The below is an essay I wrote on gender and race within cyberspace and how anonymity plays a role in provoking the emergence of basic human reflexes (the if you don’t think you can be caught you will say anything, trend).
Critically consider gender and ‘race’ in cyberspace.
Gender, ‘race’ and identity within the online domain.
The world we live in today has gone far beyond the global village envisioned by Marshall McLuhan in the late 1960s (McLuhan and Fiore,. 1967). Technology has merged with the real world enabling people from anywhere on Earth to meet and interact with each other in a virtual domain. This domain has been built upon the existing telecommunications structure which was available in McLuhan’s times, and has duly been named as cyberspace. Within the domain of the real, individuals strive to different themselves from other individuals, or “the other”. This is done through a process of being oppressed and being the oppressor, a process which mass media uses to its own advantage in manipulating individuals into buying commodities so as to buy into an image and a lifestyle they want, which inevitably leaves them wanting for more.
Nature has given us physical distinctions which allow individuals to group together; the main two distinctive properties are physical being gender and ‘race’. Race is often denoted primarily by skin colour and bone structure however there are also cultural manifestations which can be stereotyped to different races, for example the voodoo religion, cannibalism and reggae music all bring up connotations of black skin. It is these physical distinctions which allow individuals to identify themselves from “the other” not just purely by gender or race, but also by society. Unfortunately within the real domain these identifiers often result in the emergence of social problems such as racism, sexism and incorrect stereotyping. One example of this can be seen within orientalism; this is because the west through western cultural artifacts perceives the east in a completely different way to what is actually real. When asked to visualize an eastern country such as China, an individual from the west would most likely conjure up images of traditional Chinese dress and architecture; images, which may have only ever been witnessed from the mass media. It is this social stereotyping which defines us from them using the social function of we don’t do that, while they do therefore we are different to them. Even though the real world distinctions can vary hugely from the stereotype; the east play up to the western perception by putting on elaborate traditional shows for our mass media to bear witness to when our politicians and other dignitaries visit, it is a completely different matter when it is one of their own who is visiting but the western media doesn’t tend to publicize that fact and thus allowing the western stereotype of the east to prevail. It would be interesting to question why the east allows this to happen but that is a question which is beyond the scope of this paper.
It is interesting to consider gender and race within cyberspace due to the very mechanism which makes cyberspace what it is: simulation. Baudrillard interestingly enough never discussed the Internet however he did write at length about hyper-reality and it is his description of this mechanism which reminds me of the virtual domain. This is most notably because cyberspace is indeed a copy of the real within a virtual domain, a place where an individual’s need for stimulation is met with virtual manifestations of the real thing. However due to the Internet’s inherent anonymity nothing can be taken at face value as everything can be falsified. Within the real domain such features as gender and race are physically built into everyone’s genetics; you’re either born male or female and this can’t be changed. It can be argued that there are those who have been born with male genitalia, male genetics and who have through some bizarre fault of nature a female brain and likewise for females with male brains. In cases such as these it is a long and difficult irreversible process to cosmetically “fix” things with Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), however in cyberspace such a transformation is as easy as clicking a button or simply saying your female.
Most online communities¬1 ask you to identify yourself by a nickname or online handle, while they also tend to request you confirm that you’re either male or female. Something interesting to note is that with many communities within cyberspace an individual can’t change their nickname while they can change their gender, while in the real domain it is much easier to change a name than it is to go through re-constructive surgery to change gender.
This gender morphing within cyberspace is an interesting area of investigation as identities within cyberspace need not provide a gender to exist and can as a result be completely genderless, where as within the real domain loose physical identifiers allow others to identify individuals as either male or female. Within the virtual domain individuals are open to choose for themselves how they wish to be seen, they have no body there and therefore no one need to know their corporeal bodies gender thus they can become anything or anyone they want to become. This cyber-ability to hide gender would be useful within certain real domain situations, at least for women where being female can put them in danger (M. J. McAdams, 1996) however it would also raise serious moral questions if indeed individuals had the ability to at a whim gender morph. One has to ask however whether those moral questions would still arise in a world where everyone was genderless at birth, fortunately the answer can be seen within cyberspace during the interactions between genderless identities inside their cyberculture where gender isn’t seen to be so much a defining factor as it is within the real domain.
The online role playing game “World of Warcraft” gives its players the ability to “physically” set their gender, physical appearance and race. The player can then project themselves upon that body, their real identities are unverifiable and it’s impossible to tell if a character’s description matches a player’s physical characteristics (Lisa, Nakamura., n/a). Within the virtual world of the game a cyberculture interacts with itself as players play a game of theatrics, often resulting in enjoyment for both themselves and the individuals their character interacts with.
“The social construction for the body becomes clear in cyberspace, where every identity is represented, rather than ‘real’. The consensus of cyberspace is a precarious one; identification is entirely contingent, based on a consensual agreement to take one’s word for it.” (W, Texter,. 1996).
Texter suggests that an individuals identity within cyberspace is often about offering up a projection of self upon a virtual body, which in essence means that by removing the visual cues that partly gender us, the Internet opens up possibilities for experimentation and play within existing manifestations of subjectivity (S, Spittle,. n/a). Thus males can experiment with the idea of being perceived by “the other” within cyberspace as female, and likewise for their female counterparts, however one must criticize the model behind which gender is based.
“As soon as behavior is focused on certain operational screens or terminals, the rest appears as some vast, useless body, which has been both abandoned and condemned. The real itself appears as a large, futile body.” (Baudrillard, 1988)
Cyberspace has in Baudrilliarian terms acted as an extension of the human mind, while amputating individuals from what is real and their corporeal state. They are therefore left as virtual beings consuming information which has no meaning because it has been “dislocated from its referential universe” (S, Spittle,. n/a) due to this both gender and race within the virtual domain become meaningless as one can have more than one of each in cyberspace.
As mentioned earlier gender and race within the real world is fixed at birth (unlike the genderless masses within cyberspace), therefore there is something which innately makes us who we are even though social conditioning has a part to play. I agree with Texter, that an individual does project who they are upon a virtual representation of themselves within cyberspace; however if the body is female, isn’t the mind also female? (M. J. McAdams,. 1996) and with respect to gender within cyberspace shouldn’t it be identifiable simply by how their personality is perceived regardless of whether that is contrary to the identity and gender they have constructed. This argument can be criticized by noting that a heterosexual male passing himself off as a female within cyberspace is able to keep the illusion of gender so long as he passes himself off as a homosexual female; social conditioning will lead other individuals whom he interacts with through cyberspace to not question any masculinity which emanates from his interaction with them. As a further criticism, within the real domain you have metrosexuals as a result of post modernity and the emasculation of males within modern society. Would it not be easy for these individuals to pass themselves off as heterosexual females in the virtual domain? The answer is yes, as through social stereotyping within the real domain we are taught that if something sounds like a duck and looks like a duck then it is not a cow. The same method applies to the virtual domain because it is a “hyper real” copy of the real domain; however within which something can look like a duck and sound like a duck, while having the corporeal body of a cow.
The Utopian world of cyberspace is still a construction of the real and although it is a simulation even a Baudrillian “hyper reality” it has still been formed and shaped profoundly by influences within the real world brought to it via individuals interacting within it. This means that cyberculture has been shaped by those who interact within it. This is fundamental to the identity of race on the Internet as most the worlds computers are owned by White, middle class citizens therefore one would conclude that they have brought their “cultural and social baggage with them” (S, Spittle,. n/a). Existing social problems such as structures of inequality have been inherited within cyberspace including both race and gender and the prejustices which are inherent within western society. This can be seen within the extreme when an individuals identity is completely stripped away to leave them as “anonymous”.
It would appear than when all possible form of identity is removed from an individual they are given a sense that they can say and do within the virtual domain of cyberspace what they want without fear of social repercussions. This inevitably brings to the surface some of societies ugly problems and as an example I shall use 4chan.org2. Within 4chan there are several image boards where individuals may post images and comment on them, most boards have rules and regulations which posters tend to abide by else they get banned. However the focus of this discussion isn’t on those boards, but the Random board known as “/b/”. Within this board total anonymity plus zero enforced rules gives rise to every negative social condition being constructed within conversations. Racism and sexism seem little in comparison to other subjects within the room which include rape and suicide (sometimes both). A lot of what is said within the /b/ forum would shock anyone within the real world; however cyberspace has given these individuals the ability to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal. It could be argued that its better they do so there than in the real domain, however if cyberspace is indeed a simulation of the real then the conclusion is a shocking and scary one. /b/ is a manifestation of everything which is wrong with the world, gender and race have no place there as every user is anonymous3 however gender and race based issues are still brought up usually as a mode of shocking other individuals.
“Given that the boundaries between the natural and the technological have collapsed, then so have the assumptions that cluster around these terms. For instance. The belief that women are ‘naturally’ passive, submissive and nurturing can no longer be sustained in the era of the cyborg. The cyborg displays a ‘polymorphous perversity (Haraway in Kunzru,. 1997), and in conjunction with technology constructs identity, sexuality and gender as it pleases.” (S, Spittle,. n/a)
I agree with Spittle’s distinction between cyberspace and the real; indeed individuals have become cyborgs immersed every day in the cyberspace world. Gender and race have been abolished within cyberspace as everyone is born genderless there. The real world stereotype of what a woman or a man should be are turned on their heads in cyberspace as men can project themselves as woman and woman likewise as men; cows literally are quacking. Race has also been abolished in the cyber domain as unless an individual shows an image of themselves their skin colour is an unknown, and tends to remain that way. Although within many manifestations of cyberspace such as multi-player role playing games, individuals can not only play as another gender to themselves but also as a completely different species. Lisa Nakamura described this behavior as Identity Tourism; a term which I believe fits the description, anyone can construct an identity within cyberspace and “feel” what it is like to live as that identity within a simulation of the real. Predefined social stereotyping which is carried into cyberspace from the real world as extra baggage by individuals adds extra realism to the simulation by providing real world social interactions within cyberculture.
In conclusion, cyberspace can be seen as a hyper reality within which everything is a virtual copy of the real within a simulation. Recent technological advancements have meant that everyone has access to cyberspace within which on birth individuals become genderless projections of themselves, free to construct as it pleases them, their own identity, sexuality and gender. World of Warcraft and other online games such as Habbo Hotel allow individuals to do this by giving them the ability to mould their character as they will. Within chat rooms and forums Texter’s analysis becomes clear: that nothing is how it appears in cyberspace, so you must either take things at face value or with a pinch of salt.
1. This can be seen within the biggest online communities. During my research I discovered that both deviantart.com and myspace.com allow a user to change their gender in the settings, while not allowing nickname change (they both allow real name change however, and myspace does allow for a certain degree of change although the link to the individuals page can not be changed after creation, same as with deviantart.)
2. 4chan is seen to be one of a few of the nastiest websites on earth by many. It is an anonymous forum where people may post pictures and related discussion. There are in fact several nice “work friendly” boards however my example is based around the actions of the Random forum also known as “/b/” by its users. It is here where there are no rules, and in it’s past some users have been arrested by the F.B.I for various actions, thus it is a board which has the American (and no doubt British) intelligent services eyes watching.
3. For good reason too, as noted in point two that the government keeps a close eye on the “chan boards.” If by chance individuals on /b/ find out personal information on someone they band together to cause as much damage as possible. Thus it is frowned upon on the board to do something so silly as give any real details.
4. Habbo Hotel (www.habbohotel.com) is an online chat room where individuals upon signing up can choose their appearance, gender, and name. Everything apart from their name can be changed at will. The chat rooms themselves are 2D representations of 3D rooms in isometric style, where each member can walk about and explore the hotel.
Note: Where publication dates are not listed this is because I have gathered some material from Internet articles where such dates are absent.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore (1967): The medium is the Massage. London: Penguin.
Melinda J. McAdams (1996): Gender without Bodies [www document] URL: http://www.december.com/cmc/mag/1996/mar/mcadams.html
W, Texter (1996): “I may be Synthetic, but I’m not stupid”: Technicity Artifice and Repetition in Cyberville’ [www document] URL: http://www.texter.com/Textual/thesis.html
Steve Spittle (n/a): Is any body out there? Gender, Subjectivity and Identity in Cyberspace [www document] URL: http://www.aber.ac.uk/~jmcwww/Misc/spittle01.html
Baudrillard, J (1988): “The Ecstasy of Communication”, Semiotex(e) (trans. Bernard Schutz & Caroline Schutze)
Nakamura, Lisa (n/a): “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet” [www document] URL: http://www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/syllabi/readings/nakamura.html