Digital gender: Perspective, phenomena, practice
First Monday

Digital gender: Perspective, phenomena, practice by Viktor Arvidsson and Anna Foka

Past research on gender online has made important land gains but under-theorizes the Internet as a passive, fixed, and somewhat insubstantial space or context. By contrast, this special issue draws on new material thinking to put into questions the very notion of “cyberspace” as a distinct realm. In this vein, the contents of this issue critically examine how the Internet and related digital technologies actively “work” to maintain or transform systems of oppression, as displayed, for example, in the digital doing(s) of gender. They also show how digital technologies and related concepts can be used to challenge current understandings of race, class, and gender and to produce and provoke new forms of knowledge. While the contents of this issue are drawn from different fields and display great diversity, the individual contributions of each author helps to chart out three potent venues for future Internet research: namely digital gender as perspective, phenomena, and practice.


From gender online to digital gender
Digital gender: Toward a new generation of insights
Special issue contents
Concluding remarks




Despite the World Wide Web’s (WWW) profound societal effects over the past two decades, social science and humanities research appear strangely transfixed by pre-Internet media, information, and communication theories. Steeped by strong social imperatives and a profound neglect towards the very materiality of human life (Hodder, 2012; Latour, 2003), past Internet research tends to imagine “cyberspace” as a distinct realm. This has caused life “online” to become understood as somehow separate from the “ordinary” aspects of the human experience, ignoring in absurdum how our technologies affect even the most mundane parts of life (Heidegger, 1977; Yoo, 2010) and how digital materials give shape to human emotions (Goel, 2014).

The question of the Internet affects our society warrants strong attention. Online hate and other forms of silencing are, for example, hardly “virtual” given its very real consequences (Ronson, 2015; Coldewey, 2012). The social tensions that fuel Internet trolling, social media mobs, and the digital call-out culture are known to ruin, or worse, even terminate lives (Foxman and Wolf, 2013). Similarly, while new digital technologies make even competent workers redundant (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014), the global economy works to further concentrate wealth in the hands of few (Picketty, 2014). This puts into question the idea of the Internet as something that can be neatly separated and nominally reduced into a set of contextual factors with independent effects (Orlikowski and Iacono, 2001; Orlikowski and Scott, 2008). However many important land gains that may have been made through the utopian and dystopian scripts that characterize past online gender research (Bromseth and Sundén, 2011; Foka and Arvidsson, 2014b), it is thus high time to eschew the naïve view of the Internet as a passive, fixed, and somewhat insubstantial space. Despite its wide-ranging consequences, surprisingly little is, in fact, known of the substantial (Kallinikos, et al., 2013), experiential (Yoo, 2010), and structural means (Orlikowski and Robey, 1991) through which the Internet as (somehow) material (Cecez-Kecmanovic, et al., 2014; Hanseth and Lyytinen, 2010; Robey, et al., 2013) is involved in the doing(s) of race, gender, and class (Butler, 2011).

In recent years, new forms of material inquiry have begun to challenge the neat separation between social and material that makes up much of our contemporary understanding of human life (Åsberg, et al., 2011; Hodder, 2012; Leonardi and Barley, 2010; Orlikowski and Scott, 2008). To uncover and understand how the Internet takes part in this “sociomaterial” organization of human injustice, we argue that gender research must greatly expand its horizon (Sassen, 2002). Specifically, we posit that Internet research must let go of notions as lived within or without online spaces and instead re-imagine life as lived through digital technologies (Leonardi and Barley, 2010; Yoo, 2010), while attending to the Internet’s digital materiality (Kallinikos, et al., 2013; Leonardi, 2010). In order for future scholarship to seriously tackle the societal challenges brought forth by the WWW, the Internet must, in other words, be understood as part and parcel of the “real”: a generative information infrastructure (Hanseth and Lyytinen, 2010) with profound consequences for real bodies, ultimately affecting both what we are and who we can become (Haraway, 2013; Hodder, 2012; Wajcman, 2000).

Entitled “Digital gender: Toward a new generation of insights”, this issue came out of a perceived need among the editors to critically explore and examine the experiential quality of digital devices (Yoo, 2010), and to engage with the felt traces, structures, and relations that our digital technologies help bring about (Stein, et al., 2014). Stimulated by our own interdisciplinary relation and past life experiences, we specifically wanted to uncover the broad implications of the Internet and related technologies for gender. Thanks to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (F13-1545:1) and the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies this also became the theme of a three-day international workshop in March 2014, held at HUMlab, Umeå University, where prospective authors could met with other colleagues to discuss and engage in new research (see Foka and Arvidsson, 2014b).

Ultimately, we put together this special issue in hope of publishing papers that could help uncover how specific uses of the Internet are involved in the “doing” of race, class, and gender. To make possible new networks and further stimulate unexpected scholarly connections, we also promoted reflection of new digital aesthetics and activist forms (e.g., Cardenas, et al., 2009). In this way, we used our editorial privilege to define digital gender as the interdependent origination, or shared becoming, of new social practices and gender roles around new uses of digital technology. With this definition, we wanted to push (gender) scholars to stop conceptualizing of Internet as a “space” and to instead truly tackle how the Internet takes part in the materialization of race, gender, and class (among others) (Barad, 2007; Latour, 2003). In this way, this special issue zooms in on how digital technology actively “works” to maintain or transform institutionalized injustice (Foka and Arvidsson, 2014b; Wright and Zammuto, 2013), for example, by imbricating social practices with material controls and structure (Leonardi and Barley, 2010; Sassen, 2002). It also serves as a critical reminder that in order to disconnect the Internet from larger systems of oppression we first must understand how it binds and makes-up the boundaries of our world (Barad, 2007; Hekman, 2010). In this way, we hope to firmly center digital gender research on the dynamic participation of digital materials in socio-technical systems (Scott, et al., 1999; Wajcman, 2000).



From gender online to digital gender

Early Internet scholars often hailed “cyberspace” as an arena where individuals could escape the social shackles of their biological gender. In early imaginations of the Internet, digital technologies were in this way seen to facilitate bodily transcendence (Biocca, 1992; Duncan, 1996; McCaffery, 1991; Benedikt, 1991), to catalyze new ways of engaging in gender politics (Tsagarousianou, et al., 1998; Castells, 2010; Schuler, 1996; Wittig and Schmitz, 1996), and to provide new contexts whereby individuals could reconstruct their identity free from bodily stereotypes (Plant, 2000; Turkle, 1995; Stone, 1996). Scholars in this stream thus noted clear opportunities within digital technologies for both liberation and emancipation, not only through gender-play (Rommes, et al., 1999) and notions of cyborgs and technological drag (Graham, 1999; Jimroglou, 1999), but also in its potential to democratize society (Green and Adam, 2001). For example, claims were made that the networked organization of the WWW inherently supported feminist and democratic work (Carstensen, 2009; Plant, 2000; Scott, et al., 1999). Accordingly, the utopian stream of online gender research highlights the potential of digital technologies to transform routine enactments of gender, noting possibilities for queer existence in the use of IT.

While the “utopian” view of digital technology rapidly gained prominence within both scholarly and popular press, not everyone shared this optimistic sentiment. Seeking to explain the relative absence of women online, “dystopian” critics early on pointed to how the WWW was constituted dominantly as a “white male playground” (Green and Adam, 2001; Scott, et al., 1999), with pornography as an extreme example of online sexism and the capacity of digital technology to fuel sexualized violence (Harcourt, 1999) and online harassment (Ferganchick-Neufang, 1998). Scholars in this stream soon made evident how men took over discussions online, even when they were directly related to women and their gendered experiences (Herring, 1996; Kramarae and Taylor, 1993). They also showed that the Internet was associated with a “masculinized netiquette” (Sutton, 1996), through which “deviant” women and men were both victimized and harassed. “Flaming”, for example, has been shown dramatically reduce certain women’s and men’s abilities to take place and participate online; claims have even been made for segregated sanctuaries online (Camp, 1996). While the utopians recognized the potential of the Internet and digital technology to emancipate women and men, dystopians thus pointed instead at the active exclusion of women. In this way, the dystopian stream of online gender research highlights the potential of digital technologies to enforce gendered behaviors and norms (Reagle, 2012; Scott, et al., 1999), noting barriers for equal online participation due to hegemonic masculine scripts around IT use (Carstensen, 2009; Scott, et al., 1999).

Though these entangled narratives may have rightly gained prominence, neither narrative provide any real insight into the different roles that IT can play in the enactment and sustenance of race, class, and gender. Having edited this issue, we propose that if we are to understand how the WWW entwines the human existence (Stein, et al., 2014; Yoo, 2010), digital research must stop to view the Internet as a black-boxed context (e.g., such as the “online space”). Internet and related digital technologies (e.g., social networks, online platforms) must instead be seen as material actors that perform important tasks within dynamic settings: a form of digital work that creates, maintains and transforms human institutions alongside new IT uses, displayed, for example, by how “selfies” play an increasing part in the doing of gender. This is to say that the Internet must be conceived of as part and parcel of an ongoing “sociomaterial” accomplishment: a material-discursive translation of digital technologies and their cultural use that through dialectic “tuning” (Pickering, 1995) serves to enable and constrain certain activities, roles, and identities (cf., Arvidsson, et al., 2014; Clegg, 1989; Hodder, 2012).

The question of how the WWW is allowed and able to shape our social existence arguably holds relevance across all other fields, but in the presence of new digital divides (Kvasny and Keil, 2006; Po-An Hsieh, et al., 2012) and systems of oppression (Adam, 2002; Bromseth and Sundén, 2011) demands particular attention in the examination of gender, race, and class. We argue that by viewing the Internet as both formed by and informative of specific roles, practices, and identities and corresponding acts of oppression, digital gender research is uniquely positioned to understand the Internet’s complex effects and mechanisms (e.g., the role of social media to sustain the working class). The Internet have in truth generated complex social platforms and spurred new radical forms of activism and open collaboration, but it also proving itself to be an elaborate “anopticon” (Coldewey, 2012) that fuel oppression as part of regular digital maintenance of institutionalized hate and social control (cf., Majchrzak, et al., 2012). In this way, this issue repeats earlier calls for investigations into how the Internet is materially involved in the making(s) of gender (and other social categories) (cf., Foka and Arvidsson, 2014a; Foka and Arvidsson, 2014b). Looking beyond the Internet as space, digital gender research thus acknowledges that the WWW is as integral to our existence as entertainment sites were to social stratification and status rules in pre-industrial antiquity both inside and outside of the material arena (Foka, 2014).



Digital gender: Toward a new generation of insights

To chart out a new territory for research around digital gender, we called upon the authors to introduce novel forms of material inquiry that could help to critically examine how gender is “made” as part of the ongoing re-construction of the WWW, Internet protocols, and the digital society. Ultimately, we selected six articles that in different ways examined the role of digital technology within performatives of race, class, and gender. In moving beyond the notion of “cyberspace” as a distinct realm, these papers in various ways contributes to the material turn within feminist research (Hekman, 2010).

While we happily received many interesting submissions, we selected based on peer review and our editorial vision six articles that resonate with the original call for papers (Foka and Arvidsson, 2014a). Our call took heed of how past research shows the Internet to be associated with both utopian and dystopian realities but generally fail to theorize the role of Internet itself in these enactments. It therefore stressed the need to critically re-think how the Internet and associated technologies implicates the social enactment of race, class, and gender; for example, how digital materials “imbricate” activities and ideas with certain structure and control (Leonardi and Barley, 2010; Sassen, 2002). To avoid utopian naïvety and dystopian determinism, we specifically called on scholars to contemplate on the complex processes and practices whereby the social and the digital intermingle as to, for example, uncover how digital materiality (Kallinikos, et al., 2013; Leonardi, 2010; Leonardi and Barley, 2010) is used to sustain racist, classist, and sexist systems of oppressions (cf., Foka and Arvidsson, 2014b). That is, how IT is used to create an oppressive social mirage through which everything is bound up and appears bounded (Barad, 2007; Pickering, 1995), displayed, for example, in the hetero-normative coupling of woman and man (Butler, 2011).

Through their alignment with pressing political and theoretical issues within feminist research, the articles of this issue not only point out important social problems, but also help out chart out new territory for digital gender research. In particular, we note three potent venues for future digital gender research that sits squarely within recent feminist theory and practice. First, Shah and Sundén show in parallel cases how hybrid techno-concepts such as cyborg, plug-and-play, and glitch, can generate new insight into complex social phenomena. Their article highlights the role of digital gender as a perspective. This venue of digital gender research finds strong philosophical roots within the phenomenological tradition of feminist technoscience (Haraway, 2013; Hekman, 2010) and resonates well with recent sociomateriality research outside of the core feminist discourse (Cecez-Kecmanovic, et al., 2014). We argue that feminist scholars should make use of this venue to further problematize and push beyond binary modes of thinking. Both Shan and Sundén indeed show how the use of novel metaphors allow us to conceive of digital gender as profoundly material not only in its human consequences, but also in the non-dual constitution (i.e., interdependent origination) of technology and human, and the complex processes through which they both become (Pickering, 1995).

Next, the paper by Webb and Risam seek to unravel the mechanisms of digital work whereby social media is enacted to maintain certain virtues through legitimized oppression. This article illustrates digital gender as phenomena. This venue of digital gender research breaks new ground through empirical research of how the Internet “works” to maintain and transform systems of oppression based on race, gender, and class (Foka and Arvidsson, 2014a; Wright and Zammuto, 2013). We argue that feminist scholars should make use of this venue to conduct new forms of material inquiry (Åsberg, et al., 2011; Hodder, 2012; Leonardi and Barley, 2010, Orlikowski and Scott, 2008). In this way, both Webb and Risam illustrate how increased attention to the role of digital technologies may help to provide important insights into both old and novel mechanisms that make possible persistent forms of oppression.

Last, Marti, et al. shows how the artistic use of digital technology can question social norms, while McAuley shows how scholarly IT use within the digital humanities can help rectify patriarchal knowledge gaps and cultural readings. These authors remind us how digital gender is also a practice. This venue of digital gender research makes clear that technologies, much like research, are always political (Ehn, 1988; Haraway, 2013) and can find great use in both design science research and critical making (Ratto, 2011). Through such methodologies it emphasizes how digital gender research often provides an occasion for critical learning through new engagements with technology. In this vein, we argue that feminist scholars should make use of this venue to problematize and examine conventional notions of gender. Both Marti, et al. and McAuley in this way make clear how such approaches can facilitate both new and more gender-aware understandings of the material role that gender has played, and continues to play, within both society and social life.



Special issue contents

This special issue contains six papers. While these articles chart out three potent research streams, they are also widely different. The articles vary both in theoretical depth and subject area, but well reflect the strong complementarities of post-disciplinary research. Through out the editorial process, this variation was encouraged, both to cater to the diverse readership of First Monday and to provide the authors with the freedom to fully examine the particularities of each paper.

In the first article, “Sluts ‘r’ us: Intersections of gender, protocol and agency in the age of the digital”, Nishant Shah critically examines two pre-wired responses in relation to digital technology and gender. The first response views gender as something digitally operationalized, as evidenced by the glossy social rhetoric and jubilant forms of online empowerment. The second response is to view gender as something digitally operated, and to examine how digital technologies exercise regulation and control on gendered bodies and their desires. Highlighting the need to move beyond strong-passive binaries in our accounts of gender and IT, Shah looks specifically at how the “digital slut” emerged in Indian popular culture, political regulations, and associated protests and debates. Shah’s research outlines two strategies to conceive of how the digital works to maintain gender. The first is to combine the protocols of technology with metaphors of the body to create “metaphorocols” that inspire thought beyond the aporetic production of body and technology in contemporary discourse. The second is to relocate agency by replacing the question of the body as either actor or acted through new body-technology imaginations. In so doing, Shah shows how digital gender research can inject feminist thought and practice with new identity politics open to varied and queer human forms.

In the second paper, “On trans-, glitch, and gender as machinery of failure”, Jenny Sundén develops an understanding of gender as fundamentally technological and as such always broken. On top of the technological undercurrent in current posthumanist feminist theory, Sundén mobilizes a vocabulary of malfunctions, breakdowns, and vulnerabilities to position “glitch” as a notion that helps to unravel digital gender failures. Highlighting the ways in which such notions challenge conventional understandings of sex and power, Sundén specifically looks at the technologies of (trans)gender. By investigating the public transition and social media reception of Isabella Bunny Bennett, a musical performer and member of the U.S.-based band the Steam Powered Giraffe, Sundén shows how new technological notions provoke new thought and hold critical potential for aesthetic and activist practice. In so doing, Sundén shows how digital gender research can both build on and extend posthumanist theory, here mainly discussed in relation to the recent stream of “glitch feminism”.

In the third article, “Shame transfigured: Slut-shaming from Rome to cyberspace”, Lewis Webb discusses the historical use of slut-shaming both diachronically and through the employment of frames from ancient narratives to social media. Webb defines slut-shaming as the public exposure and shaming of individuals for their (perceived or actual) sexual behavior, and highlights its use as a lever of social control. By comparing slut-shaming in the Roman republic with recent cases found online, Webb maintains that while the focus of slut-shaming, viz., specific sexual virtues, has remained relatively stable over time, the scope and impact of these practices is extended by the Internet’s unregulated character. In so doing, Webb shows that digital gender research must acknowledge how both men and women use the Internet to sustain oppression of female sexuality, and how such actions, regardless of sex, can confer social benefits.

In the fourth paper, “Toxic femininity 4.0”, Roopika Risam, examines constructions of toxic femininity within fourth-wave feminism. Taking hashtag feminism as its focus, Risam shows how charges of toxicity work to reproduce divisive dynamics within American online feminism. Through her work, Risam uncovers how Twitter’s particular materiality has come to amplify deep discomfort with theories of intersectional feminism among white middle-class feminists and how these tensions relate to gender norms. In particular, the article illustrates how toxic discourses online, by amplifying racialized and gendered difference among feminist activists, serve to position women of color as troublemakers and thus help maintain white middle-class privileges within and control over the feminist movement. In so doing, Risam makes clear that digital gender research must move from its historical single-focus with women’s issues, to fully recognize how the Internet helps maintain intersections of gender, race, and class.

In the fifth article, “Embodying culture: Interactive installation on women’s rights”, Patrizia Marti and her co-authors describe the work behind an interactive installation on women’s rights that through novel uses of digital technology triggers personal reflection and individual reception of an immersive cultural experience. The installation faces the audience with the life histories of three women depicted in different paintings and in various ways make use of IT to convey the fragmentary understanding of women’s history while at the same time engaging the visitors in composing a fuller picture of this complex domain. Ultimately, the article explains how digital technology can be used to gain a deeper understanding of the reception and representation of gender. In this way, Marti, et al. shows that original uses of digital technology provide new forms of imaginations for digital gender research.

In the last paper, “Seeing through the fog: Digital problems and solutions for studying ancient women”, Alex McAuley reports findings of an in-depth study of online resources dedicated to the study of ancient women. Arguing for the improvement of online resources both in terms of methodologies and content, McAuley identifies two major problems for digital gender research in the realm of classics: The perpetuation of traditional research methods rather than the promotion of IT-driven forms of analysis, and the virtual invisibility of ancient women within digital classics research. By linking this gap to a gender imbalance in Web-based resources related to antiquity, McAuley shows how digital gender research can make important contributions both to improve our historical understanding of women and to shed new light on how patriarchy has affected and still affects our cultural reception.



Concluding remarks

In a matter of decades, the Internet has grown from a small network linking computing resources on different academic campuses to a complex epicenter of human communication. What was once mostly a military science affair now has profound effects on human lives around the globe, most visible in new social divides and forms of community. Despite the profound societal effects that the WWW continues to bring about, surprisingly little is, however, known of how the Internet is implicated in the “sociomaterial” organization of human oppression: past research on gender online has made important land gains, but under-theorizes the Internet as a passive, fixed, and somewhat insubstantial space. By contrast, this special issue was designed to explore and examine how digital technologies partake in the production of race, class, and gender through new forms of material inquiry. To this end, this editorial put into questions the very notion of “cyberspace” itself.

In this vein, the contents of this issue critically examine how the Internet and related digital technologies actively “work” to maintain or transform systems of oppression, as displayed, for example, in the digital doing(s) of gender. They also show how digital technologies and related concepts can be used to challenge current understandings of race, class, and gender and to produce and provoke new forms of knowledge. While the contents of this issue are drawn from different fields this diversity also helps to show how digital gender research can be conceived of as perspective, phenomena, and practice. Through this conceptualization of digital gender research, this editorial charted out three potent venues for further research. End of article


About the authors

Viktor Arvidsson is a researcher at the Swedish Center for Digital Innovation, Department of Informatics, Umeå University. He is also affiliated with the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies. His research interests include how digital technologies become transformed as part of strategic enactments within organizations, and how digital technologies help to create, maintain, and transform work and work identities. As of 2015, Arvidsson serves as a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Strategic Information Systems.
E-mail: vason [at] umu [dot] se

Anna Foka is a senior lecturer in Humanities and IT at HUMlab, Umeå University. She is a former postdoc at the Umeå Centre for Gender Studies and currently affiliated with the Umeå Group for Premodern Studies. Her research interests include gender and sexuality in historical contexts as well as their contemporary reception; historical culture and identity in antiquity; and the sensory turn in digital humanities. Foka is a member of the editorial board of the Digital Humanities Quarterly and of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.
E-mail: anna [dot] foka [at] umu [dot] se



We dedicate this special issue to everyone who, in one way or another, has inspired or contributed to the publication of this special issue. We especially wish to thank Jennie Olofsson, Annette Markham, Eva Svedmark, Elton Barker, Simon Mahony, James Barrett, Helena Wangefelt-Ström, Ann-Catrine Eriksson and Anna Croon-Fors for their constructive criticism. Similarly, we warmly thank all the anonymous reviewers for giving generously of their time and knowledge. We also wish to thank Elin Andersson, Karin Jangert, Emma Ewadotter, and Carl-Erik Enqvist for helping out with the conceptualization of the conference themes at a very early stage and handling the venue with the acute professionalism that characterizes HUMlab.



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Editorial history

Received 3 March 2015; accepted 24 March 2015.

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Digital gender: Perspective, phenomena, practice
by Viktor Arvidsson and Anna Foka.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 4 - 6 April 2015

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