Eva Isaksson: Living with Nets
Women and Information Society
Nov. 13, 1996

Living with Nets

Eva Isaksson


When did it all begin?

I know it did not begin in the mid-1970s 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 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.

Did it 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 BBS, or a 'box'. A 'box' is a small computer system that someone has set up cheaply. It has discussion groups where you can read and write messages. It is also possible to chat with other users. The world was (and still is) full of such 'boxes', and most of the users are teenage boys.

Finally I could sit in front of a computer, and watch it answering back with the words of another human. 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.

No, it all really began in the early 1990s. Finnish universities started to give out user accounts to their students and to their staff on a large scale. You no longer needed to be a computer expert or to have special reasons for getting Internet access - it became a tool for communication just like the telephone or traditional letters and faxes.

I now have been an Internet user for several years - those years feel longer, like a second lifetime. It is hard to remember what it used to be like to live without the net.

And it is very, very hard for me to see the Internet as just another tool for communication. It is so much more - a tool for intense interactions on many levels.

But let us get back to the very basics.


I am a person who spends most of her time logged on to a computer that is connected to the Internet. Last time that I counted I had 12 user accounts to 10 computer systems. I am the systems administrator in one small system, and I am one of the managers in another. Moreover I am just an ordinary user in other systems.

I think I know what it is like to live with these nets. Much of it is presented in a half abstract way in articles and reviews. I will try to present some of the concrete everyday on the net.

When I wake up in the morning, I have to decide which one of my two computers I will switch on. Usually, I will choose a small portable IBM with a black and white screen and a terminal program that has no graphics. I am not interested in color or speed of the bytes. When I log on, I will listen to the words.

I can speak Finnish aloud, but as I lost a significant amount of my hearing at age 4, I have no idea how English is pronounced properly. Still, on the net, I talk and listen English every day though writing.


When I look at my new mail, I see it sorted into a big number of folders. Each folder has mail from some mailing list. It is impossible to read all that mail, and I don't, either. I just look at the folders and then I look at some headers, and then decide what I will read.

It is like selective listening. The ear picks up the meaningful sounds from background noise. But when my hearing aid picks up sounds, it cannot discriminate between the message and the background noise. That is why hearing aids are not too perfect. The human ear is intelligent but hearing aids are not.

But when I read my mail, I can select the words which I will read. You could say that I listen for words while reading.

When someone who has normal hearing sits down in front of the computer screen, she usually thinks, in the beginning, that it is quiet there. There is the hum of the cooling system, maybe some other computer sounds as well. An e-mail message that is spelled out in words can appear very soundless - but is it?

I have seen many women join mailing lists. A mailing list is a way to distribute messages among a large number of people. If you join such a list, you get every message that is sent to that list. But it is more than just an electronic version of a newsletter. You can send mail yourself, or you can choose to stay quiet.

So, what happens when a woman joins a mailing list? She starts to receive e-mail messages from that list. I know a usually talkative woman who told me: "At first, it was such a big relief to sit back and just read. Others were doing all the talking. I did not need to say anything."

This is called "lurking". A "lurker" is a person who just sits and reads what others write to each other. In so called real life, as life off the net is called, others see you and wonder why you are quiet and don't say anything. But on the net, no one sees you. You can be just as quiet as you like and no one notices.

But one day, a lurker maybe feels that she would like to write something to others. She starts to type. She only hears the clacking of the keys of her keyboard. Otherwise it is just words on her screen to her. She has usually no idea who will read her message. She can quite suddenly find herself pouring her heart out for total strangers to read. She still thinks she is doing it in silence, when in fact she is talking quite loudly to a large number of other people.

When the message is written, it is sent to the mailing list address, and then it gets distributed to tens or hundreds or sometimes thousands of others. The woman who wrote the message sees it appear in her own mailbox. Then she waits to see whether anyone answers. Often, no one comments or writes either to her or to the mailing list to give her feedback or response.

When that happens, the silence can feel enormous. The woman who wrote the message either decides that no one heard her. Then she can continue to lurk. Or she can continue to write, but maybe she will write louder next time. Thinking that no one hears anyone anyway, maybe she will write a really loud message that explodes in hundreds of mailboxes, booming in their eyes like a bomb explosion. But as she does not yet "hear" on the net, she does not hear the full sound of her own written voice.

Until one day, she slowly starts to realize that hundreds of people have read her message, and that her intimate and personal thoughts have wandered through a very large number of mailboxes - they have been read all over the world, deleted unread, or read during the lunch hour, or in the dead of the night - or they have been forwarded to total strangers, saved into tens of mail folders, archived, and even printed out with dozens of printers.

Yes, it can take a while time before she hears the echo of her own voice. After that, she never ever thinks that it is quiet when she sits seemingly alone with her computer.


Some time ago, a woman asked on a mailing list whether she is sitting in front of her computer or behind her computer. Which is the correct thing to say in English? But what is the back and behind of the computer? Is she hiding behind it? Or is she facing what is coming onto her screen and thus being very in front?

This is a subtle question. Who decides your position relative to your computer hardware? Is being 'in front' active and 'behind' passive, or vice versa? Or maybe there is no front and behind.

Sherry Turkle, who is a sociologist of the net, calls this type of interaction 'going through the looking glass'. Behind the screen, there is a world, just as there is a world around you.

Love online

A person who is not familiar with the Internet probably does not know how powerfully intimate sitting in front or behind a computer can become. One can wonder what kind of addict can sit in front of a computer for hours. And one can think that contacts with people you have never met cannot be much more than a form of escape from reality.

There are many people who think: "No, that will not happen to me" when they hear about intense friendships or love on the Internet. Aren't those just desperately lonely souls who cannot find anyone near to them?

But after those same people have spent a longer time on the Internet, they will maybe fall in online love, too. It happens to thousands and tens of thousands of Internet users.

This is how it could happen to you too:

Suddenly, you start to pay attention to someone. Something in what he or she writes strikes a chord. Then you feel a warmth and inspiration flooding your being. Suddenly, logging on and reading e-mail has become like mental lovemaking. You start to listen to someone's online presence with great attention and curiosity.

Many online romances start on IRC, the Internet relay chat, in which thousands of people spend long hours, logged on to real time exchanges. Others fall in online love over e-mail. Suddenly, you simply stop reading the newspaper and watching the tv. You stop listening to anything but music that can be useful as background to your tender online goings-on. From there, you and the other person go on to exhanging photographs and maybe to making phone calls - sometimes, meeting in person over very long geographical distances.

An interesting feature with online love stories is that the further apart the persons involved live, the likelier it is that they could develop a mutual attraction. This might sound like a paradox.

But it is not a paradox. The further away your Internet lover is, the easier it is to enter the romance, feeling that the other person is so far away that it is not 'really' possible, or very serious.

There is something that many women will repeat about online romances: "I have never felt as intensely as this." No matter who is the object of their affections, no matter whether the other person is of the same or the other sex (or maybe even a transsexual), the one common denominator is the intensity of the feelings.

Why does this virtual love so often feel stronger for those who fall in love online than real love?

The answer could lie in the fact that in front (or behind) your computer, you are alone with your ideas and fantasies. You can, indeed must be verbal about who you are and what you think and feel and dream about. In your 'real life', people will look at you and listen to you, and sometimes they quite simply place you in a niche based on your age, gender, looks and your tone of voice. Online, you can move beyond those constraints and beyond the role you have been socialized into.

Suddenly, you don't need to follow the long ago established real life patterns. You can discover your creative self. You can express thoughts that you could not express before as there was no one and nowhere to express them to.

In other words, you will fall in love not only with the person you see on your screen, but very much also with the discovery of your own expressive, creative self. You maybe find someone to flirt with, to exchange confidences, someone to get to know intimately without taking such risks as leaving your home or your partnership with someone. You can sit inside with your slowly humming computer and be wild and free and more erotic with words than you have ever been.

The computer screen becomes a mirror. You look in the mirror and see yourself as you never saw yourself before. The other person who sends you e-mail or who chats intensely with you, participates in similar transformation of self. Yet both of you are also alone with yourselves and with your thoughts. This intense self absorption and this looking into one's hopes and dreams (sometimes for the first time in one's life) is what some of the intensity of the online love experience is about.

What happens then?

People in online love will either meet, or they won't. Some of them will live happily together ever after - or at least for a time. For some people, meeting in real life becomes a disillusionment, when the other person proves to be very different from what one imagined him or her to be like. And sometimes the other person is very similar to what you imagined. Those meetings can lead to various consequences, or none.

But will those who found online lovers and became real life lovers still need their Internet connection? Yes, usually they will. After they found their online lover and moved in with him or her, they will still log on, as their net.personae have become a part of who they are. The online experience has caused almost a mutation of identity, and this is a phenomenon that will need further research and observation.

Online communities

And not only are there intimate relationships - there are whole online communities out there on the net. There are networks of people who interact daily but have never, or seldom met elsewhere than on the net.

Sociologists and researchers are especially interested in communities that are genuinely virtual - where the participants assume fantasy personalities to play fantasy games. Of course, those are fascinating for many. But my experience comes from online communities where there is very little (if any) virtual game (or role) playing.

I was reading Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen and having a sense of unreality. With a whole book at her disposal, she is writing mainly about identitities from the particular point of view of authoring identities. In her descriptions, there are decentered and multiple identities.

The concept of authoring oneself is of particular interest here. Let us try to imagine a person's career in an online community. We will retell some of the story that I already told.

At first, a woman gets Internet access. She has read about a mailing list or it has been recommended one by a friend, and so she joins it just to find out what it is about. Already, it is very important to have those initial suggestions. Alternatively, one can browse the www and to try to find out about things that interest you.

So, when you find mailing lists about your professional or personal interests, it can resemble joining a club or study circle. If you make that decision on basis of explicit interest, with no prior real life activities, does that mean that you are assuming a virtual identity? If you join a mailing list about sailing and have never ever set your foot in a boat, does that mean that you are role-playing as a sailor, or that you are starting on a path that will help you become one?

If your answer is the latter, you are using the Internet to author your life - to become the sailor you want to be. But if you pretend to be a sailor without any intentions to become one in real life, then you are maybe just role playing.

I have spent years participating in mailing lists that are used professionally, or which are used for belonging to a community - and especially, which are used for authoring one's life and loves.

At first, after you have entered a mailing list, it all can seem pretty chaotic. There are, for example, half a dozen, or maybe a hundred messages in one day. And the next day, too. One's first reaction can be: "Who can ever read all this? Stop it!" Mailing lists often get messages from bewildered people who try to get out and don't know how.

If you have a genuine interest and if you want to listen, then, after a while, you start to find order in the chaos. Maybe you were lucky and did find the mailing list that is right for you. Soon, you are reading the messages with great interest. (Some people will conscientiously read every message they receive, no matter what it is about.)

But when does the transformation happen? One day, you sit reading e- mail, or maybe writing some e-mail yourself. Something that you have read makes you intensely engaged. You maybe feel like wanting to comment, or to ask something, or you want to tell something urgently to someone. You want to say, "I am here, I feel touched, I have something to say."

The power of Internet is that you can have your say. No one will interrupt you when you are writing. You can compose your message and send it. You can. It can even feel very thrilling. If you write a few times, others start to remember your name, and they start to refer to what you said. One day, you are an established member of an online community.

When you have joined some place on the net and after you have made it a part of your life, you will watch out for new messages every time you log on. It can become a far stronger urge than watching the tv or reading the newspaper. Some women indeed stop reading a newspaper after they have found their net communities. They get their morning cup of coffee and open the computer. And if they read e-mail at home late at night, they maybe finish their messages with a "good night" when they log off.

Is this 'life on the interface', symbiosis with the machine? Some researchers see it as that. I prefer to think of it as being stimulated to live more fully. Women have, in the average, less time in a day for this net.lifestyle compared to men. Either they have to live their hours on the net more intensely - or they must reclaim the time they need for their new net.identities.

The people that are described in writings about online communities seem to end up living the rest of their lives in front of their computers. It gives the reader a timeless feeling. Very little is yet known about longer 'online careers', or rather, what happens with time. After many years on the net, I think that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to an initial online career. Very few people stay in their intense first 'addiction' for years.

This is a grey area of which little is known, but I have some ideas. A person will choose to spend much time online during a time when there is a transformation in her self image or in how she is authoring her own life. During that relatively intense phase, she has most of her attention directed to her computer screen. It is because she is, at first, learning to listen and sometimes to express herself, and to take her time while doing so.

In 'real life' you are socialized to choose what to listen, at least to some degree. Those with normal hearing always tell me that the normally hearing people are surrounded by lots of meaningless social talk, sometimes with little meaning or substance. But online, no one is watching you. You are socially connected and at the same time, free to let your attention wander. You can choose to read exactly what you want to. You are alone in front of the screen, transmitting you those spaces of Internet you have selected yourself, and you can listen to anything you like. You can quite simply cut the meaningless messages by deleting them unread.

This possibility of choice can feel very liberating to those who rarely get out of their routines or who have limited access to communicating with people they are curious about. Many people have adventures they could never have had in 'real life' without major life changes. Women can become net.wanderers and explorers - like men have done. It is here that the identities start to blur and acquire dimensions of role playing.


There is a subspecies of Internet users who are sometimes seen as the 'addicts' by many others. They are users of IRC, or the Internet Relay Chat. IRC was originally invented by a Finnish student, and has spread practically everywhere. For example, when Moscow got some of its first direct Internet connections a few years ago, an IRC server was up and running practically the same day.

The idea of IRC is that a group of several people take simultaneously part in a real time conversation. They simply join a 'channel' and sit typing messages to one another. Some of that conversation is very dull, and some of it is quite entertaining.

A few people wander around, looking for new channels, but a large part of IRC users develop a circle of friends and acquaintances, and maintain their own regular channels. To be recognized as familiar presence by the others makes one a part of an IRC community.

A friend of mine compared IRC to taking drugs: if you sit on IRC long enough, you will become 'hooked' and once that happens, your normal life will quite simply disappear, just like if you had become hooked on heroin.

This is of course exaggeration, but it is quite true that many IRC addicts will spend most of their waking hours logged on to real time conversations. More than anywhere else on the net, the conversation follows the rhythm of real life. "Be right back" is a very common IRC saying, meaning that one has to divert one's attention temporarily to something else - the bodily functions, like getting something to eat, or going to the toilet, doing some work, and so on.

Once you log on IRC, time goes by, and after you have been sitting awake and chatting through the night until morning without really feeling tired, that is when you are addicted. Then you sleep a little, get up, log on, and continue the conversation. Soon all the new friends you have made are from IRC. You will probably travel to meet friends and lovers whom you met on IRC - if you still are able to earn money despite your IRC habit.

IRC is the net space of which one hears stories of drama and romance. This is where women are very much in demand socially. It is the jungle, Internet at its most alluring and addictive. People will tell you stories of wild netsex sessions with total strangers, of suicides committed while logged on, and about true love.

And of course, those who use IRC a lot will spend their idle moments waiting for something to happen. Meanwhile, they will read e-mail and surf the World Wide Web, and so on. The net has become larger than life for them.

There are so many roles

There are so many different kinds of net users. I am often asked about women on the net, and what there is about their net communication that differs from men. I usually answer that women are more interested in the communication and men are more interested in the tools. But there are women who like the tools and men who are learning to communicate with the same gusto as women.

There are so very many women online that they cannot possibly be grouped together. Just join a mailing list - you will soon see that the women differ from each other rather much. On the Internet, one notices among other things how very diverse women can be from other women.

Let me finish by sketching some online stereotypes of women!

There is the professional. She could be a researcher who subscribes to work related lists, and sends mail to colleagues, friends and relatives. The professional also visits interesting websites in search of information. She only uses those resources she needs, and is careful when making contact with others she does not personally know.

There is also the seeker. She is ready for the unknown, and will let herself to be swept into intimate conversations as soon as she gets a good opening. The seeker will bare her soul once she finds the right forum for that, and then she will get a rush and excitement out of everything that happens to her.

A third species is the social animal who prefers to chat. She enjoys the verbal interaction itself, and the more light chat there is, the happier she will feel. It is the impact that her words have, the incessant little replies and inside jokes that make her feel energized and relaxed.

The marginal woman is a person who has felt out of place all her life, and who is on the lookout for others who are more or less marginal, too. She can be a victim of abuse, for example, looking out for others who have experienced something similar. Or she can be a radical thinker or lifestyle experimenter, who often feels not listened to in her offline life.

The pretender can be anything. She develops roles and presentations of herself like a dramaturg in the process of dramatizing a theatrical piece. Even when describing her real life she invents and colours, and is generally resourceful and expressive beyond her actual reality. It is not lying, but rather, tricks with mirrors.

Women can be many things on the net, as long as they can define, for themselves, what their roles are to be. This is a new form of empowerment and winning new territory - going boldly where no woman has gone before.