European, female, and logged on

Eva Isaksson

European, female, and logged on

Before I became logged on, I used to be logged off. The state state of being offline was a very concrete one for me. Being connected with people meant, once upon a time, attending meetings, like this one, and spending my time in them, feeling frustrated and silent. At heart, I am an activist and an organiser, a doer. But my real life was not so real - instead, I was spending it cut off from being as active as I could have liked to be.

But I am almost never asked about the effects of my hearing loss in connection of my net activities. Instead, I keep receiving the same questions from journalists and others time and again: what is it like to be female on the net? And how do women's ways of online communication and participation differ from the ways of men?

These questions are familiar enough. Usually, I give them some of the answers that they already know, and which they expect to hear. What I really think, in the meanwhile, is that all the answers are not quite here yet. Women are moving onto the net slowly, but surely, and how they might use its potential remains to be seen.

Only years ago, I used to feel I was missing out on participation, and all of a sudden, I discovered the 'net - and with it, I discovered a large part of my own potential. No more silences - these days, I have about one and a half thousand women reading my several mailing lists. Very few of those women were online yet when the first of my lists was started in 1993.

But let's go farther into history than that. Last autumn, I gave a lecture about Living with Nets, which made me nostalgic about my own personal Internet career. Suddenly, I felt like one of the historians of the 'net, with many more tales to tell than I could have suspected myself. The following contains thoughts from that lecture, and from my other writings.

In the beginning

When did it all begin?

I know it did not begin yet in the now so far away mid-70s, when I was taking courses in computer science. Back in those days, you had to punch cards with a huge punching machine that made holes in the cardboard. Then you left a pile of cards in a box, and came back hours later to pick up the printout with the results of your 'batch job'. Those results would always be full of errors.

There was no keyboard and no screen. It took hours to get an answer. It was very hard to imagine that computers would ever become tools of communication. Consequently, I lost my interest for several years, and instead, I was an activist, attended conferences, and wrote books.

- Did it finally begin in the late 1980s when I bought a modem for my PC? The first thing I did with that modem was to call a local Bulletin Board System, one of the many that someone had set up cheaply. Before the Internet became more widespread, the world was full of such 'boxes', and most of their users were teenage boys.

But did a woman in her late 30s really want to chat with teenage boys? I really preferred to find other women to talk with. They were few enough and far between - but I was there, and I was not about to give up this new wonder of interaction too easily.

At last, I could sit in front of a computer, and watch it answering back with the words of another human. I must say here that unlike many others, who prefer graphics based interfaces, I truly love the verbal, typed interaction with machinery. For me, the simple DOS or unix shell prompt seems like an ear, waiting for the whisper from my fingers.

It all finally began in the early 1990s. Finnish universities started to give out user accounts to their students and to their staff on a larger scale. One no longer needed specific reasons for getting e-mail access. But what would one do with that access when one finally had it? What was there to find?

I remember a trip to the U.S. I made in November 1991. I have photographs of that trip and I know I visited New York and Boston. I know which friends and acquaintances I met and which places I saw. Yet the memories are somehow grey and pale. I remember much better how next month, I received a newsletter from a group called "Lesbians in Science" announcing its new e-mail list. As I'm was trained as a theoretical physicist and work as an astronomy librarian, I decided that I just had to join such an electronic mailing list. But it was very quiet there, so as soon as I learned about another list, called sappho through it, I joined that, too.

It so happens that the sappho list was run, physically, on a server that was located next to the routes I travelled in November 1991 - it was chewing bytes within a hundred metres from me in Cambridge, MA, without my ever knowing that I would only "see" and "feel" it after returning to Finland.

Lesbian net space in the form of the sappho mailing list was started as early as in May 1987. By the time I joined it in early 1992, it was a busy list with maybe two or three hundred subscribers. I have estimated that there are maybe a ten thousand or more women participating in lesbian mailing lists today, almost all of whom have joined those online communities during the past five years.

To be on a lesbian mailing list and have my mailbox full of lesbian voices was a joy. It is a joy that thousands of other women using Internet and finding net spaces of their own have experienced ever since. For quite some time, it did not really matter what those voices said or where they were from, as the fact that they existed, and that I could hear them (as a very hard of hearing lesbian) was enough.

But time went on, and one day, conversing with women on another continent was somehow not enough. It seemed like I was not living a large part of my life at home at all, but in the virtual U.S. of America. I was subscribing to sappho, and the WMST-L (women's studies list) while reading a mixture of Finnish newsgroups. These latter ones were Finnish but general, and all the specifically women's and lesbian material was fairly American. There was a day when I found the excitement was definitely starting to wear off, and when I started to grow homesick for the virtual Finland for women.

But there was none.

Finnish Sapfo

On the Internet, things get started by people who have access to the right resources and who are determined to start things. (They are rarely planned by groups of people or decided by organisations.) But the rest is carried on by everyone who joins, and adds her thoughts and stays on, or comes and goes.

My first mailing list was started in April 1993. I sent out an invitation for 30 women I knew in person. The list was Finnish sapfo- list, and it started as a sendmail alias list hosted by the University of Helsinki. I'm quite proud of the achievement, as it is the oldest lesbian or gay mailing list that was started on an European system.

Why did I start a list for lesbian discussion, and not a more general list? I have many reasons, one of which is that I imagined a lesbian list would remain rather small and manageable. Also, I decided it would be easier to have the list for women only if it was to be a list for lesbian (or "sapphic") discussion. After my early years on Bulletin Board Systems, I was quite sure that not only I, but also other women would appreciate spaces where they would not be a minority. A women only list seemed one way of achieving that.

Pauliina Kauppila, University of Vasa, has just finished her M. A. thesis in communications science about "Finnish sapfo-list as a medium" (1997). To my knowledge, this is the first academic thesis that has been written in Finland about a mailing list as an online community. Let me tell you about her findings.

Kauppila focuses on the sapfo-list not from the point of view of lesbian or women's studies research. Instead, she uses the list as a prototype of a mailing list that goes beyond being a medium of exchanges between people sharing the same hobby or expertise. The list is viewed as a social space. The body of Kauppila's thesis consists of her own observations and of a survey. 40 women out of the 140 subscribers answered a questionnaire, and she chose October 1996 for analyzing a month's worth of written exchanges on the list.

A profile of a sapfo-list subscriber emerges from Kauppila' survey. This virtual woman is 30 years old in the average, and probably living in the greater Helsinki area. Since the list had existed for soon 4 years, a typical subscriber has been around anywhere from several months up to three years. So, we can say with some confidence that of the 150 women that subscribe to the Finnish sapfo-list today, very many feel that they are reasonably experienced Internet participants.

At the same time, Finnish sapfo-list is not seen as a genuinely virtual community. Many list members know each other from real life, and it is generally assumed that the list is somehow an extension of the already existing Helsinki lesbian community. But Kauppila's survey shows that a significant number of list members haven't met their fellow list members at all. For many, the list provides their only social contact with the lesbian community.

I was interested to learn how women had heard about the list. Usually, it happened by recommendation, or by stumbling on the information while netsurfing. Some women had used search engines, hoping to find such a list. No matter how they found the list, they had expectations about the list providing something of an ideal community to offer them information, support, and intellectual stimulation.

The average listmember turns out to be a "lurker". According to my own statistics, over a period of maybe six months, three out of four list members (or almost 100 women out of 140) had mailed at least one message to the list. But during a shorter period (October 1996), only 40% of subscribers had posted to the list, and only a few women contributed to it with some regularity. For a silent majority, the main point was to be there.

When Kauppila asked about reasons for lurking, those who responded mostly reported that they lack the time or momentum for active participation. But when they were asked about why they thought others weren't posting more, they assumed the silent ones to be too shy or probably inexperienced. It was interesting to see that they did not apply those views to themselves.

It has been sometimes assumed that women might need encouragement and experience to become more active net.participants. I would like to ask whether such assumptions are correct. Women have, in the average, less time in a day for an active compared to men. I think that a major factor in their choice of degree of participation lies in their management of time and energy.

Women tend to have been socialized as caregivers and supportive listeners, who are expected to react in an appropriate manner. A woman can find it very empowering to just sit back and listen, without being burdened with any personal expectations and responsibilities. A Dutch net.acquaintance told me that when she joined a mailing list, it was a definite relief for her to simply sit back in her chair, and use the online time doing exactly as she pleased, instead of being responsive to others.


But let's move on to more lists. The largest list that I run is naistutkimus ('women's studies'), the Finnish women's studies list. It was started in late 1993 in University of Tampere. The choice of location was technical, as they had, back then, just installed their listproc software, which was better for a large list than the less efficient majordomo.

Naistutkimus is rather large for a Finnish list - over 660 subscribers at the moment. When I took the list ownership over two years ago, the number was maybe over 200. The number of subscribers has been multiplied by three over the past two years.

Being a professional list, naistutkimus lacks some of the sense of community that exists on the sapfo-list. A large part of the postings consist of announcements and information. There is also some general debate - for example, this February there was a thread about women and cinema. It is my guess that many subscribers have joined the list simply because it is perceived as women's space. (There were, in fact, 630 women and only 35 men on the list in February 1997.) Also, because there is no other general online discussion space for women in Finnish, the list is often used for some social space instead of the stated purpose of discussing women's studies research and teaching.

But what is this about "European", anyway?

One of the less well known facts about women on the net has been that while Internet has been very U.S. American, women's spaces have been even more so. Quite simply - the overwhelming majority of female Internet users are located in the U.S.

Some pretty boring statistics follows.

I keep a web listing of lesbian, women only mailing lists. In January 1997, there were maybe sixty lists in this category in the "List of Lesbian Lists". Only ten lists, that is one list out of six, were running on a system physically based outside North America. I've also estimated that the total number of subscribers of the sixty lists is around 10 000, but that less than 1 000 are from Europe.

Let's compare the situation briefly with what it used to be like in the spring 1994. The only European list was Finnish sapfo-list and the then very few European women were a part of U.S. based lists, instead, The total size of the online lesbian community was approximately between 1000 and 2000, with maybe 100-150 Europeans.

These numbers for lesbian lists are rough estimates, based the data I have gathered. I don't have at hand similar statistics from other, more general mailing lists that can considered as women's spaces. However, I can say with some confidence that the number of Europeans versus Americans have been even even lower on lists focusing on women's studies and feminist activism, for example.

It's my opinion that this U.S. centrism of women's spaces has had its effect on the Internet participation of European women. Not only have they needed to make their transformation of becoming Internet users, but also, they have lacked spaces consisting of others who share similar cultural and social backgrounds. If you are female and European, Internet can be a true adventure into the great unknown far beyond the real life horizons.

In September 1996, I helped to start the WISE-L, which I run as its technical owner. (WISE is an European women's studies coordinating body). It was a well-planned and thought-out list, and was started with the clear purpose of providing connections between women doing women's studies research in Europe. It was hoped that the list would offer a similar channel for dialogue and for coordinating projects as the U.S. based women's studies lists. But so far, it has been pretty quiet on WISE-L. Much of the "action" still happens on the U.S. based lists.

The European sapphic experience

In July 1994, I started euro-sappho, which is a European lesbian list. It is hosted by, the system run by SETA (the Finnish national organization for sexual equality, working for gay/lesbian/etc. rights.) This system is one of the Finnish pioneers in virtual community building. It hosts several mailing lists, both national and international, a IRC server, etc. It was started on a very minimal budget and is run by volunteers.

The impact of euro-sappho, as I called the list after the original American sappho, has been, in my opinion, rather significant. The number of subscribers has stayed below 300, but the list has offered a major channel for European virtual networking. It has spawned several other lists - a Nordic lesbian list (sapfo Norden), an Italian lesbian list (lli, lista lesbica italiana), and others. Rogue is a small list for European lesbian writers, and wild-list is a list for those involved or interested in lesbian studies from an European perspective ('wild' comes from WISE Lesbian Division).

The euro-sappho list has become, over the years, a true virtual community rich with its own folklore and traditions. It has gone beyond providing a channel for exchanges into a dimension of existence of all its own. It has its own totem animals (birds), gatherings, collectively written fairytales, and a picturebook of several of its participants. So many, probably tens of online romances and partnerships have formed during the existence of the list. As the list manager, I often think that I would become a prosperous woman, if I was to receive one percent of the cost of all the flight tickets that list members have bought with the purpose of meeting their euro- sapphic lovers and online friends.

(Just think of it: even I wouldn't probably be here in Reykjavik without euro-sappho.)

I have my own guesses as to why a European lesbian list is a flourishing and influential online community, while a European women's studies list provides a far more quiet and formal virtual environment. On the latter, one is present as a professional and as an academic, while on the former, one flirts with the virtual unknown both with one's intellect and with one's emotional imagination.

Women's virtual ways

Let us return to the question I mentioned in the beginning: "how do women's ways of online communication and participation differ from the ways of men?" I don't have any definite answers to that question, simply because I see no sense in choosing men's online ways - which are many and varied - as points of comparison.

Instead, I prefer to ask: "What are women doing online? What are women's preferred online communities really like?" It has been my experience, as an Internet activist, that women like it on mailing lists, preferably on lists where there are many other women. Also, observing women who spend their time logged on shows that women can and do become very enthusiastic web authors. To me, it is evident that women like to think and feel and listen, and to reach out, to create, and to belong.