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The Downside of Internet Anonymity For Women


The Internet is a fascinating place primarily because of its commitment to anonymity. We simply wouldn’t have the web without it. Trolls, spam, scams, controversial Wikipedia edits, WikiLeaks, basic user safety, all are dependent on having a hidden identity. User anonymity is fundamental and inseparable.

But ever since the great RealID debacle of 2010, I’ve been thinking about how this same anonymity is a contributing factor to why women and racial/cultural minorities struggle to find acceptance in open anonymous communities like forums, social news communities, and especially online gaming, and whether it’s possible to do anything about that.

What are the disadvantages of staying anonymous? Well, it starts with the simple assumptions we make about those around us, and in particular what we assume about the concept “human being” when we have no other input.

Basically what I’m getting at is that we are conditioned to believe that the default human being is a male one.

Illustrious Illustrations

For example, this is one of the simplest ways we have to represent a person.

And this is the simplest way we have to show a woman.  Note that it is a variation on the “human” figure.


And, of course, this is what we would consider a male stick figure:

This is just one particularly simple and visceral example of how we interpret anonymous figures.  We are even more susceptible to the same thing when we are given a detail about the person that our society considers to be gendered.  Like “truck driver,” “nurse,” or “mathematician.”  Given each of those prompts, we’re guessing that you assumed male, female, and male.  Probably there was a part of your brain that immediately reminded you to keep an open mind, and that’s good, but we’re guessing your knee-jerk reactions went that way.

But We Were Talking About The Internet, Before I Debuted My Microsoft Paint Masterpieces

So, we all know that the population of the internet is male dominated (or at least perceived to be), right?  I mean, there are no girls on the internet.  Much in the way that we are conditioned to think of people as straight until proven gay, un-gendered, anonymous people on the internet are male until proven female.

These two things — A) that we assume male before female and B) that we are moderately justified in doing so on the internet — combine to create the lack of acceptance, if not outright hostility, for women in anonymous places.  After all, everybody assumes that everyone else is mostly like them, just as a shorthand for having something to talk about. And nobody likes to be surprised by the realization that they are the one making faux pas.  And besides, why do have to go out of your way to mention that you’re a girl? We’re supposed to be anonymous. Hey, everybody, check out this hot gallery of female volleyball players!

(This sort of thing doesn’t just infuriate women, but also men who understand why embarrassing women for showing their gender is hypocritical and would love to see greater diversity in their community. The answer, of course, is “I mentioned that I was a woman because you didn’t assume I was an anonymous person.  You assumed I was an anonymous male.” )

This is the dilemma for minorities on the internet. On one hand, anonymity allows you to run with the pack.  It lets you forget the parts of your identity that can bring you into conflict with the intolerant in a way that might not feel like a betrayal.  After all, it’s just the internet, not real life. On the other hand, staying anonymous ensures that you will never force another person to confront their prejudices or innate assumptions. The majority is never going to voluntarily act with acceptance to a minority if can’t tell that it’s actually interacting with the minority.

Staying anonymous will never instigate progress.

The Solution?

Gender yourself.

I’m not saying that you should enter every chat room, forum, and global game chat channel by shouting I AM WOMYN, or something to that effect. Do it when it comes up. The next time somebody says “Thanks, man” to you for crafting that [Dragonscale Leg Armor], say “You’re welcome, but I’m not a man.” Maybe add a smiley just to show that you’re not mad.

Yeah, it’s awkward, and most of the time you’re just trying to participate in whatever forum, chat, or conversation it is and you’re not going to feel like dealing with the potential blowback for showing your gender. But our entire society, not just the online part, assumes straight until proven gay, so if out and proud members of the gay community can do this every day, in “real life,” to every person they meet and perhaps frequently to people they’ve known for years, we can suck it up and do it online. I mean come on.

Because honestly?  It’s going to be generations before we see that “human” stick figure up there and don’t assume that it’s male until told otherwise. But a lot has changed on the internet since there literally weren’t any women on it.  With a little pride and bravery, it won’t take us long to change it a bit further.

(pic via xkcd.)

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