Mailing List, the CompuServe Information Service
Men's and Women's section of the Issues forum, and the
Women's Bulletin Board System in New York City.  Criteria
used to select networks for the study were: first, that
group participants themselves consider the purpose of their
communication to be the discussion of feminism or feminist
issues; and secondly, that networks reflect a diversity of
physical computer network structures.  The rationale for
using network structure as a selection criterion is
addressed in the section titled "Theoretical Overview."  A
brief description of each of the networks follows.

                       The Networks

Soc.Women (Usenet)

     Usenet is a university/institutionally-based computer
network developed in 1979.  Thousands of multi- user
computers located primarily in universities and scientific
institutions use the same software (Unix) and regularly pass
messages between nodes.  It is possible to send mail from
any Unix system to any other Unix system, provided that one
knows the address of the destination system.  Messages are
sent in a leap frog fashion from one node to the next, until
they reach the desired destination.  Often calls made
between two adjacent nodes are local calls.  When two
adjacent nodes are further apart than a local calling area,
the cost of passing messages between nodes is absorbed by
the institutions where the nodes are located (Anderson et
al., 1987).  Usenet, probably the largest computer network
in the world, did not spring from the desire to bring
computer access into the home.  Instead, Usenet grew out of
workplace access to a computer system (Unix) that was
developed in a largely unorganized fashion by hackers who
constantly modified the system.  Unix was originally
conceived as a research project by two workers in Bell Labs
in 1969.  Throughout the 1970s Unix was licensed almost
exclusively to universities, since AT&T was prohibited from
competing in the commercial computer industry (PC Week,
1988).  Perhaps consequently, Unix has never been supported
by AT&T as a profit-oriented product (Waite, 1987).

     Usenet began when two graduate students decided to try
hooking two Unix-based computers together in order to
facilitate the exchange of information within the Unix
community.  A third student wrote what has become known as
the news (or netnews) software that forms the keystone for
Usenet (Spafford, 1991a).  The development of Usenet has
proceeded very much like the earlier development of Unix; it
is constantly modified by programmers.  In 1980 the news
programs were re-written and made publicly available, free
of charge ›1®.  In 1982 the programs were again revised to
accommodate a better organization of topical newsgroups and
the growing number of sites receiving Unix newsgroups
(Anderson et al., 1987).  By 1984, the increasing volume of
mail had become problematic, which led to the addition of a
feature that would allow moderated newsgroups, inspired by
ARPAnet mailing lists (prior to that point, all Usenet
content was unmoderated) (Gilmore and Spafford, 1991).  By
1987, over 5,000 sites were participating in Usenet, with
over 150,000 readers.  Most sites are in North America,
although Usenet is growing in Australia, Asia and Europe
(Anderson et al., 1987).

     Unlike most personal computer-based bulletin board
systems or commercial computer networking services, Usenet
is not controlled by a single person or group which
establishes policy and rules for use, and maintains the
message base and equipment.  Usenet requires no membership
screening, no dues, and boasts little organization.  It has
been described by De Marrais (1984) and others as an
administrationless volunteer-maintained computer network of
information anarchists.  Viewed as a valuable source for the
dissemination of knowledge and an aid to researchers, the
costs of running Usenet are absorbed by the institutions
where Usenet sites are located (Anderson et al., 1987).

     Discussion of women's issues and feminism on Usenet
first occurred in the Net.women newsgroup (its name was
changed to "Soc.women" in 1986).  Net.women began in 1982 or
1983, prior to the development of software that supported
moderated newsgroups.  It was an outgrowth of Net.singles
(Gregbo, 1991), a newsgroup for single people (Gilmore and
Spafford, 1991).  Some discussions pertaining to women and
relationships occurred in Net.singles, and a place other
than Net.singles was deemed necessary for the discussion of
these issues (Gregbo, 1991).  Woods (1991a) points out that
in those days, with only a few hundred sites on the Usenet
network, all that was required to begin a new newsgroup was
a little discussion in what was then called
"Net.news.groups" and someone willing to send a newsgroup.
Net.women appears to have been somewhat controversial from
the start, and remained a confrontational arena of
communication throughout its existence.

The Femail Mailing List (Internet)

     One of the more successful and enduring alternatives to
Soc.women is the mail-feminist (often referred to as the
Femail of feminist) mailing list.  By February of 1984,
several women felt that Net.women was not meeting their
needs, and were both sufficiently frustrated with Net.women
and apparently, sufficiently confident that
computer-mediated communication could meet some of their
needs, that a moderated group was set up to be distributed
through network carriers other than Usenet.  The formation
of Femail began when an electronic questionnaire, about
starting a new feminist computer networking group, was
posted on Net.women by a frustrated network user.  The
questionnaire elicited opinions about whether men should be
included, whether the list should be restricted, and whether
it should be moderated.  Based upon the questionnaire
responses, the new list, mail.feminists, began as a public
mailing list with the thirty-eight electronic questionnaire
respondents (eight of whom were men) as participants, along
with three others.  Some participants on the new
mail.feminist list continued to follow the dialogue on
Net.women and others stopped; all seemed to share a vision
of a place to communicate about women's issues that was
different from Net.women (Femail transcripts, 1991).

     In response to a message in the first batch of
mail.feminist, asking participants why they sought an
alternative to Net.women, many dissatisfactions with
Net.women were voiced: it was offensive, chaotic, the
discussions were boring and endless, and women's opinions
were treated as dumb, stupid, or ignorant by men.  One woman
had grown tired of debating assumptions she took for
granted.  Some women sought electronic communication with
others that would not be accessible to their bosses and
co-workers, as was (and is) the case with all of the Usenet
newsgroups (Femail transcripts, 1991) ›2®.

     The Femail Mailing List is a wide area multi-node
network, yet it differs from Usenet in some significant
ways.  Unlike Soc.women, the Femail Mailing List is
moderated, and distributed through a designated central
node.  Assuming that nodes used for distribution of the list
are functioning correctly and all mail is distributed, users
at different sites receive the same "bundles" of messages,
usually ordered chronologically.  The Femail Mailing List is
distributed through the Internet, which links
institutionally-based computer systems and large corporate
computer systems throughout North America.  Although
membership in the Femail Mailing List group is potentially
available to all Usenet users as well as
institutionally-based users at non-Unix sites, access to the
group as a contributor is monitored and at times restricted
by the moderator.  While all "readers" are requested to
"join" the list by notifying the moderator, it is impossible
to monitor and control who reads (but not who contributes
to) the Femail Mailing List.  This situation exists because
potentially anyone at any site receiving the Femail Mailing
List can go undetected in forwarding the bundles of mail to
other users.

Men's and Women's Issues Section (CompuServe Information
Service)

     CompuServe Information Service is a commercial wide-
area central node network that began in 1979.  Wide-area and
local central node networks (such as CompuServe Information
Service and the Women's Bulletin Board System, respectively)
accommodate a greater array of communication options than
multi-node networks (such as Usenet or Internet).  In
contrast to Usenet and the Femail Mailing List (which can
only accommodate private electronic mail, newsgroups and
file transfer to network users), CIS offers users a
multitude of services.

     CompuServe Information Service began as an in-house
data processing centre and with the availability of
timesharing computers moved into the computer service
industry, initially selling time only to commercial clients.
To facilitate this end goal and to avoid the difficulties
associated with depending on another commercial enterprise
for the provision of packet switching services, before
entering the home information and personal computer market,
CompuServe had developed its own packet switching network.
CompuServe became a publicly held company in 1975.  In 1978,
commercial electronic mail services were introduced to its
timesharing clients (Gerber, 1989).  Shortly after its major
competitor in the home information market (The Source) began
operation in 1979, CompuServe Information Service began to
offer bulletin boards, databases and games targeted to
computer hobbyists in twenty-five cities served by the
CompuServe packet switching network (Gerber, 1989).  By
1980, CIS was accessible to its 4,000 customers twenty-four
hours a day.  The subscriber base reached 10,000 a year
later, perhaps reflecting a marketing arrangement between
CIS, Tandy Computer and Radio Shack.  Also in 1981,
electronic mail became available to home users through CIS,
and CIS became available in Canada.  In 1983 an on-line mall
was introduced.  By 1984, CIS had 100,000 subscribers, and a
year later CIS boasted 250,000 users.  In 1987 CompuServe
expanded its services to Japan, and by the time it acquired
The Source in 1989 it had become the largest commercial
computer information service in the world, with a half
million users.  Services had grown to include 180 special
interest forums; news, weather, sports and flight
information; access to several newspapers and magazines that
could be searched for keywords; an electronic version of a
CB radio; and a variety of other services (Gerber, 1989).

     The use of base level CIS services is billed by the
hour.  Other services (such as an on-line version of _Books
in Print_) require a sign-up fee and carry additional
charges.  Initially, Canadian users could only gain access
to CompuServe through a Canadian packet switching network
(Datapac) that tied into the CIS packet switching network.
Users paid an additional hourly fee for the use of Datapac
(Kleiner, 1981).  CompuServe introduced and then withdrew
direct access to its Ohio computer in some Canadian cities,
only to re-introduce direct access (which saved Canadian
users Datapac charges) a few years later.

     The women's section on CIS began officially when Pamela
Bowen submitted a proposal to CompuServe in late 1982 or
early 1983 proposing the formation of a women's forum.
Prior to Bowen's proposal to CompuServe, several women who
had met through the on-line CB "were gathering every
Saturday night and 'scrambling' for private chats.  That was
not satisfactory, however, because men kept sending talk
requests and interrupting" (Bowen, 1991a) ›3®.  When Bowen
initially submitted the proposal for a women's forum, she
was told by CompuServe that there were not enough women
on-line to justify it.  Bowen commented in 1988 that "they
still say that, but I say that's a bunch of balogna because
most families have one account, and that account is usually
in the husband's name, even if the wife spends much more
time on-line, so there's no way CompuServe's demographics
can pick that up" (1991a).

     Despite CompuServe's refusal to begin a women's forum,
they did consult Georgia Griffith, who was (and still is)
the head sysop of the Issues Forum.  Griffith agreed to have
one section of her forum used for women's issues; Bowen
became sysop of the women's section and the assistant sysop
of the Issues forum.  Griffith hoped that if the section was
popular enough it could branch into a separate forum.  Many
CompuServe Forums had in fact followed this pattern of
development (Bowen, 1991a).  Once the women's section of the
Issue's Forum had been established, many of the women who
had been "gathering" on the CB Saturday nights moved to the
new women's section (Bowen, 1991a).  In addition to
one-to-one electronic mail, one-to-many electronic mail
(referred to on CIS as a "topic-specific bulletin board
area," but similar in practice to what other networks call
"conferences") and document transfer, the women's section
featured weekly "real-time" conferencing, analogous to a
voice conference call where several geographically dispersed
participants could communicate simultaneously with a barely
noticeable time delay.  In addition to discussing issues in
the bulletin board area of the women's section, participants
during weekly real-time conferences either "chatted" amongst
themselves, or talked to an invited guest speaker about a
wide range of women's issues.  Bowen (1991b) recalls that
about twenty women regularly participated in the women's
section, and five or six women regularly participated in the
weekly conferences.

     I remember the women's section as an active discussion
area (I "visited" it occasionally in late 1985 and early
1986).  It was closed sometime in late 1986 or early 1987
(Casal, 1991a) after a few weeks when participation was low.
Casal was an assistant sysop of the men's and women's issues
section in 1988, an area originally established for mixed
gender discussions about women's issues that "WAS dominated
by men and was eventually re-named the Men's/Women's
section" (Casal, 1991b; capitalization in original).  She
recalls that, although the women's conferences were regular
weekly events for at least three years, in the last few
months of the section, she and Griffith "had trouble getting
even ONE woman to come ...  In the end ›they® had to open
the conferences to men also in order to have a conference at
all" (Casal, 1991c).

The Women's Bulletin Board System

     The Women's Bulletin Board System (WBBS) was devised in
1985 and began operation in 1986.  Unlike most computer
networking services, the system was proposed and started by
nine women from the social change community, rather than the
computer bulletin board community.  These women discussed
the formation of the WBBS via a computer network, and after
selecting the hardware and software for the WBBS, spent two
months learning their way around the system before publicly
announcing it through flyers and mailings to women's groups
and contacts in the New York City women's community.
Founders of the WBBS anticipated that potential users might
lack the knowledge to use a computer network with little
assistance.  In an effort to eliminate this barrier, one of
the founders based in New York City reports that she has
provided extensive support for potential users of that
system, including on-line help, hard copy help and in-person
help (Interview with Angela Leucht, November 1988).  This no
doubt contributed to the success of the Women's Bulletin
Board System.

     The founders' initial goals were to provide a bulletin
board for organizing around women's issues and to share
information between women's groups.  The bulletin board
allowed users to send electronic mail to other users, post
public messages on a variety of topics of concern to
feminists, and upload and download files (document
transfer).  Unlike most bulletin boards in operation in the
mid-1980s (that did not easily accommodate the organization
of messages), the Women's Bulletin Board was split into
twenty-seven posting areas, each set aside for a different
set of topics.  Consequently, the public messages posted on
the Women's Bulletin Board read more like a computer
conference than a bulletin board, and users could more
quickly locate information of potential interest, as well as
avoid some topics altogether.  Among the existing bulletin
areas were areas for action alerts (time-dated public
notices); discussions about women and AIDS, parenting,
recovery from sexual abuse, recovery from alcohol abuse, and
general women's issues; notices about conferences; and areas
for adolescents, women of colour, and groups that wished to
have restricted (rather than public) communication.

     Several things distinguished the Women's Bulletin Board
System from other bulletin boards and computer networking
services.  The WBBS was established and operated by a group,
rather than an individual.  This is in marked contrast to
most bulletin boards which are operated by a single
individual, who often thinks of the board as an extension of
their house, or as their kingdom (WBBS Transcripts, 1991).
Instead, group management of the system was a major factor
in the selection of software for the WBBS.  Unfortunately,
women's groups have not used the system as much as was
anticipated.  One of the co-founders attributes this to the
software that she feels was not designed for, and does not
fully accommodate, group communications.  Another co-founder
felt the largest obstacle to the System's use by groups is
that most women's organizations (in the U.S.) do not have
computers, and those that do often do not have modems (Group
Interview, November 1988).

     The Women's Bulletin Board has avoided many of the
problems that have plagued other attempts to provide an
electronic women's meeting place.  Although women users of
other computer networks frequently complain about attacks
upon their views by men, their continuous struggle to keep
the "conversation" focused upon women, and their boredom
with debates about fundamental assumptions (that men should
help change diapers, that daycare should be more
accessible), newcomers to the Women's Bulletin Board
frequently commented on the congenial atmosphere that
characterized this system.  Despite these strengths,
founders of the WBBS were at times discouraged with the
changes that occurred over time.  All but three of the
board's original moderators and sysops, all of whom
originated from the social change community, left.  They
were replaced by women who have come from the bulletin board
community, and one co- founder feels that these two
communities do not often see ideas or processes in the same
way (Interview with WBBS Co-founder, November 1988).

     In the fall of 1990, the WBBS was temporarily out of
operation.  The modem used to operate the system was damaged
when lightning struck the building.  A few of the sysops had
left the WBBS, and the founders sought replacements.  The
founders also investigated the acquisition of new hardware
and software.  While weary, the group still felt that the
WBBS was a valuable community resource that could contribute
to the New York City women's community.

               Data Collection and Analysis

     Information about the networks was collected mainly
from the networks themselves.  On-line sessions were both
saved to a file and printed.  Data were analyzed both via
computer (for example, searching for message header
information and storing it in files for further analysis)
and on paper (for example, reading and coding the
transcripts according to message structure and content).
Information available in network transcripts was
supplemented with on-line queries to group users, published
accounts of the networks, and personal interviews.
Theoretical perspectives that informed data analysis
included Noble's (1979) concept of social bias in machine
design, and Smith's (1990b) argument that text is a means of
access to the relations it organizes.

                   Theoretical Overview

     Noble (1979), Linn (1987) and others ›4® argue that
there is more to technology than hardware.  For women,
technology never exists in an asocial sense.  It is
reflected in social practices, including language and other
forms of representation; in traditions of use, techniques
and training practices; in domains of knowledge; and in
relation to production and consumption.  Technology is, in
short, a cultural product (Linn, 1987).  Along similar
lines, Noble (1979) and Karpf (1987) both argue that it is
people and social forces that shape and create technology;
technological products both bear the imprint of their social
context, and themselves reinforce that social context.
Technology is constituted by, and also helps constitute
social relations.

     Smith (1990) argues that texts are situated in and
structure social relations.  Treating text as a constituent
of social relations encourages the researcher to investigate
the social organization of its production, as it is a prior
phase in the social relation.  Smith advocates looking
beyond text for evidence of the social relations that
resulted in the production of specific texts.  In the case
of computer networks, one can begin an inquiry through the
texts that participants in on-line discussions produce, and
explore the actual practices that engage people in the
relations that organize their lives.  In applying Smith's
(1990) approach to the analysis of computer networks, it was
necessary to focus upon network structure.  During analysis
of network transcripts, it became clear that the text
produced in on-line discussions reflected the physical
structure of a network.  Network structure in turn had
implications for where and to whom networks were accessible.
Network software is designed in response to both the
physical network structure (which poses both opportunities
and constraints in terms of communication options available)
and social goals that are often not explicit.  These factors
combine to create the taken-for-granted world that network
users encounter in their everyday production of computer
network transcripts.

                          Results

     Network structure not only had implications for who had
access to a given network (and where they had access from),
but also proved useful in explaining differences in the
structure of messages.  To varying degrees, issues related
to the structure of the networks and/or social decisions
incorporated into software design (for example, the use of
aliases on Usenet) are implicitly addressed in the content
of messages.  Additionally, some combinations of network
structure and software seem to accommodate certain forms of
communication better than others.

(1) Access Related To Network Structure

     The structure of a computer network has implications
for where a network is accessible (for example, in
universities but not women's centres), and to whom it is
accessible.  The gender composition of participants varied
from network to network, as did participant's patterns of
response on a network.  Each network had a somewhat distinct
group of participants, although some overlap existed between
networks.  Participants in each of the networks are
described below.

Soc.women

     Information about Soc.women participants was gleaned
from a number of sources, each of which yielded a different
type of information.  Message headers provide a source of
information about participants' points of access into the
Usenet system, where they work, and often, in the absence of
unusual circumstances or the use of aliases, the gender of
message authors.  To a certain extent, message headers make
it possible to determine what time of day messages were
sent.  Information of a more personal nature about
participants is sparse in Soc.women messages.  If it exists
at all, it is often included incidentally in message text.

     Reading Soc.women headers gives one a sense that
Soc.women contributors mostly gain access to Usenet and
Soc.women from their workplaces (primarily, corporations
engaged in computer-related work and science and applied
science departments of universities).  While readership of
Usenet is worldwide, most contributors are resident in the
United States.  The organizational affiliations listed in
Soc.women headers read like a combination of Who's Who in
Corporate and Academic America, and a contest for aspiring
stand-up comics.  In three weeks of Soc.women messages,
participants from over seventy businesses and over fifty
universities contributed messages.  In addition, over forty
different organizational aliases ›5® were used, and at least
seven people gained access to Usenet through computer
bulletin boards and commercial services offering electronic
gateways to Usenet.

     From message headers, one gains a sense that Soc.women
contributors are well-educated, and those who are no longer
students are likely to work in the computer industry or in
academia.  Based on an examination of times included in
Soc.women headers (in cases where the geographical location
of a contributor is known), it appears that participants are
to a large extent submitting messages to Soc.women during
normal business hours.  Popular times for submitting
messages appear to be mid-morning, around lunch time (1:00
p.m.), and mid-afternoon.  Occasionally messages are
submitted in the early evening, suggesting that contributors
are either working late (this is a frequent occurrence in
the computer industry) or have computers at home through
which they gain access to their work-based Usenet systems.

     By examining names found in Soc.women "From:" headers,
and by referring to message text for clues about the
authors' gender in the event of gender-neutral names (such
as Chris, Pat, Jesse) or aliases, the gender composition of
Soc.women contributors can be estimated, along with message
sending patterns.  In the Soc.women sample, out of a total
of 258 contributors who contributed a total of 650 messages
over 44 days ›6®, 63 per cent of the contributors were men,
27 per cent were women and the gender of 10 per cent of the
contributors could not be determined.  Just over half of the
messages were authored by men, and just over 44 per cent of
the messages were authored by women.  The gender of the
authors in slightly over 5 per cent of the cases could not
be determined.

The Femail Mailing List

     Reading Femail messages, one gains a much more in-
depth sense of who participants are and what their lives are
like.  Although the removal of message headers strips
messages of what little surface clues about participants
inherently exist in messages on a distributed multi-node
network, at the same time it protects participants from
having the identity of their employer known, as well as from
receiving unwanted electronic junk mail.  The removal of
headers (both a technical decision related to the use of
non-Usenet software, and a social decision related to the
emergence of Femail out of dissatisfaction with Soc.women)
contributes to the more personal tone of messages that make
up the Femail dialogue in general, and the greater abundance
of personal information contained in Femail messages in
particular.

     Like Soc.women contributors, Femail contributors also
gain access to that group through nodes of wide area
networks (such as UUCP and ARPAnet) in their workplaces.
However, with the removal of headers from Femail messages,
in the absence of any knowledge about network structure,
this would not be as obvious as it is in Soc.women messages.
In general, the individuals who come together to form the
Femail mailing list are in some cases former and/or current
Soc.women readers, or they may have heard about the list
from a friend.  Although the removal of message headers in
the Femail group makes it more difficult to capture a sense
of the places that Femail participants work compared to
Soc.women contributors, we get a much more detailed sense of
what their work lives are like.  Because headers have been
removed from Femail messages, we know less about the time of
day that messages are submitted to the group.  However,
Femail messages contain references to submitting messages
from work, and Femail participants occasionally indicate
that they are dependent upon workplace computers for access
to the group.

     Given that the nodes which carry the Femail mailing
list are located in similar places to the Usenet nodes which
accommodate access to Soc.women (academia, the corporate
sector), it is not surprising that Femail contributors have
a great deal in common with Soc.women contributors.  Like
Soc.women contributors, Femail participants tend to be
highly educated; they are likely to be students, professors,
or professionals working in areas related to the sciences.
In contrast to Soc.women messages that provide a wealth of
information about contributors in headers and a minimal
amount of information about contributors in text, Femail
readers can easily gain a sense of who contributors to that
group are from the text of messages submitted to the group.
The tradition of including "personal data" in Femail
messages began quite early in that group's history.  A
Femail contributor requested demographic information in the
fifth message submitted to Femail, and in the third message
submitted to that group a contributor presented demographic
information in the context of a story.  By reading through
the remainder of Femail Message Excerpts 4, we see that
Femail contributors appear to be quite candid in messages
they submit to the mailing list.  Personal data may include
a synopsis of a contributor's past relationships, an overall
profile, or a personal commentary (lines 18646-18655).
Although the inclusion of personal information appears to be
almost secondary in Soc.women messages, personal information
appears to be primary to the Femail mailing list.

     The probable gender of message authors can be
determined with greater accuracy in Femail messages than in
Soc.women messages.  First, a contributor's ability to
submit messages to the Femail group anonymously (or with an
alias) is controlled by the moderator in conjunction with
the group.  Secondly, the emphasis upon personal issues in
the Femail group (beginning with introductions) accommodates
an easy assignment of gender to both gender-neutral names
and anonymous contributions.  In contrast to Soc.women,
where nearly two-thirds of the participants were men, just
over one-fourth of Femail participants were men.  Women
constituted slightly more than one-fourth of the
contributors to Soc.women and they contributed nearly half
of that group's messages.  In contrast, the number of
messages contributed to Femail by both men (25 per cent) and
women (74 per cent) over four years closely approximated the
representation of men (26 per cent) and women (71 per cent)
in that group ›7®.  The gender composition of the Femail
mailing list group has from time to time been a topic of
discussion in that group.  Of the forty-one subscribers who
responded to a message on Soc.women about beginning a new
group, three-quarters were women.  Within three months,
two-thirds of those known to be reading the list were women
and one-third were men.  At that time, 82 per cent of the
contributors were women and 18 per cent were men.  In other
words, shortly after the group began, the number of men
reading Femail increased.  However, contributions to Femail
by gender did not reflect that change.  Unlike Soc.women
where women contributed more messages per person on average
than men, the contributions to Femail by gender have
remained in proportion to the number of men and women
contributors in that group.

     Ten months after the inception of Femail, the
percentage of contributions by men had increased slightly,
from 21 to 27 per cent.  On average, men contributed more
messages per person to the list than women.  The slight
increase in contributions made to Femail by men continued
into April of 1985, when the moderator again presented a
gender breakdown of contributions to the group (see Message
613, April 1985, line 13854 of Femail transcripts, 1991).
At that point (fifteen months after the group began), 30 per
cent of the contributions to Femail were authored by men.
However, a four-year review of contributions to Femail by
gender indicates that contributions by men constituted only
25 per cent of the total.  The extent to which men and women
"speak out" to Femail readers fluctuates over time.

Compuserve Information Service Men's And Women's Issues
Section

     Of all of the networks considered in this section, we
know the least about participants in the CompuServe Men's
and Women's Issues section.  Although a sense of
participants can be gained from a range of message headers
in Soc.women messages, as well as through text in Femail
messages, CIS messages offer scant information in either
message headers or text.  As a single node network, CIS
participants submit their messages to the Men's and Women's
Issues Section of that network through CIS software.  All
participants potentially access CIS from different physical
locations, and once they have connected to CompuServe, their
messages are moved around by the CIS software.  The headers
supplied by that software do not betray the location through
which the author of a message has gained access to CIS.
Consequently, we know virtually nothing about the locations
from which message authors are contacting the network.

     A review of the time and date message headers from
messages submitted to the Section over a one-month period
showed that 30 per cent of the messages were submitted
between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.  Eastern Standard Time
(EST), and 70 per cent of the messages were submitted
between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.  EST.  The CIS rate
structure, with lower hourly charges at night, encourages
higher use during night hours.  Keeping in mind that CIS
participants are potentially located in all time zones, but
that their messages are stamped with whatever time it was in
the eastern time zone when their message was submitted, we
can make some rough assertions about where CIS participants
are when they submit messages.  Assuming that most of the
participants hold jobs requiring their presence at work
during normal business hours, it appears that the majority
of participants access CIS from home computers after their
workday ends.

     Unlike the other networks discussed here, one's access
to CIS is dependent upon steady access to cash or credit.
Upon joining CompuServe, prospective users must supply
either a credit card number for direct billing or a chequing
account number for direct withdrawals.  If a subscriber is
outside of the United States, the only billing is a credit
card number.  This requirement, along with the hourly fees
charged for CIS use, ensures that regular users are
relatively affluent.

     Over approximately a one-month period ›8®, 353 messages
were contributed to the Men's and Women's Issues Section of
CompuServe.  These were organized into three threads.
Seventy per cent of the participants (n=7) were men, who
contributed 57 per cent of the messages in the section.
Women, who constituted 30 per cent of the contributors (n=3)
authored 43 per cent of the messages.  While the gender
composition of contributors was similar to that of the
Soc.women sample, and the CIS section showed a similar
pattern to Soc.women in terms of women contributing messages
in a higher proportion than their representation in the
group, a significant difference exists between the Soc.women
and CIS samples.  In the former case, the ratio of
contributors to messages was 1:2.5 compared to a ratio of
1:35 in the case of CIS.

     Moreover, a large number of people were engaged in
debates in the Soc.women newsgroup while only a small number
joined in the dialogue of the CIS Men's and Women's Issues
Section.  Of the 353 messages that comprised the CIS sample,
272 or 77 per cent were contributed by two people: a man who
authored 126 messages and a woman (also the sysop) who
authored 146 messages.  The woman sysop's messages, together
with those from two other sysops involved in the maintenance
of the Issues Forum (where the men's and women's issues
section is located) accounted for 48 per cent of the total
message flow in the men's and women's section.  By the time
CIS was monitored for this study, the number of women using
it to discuss women's issues had fallen off dramatically.

The Women's Bulletin Board System

     Women's Bulletin Board messages, like CompuServe
messages, contain limited information in message headers
about participants.  WBBS participants, however, tend to be
more candid about themselves in their messages.  Where
CompuServe message threads often read like a conversation
already in progress, in contrast, reading the WBBS is more
like entering a small town, and getting to know people as
you run into them in a variety of settings.  This sense is
facilitated by the separation of the WBBS into several
topically distinct areas.  Contributors may offer extensive
personal information in some areas but not in others.  As
participants explore the WBBS, they "run into" contributors
in different contexts, and are able to gain a sense of what
participants are like.

     Because of the limited information contained in WBBS
message headers, we know very little about where that
network's users gain access to it.  Most users appear to
call the system from within the New York City local calling
area, where the WBBS is located.  Occasionally users mention
in message text that they are calling from outside of the
New York City area via PC Pursuit, a value-added carrier
service that allows users to make calls to and from selected
American cities for a flat monthly fee during evenings and
weekends.  A review of the "Date:" header in 990 messages
indicates that 41 per cent were placed there during normal
business hours (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and 59 per cent of the
messages were posted between 6:01 p.m. and 7:59 a.m. ›9®.
WBBS contributors appear to gain access to the network from
both home and the workplace.  Several contributors appear to
work for women's organizations.  At least one contributor
regularly posts informational messages of interest to the
women's community on the WBBS as part of her job.  In
addition, feminist organizations appear to be points of
access for some contributors.

     As of 27 February 1988, the WBBS listed 639 users in
their directory.  Based upon the assignment of gender to
names, 26 per cent were men, 61 per cent were women, and 13
per cent had gender-ambiguous names.  The directory lists
those who have become permanent users of the system.
However, it neither lists those who access the system, look
around and do not return, nor does it indicate who
contributes messages.  A scan of 990 message headers,
however, indicated that seventy of the contributors were
women (61 per cent), thirty-six were men (32 per cent), and
eight or 7 per cent had gender-ambiguous names.  Only 114
of the 639 people who signed on to the WBBS left messages
that remained on the system during the data collection
period.  Clearly, a large number of people read the WBBS or
visit it but do not contribute.

     Organizers of the WBBS observed that over time the use
of the system changed.  The system was established by a
group of activists with organizational affiliations
interested in creating a resource for the New York City
women's community.  Gradually, however, the WBBS was used
less by feminist activists and more by members of the
bulletin board community.  During a group interview (25
November 1988, New York City), WBBS organizers commented
that as more bulletin boarders began to use the system, the
representation of the women's community declined.  Moreover,
in the words of one organizer, "these two groups just did
not see things the same way ... we were more concerned with
providing a service, and group process among the sysops; the
BBSers were more concerned with the hardware and
software...we did not see things the same way at all."

(2) Access To Varied Forms Of Communications

     Network users' access to an array of communication
options is restricted on at least two levels.  First, each
network structure accommodates a different array of
communication options.  For example, using a distributed
multi-node network (with or without a moderator) allows only
one-to-one and one-to-many electronic mail, and file
transfer.  Within Soc.women, messages are not organized by
topic.  Although the Femail Mailing List messages are
organized to a greater extent than Soc.women messages, this
is done by the moderator rather than through an automatic
software function.  In contrast, a central node system (such
as CIS) allows additional communication possibilities, such
as computer conferences and databases.  This may seem to be
an elementary point to a veteran network user, yet novice
users encountered in on-line feminist groups often failed to
realize that some network structures accommodated a wider
range of communication options than others.  Frequently,
would-be network users were left discouraged when they
realized that the network they were using would not allow
them access to the type of communication they desired.  This
limitation is indicative of a general lack of technical
information amongst certain groups of users, such as social
change activists or staff members of women's organizations.

     The second level at which users' access to networks is
restricted relates to network structure in two ways.  First,
network structure in all cases posed some constraints to
potential users.  Secondly, each network boasted its own
message style and tone, which in some cases acted as a
mechanism to control women's access.  These phenomena are
addressed below.

Access Restrictions Related to Network Structure

     Each of the networks had features that restricted
users' access to the network.  In the case of both Soc.women
and the Femail Mailing List, users could only gain access to
the systems through an institutional setting (although
access to Usenet has improved as Unix has increasingly been
implemented on home-based personal computers).  In fact,
many Femail users complained that switching jobs often meant
the loss of access to what had become a cherished source of
support.  Access to the Femail Mailing List was also limited
by technical problems related to the construction of
addressing paths that could accommodate the smooth
distribution of messages around the Internet.  Finally, any
technical problems with the computer system at the Femail
moderator's worksite resulted in a disruption of the group.

     In the case of CompuServe, two factors restricted
user's access to the service: cost of access and management
imperatives.  Previous participants in the women's section
(which preceded the Men's and Women's Issues Section)
mentioned cost as a constraint upon women's use, and
speculated that the section failed to generate levels of
acceptable profit.  One member of the women's section (when
it still existed) spent $300 in one month on CompuServe
without realizing it until the bill arrived (CompuServe
transcripts, 1991).  Casal (1991b) raises some important
points in relation to gender and the economics of CIS use:

     Cost is certainly a factor.  We have had several
     users who have dropped out because money became
     tight in their households.  A few drop out when
     they move to areas where there is no node and use
     would involve long-distance access fees.  But I
     have noticed that, whereas most of the men who
     have to quit because 'money is tight' tend to
     return after awhile, women are more likely to drop
     out altogether.  This is true even when the women
     were very active participants (Casal, 1991b).

     In addition to general costs associated with the use of
CIS, any user outside of an area serviced by the CIS packet
switching network must incur additional charges (either in
the form of regular long distance calls or use of a
value-added) in order to participate in discussions.  In
light of women's lower earning power relative to men, it is
not surprising to find that of all the networks investigated
(despite the fact that it is the largest commercial computer
network in the world) CIS had the lowest number of
participants in its on-line discussions related to feminism.

     The WBBS was the most accessible of all the networks
examined.  Other than gaining access to a personal computer,
local users incurred no costs through use (non-local users
incurred costs associated with the use of either PC Pursuit
or regular long distance telephone lines).  The WBBS also
appears to have had the most diverse group of contributors
of the four networks studied.  However, the fact remains
that the bulk of its users were situated in the New York
City area.

Access Restrictions Related to Message Style and Content

     Each of the four networks included in the study boasted
its own message structure and style.  Message structure was
clearly related to network structure.  For example, the
protocol used in the transfer of Soc.women messages around
Usenet resulted in users at different sites viewing the
messages in a different order.  As a result, a user might
receive a response to a message prior to the original
message.  In order to contextualize communication under
these circumstances, a mechanism was built into the software
which prompts users to include a portion of the message to
which they are responding in their response.  This leads to
a convention of attributions, or quotes of previous
messages.  Partly as a consequence of this Usenet feature,
Soc.women messages tend to read like a "he-said-she-said ...
but you didn't understand" argument.  This, combined with
numerous accusations of message forgery (supported by the
software feature that allows aliases) and the often
contentious nature of feminism in general, contributed to a
general climate of antagonism in Soc.women.  In a sense,
women's access to Soc.women as a discussion space for
feminist issues was restricted or controlled through the
contentious nature of the dialogue that occurred on the
network.

     In sharp contrast to the message structure, style and
content of Soc.women, the Femail Mailing List read like an
on-line consciousness-raising group.  Composed mainly of
narratives, stories, and questions and answers about
feminist topics, the caring atmosphere of the Femail Mailing
List was maintained in part by the moderator (who could
refuse to include antagonistic messages in bundles of mail
to group participants).  Users could elect to include or
exclude their electronic mail addresses in message text; a
decision to exclude an address from message text guaranteed
against unwanted electronic mail.  Group participants
regularly communicated through the group to negotiate
standards for group moderation.

     Exchanges on the CIS Men's and Women's Issues Section
tended to occur between two individuals who would begin a
discussion, get into an argument, perhaps have someone
intervene, and more often than not, agree to disagree.  Many
exchanges involved one of the sysops (using the system free
of charge) who might bait a group participant.  The practice
of controversy on-line led to more money being spent
on-line.  The CIS software (which indicated who authored a
message and who it was directed towards), encouraged users
to continue to respond to message threads in which they had
participated, and encouraged the didactic style of CIS
messages.  Although this network was billed as a one-to-many
form of communication, messages tended to take the form of
one-to-one communication, which perhaps acted as a
deterrent to some would-be users.

     The congenial atmosphere of the Women's Bulletin Board
System reflected a number of factors.  First, prior to being
granted access to the WBBS, users were required to supply a
name and telephone number for verification.  This
undoubtedly encouraged users to use the system under their
own identity.  Secondly, founders of the WBBS devised a
system to reduce conflict on the network.  They designated
one area of the bulletin board as a battleground.  Whenever
discussions in any area assumed an inflammatory tone, the
inflammatory message and related messages were moved to the
battleground.  Users wishing to avoid controversy and
disagreement could choose not to participate in these
discussions, while those who thrived on controversy could
indulge.  Finally, WBBS founders felt that there were some
instances where anonymity was acceptable; for example, in a
women-only area of the board that required special
clearance).  Certain areas of the system allowed users to
post anonymous messages, while other areas did not.  This
practice allowed users to engage in the discussion of
difficult topics where anonymity might be preferable, but
prohibited users from acting antagonistically (as in many
cases they did in Soc.women) under assumed identities.

     Message structure and style often reflect both the
physical structure of a computer network and a number of
social decisions (for example, to permit aliases and
anonymity) that are incorporated into the software.  For
many users, both the physical structure of the network and
the social decisions incorporated into the network through
software design are invisible.  Once these relationships are
examined, it becomes clear that some combinations of network
structure and software design provide access to some groups
of users while deterring others.

(3) Access To Technical Competence

     In only one of the networks investigated in depth was
it evident that users had regular technical difficulties in
using the network.  Not surprisingly, it was the Women's
Bulletin Board System, which was more accessible to lay
users than the other three networks.  However, a great deal
can be learned by examining some past attempts to create
feminist environments on-line, that have fallen short of
initial expectations.  Three of these are discussed below.

The Amazon Line

     One approach to providing a computer-mediated
discussion area for women via a commercial computer network
was attempted by two women in Toronto.  The service, named
the Amazon Line, was scheduled to begin operation late in
1985.  As of early 1988, it was still not quite off the
ground, although its founders had not given up hope.  The
Amazon Line, it was hoped, would allow women throughout
Canada to quickly exchange information relevant to feminist
social change.  The network was to be operated on a
university computer that sells computer time and storage
space to individuals and groups with no university
affiliation.  Software was available that would allow public
and private electronic mail, as well as time-delayed and
real-time computer conferencing.  Locating the Amazon Line
on a university computer system meant that out-of-town users
could gain access to the system via value-added carriers.

     Founders of the Amazon Line targeted their service
towards professional women.  When asked what factors they
felt had kept the Amazon Line from flourishing, two points
were raised.  First, they found that many of the women they
had hoped to attract did not do their own typing, but rather
had secretaries who typed for them.  They were attempting to
introduce computerized communication to a population that
did not have a direct need for it.  Adoption of their
service by the desired population would have required a
change to existing work patterns.  Secondly, they found that
at the time the service was publicized (1985), many women
still did not have access to the knowledge required to use
it.  The Amazon Line's founders anticipated the development
of an educational strategy to accompany the re-introduction
of the service.  Since that time, women's access to
equipment has improved, and many women have gained
experience and confidence with computers (Personal
Communication with Pat Hacker, February 1988).

The Canadian Research Institute For The Advancement Of
Women

     All of the attempts to create and maintain women's
electronic communication space that have been discussed thus
far have been either oriented towards individuals or, in the
case of the Women's Bulletin Board, oriented towards groups
in general, rather than a single group and its specific
communication needs.  The Canadian Research Institute for
the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) has engaged in the process
of developing a computer networking system to meet that
group's needs.  CRIAW was among the first women's
organizations in North America to actively adopt computer
communication in efforts to reduce the communication
difficulties associated with a national organization.

     Members of the organization (a diverse group of women
inside and outside of academia in both English- and
French-speaking Canada) began to discuss computer networking
early in 1987.  Around that time, a few of the women who had
access to institutional computers began to exchange messages
electronically.  In November of 1987, hands-on training was
provided for board and committee members.  Since that time,
the executive and some members of the board have been
brought on-line (Assheton-Smith, 1988).  With board members
located from the Yukon to the Atlantic provinces, it was
hoped that electronic mail would reduce the amount of time
required between information exchanges, as well as the
expense associated with long distance telephone charges.
Other somewhat longer-term goals for beginning a computer
network include facilitating the work of individual groups
within the organization and making resources (such as
bibliographies) more accessible to members of the
organization.  From CRIAW's initial discussion of computer
networking there was an awareness that the technology lacked
standardization and that there would be many problems to
overcome.  In addition, beginning with the first discussion
of computer networking at an executive meeting in 1987,
there was an awareness that adoption of networking
technology could create a two-tiered organization, with
women who lacked access to mainframe computers, who were in
rural areas (and lacked access to a value-added carrier)
and/or working in community groups less able to participate
in an on-line communication process.  Even though CRIAW was
aware that it wanted to build an open communication
structure (rather than one that intensified elite
processes), the organization did not initially address the
problem of differences in access to an electronic
communication system based on the preferred language of the
speaker (Assheton-Smith, 1988).

     A decision was made to first attempt to get CRIAW's
executive communicating via computer.  Even though access to
and familiarity with computers varied a great deal amongst
members of the executive, and no real budget for the project
existed (repeated attempts were made to secure external
funding to launch the project), in Assheton-Smith's words,
"as frequently happens in women's work, we had to determine
how to make our 'real' situations work, patching together
our anarchic realities" (1988: 4).  Since several of the
executive board members were institutionally-based and a few
had begun exchanging electronic mail, a decision was made to
build on institutional access to equipment, and at the same
time secure access to the system for non-institutionally-
based board members.  In some cases this meant access to
equipment (such as modems) and in other cases it meant
access to donated university computer accounts.  Additional
efforts were made to familiarize board members with the
intricacies of computer networking technology
(Assheton-Smith, 1988).  In 1988, I spent a week in the
CRIAW office in Ottawa working with the office staff around
computer networking.  Between 1987 and 1989 CRIAW confronted
many problems related to computer networking.  Not all of
these problems have been resolved.  Several problems arose
in the initial hands-on workshop conducted for CRIAW in
1987.  These included an emphasis on IBM-compatible
computers (several of the board members had Apple Macintosh
computers and found it difficult to relate the material
presented to their situations), the fact that the workshop
was unilingual, and the unfamiliarity of workshop presenters
with either computer access in Quebec or the availability
and intricacies of French-language software.

     With almost no budget, no capacity to purchase needed
equipment, and no in-house computing talent, CRIAW board
members began communicating via computer.  At that time,
three women had university access to a mainframe (although
each accessed their local mainframe through a unique
combination of hardware and software), and two potential
participants (one in Inuvik and one in Montreal) had access
to computers, modems and software, but lacked access to a
mainframe computer that would allow them to communicate with
anyone else on the board (Assheton-Smith, 1988).  A number
of difficulties arose.  The three women with access to
university mainframes began to communicate relatively
quickly, despite problems they encountered related to
addressing and computer breakdowns.  When Carleton
University offered to donate additional computer accounts, a
decision was made to use those accounts to provide the
non-university women in Inuvik and Montreal with access to
other communicators.  The Carleton computer was not only
difficult to learn and use, but Carleton computing staff
also lacked information that CRIAW needed.  Finally, the
Carleton computer had built-in limitations that made it
impossible for CRIAW to easily distribute messages to all
potential participants.  While the board member in Inuvik
had an account on the Carleton mainframe, there was no
Datapac node in Inuvik.  This meant that there was no
straightforward way for the woman in Inuvik to access the
Carleton computer without spending large amounts of money on
either long distance telephone charges or charges incurred
through accessing the Carleton computer via a costly
commercial network (Assheton-Smith, 1988).  CRIAW staff
members at times found it difficult to meet their day-to-day
work obligations as they struggled to master the new
communication system.

     To their credit, CRIAW board members have continued to
use computer networking to meet some of their communication
needs.  The early years of experimentation and a lack of
funding with which to further develop the organization's
computer communication capacities have led CRIAW to revise
its expectations.  CRIAW's use of computer networks raises
several issues related to access and brings these complex
issues into sharper focus.  Perhaps more than any of the
computer network implementations discussed thus far, CRIAW
has attempted to facilitate communication via computer
between several distinct (and at times overlapping) groups.
Among the differences CRIAW has attempted to transcend via
computer networking are linguistic differences, geographic
distances, differential access to resources (for example, by
providing some potential participants with modems and/or
access to university-based computer networks), and
differences in knowledge related to computer networking.
Their use of computer networking in an organizational
context has hinted at issues related to additional demands
placed on staff members, and the possibility of computer
networking in an organizational context leading to a
redistribution of staff responsibilities.

The American Association of University Women

     Another women's organization that has attempted to meet
some of its communication needs via computer is the American
Association of University Women (AAUW).  AAUW, like CRIAW,
is a national organization.  Unlike CRIAW, membership is
only open to women with university degrees.  AAUW's interest
in computer networks and the social impacts of technology
dates back to the early 1980s.  Interest in computer
networking technology resulted in a hands-on computer
networking workshop for members of the Idaho chapter in
1986.  For a few years it appeared that interest was waning,
yet in December of 1989 the Association began to offer
computer networking services through an arrangement with The
Source, a large commercial computer network.

     Although the AAUW National Office has its own mini-
computer donated by the Digital Equipment Corporation, in
meeting their computer networking needs, they negotiated an
agreement with The Source; when The Source was acquired by
CompuServe, the agreement was transferred to CompuServe.
Perhaps one of the factors that led to AAUW's decision to
use The Source was the concern expressed by staff that the
office would be swamped with information requests, and the
desire to keep their in-house computer system from being
overloaded.  They had envisioned a computer system that
would allow AAUW to drop information onto the network, but
would prohibit network users from passing information back
to the AAUW office via computer network.  As originally
conceived, the system was intended for AAUW leaders, who
would be trained to use it.  If successful, the network
would be opened to the general membership.

     The board of AAUW, perhaps because they lacked a
general understanding of computer networks, was scarcely
involved in decisions related to its implementation.  One
member recalls that the proposal to use The Source was
presented to the Board as an "either/or" issue, and the
proposal was not discussed by the Board in analytical terms.
A member commented that it was just simply doomed from the
outset.  By the time the network was introduced in December
1989, the notion of developing a core of competent, trained
users had been lost.  The system was introduced to the
entire membership at once.  Like the Amazon Line, AAUW had
failed to provide training or information about what
computer networking required in terms of hardware, software,
or access.  By June 1990, The Source had been acquired by
CompuServe, and only ten people were using CompuServe to
communicate with other AAUW members (Sara Harder, Personal
Communication, May 1991).  By the fall of that year, any
visibility AAUW might have had on CompuServe had vanished.
CompuServe management was unaware of AAUW's use of that
network, and a keyword search for AAUW users in the
CompuServe directory produced no results.

     Although all of the factors that contributed to the
failure of AAUW's efforts are unknown, it is possible that
one of the factors was the sale of The Source to CompuServe.
Perhaps the initial announcement that AAUW members could
communicate via computer encouraged some to acquire access
to computers and/or the expertise to connect to a computer
netework.  The process of acquiring computer equipment,
gaining a sense of how it works and beginning to use it for
computer networking often takes an inexperienced user a year
or longer.  It may be that by the time some users were ready
to connect to The Source it had vanished.  Although anyone
who had an account on The Source was given a complimentary
account on CompuServe at the time The Source was sold,
potential Source users would not have known that AAUW's
networking resources had been transferred to CompuServe.
AAUW's experiences with computer networking suggest that an
issue warranting further consideration is that of who owns
the resources that support a group's on-line communication
(this issue is addressed again later).

     Each of these examples highlights two points that are
often left unaddressed in promotional literature about
computer networks.  First, in order for an organization to
obtain or create a computer networking system that meets its
needs, it must have a clear example of what any particular
system can or cannot do.  CRIAW's experiences provide a good
example of how a lack of understanding of the relationship
between network structure and an array of communication
options can discourage potential users.  Secondly, as both
experiences with the Amazon Line and AAUW attest, a tacit
assumption is made that a potential computer network user
will be able to manage the negotiation and purchase of a
computer system to meet their networking needs, and further
be able to set the equipment up and have it function in a
home environment.  Experiences with each of these networks,
as well as the success of the Women's Bulletin Board
(founders of which often made "house calls" to troubled
users), suggest that such an assumption is inappropriate for
women users.  While it could be argued that men also need
assistance in setting up computers and gaining access to
computer networks, as Benston (1988) points out, for men
access to assistance is often secured through male peer
groups that are not equally accessible to women.  Benston
(1986, 1989) further argues that the difficulties women
experience in gaining access to scientific knowledge are
heightened by the notion that scientific experts have both
privilege and authority; traditional female socialization
often makes it difficult to challenge (or even assimilate)
scientific knowledge.

(4) Access To Computer Networks In The Context Of
    Organizational Structure

     With such great variation in the goals of feminist
organizations, their infrastructures and characteristics,
there are no hard and fast rules to govern the introduction
of computers in general, and computer networks in
particular, into feminist organizations.  Clearly, the
introduction of computer networks into feminist
organizations will add an additional layer of complexity to
what is in many cases already a complex and unstable
organizational environment.

     Contributors to the collection _Computers for Social
Change and Community Organizing_ (Downing et al., 1991)
identify several issues that have emerged in their efforts
to implement computer systems in social change
organizations.  Fasano and Shapiro describe these
organizations as "small non-profit political and
community-based organizations ... with small staffs, low
budgets, lack of formal bureaucracies ›that are® value-
driven" (1991: 130).  These organizations are structurally
similar to women's organizations, and hence can provide
valuable insights into the use of computer networks by
women's organizations.

     Cordero (1991), in writing about a non-profit community
development organization, reports that internal
organizational problems related to a new computer system
revolved around training and staffing.  She found that it
was easier to obtain funds for hardware or donations of
hardware than it was to obtain funds for staff, training or
software.  Observations of a St.  John's, Newfoundland
women's organization suggest that this situation also exists
in women's organizations.  In the organization Cordero
writes about, college interns with little commitment to the
organization carried out initial programming tasks.  The
resultant system had many "bugs" in the form of technical
problems.  High staff turnover made it difficult to both
train people to use the new computer system and obtain
information about its effectiveness.

     In Cordero's workplace, the organization benefited from
having one person assigned the responsibility of maintaining
the computer system.  In addition, a computer specialist
(employed part-time as a consultant) was involved in
computer implementation on an ongoing basis.  Finally,
Cordero (1991) observed that even when a need for computers
is recognized and computer facilities exist within an
organization, individuals may not use computers because they
lack the time to learn (Balka, 1986 reports a similar
phenomenon).  To counter these difficulties, Cordero
advocated computer support groups geared towards non-profit
organizations.

     Several of the computer consultants specializing in
non-profits that Fasano and Shapiro (1991) interviewed
reported problems when organizations did not have a person
in the organization who was willing to "champion the
process" of computerization.  A woman consultant stated
that:

     I, in fact, don't even take jobs now unless an
     organization has one person who is the computer
     champion/guru.  And if an organization can't come
     up with that person, then I tell them they're not
     ready to install a database system (1991: 132).

     The quotation suggests that specialization of tasks may
be desirable in the implementation of computers within an
organizational context.  Along these lines, the Femail
mailing list benefited from the assignment of group
moderation tasks to one person.  And, perhaps the greatest
problem with the Women's Bulletin Board System was that,
although different women performed different tasks related
to the maintenance of that system, areas of the WBBS set
aside for broadcasting information were chronically
under-utilized.  The task of placing information on
broadcast areas of the WBBS was left unassigned.

     Ironically, although collectivist feminist
organizations have stressed the development of skill and
sharing of work tasks, observations suggest that with regard
to the use of computer systems these noble goals have
frequently been abandoned.  Often male friends of collective
members voluntarily maintain an organization's computer
systems for a period of time, or consultants are hired to
fix what seems like an endless stream of computer problems.
In both collectivist and bureaucratic organizations, the
skill required to maintain computer systems is rarely
available in-house, and despite an awareness of both work
processes and group process, computer systems have fallen
outside the realm of feminist analyses and practices.

     In the few cases where information is available about
the use of computer networking systems in feminist
organizations, overworked staff members have consistently
expressed concern about the increased tasks related to their
usage.  Despite rhetoric about the equal valuation of
traditional women's work and work usually performed by men
(such as management tasks), one interviewee (who maintained
her organization's computer systems) indicated that in her
organization computer work was equated with clerical work,
and was devalued.  Preliminary research conducted by a
student in a communications research methods course I taught
at Simon Fraser University in the fall of 1989 indicated
that in one Vancouver women's organization, all work that
required use of a computer was conducted by volunteers
rather than paid staff.  In that organization, a paid
consultant was responsible for implementing and maintaining
the organization's computer systems.

     Despite these potential problems, computer networks can
potentially be used to perform tasks in which many
organizations are already engaged (such as the collection
and sharing of information) _and_ to expand the scope of an
organization's activities.  In the tradition of good
feminist organizing, the adoption of computer networks by
feminist organizations should be accompanied by a heightened
awareness of group process and concern for working
conditions.  In addition, organizations should engage in an
explicit process that allows groups to articulate the social
goals they wish to attain in adopting computer networking
technology.  The adoption of computer networks by feminist
organizations should address explicit social goals, rather
than foster what merely is possible with off-the-shelf
hardware and software.  Extensive care should be taken to
ensure that whatever system is selected will meet the
communicative goals explicitly articulated by group members.

                        Conclusion

     Perhaps the greatest issue faced by the women's
movement with respect to the adoption of computer networking
technology is access.  Access becomes an issue at several
levels.  The first relates to communication constraints
imposed by the infrastructure of data lines and value-added
carriers.  As discussed, access to computer networks is also
determined by the location of networks and terminals:
whether they are located in a public place and available for
use free of charge as Community Memory terminals were, or
whether they are located in a private home or office.

     Although many women's centres and organizations in
Canada currently own microcomputers and modems, for the most
part these organizations do not have access to a computer
network.  Although the location of computers and modems in
women's centres and organizations may be an important step
in widening the sphere of access to feminist computer
networks, the accessibility of the equipment and the
existence of a network to call do not guarantee that
potential users will have access to computer networking.
The third level of access that must be addressed if computer
networks are to be successfully utilized for feminist
dialogue and organizing is access to the knowledge and
related support mechanisms that will allow a novice user to
successfully contact a computer network.  The feasibility of
providing adequate user support services increases when
network use occurs on a co-ordinated rather than episodic
basis.

     If French-speaking and English-speaking feminists wish
to communicate via computer network, steps will need to be
taken to ensure that the development of adequate bilingual
software is developed.  (SoliNet, operated by the Canadian
Union of Public Employees currently uses software that
allows a user to interact with the computer in either French
or English, but offers no translation capabilities.)

     Finally, communication by computer offers some
interesting communication possibilities that may enhance the
ability of Canadian women's organizations to communicate
about difficult issues.  For example, an implementation of
an on-line Delphi polling system that allows unsigned
responses might allow system users to communicate candidly
and honestly about difficult issues while encouraging
participants to think before speaking.  A widely accessible
computer network could increase the number of voices
represented in an organization's decision-making process.
To realize these goals, however, feminists will need to
apply the insights gained from years of productive
organizing, and at the same time investigate the social
biases of technological systems that, left unconsidered,
threaten to create computer networking systems which
reproduce rather than challenge the power relations
characteristic of western capitalist societies.


                           NOTES

›1®  See Chapter 2 of Balka (1992) for a discussion of the
     history of computer networks which contextualizes the
     free distribution of software.

›2®  The unrestricted readership of Usenet news groups is a
     social decision, supported by technical design.

›3®  "/Talk" is the name of the CompuServe command that
     invokes private communication within the CIS CB
     simulator software.

›4®  See also Benston (1988), Bernard (1983), Bush (1983)
     and Cooley (1980).

›5®  Usenet software allows users to supply aliases for a
     number of elements in message headers, including name,
     organizational affilitation, and name of sending
     computer.

›6®  While an examination of date headers in the sample
     showed forty-four different days, these messages were
     collected over fifty-two days.  Because Soc.women
     messages are deleted from the host node regularly and
     technical difficulties (such as inadequate disk space
     on the host machine) result in the host node from time
     to time rejecting its messages, gaps exist in the
     sample.  Data were collected over fifty two days, with
     no messages from eight days, and a low volume of
     messages on thirteen of the forty four days.  Low
     message volume may indicate that not all messages were
     received for those days.  Similar conditions are likely
     to apply to other Usenet sites receiving Soc.women.

›7®  One per cent of Femail messages were authored by three
     per cent of contributors whose gender could not be
     determined from either names or message content.

›8®  Message dates used here span the entire month of
     February, although access to CIS for this sample
     occurred between 6 and 28 February.

›9®  Since not all contributors are located in the Eastern
     time zone, these figures should be considered
     estimates.


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