Gender, race and ethnicity in online communication


            Since the dawn of the computer age, computer networks have grown into an information superhighway where financial fortunes can be made, political deals cut, public debate can be carried out and popular culture can be modeled in line with human advancements in the 21st century. As computer sales continue to skyrocket, more and more people are being interconnected into a unique model of communal existence. Once an arcane and obscure set of technology that could only have been used by the elite and sophisticated researchers, the information superhighway has grown into an information resource that is relatively accessible to any computer literate individual.

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            In Philosophical Perspectives on Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), Ess (1996) posits that CMC and its respective attendant, the cyberspace, which has been created by millions of Net citizens has evolved from a futuristic dream to an exponentially explosive reality. From a distinctly intellectual framework, it has evolved to be a source of any information while creating an expanding population of virtual communities. It is from such a social force that the aspect of democracy has been developed through enslavement of all persons via the perfection of computer network technologies that deceive on the identities of users but carry out surveillance as well (Ess 1996).

            Initially, computer networks only served to connect machines and perform complex industrial controls. However with the advent of the internet, computer networks have transcended from its initial potentiality to creating a range of novel social spaces necessary for interaction between different people. In such a novel social space, usually called the cyberspace, the economies of communication, interaction and coordination are unlike, the natural emotionally driven interactions that characterize face to face communications. It is this paradigm shift that has necessitated the utilization of millions of conversation spaces where physical, social and political barriers are obliterated (Smith & Kollock 1999). Network interaction media such as chat systems, e-mail, and conferencing systems enable people from diverse political spheres, religious affiliations, social standing and gender to exchange information covering a range of complex and simple expositions without discrimination on the basis of environmentally imparted inhibitions and prejudices like gender, race or ethnicity.

            Certainly early cyberspace community had the vision of a medium that would possess democratizing characteristics. Idealized visions of cyberspace culture hoped that as a Netizen community this novel form of interaction would facilitate only the exchange of informative materials between persons of an intellectual and social commune enclosure. Such visions elicited the dream of an egalitarian network where members of the intellectual and social commune would broadly participate in interaction with much openness and that the lack of visual contact would with time eliminate the irrational biasness and prejudices that discriminated against outsider groups or groups of low status in intellectual interaction. Moreover participants would be exempted from judgment or retribution. Socially constructed hierarchies would be dismantled and new modes of democratic interaction would emerge. In the context of such visionary expectations the main driving force of building the cyberspace as an interactive platform was to develop an interactive platform where race, gender and ethnicity were non existent and honesty, equality, mutual respect and universal altruism would create an unbiased discussion possible(Mann & Stewart 2000).

            Despite, the development of the internet into an all inclusive, all accommodative platform of interaction, powerful structural forces still promote the exhibition of gender, class, race and ethnicity hence obliterating the purely Utopian vision. This simply implies that when posting discussions on some networks, one is innately assumed to be of specific color and gender unless proven otherwise (Mann & Stewart 2000). The persistent anonymity and the ability to adopt multiple identities still hold the promise of the egalitarian vision even though there are still elements of intended discrimination by some online users.

Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Cyberspace

Gender in Cyberspace

            Gender, race and ethnicity can only be exhibited in the cyberspace when they are analyzed on the basis of identity. All identity on the other hand is nothing but performance. Identity as an entity is multiple and dynamic. Even in real life identities are shifted so many times depending on our actions and the reasons of engaging on such actions. It is therefore very difficult to differentiate between what can be referred to as real identity and that which cannot be referred to as real identity, otherwise called virtual identity. Real identity can only be fixed if we resist ourselves to old ways of thinking. It is at such a state that our identity can be fixed, remain stable and remain essential to facilitate its uses (Thurlow 2004).

            Online identities can not be real even though they may serve the same purposes of real identities. The fact that online communication accepts variable identities further removes such identities from being similar to real identities. It is because of these differences in offline and online identities that it becomes more appropriate to refer to identities used online as identity online as opposed to online identity because even in online communications they are still subject to fabrications(Thurlow 2004). Since identity is inherently virtual, all other things that are determined by its analysis can only be described as virtual hence virtual gender, virtual race and virtual ethnicity. Their effects thereof with relation to online communication can only be accepted with an understanding that all identities are virtual.

            Warhol (1999) contends that gender is a function of the minds and exists only in the form of virtual genders. This implies that gender does not simply embody the aspect of corporeal bodies. In the internet genders exist but they exist only in the form of virtual genders which is comparatively visible and subject to analysis. While society might be inclined to view gender performances in the context of corporeal entities, the internet and subsequently virtual gender clearly views such gender performances in the context of computer networks and cyberspace (Warhol 1999).

            There are some who may argue that the idea of virtual gender represents only an opposite term that denotes binary pairing, however, gender as analyzed without attachment to corporeal manifestations represents the styles, gestures, looks, diction, inflections or any other representation that classifies an individual in the society as feminine as opposed to masculine. In internet discussions such manifestations are elicited but they are not conforming to what culture prescribes as femininity. Discussions are presented according to the nature of the subject matter through critical analysis. The only difference in such discussions is the definitive structure of how the conversion is presented. A critical analysis of the discursive strategies employed in the conversion has the capacity to yield the distinctive patterns that conforms to the structure of feminine talk. This is also true for other discussions irrespective of the identity in signing in. men and women have different discursive strategies and this represents the virtual gender reality in online conversation (O’ Farell ; Vallone 1999).

            An opposing view is that of virtual sex which is generic of virtual gender and implies the sexual relations in the cyberspace. Such erotic interchange between cyber lovers who may never physically explore their eroticism only represents the concept of virtual sex where intercourse occurs without physical connection of bodies. When the same understanding is applied to virtual gender, then it is true that virtual gender exists without the biological aspect of femininity and masculinity. However, sociologically sex is understood to have two meanings. One meaning denotes the genital classification while the other is definitive of erotic encounters. It is this existence of two meanings that marks the interchangeability between sex and gender and hence the relationship between the aspects of sexuality and gender.

            This aspect is true in the internet where virtual sex often assume the reality of cross-gendered personas. For instance individuals entering in virtual relationships may assume that the affair is between a male and a female (genital classification). This is possible because the cyberspace possesses unlimited possibility of creating newly gendered versions hence novel identities. However, when this analysis is carried out within the understanding that the concepts of virtual sex and virtual gender are distinctly different entities, then it becomes easy to understand the existence of virtual gender in online interaction but not expressed as a component of sexual relations. At this point it is prudent to reiterate that whether in discursive or in bodily manifestations the concept of gender represents a purely environmentally propagated concept. Gender differences as a determinant of social roles and responsibilities is a product of culture and social structures (O’ Farell & Vallone 1999).

            Self care and the building of relationships (finding Mr. Right) are two dominant preoccupations that that determine peoples interactions, especially women in the internet. This involves the building of self. The building of self as a presentable internet identity was not initiated by the internet in itself but rather the internet has accelerated this transformation. It is common knowledge among Net citizens that an identity hereby referred to as a cyberself had to be modeled and assembled according to individual specifications (Agger 2002). Because identity is a necessity in using these interaction technologies coupled to the inherent variabilities of identity presentations, individuals are given the opportunity to fabricate their selves in line with self presentation specifications.

When women go online to build such a self through reproduction of self, they carry with them the traditional responsibility for domesticity. This means that even in the internet both biological and cultural terms will have to be exhibited because the societal responsibilities that define a woman have been inculcated into the mentality of the victim (woman) herself. This fact partially explains why sociolinguistics are able to discern a woman form or style of expression even in situations where the identities of contributors are hidden beyond the grasp of ordinary cyberselves (Agger 2002).

            Power in the world has always been dominated by male patriarchal systems that espouse subordination as opposed to inner dialogue. Therefore power according to women can only be viewed in terms of male subordination. Men in online communication exists as a distinct and different from women in online communication. Men are more likely to surf for the purposes of business and work related activities, pornography and entertainment while women on the net is but a reproduction of building their selves. Therefore to satisfy that natural desire of the building of self women are more likely to engage web pages that deal on child rearing, medical advice, self treatment and networking. This explains why chatting and e-mails which present a classic form of the development of self and self care are directly espoused by women. Therefore when power is analyzed in relation to on line communication then such a discussion is likely to digress into intimacy, sexuality, family, housework, housework, childcare and emotions as opposed to male discussions which present power in relation to the public sphere and the economy such as parliament, corporate boardrooms, military campaigns and the economic market place (Agger 2002).

Race and Ethnicity in Cyberspace

            Whether in academic research or in common understanding, racial and ethnic identity has often been associated with the body (Banton 1987). From as early as the 16th century, the concept of racial identity has always been studied and analyzed to denote common descent but such denotion is only relevant when the physical appearance and structure is included since race could only be carried by blood (Burkhalter 1999). According to Van Den Berge (1993) race is a bodily feature and its different from ethnicity which is representative of culture (Burkhalter 1999). Ethnicity describes cultural markers of membership. Such markers may include aspects such as religion, language and countless other symbols like holidays, music, tattooing, clothing and so on. This classification presents race as a heritable phenotype and in modern society race is described by physical characteristics such as hair texture, skin color, facial feature and musculature.

            Even if scholars desist from this classification of race and adopt classifications that define race as a status, a social construction or even a class, classifications of race are still predominantly of an biological phenomenon. The body has and will still remain an independent variable when carrying out racial identifications. Sociologically, it has been established that it is difficult and almost impossible to describe a way of life of a certain race without inferring on the bodily features of such a race. T5he social characteristics cannot describe a race unless they infer to the actuality of the race and that actuality is only exhibited as a function of an inherited lineage. The phenotypic and genotypic characteristics are therefore the only dependent factors in establishing identity (Burkhalter 1999).

            As with gender, race and ethnicity also heavily rely on the physical manifestations and cues when carrying out face to face interactions. Communications are designed according to racial affiliations because people usually expect people of other racial backgrounds to exhibit a certain mode of communication. This is unlike a sociological standing that only recognizes sociological characteristics because race; the bodily phenomenon and ethnicity; the cultural markers occur in a linkage it becomes easy to discern the relationship of bodily features and expectations on language and more importantly expectations of the nature of communication and interaction. Racial identities prescribe the manner in which we treat different members of the society.

            In face to face communication, physical characteristics play a pivotal role in conveying racial identity. Computer networks present a unique social platform where it would be easy to assume that gender, race and ethnicity would disappear due to the absence of physical characteristics. With the sense of unlimited freedom that exists in manipulating real identities such corporeal traits are to be expected to disappear but they do not. Textual resources in online interactions are determinant of physical characteristics and hence racial identity.

            Tal posits that even though it seemed possible that people of color could be completely disappear from the cyberspace, such a belief can only be described as illusory and is only serves as a mode of “whitinizing” the cyberspace (Tal 1996). Over that time of invisibility of the African American due to complex critical theories that were designed to reveal African American identity with the numerous forms of multiple identities, liminality and fragmented personas. For years some writers tried to propagate the illusion that culture which is definitive of ethnicity and race were non existent from the cyberspace. Recent evidence attest to the fact that even in the cyberspace the integration and multiplicity that marks the post modern form of the African American culture is existent and can easily be discerned.

            While physical cues cannot be represented online because race and ethnicity exist in their virtual forms, racial identification which is a determinant of interaction is not non existent. For example in blogs or online discussion groups where the topic featured is racial and cultural issues, it is possible to discern the racial or cultural background due to specific forms of expressions that can only be expressed in relation to racial or ethnic backgrounds. As discussions ensue, salient categories can be analyzed and broadly classified into general racial categories (Chinese, European-American, African American, Latino, or white). Racial identity represents itself in form of vernacular expressions that can be traced to specific racial groupings even in the absence of the body (Burkhalter 1999).

            Computer mediated communication (CMC) is a term used to refer to electronic mails, facsimile, voice mail or even electronic bulletin. With continuing advancements in computer technologies CMCs are have become commonplace in the society. Moreover, researchers are employing these technologies to determine the effects such technologies might have on the lives of members of the society. Studies have been able to demonstrate competence in using textual information to discern gender. Such technologies aim ate diminishing the physical cues that have for a very long time been used to denote gender and or ethnicity (Allen 1995). Textual information have been successful since they evoke stereotypical responses that are associated with the sexes.

Computer mediated communication systems use networks that can carry out surveillance on the number and presumed identities of individuals who are logged in because the networks have the capacity to equalize and democratize the communication processes passing through it. As such it can be a stimulant in ensuring that voices are heard as well as muffled. Moreover gender studies have also been facilitated due to the differences in orientation between the sexes in using these technologies.

            Race, racial identity or ethnic identity cannot be described as capricious features of cyberspace interactions. Moreover, participants in such discussions usually do not identify themselves by citing their race but rather if the discussions can be pragmatically analyzed the ambiguity of the social space as claimed by some researchers cease to exist because cultural identity even without the presence of names or bodily features is noticeable. For example if someone makes the statement “all niggers must die” in an assumed ambiguous social space.  A follow up of such opinions is will ultimately reveal the ethnic and racial identity of the poster of such an opinion.

            Certainty of racial identity whether online or offline even without any proof of phenotypic or genotypic traits is determinable without any hesitancy since people communicate in relation to who they are(the phenotypic and genotypic traits) and to who they are interacting with. The content of interaction is subject to linguistic differences between racial groupings. Online interactions have no capacity create any confusion in social interaction. Likewise it does not give racial or ethnic identity a chimerical quality. Because human beings inherently carry with them manifestations of racial identity, it means that in online interactions, racial identity is nothing but consequential.

            As much as we would like to believe that gender, race and ethnicity are non existent in online communication, a succinct analysis of various blogs even with the variabilities of identities reveals that racial identity, ethnic identity and gender are more easily discernible as they follow a known pattern that is usually exhibited in real life interactions. The only difference is that in the cyberspace the concepts of gender, race and ethnicity exist only as virtual entities. There are specific discussions in the internet that have the ability to bring out the gender, ethnic or racial background. Such discussions always are always modeled by societal inhibitions such as the insubordination of women which is responsible for their domestic mentality or on the other hand discussions on race or ethnicity are bound to warrant sharper and ethnically conscious reactions because of historical injustices of racial discrimination. In areas where such factors are not elicited, it becomes very difficult to discern the differences in terms of gender, racial or ethnic identities. Moreover, it can be argued that it is only in research designed settings that the concepts of gender, racial and ethnic identities can be fully established. In normal online communications the concepts are discernible but at a limited extent.

List of References

Allen, Brenda. 1995. Gender and Computer Mediated Communication. Sex Roles; A journal for


Agger, Ben., 2004. The Virtual Self: A Contemporary Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. p.           129-140

Ess, Charles, 1996. Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-mediated Communication. SUNY   Press. p.2-5

Banton, Micheal, 1987. Racial Theories. Cambridge University Press. p. 1-33

Burkmaster, Byron. 1999. Reading Race Online: Discovering Racial Identity in Usenet   Discussions. In Mark Smith & Peter Kollock(Eds). Communities in Cyberspace. London:          Routledge or

Mann, C., & Stewart, F., 2000. Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook            for Researching Online. SAGE Publishers. p. 161-163

O’Farell, A. Mary ; Vallone, Lynne., 1999. Virtual Gender: Fantasies of Subjectivity and            Embodiment. University of Michigan Press. p. 65-98

Smith, A. Mark ; Kollock, P., 1999. Communities in Cyberspace. Routlege Press. p. xv-xvii

Tal, Kali. 1996. The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: African American Critical. WIRED            Magazine. October, 1996.

Thurlow, Crispin, Lengel, B. Laura, Tomic, Alice., 2004. Computer Mediated Communication:   Social Interaction and the Internet. SAGE Publishing. p. 103-105

Warhol, R. Robyn., 1999.The Inevitable Virtuality of Gender Performing Femininity On an         Electronic Bulletin Board for Soap Operas Fans. In Mary Ann O’Farrell., Lynne Vallone.     Virtual Gender: Fantasies of Subjectivity and Embodiment. University of Michigan Press,        1999. p. 91-97


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