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Marshall Paradoxes of Gender

Marshall Paradoxes of Gender

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Published by jmarshal6342
Shows the online life is rife with paradoxes that drive that life
Shows the online life is rife with paradoxes that drive that life

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Published by: jmarshal6342 on Dec 20, 2009
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01/14/2013

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199CYBERMIND
Introduction
Online relationships seem to violate people’s expectations of closure orcontrol, becoming simultaneously intense, uncertain, and fragile. In thischapter, I explore some of the paradoxes, contradictions, and ambigui-ties of online life and relationships, with a particular focus on gender.This paper summarizes some results from eleven years of fieldwork online, primarily on the Internet mailing list Cybermind, which was setup in mid-1994 by Alan Sondheim and Michæl Current to discuss is-sues of life online but which soon became a general social discussionlist—the position generally taken by members was that everything thathappened on the list was an example of online life. This made it idealfor fieldwork, as it was almost impossible to disrupt the list throughopen research.
1
However, as a result, comments in this chapter referprimarily to middle-class, white, Western, English-speaking Internetgroups, and it should not be assumed that the effects observed will ap-ply across cultures.Living online, for these Western, English-speaking subjects, is em- bedded within relations that currently appear to be paradoxical, am- biguous, or contradictory. Sometimes these paradoxes seem to resultfrom the medium and the way communication is structured, and some-times they seem to result from paradoxes and ambiguities importedfrom the offline world, or which result from the interactions of the sup-posed polarities of offline and online. Gender is an important principlein both organization and the interpretation, or resolution, of statements.It is a framing that organizes expectations and guides behaviour, and ittoo is embedded within paradoxes and ambiguities. The most obviousexample of this is that people often deny the importance of gender inonline communication, while at the same time devoting considerableeffort to trying to work out the gender of others and, apparently, beingworried that the gender of others might not be the same as is portrayed(Marshall, 2003).
XCybermind: Paradoxes of Gender andRelationship in an Online Group
 Jonathan Paul Marshall
 
200MAKING CONTACTOften, it is claimed that online gender should both be analyzed
and
politically motivated through the posthuman figure of the cyborg; a semi-futuristic hybrid between human and machine, which is also suppos-edly postgendered. However, it is suggested here that it is much morefruitful and true to online experience to examine the paradoxes aroundonline presence and gender than it is to discard them unanalyzed viathis metaphor.
Paradoxes of Presence
Before discussing gender specifically, it is useful to explore the funda-mental ambiguities affecting a person’s perception of their online pres-ence and the presence of others, as this seems fundamental to onlinerelationships. Online being is continually suspended between presenceand absence and within ambiguities of confirmation. I have coined theterm
asence
to denote these states of suspension of recognition, closure,and being (Marshall, 2007, chap. 5 and passim). Let us consider someinterrelated examples.Firstly, the closure of online communication is problematic. Emailexchange, for example, tends to end in silence, when participants haveno more to say or when email gets lost—which seems to happen quiteregularly.
2
In comparison, offline conversation usually terminates withall participants knowing that messages have been received or acknowl-edged, even if only with grunts, gestures, or farewells, and participantscan expect to have a fairly good idea of how things have gone—there isa more complete sense of closure. The sense of reception, or of beingrecognized, online is often incomplete, and only a few texts issued to amailing list are responded to at all, which furthers the feeling that pres-ence drifts away.Secondly, presence manifests only in those moments in which a per-son emits text or has that text acknowledged. In offline societies, it isgenerally possible to tell whether a person is present or not. Online,there is no marker of existence beyond the act of communication itself;a person may be neither entirely present nor entirely absent. Even witha text or graphic avatar, we cannot even be sure if the person is presentwhen we are attempting to communicate. People on a “multi-user do-main” (MUD) or “MUD object-oriented” (MOO)
3
or chat room can justleave their terminal to go elsewhere without informing the other per-son, and it also seems common to find that they may be communicatingwith someone else, who is hidden to other participants, at the same
 
201CYBERMINDtime—which can further disrupt our sense of intimacy or attention.Thirdly, asence is emphasized by uncertainty about audience. Listor newsgroup members have little idea who is actually present or read-ing—most of their audience will never reveal itself. People may findthat other people whom they would not want to be read by in this con-text (or any context) are present. Other people whom participants think might be present may not be receiving mail. They may be off list for afew days without notification or may be skipping mail if they are busy.Messages to which a response is anticipated can hence go unnoticed.You may be engaged in conflict, or make a risky personal revelation,and those you expect to notice or give support do not; thus, you mayfeel snubbed or absent, and group community seems fragile (Marshall,2007, chap. 11).Fourthly, feedback is also often compromised. In the asynchronouscommunication of a mailing list, a person is not able to adjust what theyare emitting according to an ongoing response. Due to this difficulty inadjusting communication as it proceeds, it is easy for text to be misin-terpreted and meanings to diverge or for a new subject to start up en-tirely. In face-to-face communication, we are constantly checkingup—sometimes vocally and sometimes by body language or behavior—in order to assess whether a message is being received correctly. As aresult, online communication can seem out of a person’s own control,with their words being manhandled or ignored.Fifthly, when communicating on MOOs, text from various peoplecan intertwine on each individual’s screens, and it can be unclear pre-cisely who is writing what or exactly what others may be reading or beresponding to. This intertwining may be unique for each person, mak-ing the uncertainty and the interpretation different for each participant.Lag can also disrupt the flow of response and make it so that answers toold questions appear in response to newer questions. These factors canmake the conversation seem disrupted and lead to misunderstandingsand conflicts. This can also happen in email, when concatenation of messages makes it unclear who is being responded to, and responsescan be lost amidst the quoted lines.Finally, in these kinds of conditions, with no external markers, sta-tus tends to drift away and has to be continually re-earned and re-pre-sented, as audience changes under the influx of new participants andthe loss of old members who share the memories that mark status.

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