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A Woman Caught in the Net

Comms Plus! / August 1989
By Paola Kathuria

Imagine you're at a fancy dress party and someone comes up to you wearing a long cloak, a mask and a pointy hat, and says "Hello, I'm Merlin." Now, this person could be someone you know, someone you would have wanted to know if you'd met them somewhere else, someone you didn't like or someone you liked too much. What can you say that will cover all these eventualities?

This kind of situation is not uncommon on remote multi-user systems such as games and talkers (also known as chat lines). Given that the information about someone is limited to what people say and how they spell it, one has to do without the usual things like their appearance, how they move, their expressions and their voice. It's because people's words are such a limited source of information for building images of them that it is very easy to use the medium to mislead others; it's called having a persona or rôle-playing.

My first experience of a talker at another site (Germany, in this case) taught me that perhaps the most important piece of information that is lost on this medium is a user's gender. Unless the information is volunteered, it is widely assumed that users are male since, sadly, women are very rare -- probably a consequence of the low percentage of women in computing in general.

I'd taken over from a (male) friend who'd logged in but who'd soon got bored. This talker had the usual features (channels, whispering, handle/alias changing) so I changed the alias to my name to show that someone else had taken over from my friend. The kind of conversation going on at the general broadcast level was reflected by someone asking me if I had any interesting software. The same person then whispered to me "Are you female, Paola?" This seemed to me to be a bizarre thing to ask so I replied, "Why? Are you?" He wasn't. He then asked how old I was. My first thought was that I must have said something really stupid and he was hinting that I was acting young and foolish. By this time, about six people were whispering to me, all asking similar questions and the general conversation was practically non-existent. I was amazed at the attention I was getting just because I had used a female name as an alias, but, by shouting out: "Why is everyone whispering to me!", it instantly stopped. [grin]

I was surprised that people in different countries even bothered to chat me up. I have since met people who flirt for fun but who make it obvious that they're not being serious. Then there are those whom I'd be talking to quite naturally when they suddenly proclaim that they love me or, in a game, stick their tongue down my throat and grope me. I don't mind sometimes rôle-playing a beautiful and unattached eighteen year-old woman, but I don't like being taken off guard when I am being myself.

Perhaps it's because women are so scarce on the computers that some men haven't realised that they don't have to talk any differently to us. I know that some women conceal their gender from those who think that just because someone says that they are female, that this is an invitation to be harassed. This loss of freedom seems to be a high price to pay to get some respect.