Interrupting the Uptopian Subect of the Internet

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Copyright © 1994 by Terri Palmer. All rights reserved. Text may be
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Under, Over and Around the Net:
Interrupting the Uptopian Subect of the Internet
Terri Palmer, July 27, 1994

In the past five years or so, electronic communications such as e-mail
and Internet news have become quite popular. The Internet has grown
tremendously in the past several years, and has over 20 million users.
 The Internet will probably become one of the most important links
between schools and businesses of the future, and thus it is important
that writing teachers be familiar with the special advantages and
limitations of this new environment. And much has been written about
proper conduct on the Net, much of it focusing on the unique character
of Net-based communication--namely, the production of great volumes of
text by largely unknown and unseen people. Further, most of these
discussions attribute the birth of a new democratic tradition to that
very fact: after all, the argument goes, since no one can see anyone
else's physical person, the traditional barriers of race, class, and
gender will vanish in this new medium. Thus, the world of the future
will be based on fair, rational evaluations of other people's
arguments.

Given that so many people are influenced by this argument and that it
thus produces very real practices of electronic communication, it
makes sense to examine these claims and see whether they hold water. 
After all, these models of discourse determine what is acceptable and
unacceptable on the Net, and thus, even as they promise a diversity of
opinions on the Net, they can paradoxically limit the range of
discussion on the Net. Specifically, the argument that race, class,
and gender do not affect the presentation or reception of ideas on the
Net can be used as a filter: because these concepts are seen as
secondary to the real nature of discourse on the Net, mentions of them
can be result in accusations of partiality.

Accordingly, I would like to examine the claims that pure
subjectivity, free of outside "political" associations such as gender
or nationality, can be achieved in electronic communication. I will
discuss these claims as made in the popular media and in academic
writings, as well as some of the uses these are put to on the Net
itself. I then wish to discuss these claims within a Bakhtinian
framework, viewing postings as Bakhtinian utterances, and thus as
dependent on users' material exerience--including experience as
members of a given racial, national, or other group--to help expose
some of the contradictions in the claims made for a prejudice-free
Net. I also wish to discuss some of the dangers inherent in such
attempts--namely, that certain kinds of expression have become
privileged on the Net as "unbiased," even though they are as
ideologically loaded as the "biased" postings that discuss social
issues from viewpoints outside the mainstream. I will bring up some
examples from the Net that show the specific breakdown of the ideal of
context- and prejudice-free discussion on the Net, and will end the
paper with a discussion of the ramifications of these discussions for
teaching.

Discussions of Subjectivity on the Net

Discussions of subjectivity are fairly common in popular literature
concerning the Net. For instance, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
(or EFF), a self-proclaimed advocacy group which lobbies against
governmental regulation of the Internet, "publishes" many such
documents via their world-accessible FTP archives. One of them,
Michael Hauben's "The Net and Netizens: The Impact the Net has on
People's Lives" claims that "social limitations and conventions no
longer prevent potential friendships or partnerships" over the Net,
that the Net is "a grand intellectual and social commune" in which
"the excluded sections of society...have a voice," and that "it is
virtually impossible to tell what kinds of people connect to public
bulletin board systems." Another piece in the EFF archives by Howard
Rheingold compares the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) to "a salon,
where I can participate in a hundred ongoing conversations with people
who don't care what I look like or sound like, but who do care how I
think and communicate." Rheingold waxes poetic about this escape from
our "carnal vessels": "Because we cannot see one another, we are
unable to form prejudices about others before we read what they have
to say: Race, gender, age, national origin and physical appearance are
not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics
public." According to these articles, users apparently write from
some idealized self, detached from their real-life environment.

Academics echo these sentiments. Steven Jay Bolter in _Writing Space_
states that "instant access is an aspect of the electronic utopia of
literacy, in which the barrier between writing and thinking dissolves
and all symbolic information, anywhere in the world, is as immediately
available to writer/reader as his or her own thoughts." While Bolter
admits that "in the electronic writing space, the goal of immediate
writing remains as distant as ever," he does not abandon the project
itself. Richard Lanham takes a slightly different tack in _The
Electronic Word_, proposing that "the 'theorized' race/gender/class
curricular debate" do not really matter any more. (_The Electronic
Word_, p. 473). What does matter is how best to convert literary works
into electronic form. Lanham argues that "expressive parameters,"
meaning things like structure and the relation literary to
non-literary text, are more easily adjustable in electronic text. (_The
Electronic Word_, p. 475) He thus concludes that "the conceptual, even
the metaphysical, world that digital text creates...is the world of
postmodern thought" (_The Electronic Word_, pp. 480-481). Lanham then
suggests that this will mollify leftists in the academy, thus treating
political concerns as incidental when speaking of electronic texts.

George Landow proposes in his 1993 _Hypertext in Hypertext_ that
critical pluralism, which "excludes from consideration as merely
accidental all matters of 'gender, race, class position, sexuality,
nationality, and material interests'" by subsuming them, is not a
problem in hypertext. Why? Because "the (politically) responsible,
active reader...chooses his or her own reading paths, the
responsibility lies with the reader." In other words, an electronic
text is so flexible as to allow the reader to read what is "really
there." Younger academics also follow this trend. Elizabeth Reid's
piece "Electropolis," well-known on the Net, says of a popular
Internet talk program that "the anonymity of interaction...allows
users to play games with their identities. The chance to escape the
assumed boundaries of gender, race, and age create a game of
interaction in which there are few rules but those that the users
create themselves." (Ms. Reid is incidentally continuing this line of
argument in a forthcoming publication.) 

People who post messages to Internet bulletin boards, henceforth known
as "posters," try to put these ideas into practice. One poster asked
if "racism could finally come to an end" if children were allowed to
communicate only through electronic means, since these would forbid
"color, creed or sex bias during interaction." The general idea is
frequently expressed in an aphorism, "On the Internet, no one knows
you're a dog," taken from a New Yorker cartoon. 

However, when controversial issues arise and posters do try to discuss
race, class, or gender on the Net, the above arguments allow for angry
confrontations wherein some posters insist that prejudice is
impossible on the Net, and that race, class, and gender affect neither
a posting's composition nor its reception. These topics can then be
labelled inappropriate or irrelevant to netnews. The following
example occurred in a discussion of providing Internet access to the
poor:

   This is kyberspace, what is here is words, thoughts, ideas, NOT
   races, genders, sovereignties...Why the hell do you dwell on
   gender based sovereignty and class systems when your refering to
   cyberspace? Are you lost little girl? Learn to use ideas instead
   of genders, learn to use words instead of races, learn to use
   thoughts instead of class-systems...

In general, these insistences that race, class, and gender have no
substantial place on the Net seem to come when liberal, leftist or
other non-"mainstream" opinions are expressed. A telling warning is
seen in "EFF's Guide to the Internet":

   You can usually tell a spewer's work by the number of articles he
   posts in a day...Often, these messages relate to various
   ethnic conflicts around the world. Frequently, there is no
   conceivable connection between the issue at hand and most of the
   newsgroups to which he posts....If you try to point this out 
   ...you will be inundated with angry messages that either accuse
   you of being an insensitive racist/American/whatever or ignore
   your point entirely to bring up several hundred more lines of
   commentary on the perfidy of whoever it is the spewer thinks is
   out to destroy his people.

In general, these posters seem to assume that race, class, gender,
nationality, and other concerns have nothing to do with the Net, and
that bringing them up is to introduce an "ideological" point of view.
This argument is not always made, of course, but it can be a very
powerful silencing mechanism when it is used. For instance, the
poster who denied the presence of race, class and gender in
"kyberspace" also noted that the Net was founded by "the greatest
bastion of the patriarchy itself, the military," and stated that
posters to the Net were cynical capitalists--and yet denied that
either gender or class could make its presence felt on the Net. Yet
he was able to justify a lengthy, vicious attack on someone else by 
characterizing her positions as irrational and biased, while denying
that patriarchical or capitalist posters brought any similar bias into
these discussions at all. 

A Bakhtinian Perspective

The above discussions are characterized by their insistence that
language is an abstract system whose uses carry no context with them. 
Though Bakhtin may seem an incongruous source to call upon, given that
most theorists who write about the Net draw upon poststructuralist
models of subjectivity, nevertheless he is useful here. Bakhtin, in
contrast to the abovementioned writers, argued that the study of
abstract models of language did not fully explain concrete uses of
language. He therefore took a materialist view of language, one that
I think will highlight some of the complications seen in Net
interaction.

To begin, I would like to view netnews postings as Bakhtinian
utterances, as defined in "The Problem of Speech Genres." They
involve clear changes of speaking subjects: the end of a post is the
end of one speaking subject's "turn." The specific posting is
finalized; posts to newsgroups allow for the possibility of responses,
allow the author to "vocalize" their authorial intent, and contain
genres specific to this medium (many studies have been done on this
elsewhere). 

Viewing these posts as utterances allows for the most important step
of all--viewing them as concrete, situated uses of language, largely
constructed from others' utterances. As Bakhtin noted in "The Problem
of Speech Genres":

   When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance,
   we by no means always take them from the system of language in
   their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other
   utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours
   in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p. 87)

In other words, there is no "pure" use of language free of outside
connotations--that, to the contrary, all utterances are inherently
connotative of some situational meaning other than the dictionary
definition. Or, as Bakhtin puts it:

   ...[O]ne can say that any word exists for the speaker in three
   aspects: as a neutral word of a language, belonging to nobody; as
   an other's word, which belongs to another person and is filled
   with echoes of the other's utterance; and, finally, as my word,
   for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a
   particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression.
   (p. 88)

Bakhtin later specifically repudiates the idea of the context-free
utterance, one that relies only on the singular mind and intent of the
speaker:

   The speaker with his world view, with his evaluation and
   emotions, on the one hand, and the object of his speech and the
   language system (language means), on the other--these alone
   determine the utterance, its style, and its composition. Such is
   the prevailing idea.

   But in reality the situation is considerably more complicated. 
   Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech
   communication of a particular sphere....Utterances are not
   indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are
   aware of and mutually reflect one another....Each utterance is
   filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to
   which it is related by the communality of speech communication. 
   (pp. 90-91)

That is to say, speakers "build" utterances from utterances they have
heard or used before. But these are of course dependent on the genres
the speakers are most familiar with, on what they have been exposed
to, and this is determined largely by the people who surround them and
the roles they fill--in other words, the very material conditions of
race, class, gender, nationality, age, and so forth. The arguments
for context-free communication on the Net are then more doubtful, as
the poster's choice of words is at least partially determined by their
own contexts; to assume that the utterances which inflect and
partially determine their ways of speaking will vanish under given
situations--such as the introduction of a computer terminal--is
wishful thinking. 

Further, as Voloshinov argued in _Marxism and the Philosophy of
Language_, all uses of language are fundamentally ideological. 
Voloshinov noted that: 

   1. Ideology may not be divorced from the material reality of
   sign (i.e., by locating it in the "consciousness" or other vague
   and elusive regions);
   2. The sign may not be divorced from the concrete forms of
   social intercourse...
   3. Communication and the forms of communication may not be
   divorced from the material basis. (p. 21)

Every exchange, every utterance, expresses some ideological stance.

Everyone occupies some ideological position, and Voloshinov argues
that this position is present in their uses of language. The
difficulty on the Net is that the "ideological" topics of race, class,
and gender have been defined by some posters as not present in
netnews.  Further, since posters bring with their sensibilities from
"outside" the Net, and since these sensibilities reflect the
mainstream associations of the terms "gender" with women, "race" with
blacks or other non-whites, "class" with the poor, and "nationality"
with the Third World, what is often meant by the statement "there is
no race, class, or gender on the Net" is that the opinions,
mannerisms, and behavior of women, non-whites, and the poor are
irrelevant, as they are presumed to coincide with those of white,
middle-class males--once you hide their faces, that is. To claim that
these issues are relevant is to utter a non sequitur according to the
rhetoric of the Net, and to thus define oneself as irrational, biased
and therefore safely ignored. However, when disagreements and
misunderstandings occur on the Net, since there are no other
explanations for behavior other than the qualities of the disembodied
consciousness, the only recourse is to lay the blame on the mental
faculties of the aberrant poster.

Posters who fall outside the pre-defined norm are thus stuck between a
rock and a hard place: if they stick out for their non-standard
beliefs or speech and are criticized for this, they cannot explain
this by referring to external factors, for this is considered
illogical, an argument for the weak-minded. However, since they can't
defend themselves with those explanations, it will be presumed that
their differences stem from their own stupidity--and they lose again.

This neat trick, conversely, allows for attacks on views outside the
mainstream--since the attackers are presumed to hold no ideological
position, and thus their attacks are considered only logical, rather
than from any personal bias. This is roughly the argument, for
example, of the poster who referred to "kyberspace": after defining
acceptable positions for people to hold on the Net according to social
structure, he denied another poster the right to refer to those.

The fact that these discussions occur at all is probably due to the
fact that the Net is largely a homogenous "place," though not so much
now as in the past. The Net has historically been the domain of
scientific research institutions and very large businesses, both in
the U.S. and abroad. And these communities, as has been noted
elsewhere, are fairly homogenous across race, gender, and most of all
class: largely white, largely male, and largely middle- to
upper-middle class white-collar and academic workers. Even now that
most universities have Net access and that private companies offer
access, nonetheless it remains fairly enclosed: universities are
typically attended by the children of the middle- and upper classes,
and the outlay for computer equipment and private account fees is
great enough to dissuade the poor. So in some loose sense, the Net is
a homogenous group, in that a large percentage of its users share
economic, educational, and oftentimes cultural interests. This can be
seen in the sorts of newsgroups available on the Internet: there are
more devoted to conservative politics than to liberal or leftist, and
most of the recreation groups refer to such pursuits as bicycling,
heavy-metal music, and other fairly middle-class pursuits. Further,
many of the most popular newsgroups began in the even-more homogenous
past of the Net, and what was appropriate was determined then; many of
the earliest posters to these groups are still around, and will
occasionally pass judgement on what legitimate topics for discussion
and what are not.

Paradoxes and Problems

I will spend the last part of this paper examining some locations
where the conflicts and paradoxes created denying the social nature of
language arise.

The most obvious of these is gender. This difficulties women
experience on the Net are well-known enough that Newsweek published an
article on it--even the EFF put an article about this in their
archives. I therefore will spend little time on it, noting only two
points of interest.

First, women apparently have troubles escaping harassment and
marginalization even when they adopt male pseudonyms. Leslie Regan
Shade's "Gender Issues in Computer Networking" suggests that women are
often made uncomfortable by the discussions on the Net. The
confrontational style adopted by many posters also seems to discourage
many female posters, which is probably partially due to women's
socialization to be less aggressive. 

Second, an interesting phenomenon is often seen on the Net: men will
post notes claiming that they are women. Called "gender-bending,"
this practice is presumably a means of amusement or self-titillation. 
Usually, these men will not only claim to be female, but will also try
to "talk like a woman" by discussing stereotypically female interests
(such as their weight and measurements), by using intensives, "cute"
words, and many, many exclamation points. Other posters will then
dissect these posts in minute detail, and will argue whether or not
small details of wording and of reported facts and behavior resonate
with their opinion of how a real woman speaks and acts. In effect,
these episodes directly contradict the idea that there is no gender on
the Net, because people are perfectly willing to work with their past
experience to "read" the authenticity of posters claiming to be women.

A more subtle effect might be noted in the use of correct grammar and
diction. In nearly every "Frequently Asked Questions" list on the
Internet, the grammar or spelling flame (or combination criticism and
insult) is strongly discouraged--meaning that it is considered bad
form to criticize someone else for their spelling and grammar. This
is in accordance with the idea that the Internet is made for the free
exchange of ideas, and that relatively small matters of form are
unimportant. However, despite all these warnings, the grammar and
spelling flames recur (usually followed by criticisms of the flamer's
grammar or spelling). Further, in many flame wars (protracted and
usually vicious exchanges of insults) that start on other subjects,
the various posters' grammar and diction will come under close attack.
 Individual words and phrases will be singled out for angry,
contemptuous abuse; oftentimes the general tone of the message will be
seized upon as proof of the posters' state of mind, so the short
sentences of a too-blunt message might be used as proof that a poster
was incapable of more complicated grammatical structure. In most
events, the offending poster will be accused of raw stupidity. Style
becomes substance, effectively, and perceptions of incompetence
rapidly degenerate into perceptions of mental defectiveness. 

The language and diction that are approved of, unsurprisingly, are
those of the middle class. Proof of this can be seen not only in the
spelling and grammar flames that attack non-standard usage, but also
in the style guides that exist on the Net. These largely advocate the
same kind of formal usage that is found in business-writing textbooks:
 short sentences, brief and to-the-point messages, close adherence to
a topic, etc. Further note of this can also be made in the types of
posts that are popular: while extremely academic diction is
considered an affectation, the typically well-regarded post reflects
standard usage and diction, as well as proper grammar, spelling, and
punctuation. Further, the most popular forms of writing on the
writing groups, such as rec.arts.prose, reflect popular influences in
science fiction and top-selling thrillers. Postings that violate
these norms, by being too esoteric or too sloppy by these standards,
are often subject to criticism as being bad--not different, but bad. 
A few newsgroups, at the other extreme, focus on more avant-garde
writing, and these are extremely class-conscious: anything that is
too mainstream is similarly condemned. In all these cases, a certain
standard of writing is taken as indicative of not only good writing,
but also of clear thought: those who do not conform to these
standards are often harshly criticized. This in particular seems to
be a problem for ESL posters, whose non-standard uses of the language
are often seized on in flame wars, and for newcomers to the Net. The
worst offenders are considered to be undergraduates with new accounts
and subscribers to Internet access providers (such as local bulletin
board systems and large companies like Compuserve and America
Online)--and these are also the posters most likely to be on the edges
of the academic and global business worlds. Effectively, these posters
experience the same difficulties that the less-well-educated and ESL
speakers typically experience off the Net, as they are judged by their
speech and grammar, much as people are off the Net. This treatment in
effect differs little from the world outside the Net: the writing
style people learn, the literature they read and learn to refer to, is
very strongly based upon class, race, gender, location, and age. The
way these posters use language is thus related to their background. 
When they are then judged by their uses of language, however, these
factors are ignored, and their transgressions are met with accusations
of personal failure.

Conclusions

The Internet is a very exciting "place" at the moment, it is true. 
However, the idea that it is a utopia is rather misleading. Those who
believe that posters can freely speak their mind on the Net neglect to
mention that there are preconceived notions of what is acceptable on
the Net, and that these ideas have been largely predetermined by a
fairly homogenous group of users. Further, the fact that these ways
of "speaking" are denoted as normal and natural, even while being
"logically" unrelated to "external" factors, is a fairly insidious and
 effective way of limiting discussion on the Net. This does not
prevent posters from outside the mainstream from discussing their
views, of course, but any resulting reprisals may be somewhat
misleading. Nor does this mean that many people will not adapt to the
conventions of the Net, only that flames against offenders ought not
to work on the immediate assumption that that flamee is stupid.

What is to be done? In the first place, the realization that the Net
is not a utopia should be adopted.  Internet usage is frequently
pushed as the universal solution to academic problems. This
uncritical attitude towards the Net can then result in subtle forms of
marginalization taking place in the very place celebrated as "safe." 
Students ought to be made aware of conditions on the Net, specifically
that certain ways of "speaking" are privileged as much on the Net as
off. Further, they must be aware of the forces at work that will
attribute all difference to personal failure. As the Net becomes more
and more popular, they are increasingly likely to meet members of
other social groups who may not "speak" in any way familiar to them,
and may be prone to judge these people by unwittingly loaded
standards--or, perhaps, to be judged by them. Academics in particular
have a responsibility to argue these issues whenever they arise,
whether it be in the classroom, in their writings, or on the Net. 



Terri Palmer is a doctoral student studying Rhetoric
in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University.


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