Gender and Ethnic Identity in Online Spaces (a mini-paper)

Before modern social media sites started bringing people together online, computer-savvy people could meet in Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). These were sometimes persistent role-playing game worlds, sometimes social spaces. One in particular, code named BlueSky, was studied during the 90s.

BlueSky was populated almost entirely by straight white men, possibly due to the earlier barriers to entry. Even those who were *not* still performed to that identity, distancing themselves from the aspects of themselves that didn’t fit. During this time, high value was placed on meeting other members face to face, almost to verify each others’ identities.

My primary academic interest at this time is in the Korrasami fandom on Tumblr. It is a shipping community that is part of the Legend of Korra fandom that celebrates the canon female/female relationship of Korra and Asami Sato, two bisexual women of color. Likely due to the peculiarities of this pairing, the fandom has a high percentage of women who are attracted to other women. There is likely also a much higher level of diversity within the fandom than in BlueSky, but the specifics will need to be investigated further.

I want to use this BlueSky study to compare how people identify in a more diverse setting and whether they still perform to a particular, assumed majority or not. From what I have observed so far, the members of the Korrasami fandom tend to celebrate their differences, whether it is in the joy of finding other Filipinx fans or discussing the struggles they’ve faced due to gender or sexuality.

Continue below the cut to see the actual paper, complete with references.

Gender and Ethnic Identity in Online Spaces
One of the most common imaginings of social spaces on the internet is that it is a place where race, ethnicity, gender, education, nationality, sexuality, and handicap do not matter. It is a place of pure egalitarianism and everyone is judged based on the merit of their argument and not for their physical bodies. As the articles chosen this session show, that is not at all the case. People may use various strategies to portray a particular identity online, but their offline experiences and identity still inform their own online interactions.

Lori Kendall spent over two years doing participant-observation with a multi-user dungeon (MUD) she refers to as BlueSky.  This mud was a purely social space where users gathered under nicknames to chat with other participants. As a place where identity is tied to a textual representation of oneself, rather than a physical body, the potential for identity play is high and she did record instances of gender-switching (Kendall, 1998).

Kendall’s articles are quite outdated considering the technology and the subsequent social changes that took place because of the changes in technology. For instance, in BlueSky, a large emphasis was placed on meeting one another face to face to verify that online identity matched offline (Kendall, 1998). Additionally, the demographics of computer and internet users have shifted dramatically. BlueSky was largely the domain of young, white, American men with a small (6%) Asian American population (Kendall, 1998, p. 132). Understanding the changes that have taken place historically is necessary to understand how the literature may or may not pertain to research performed today.

BlueSky’s online identity is largely tied to offline identity. To this point, many members would arrange to meet one another offline and would consider information gained face to face to be of higher value than information gained online (Kendall, 1998). There were two mentioned people who had gender-switched online personas, but both of these were eventually revealed to other participants (Kendall, 1998).

There seemed to be a definite difference in the values placed on gender identity compared to race or class identities. Gender identities, and by extension sexual identities, are more important to other participants than race or class because of the possibility for social interactions online to lead to sexual connections (Kendall, 1998). Thus when a person is revealed to be of a different gender offline as online, there is sometimes a sense of betrayal that is not present when a person reveals themselves to be of a different race or class as that they had portrayed (Kendall, 1998).  In fact, Kendall says that discussions about class and race are near non-existent except when discussing external current affairs, mirroring America’s tendency to avoid discussion of said topics (Kendall, 1998). Because BlueSky was made up largely of white people, it follows previous research that shows that white people tend to not think about race, particularly not as much as people of color (Kendall, 1998).

Some of the participants in BlueSky understood identity to have a performative factor, particularly if they were attempting to adhere to the assumed white, middle-class male majority. Those who engaged in gender-switching were extra-careful with word choice, particularly pronouns, and may have engaged in research to “properly” portray their online persona through stereotypes, particularly if that identity differed from the assumed standard (Kendall, 1998). In BlueSky, some participants distanced themselves from the parts of identity that were not part of the assumed standard, but in a later study of English Language Learners in a fanfiction community, those ethnic differences were exploited to make the authors seem more knowledgeable about their subject (Black, 2009; Kendall, 1998).

Part of this performative part of identity is support of the assumed majority- the heterosexual, white, middle-class man. Even the mere mention of a woman in conversation would lead to objectifying remarks and questions about whether or not the participant in question had “spiked” her (Kendall, 2000).  The participants did appear to be using this as performance and not as part of their assumed identities, claiming that it was a thing they would never say or do offline (Kendall, 2000).

Kendall’s research with BlueSky is outdated technologically, but still addresses the idea of performative identity. Black’s fanfiction research is less outdated as the site she used is still operational and many of the communities affected still operate similarly. It would be interesting to see how a different, current internet community would compare to BlueSky, such as a fandom community comprised largely of people who do not fit the “heterosexual white male” standard.

References

Black, R. W. (2009, May). Online Fan Fiction, Global Identities, and Imagination. Research in the Teaching of English, 43(4), 397-425. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27784341

Kendall, L. (1998). Meaning and Identity in “Cyberspace”: The Performance of Gender, Class, and Race Online. Symbolic Interaction, 21(2), 129-153. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.1998.21.2.129

Kendall, L. (2000, April). “Oh No! I’m a Nerd!”: Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum. Gender and Society, 14(2), 256-274. Retrieved September 02, 2015, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/190274


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