Whose Internet Is It Anyway?: A Dialogue On Race, Gender, And The Digital Space

Flickr / Steve Jurvetson
Flickr / Steve Jurvetson
Written with Zaron Burnett III
Because constructive dialogue is fun.
p.s. It’s REALLY long but we’d love to hear your thoughts in in the comments!

Kovie: You know I live and breathe multiculturalism – in my writing, research, and education. And as I do more and more work in this space, I see more and more gaps on the Internet with respect to demographics and representation. From your perspective, with regard to gender, race, and even socio-economic criteria, putting it simply: Whose Internet is it anyway?

Zaron: Such an interesting question. I find ownership to be a slippery concept. What does anyone own? Even your body is just a rental. I don’t wish to be philosophical about this but we ought to define our terms. In a legal sense, we define ownership as the ability to control something, or more accurately “to exercise control.” If we go textbook, to determine who owns the Internet is a matter of answering: who controls it? But to define the Internet, that’s a little bit harder. We have the physical medium, the wires and cables, the company-delivered “connection” to the online experience. And we have the “online experience.” I suppose this is what most people mean when they say the Internet- our personal experience of this very public space. If we use this definition, the Internet is, poetically, no different from the atmosphere one encounters in a major metropolitan area — only the Internet is a city that houses the whole world.

Imagine all the smells of a city, swirling on updrafts, falling around corners in sudden breezes. It’s all there: the smoke of industry and transportation, the fragrances of flowers and food, the aromas of open-doored storefronts; you’ll note that all of them are generated by human activities. These scents coalesce to create the unmistakable air of any city — sweet or foul, fresh or rotting. This experience of a city no one owns, yet anyone can participate in it, and all are affected by it. Like the fragrant air of a bustling city, the Internet/online experience is a product of an anonymous mass of human beings. And just as one can’t own the air, one can’t own the Internet. Just like how you can’t step in the same river twice, you can put your finger on the Internet. Mostly, because you can’t exercise control of it. It’s always changing. Like air, the Internet is a medium. And like air for lungs, in this instance, it’s a condition for our digital life.

When we consider the Internet as our “online experience,” and if we set aside the physical “cables and wires” definition of the Internet, this relieves us (momentarily) from our digital providers and the even more worrisome control measures evident in things like governmental Internet “kill switches.” Focusing only on how we each “own” and participate in our shared yet highly personal online experience of the Internet, I’m drawn to consider questions like the issue of online bullying and Internet sexism. Who controls our shared space? Who owns the Internet?

I’ve considered this question as I’ve read eloquent and heart-breaking essays about the cyber-bullying of women online — such as the Amanda Hess piece for Pacific Standard. Additionally, up close I’ve witnessed how two writers I greatly respect have to constantly deal with ugly messages, hateful and judgmental comments on their articles, and sometimes commenters will go so far as to express a wish that violence be done to the writers, or in the least, add in cruel physical critiques of the writers or petty campaigns of negative reviews of their books; and the only difference between the two of them and me is that they’re both women. I marvel at what Chelsea Fagan and Parker Marie Malloy deal with on nearly a daily basis.

Meanwhile, I can write all the horrendous and offensive things I want and all I risk is someone making fun of my blue hair, pointing out my typos, or telling me I’m dumb because I don’t understand the Illuminati. Compared to reactions those women receive for what they write, it baffles me. I see this sort of sexist behavior online, directed at women, from both men and women, which frankly both surprises me, and doesn’t surprise me at all.

To my eyes, like any major metropolitan area, the Internet doesn’t seem like a very safe space for a woman (at least compared to how it is for a man). Writing online has given me a great gift, it’s shown me the vast social scaffolding we nickname social “privilege.” As a guy, my Internet experience is almost entirely devoid of harassment or hate-speech. If you include that I’m a black man, I still rarely encounter racism directed at me. And this makes me wonder, for you, as an internet writer who is both, as a women of color, what’s your experience of racism and sexism? How much do you think gender and race (and socio-economic) criteria limit and/or define a person’s online experience?

Kovie: I really like that response and I always start with the most basic questions when discussing big topics because it would be impossible to cater to all the directions we could go with this. I’ll start by saying I think comparing the Internet to air would not be my first-choice analogy. Air is a product of the earth, though people do contribute to its properties and make-up, and nations (and probably corporations) can technically “own” it. The Internet, however, is a product of people, and particular people at that. People with money, with power, and with resources.

In theory, I think the intent of the Internet is to be for everyone. But I am not one to dwell on intentions – I prefer to focus on consequences. And because of that, do I think the Internet is for everyone? No. I think the Internet is for people who are at the right intersections of life to be able to access and participate in it. Indeed one can say we can all participate – which is not fact but theory itself. But even if we could, even in spaces where representation may be trying to be inclusive, I think, well I can say from research, I know from research that particular voices are louder than others. And those voices often are representative of traditional power holders in terms of race, gender, and socio-economic class and are dependent to some extent how these intersectionalities are embodied in individuals.

Now this is not to say only certain voices “own” the Internet. But if we look at power as a structure of whose voices are heard, who “controls” the conversation, who “owns” the access in the forms of digital companies of which there are many in different forms – I think we still find that we are repeating the same model of traditional institutions.

Men are still more likely to “own”; White men are still more likely to “own.” Women, although are represented well, and sometimes even over represented in particular digital spaces, still do not “own” these spaces. And in both contexts, persons of color (speaking both in the United States and globally) are usually still at the bottom. So perhaps when we talk of “owning” and “controlling” the Internet, we do not speak of it in traditional terms. I would in fact compare it to colonialism. We do not talk about it in traditional terms these days. (Ignoring the situation in Crimea), we talk about neo-colonialism. Control through power structures that may appear invisible but have real consequences for people in that they become dependent on particular power holders for their goods and services and livelihood. Think of the Internet in this way, in terms of information. Whose stories gets told and who has access is just as important as whose stories do not get told, and who doesn’t have access.

With regard to being a woman of color writing on the Internet, it is largely informed by two things: Firstly, my academic background – as a child of my parents, and my present and hopefully future in that field. And secondly, my global and personal resistance in honing a postcolonial political perspective in African diaspora and specifically a certain modern African female diaspora that is all but invisible online. I guess it’s a long-way of saying I am writing for an audience that I know – I have had to live in the audience’s world in almost every way from “jump.” The audience has not had to live in mine. Which is of course why I tell the stories I do, and talk about the things I do.

Admittedly, mostly I choose to challenge the audience over trying to “relate” to them. I challenge them to see the world from a variety of perspectives. It’s not always popular, and it’s not always what they want to hear. Sometimes I have to be firm and uncompromising to get my point across. Sometimes I have to be calm and guide them softly. Sometimes I have to use humor (that they may not even be familiar with.) It’s a lot like teaching in this way.

But I believe in the work and I believe in the audience and the potential of current and future audiences. Do I get backlash? Yes? Do I take it personally? I try not to. My parents never spared me the idea that in order to ”make it,” given my identities, I would have to work 10 times as hard as everyone else, and still only get a fraction of what I “deserve.” And a lot of women of color who have mentored me, in fact one in particular put it this way to me in reference to academia specifically, but it can be applied to my writing vocation as well: “You have to know what the White men know, what the Black men know, what the White women know, and what all the Women of Color know. And then if you’re still in the game, you have to come up with something brilliant enough for people to think you actually know anything.”

Moving along, what do you think representation in the digital space looks like in terms of race and gender?

Zaron: You and I’ve spoken about this before, and to borrow an analogy I’ve used in discussions with you, I like to think of the Internet like it’s a hammer. It’s a tool with equal powers of construction or destruction. And like a gun, it all depends on who is holding it and what their intention is. I think you’re spot on when you point out that men are still more likely to “own” and that white men are the most likely to “own” the assets of the Internet, which means a greater opportunity for “exercising control.”

Take our field, New Media. It’s a hotbed of investment capital looking to make a long play in Web 2.0. Which means behind the few bright twenty-something entrepreneurs we see give interviews, there is still primarily the same rich white men funding these new power moves. They still act as gatekeepers for ideas and new ventures. This means we see the same sort of group-think. Despite, for example, all of the new Asian and South Asian billionaires, there is still very much a presumed western culture to venture capitalism. It remains resistant to change. I’ve spent time with VCs, I’ve spent time in meetings discussing angel investment rounds and meeting with prospective investors to talk possible profit schedules. I’ve been one of those new brown faces in the boardroom, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my Korean-American partner. So, yes, I know there totally are more and more women and faces of color in the boardrooms. But relative to the speed of change elsewhere, the boardrooms are changing slowly. I’d say suspiciously slowly. It doesn’t seem to reflect the demographics of our best college classrooms.

This is a quotation that’s often invoked in political terms and used in terms of gender, and I think it applies to the Internet as well: “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” When Audre Lorde said that it was more than a warning; it was learned wisdom. The Internet is still the Master’s house. It’s not a digital plantation, that’s not what I mean, but it was built with the Master’s tools. It has all the same vertical structures and social hierarchies from our racist, white-supremacist, class-obsessed, sexist, ageist, ableist, and every other -ism or -ist under the sun, offline world. Consequently, the Internet is like our digital mirror. Only it’s more like our funhouse mirror. Whatever we see in the world is amplified and distorted in its online reflection. If you’ll permit me to mash-up my metaphors, the Internet is both the hammer (the Master’s tools) and it’s the Master’s house. It is a tool, it is a world, and it is a reflection.

Despite the vertical aspects, most of our online moments are the horizontal aspects — the fact anyone can participate in the great online conversation and marketplace. It’s a 24/7 opportunity for anyone to share their art, sing their song, or show off their stamp collection. Also, if you’re down for social justice or entrepreneurial pursuits, you know better than most, when a person wields the Internet like a hammer they can strike a blow that resonates around the world. A person can labor to build something others want and will pass it on, that they’ll share, or invest in, or maybe just motivate them to change. Suddenly, the powerless now exhibit great power.

The Internet-as-a-hammer represents the biggest change to … hell, let’s be grand, to human history, since the printing press. Bigger than planes, cars, spaceships, even refrigeration and the Haber-Bosch process of fertilization. The Internet is a tool that for whomever uses it, their power is increased to the point they can threaten to destroy the Master’s house with only a few strikes. Look at how many Twitter-enabled “revolutions” we’ve seen in the last few years. Although the Internet may be “owned” by mostly rich white men, the same as so much of the rest of the world; in this digital sphere of our life, there is a strange new equality. Your tweet and my tweet can each be retweeted, and thus, the power you have comes from your echo.

If I’m getting my news from Twitter, from people I pick to “follow” instead of “following” what’s happening around the world from corporate news outlets, those old power structures erode. The Internet has amplified the power of both the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, men and women, meanwhile, all the same IRL struggles remain. And in many cases the struggles have also been amplified. Such as internet sexism, which seems far worse than the sexism I witness in the street. Stepping away from race and/or class, and focusing, specifically on the fact you are a woman and I am a man, would you say your online experience equally empowers and reduces you as a woman?

Kovie: That’s always a very difficult thing to do – to invalidate all the other aspects of my identity. Especially, because I think for me, that I am Black and African is almost always the most salient part of my identity and in its own way, constructs gender in a different paradigm than for a White woman from “the West.” So do keep that in mind as I try to answer the question. I must also say that it’s funny that you bring up Lorde because in a research paper I did on a business for one of my classes this past quarter on this topic, I used Lorde’s very arguments from “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” with regard to representation online for that specific space. But I love Lorde and that piece so I will bring it up at any opportunity.

But now to your question, I think my experience and the experience of other women may not be the same. And I say this for a few reasons. Even as someone who sometimes gets accused online of “always bringing up race into everything” – something that actually humors me and most other women of color who understand race is oftentimes more salient than gender – I have honestly received a lot of support from men, (and indeed White men) in my digital experience, both formally and informally. Because I have education and socio-economic privileges that are greater than the average person, it is a lot easier for me to have a voice. This is not to say it’s easy but I have tools (sticking to the metaphor) that are available to me and connections that have been made easier especially as a woman of color, but yes indeed just as a woman. I think many women who have voice in the digital space would probably admit this as well. Even language privilege – “speaking and writing English” and the ability to do so is such an enormous privilege on the Internet that most people don’t even consider.

However, because of my particular interests in talking about uncomfortable things which are a part of my life such as race and where race and gender meet for me, I often find that it is a challenge to try to have an authentic voice about your story and still cater to an audience that sometimes is very different from you and doesn’t share your experiences. And sometimes it certainly makes writing complicated. For me, it’s difficult to talk about being a woman without talking about being a Black, African woman. For White women, I would assert that the challenges of telling their stories are often mostly gender-based (unless another identity like their sexual orientation may be most prevalent). I think the Internet as a whole does empower women more than it disempowers them. But I also think for me to say there is equality of which I must add, I think “fairness” is of greater importance, women need to be the thought-leaders and the C-levels and be involved in “ownership” and not just as they are – mostly working for them.

I may have no interest in owning a digital company but are there not other women who want to? Where are they? Why do they seem so few? What’s your take, and just to get close to wrapping this up because I have a feeling we both could go on for ages, what do you think are the solutions to what I would call the “digital inequalities” in this Internet space? For me, I think leadership in digital companies has to realize not only is there a responsibility of sorts to representation because of trying to reflect the realities of the people that exist across globe. But that there is media value and probably more importantly to them, monetary value and potential that is attached to being at the forefront of representation, especially as emerging markets across the globe and the people in them, have greater economic potential.

Zaron: For whatever reason, it’s really easy for me to pull apart and follow my individual strands. I can consider my experience as a man, as an American black man, or merely, as a single man living in Los Angeles, and I can see how each of those twists and turns and wraps around the others to influence how I interact with the world and how the world interacts with me.

I like that you brought up fairness. In my online experience this is what I love most about it and what I try to foster when dealing with others. Everyone is my equal, they’re on my level, more or less. Like, I read blogs from Australian surfers and I read Angolan fashion websites written in French (with help from Google translate). The way I interact with the world online, the Internet is this incredible global tool of fairness. I love how now nothing separates me from communicating directly with a Parisian or a Peruvian. This is the upside that makes me optimistic.We have constructed a living representation of the Jung’s Collective Unconscious and added real time chat and video. And then, of course, there’s also Internet racism and sexism and transphobia and ageism, and you name it; and just as easily as I can email a fashion designer in Antwerp, a cold-hearted hater can send a weekend-ruining message to a writer I respect.

But I think you’re right — the Internet has empowered women, greatly. And I think more than it harms them. Like, there are scores of women whose work I read daily, from all around the world, and as I reflect on their words, they shift my perspective. Constantly. And this is true of all sorts of people, any of those who share their perspectives, folks speaking for all sorts of identities. My digital life has offered me a chance to learn language and ask questions and seek answers I wouldn’t have otherwise, which makes my IRL interactions deeper and richer.

The term you used: “privilege,” we all know this is an Internet buzzword. Often it’s used as a tool to point out a person’s bias or fallacy or use of an -ism, to correct someone’s tone, or to warn someone to “check” themselves. Privilege is an important word because it reflects the reality we all live with — how the many interwoven strands of our identities cause us to be valued differently at different times by different aspects of society.

When you’re online, once you’re wiped clean of the physical signifiers of your identity, when we’re interacting online as an avatar, reduced to a thumbnail and a bio, each of our voices is equivalent. And now, the sudden introduction of “privilege” is starkly apparent. I like that “privilege” is a constant Internet discussion. It may annoy some folks, but we all benefit from it as much as it often becomes a cliche knee-jerk reaction (that some folks over-use like antibiotics).

To answer your question of solutions to “digital inequalities,” I’m optimistic because of the hammer nature of the Internet. If everyone can wield this as a tool, then everyone, theoretically, has the opportunity to build something of their own, or they can band together with others and build something even larger. If communities continue to put a premium on internet access for kids, teaching them to code, and giving them the tools to build a digital life where they have great personal power, I have every reason to believe these properly-prepared children from all over the world will create new economies of thought and intellectual property. Regardless of nation, religion, race or gender, it’s only economics that creates any digital divide. As long as they have online access and a working understanding, I trust human nature. And that’s why nearly all of my imagined solutions to “digital inequalities” would begin in the real world as solutions to poverty.

Kovie: Well, that was a very thoughtful response. And I agree with most of it. I do admit to being more intensive in my approach to representation which is largely because of the particular knowledge base I study – organizational and multicultural communication. So for me, economics is a huge aspect – maybe the biggest, but I cannot invalidate the other inequalities of other aspects because of history, because of the present, because of the communicative message of race, gender, sexuality etc., and their effect on our perspectives in the world and of the world.

I also think a healthy skepticism is necessary for progress because I often find that in things that we think of as inherently “equality promoters,” we have a tendency to exaggerate their positives and overlook the negatives.
I always want to face reality with a healthy skepticism and also an intentional positive and practical attitude to bringing about change, which I certainly believe is not only possible but always and already imminent.

My last words would probably be something I always tell people these days about diversity, inclusion, and representation – these are all inherently positive things. That you and I are different and that the world is full of different people is not bad. Difference is good – we were created differently, and rather than pretending to be the same, let’s not. Let’s notice our difference, let’s appreciate them and respect them and love them. And if we start doing this online and offline – we find that there is enough room for all of us and the space becomes authentically more equal. With only one’s work or attitude or ability to reach others being the thing that would give them more voice, rather than all the superficialities that we have made so grand.

Last words?

Zaron: I couldn’t agree more. I have no use for words like equality when difference is far more accurate. Your call to “appreciate, respect and love one another’s differences” is the best prescription I’ve heard. And it works far better than any solution to our “digital inequalities.” Thank you, Kovie, for this discussion. You’re a gentlewoman and a scholar. And this was hella fun.

Kovie: I’ll accept the compliment and throw it right back atcha. And needless to say as a woman who has the privilege of knowing you because of this digital space, you remind me every day in your work and personal life of the best types of relationships that we get to build and foster are because of this complicated, but more good than bad space we call, “The Internet.” Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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