On making Online Culture more Inclusive

By Lyndal Rowlands | 03 Dec 13

This article is part of our November-December focus on Cultural Shift. For more on this theme, click here.

By Lyndal Rowlands.

The internet has great potential to facilitate inclusive public discussion. As internet access becomes more equitable, online culture also needs to become more inclusive and supportive of diversity.

With readership of Australian print newspapers falling, Australian political engagement is increasingly moving online. Online forums such as Twitter and news website comment sections are increasingly replacing the traditional newspaper letters to the editor page as the main forums for Australian political discussion.

For much of the internet’s short history many potential users have been left out because of their gender, economic status or ethnicity. Although internet access is becoming more equitable, internet culture has lagged behind meaning new users still have fewer opportunities to participate.

The digital divide between developed and developing countries has begun to narrow but for most of the past 20-30 years has been significant. In 2002 internet use as a percentage of the population ranged from “less than one percent in many underdeveloped African, Central American, and South Asian countries to between 50 and 60 percent in Iceland, the United States, Scandinavia, Singapore or South Korea” (Guillén and Suárez, 2006). Some developing countries have begun to catch up by “leapfrogging”, skipping fixed line internet connections to go straight to mobile internet. However, poorer users remain disadvantaged by slower connections and expensive data – limiting their potential to participate in online forums equally.

Likewise, over much of the short history of the internet, women have struggled to lightly shrug off stereotypes about computers, including the idea that computers are “toys for boys”. According to research by Joel Cooper from the 1980s to the 2000s girls and women’s computer attitudes and performance were historically negatively impacted by socialisation and gender stereotypes. Women now have much greater access to computers; however, there are still areas where these stereotypes persist such as in the world of tech startups.

Despite the increasing importance of Twitter as a global forum for political debate, women were left out when Twitter formed their board in 2013. An article by Bronwen Clune for The Guardian decrying the board’s make-up attracted many disheartening comments. Although more than half of Twitter users are women, commenters said that women should create their own Twitter if they wanted representation on the board. Suggested names included “Witter” and “Naggr”.

A recent advertising campaign by UN Women aims to bring light to the prejudices women still face from other online users. The campaign shows top Google results for searches such as “Women Should…”. They include “Women should stay at home”, “Women shouldn’t have rights”, and “Women need to be put in their place”. The Head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, says that cyber bullying is an example of “a definite backlash” against women’s equality and that the campaign for equality of the sexes needs to be broadened to include boys and men as well as women and girls.

Where women’s voices are heard in the mainstream news media they are often skewed towards “soft” subjects. Dawn Foster observes that “women’s writing often gets labelled as ‘life and style’ regardless of the content”. In Australia Fairfax news websites often place articles about gender equity in the soft news section aimed at women rather than under politics. Online communities like Women’s Agenda and Men and Feminism are helping start conversations about gender equity but there is a growing need for these conversations to be recognised as mainstream issues.

Timothy Burners-Lee inventor of the World Wide Web says of his invention 20 years ago that “The most exciting thing was not the technology but the community and spirit of people getting together”. This spirit is lost when online communities are more exclusive than inclusive. As more and more people join online communities it is now more important than ever that internet culture catches up and encourages a more democratic forum for public discussion.

Lyndal Rowlands is a Masters of Global Media Communication student at the University of Melbourne. She is currently based in Timor Leste working in the humanitarian sector. You can find her on Twitter @Lyndal_writes.