Disparate Impact in the Blogosphere

Danielle Citron gave a compelling presentation at the recent Yale Symposium on Reputation in Cyberspace exploring how group dynamics can deter women from participating online. The Yale Pocket Part has done a symposium on online harassment. Citron moved the discussion forward by analyzing social psychological dynamics in online life and describing how much more likely women are to be threatened by the worst type of comments:

Threats, lies, and the disclosure of private facts discourage women from blogging in their own names. Women lose opportunities to establish online identities that would enhance their careers and attract clients.

Destructive online groups prevent the Web from becoming an inclusive environment. Disappointingly, this phenomenon throws us back to the nineteenth century, when women wrote under gender-neutral pseudonyms to avoid discrimination.

Web 2.0 technologies provide all of the accelerants of mob behavior but very few of its inhibitors. . . . Individuals who feel anonymous do and say things online that they would never seriously entertain doing and saying offline because they sense that their conduct will have no consequences. A site operator’s decision to keep up damaging posts encourages destructive group behavior. Online mobs also have little reason to fear that their victims will retaliate against them.

The AutoAdmit lawsuit is a first step toward addressing the last concern. Making internet intermediaries more responsible may be another.

Given that the Yale conference had been criticized for failing to adequately include women’s voices, Citron’s presentation was especially important. While cyberspace may be liberating for many, the same prejudices that permeate real life can infect the online world. And as more of our life gets conducted online, combating these prejudices is going to need to become not merely a legal, but a cultural project. That issue has a long history, and has sparked many valuable discussions. Citron has already done very important work on making computer systems more accountable, and I look forward to reading her contributions in this area.

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