Promoting Women Bloggers: Less Talk and More Action

Why it took over two years of conversations to get to this point; Why it’s important; What can be done; Where we should go from here.

A couple of conferences ago, which in human time was only ten days, Rebecca MacKinnon of Harvard’s Berkman Center was at a conference of Harvard’s Nieman Center and made an aside to the proceedings. She relayed a post by Keith Jenkins, the photography editor of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, who wrote:

My fear is that the overwhelmingly white and male American blogosphere, hell-bent (in some quarters) on replacing the current ranks of professional journalists with themselves, will return us to a day where the dialogue about issues was a predominantly white-only one.

What MacKinnon didn’t clarify was that he was not focussing on the blogosphere-at-large, but that group which sees themselves writing in the public interest and intersecting with what journalists do. This is an issue that has not only been breached in the upper echelon of the blogosphere but in the peak of print journalism, that is, the opinion pages of the influential newspapers. In the Los Angeles Times, Jaimes Rainey today summarized the weeks-old very public opinion exchange between Susan Estrich and editor Michael Kinsley (which draws on Howard Kurtz’s reporting last week). The travails of the LA Times, along with those of women bloggers, were assembled by Maureen Dowd, the sole women columnist of the New York Times, in her column today: Dish it out, Ladies.

MacKinnon had been mindful of the diversity issue going into the Nieman conference. She should have been; she read a report of 4,600 words on the inclusiveness at the previous conference. She had organized the conference; I was the one who wrote the report: Inclusiveness at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility conference. I wasn’t needed at this more recent conference, for which I was a bit grateful, anyways. (Rebecca’s told me that she’s been running between conferences, which is an acceptable excuse.)

Nonetheless, her post yielded a conversation– 23 responses, and spinoffs on a few other sites. On Monday morning, Halley Suitt laid down a challenge for each blogger to add ten new names to promote ten new, five of them women. By the end of the week, Internet journalist Lisa Stone announced a bloghercon conference.

II. TIME AND AGAIN

Surely this couldn’t be the first time this has been raised about blogging? I’m relatively new to the blogosphere, but I had a feeling it wasn’t. I sent a quick note to Jeneane Sessum, whom I had become acquainted with during my research following the previous conference. Jeneane had written a satirical takedown of that conference, and came through in the clutch again this time with UNITED NATIONS SUES HARVARD FOR USE OF TRADEMARKED NAME AND SEATING CONFIGURATION. Also through that research, I began corresponding with Shelley Powers, one of the masters of the long-form blog essay. Rebecca Blood had recommended to me to Danah Boyd whose academic research at Berkeley focuses on the sociology of participatory media. I met Nancy White (choconancy) when I discovered that she was the first to publicly subscribe to Civilities on Bloglines.

These names I used as starting points in my search. In the process, I re-discovered misbehaving.net, which danah contributes to along with nine other women from the United States and Europe. It’s “a weblog about women and technology… a celebration of women’s contributions to computing.” So here’s the sum of what I found, about ten online discussions over the past year-and-a-half. See Promoting Women’s Voices: A Timeline of Relevant Discussions.

Thanks to the increased connections, there was a happy ending– or a happy beginning, if that’s what the bloghercon is meant to do. But this had a surprisingly long gestation term: 27 months since it first came to attention in the New York Times. That in itself is odd since in the technology realm, recognition by the “paper of record” usually signifies that an idea has already gone around the world, or was about to.

It’s possible there wasn’t enough “critical mass” before this time; it’s possible that people were otherwise focussed on the Presidential campaign. But that’s hardly a reason: when studying the discovery of “Jeff Gannon”, I found that that story took 11 months to break from when it first made it to the web and to a major newspaper. (see Stuck at the Gates).

This is a good time to take stock of why it took so long. Will other issues face the same problems in not getting noticed?

III. PRIME TIME

Five years ago, science reporter Malcolm Gladwell sought to explain how ideas reach The Tipping Point and become an epidemic. In his formula of mavens, connectors, and salesman, he missed one thing: the jerks. That would be the one represented by the unlit match on the cover of the book. Somebody’s going to say something uninformed enough for people to start calling that person a jerk, and it will enrage enough passions to get people moving.

I’m not sure anyone’s going to develop a sociological theory based on the utility of jerks, But Gladwell provides help in his new book, where he talks about the curious evidence of “priming” in controlled psychological experiments. Just thinking that one is a professor before engaging in a game of trivial pursuit helps people answer more questions correctly; when black students check off “African-American” before taking a test, their scores dropped. Another experiment is as simple as flashing a face, white or black, and then a gun or wrench. You know where this is going.

As Gladwell explains it, priming explains subconscious effects in individuals. I might suppose that there is a parallel theory about the culture at large. Perhaps American liberals finally became primed to the idea that the Bush Administration was engaged in shady PR practices with the discovery of Armstrong Williams. Once that happened, people were able to react to “Jeff Gannon” (this ignores the principle actors in the expose, which, as I note above, I have written about in-depth). After that, the liberal community is more primed than before to ferret out stories of Administration propaganda and rally the supporters around it (see Stop Fake News).

Similarly, in his first years at Harvard, President Lawrence Summers failed to make connections with potential allies. He was outspoken, he kept digging himself into holes, and people just expected him to do so again. (according to a recent Boston magazine article by Richard Bradley, drawing from his new book Harvard Rules) By the time he gave his speech on January 14th about increasing diversity in the sciences, his critics were ready to pounce, and when he misspoke, they did. One can defend Summers on the basis of William Saletan’s analysis, but the fact that tenure appointments to women declined in the last four years has gotten more lasting attention.

With women’s issues in the spotlight, Susan Estrich moved to criticize Michael Kinsley, and MacKinnon and Suitt’s raising the point– at Harvard of all places– the issue takes hold.

This should trouble us, of course. As thinking individuals in a democratic society, we don’t want to be subconsciously primed, or have wait until a prime event, for people to start to take notice of problems. We also may start to wonder whether blogging as we know it may prime people into a certain type of behavior. If we find ourselves in old habits, we need to break out of them somehow. Fortunately, I had a chance to hear the woman sometimes called the “doyenne of the digerati.”

IV. LISTENING TIME

Esther Dyson is one of the pioneering women in the computer industry, having grown her industry newsletter into a trade conference juggernaut. I was surprised to discover now that she was only an observer at the BloggerCon conference hosted at the Berkman Center in October 2003. Perhaps the most wrote these thoughts regarding the potential of blogging for the 2004 Presidential campaign, already underway:

The first magic of blogging, of course, is that everyone can self-publish. Everyone has a voice. The tools make that possible. But the next magic, much harder to achieve, is that everyone wants to be listened to.

I wasn’t at that conference, but I did catch her at the one following the election, Voting, Bits, and Bytes, when she returned to Harvard to be a panelist. Short of saying “I told you so,” she explained what she thought was wrong with the Dean and Kerry campaigns “They were mostly talking… they weren’t listening.” (RealAudio, 00:13:54) Why listen? “To explain their positions better.” But nobody followed up on this– even to ask whether the Dean campaign had perhaps listened too much (as Chris Suellentrop predicted in Slate in July 2003).

Let’s face the truth: blogs are celebrated for their ability to react quickly to news, and to drive conversations (Though in What lies in conversation? I point out that such dialogue is hardly guaranteed.) It’s like needing a bunch of batters who can bunt for a hit and steal a base. But what is underappreciated is for someone to bat cleanup: to tie together disparate threads, to do the research, and to do the hard work that Dyson calls listening.

V. RESEARCH TIME

Steven Levy noted the turn of events in an article in next week’s Newsweek Blogging Beyond the Men’s Club and wondered “if the blogosphere can self-organize itself” to help bring diversity in reading. Of course, here’s the problem. The blogosphere spends so much of its time trying to fill in for the media that it doesn’t do as much self-organizing as it could. Why doesn’t it rise to the challenge of doing what diversity offices should be doing? That’s where I come in. Maybe I’m just a freak.

I wrote a report, amateur perhaps, about diversity issues at a quasi-academic conference. In the report, I formed a hypothesis specifically regarding inclusivity. Let me improve on it here.

  1. All matters of inclusivity should be worthy of consideration–race/gender/religion/age/geography/language/job/credentials–, even if they cannot be individually considered for each given event.
  2. Of all of the issues, gender is easiest to study. For over 99% of the population, this does not involve asking a question that may seem intrusive (if you forgive me for leaving aside transgender issues).
  3. Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor’s research demonstrates that men and women communicate differently. Like all responsible social scientists, she does not argue that each individual conforms to the stereotype.

Perhaps it is possible that certain practices in blogging that were honed by men are more receptive to men. Perhaps. Some small steps to take to start studying this.

  • Take a census of online personalities– not just bloggers, but readers of blogs, participants in online forums, etc. Also, ask about intent. Compare this with numbers in the journalism field.
  • Track attendance at conferences. This week’s SXSW Interactive conference lists 210 speakers; by my count 33 are women.
  • Track who does the talking at these conferences. This could be technologically feasible if aided by software to do such a thing.
  • Track, through Bloglines, who subscribes to whom, and who actually reads whom.

This is just a start. I will further suppose that being more aware is a good step, and I think Danah Boyd makes the same point.

VI. MAKING TIME

If it’s just a start, what’s next? Returning to Gladwell’s Blink, he reports of psychologist Keith Payne’s experience testing policemen on the priming test. Conscious priming– that is, explaining to the subjects exactly what the experiment would be, with the black and white faces, the gun and the wrench, etc.– did not affect the outcome. The thing that worked is more time to choose. Sometimes I wonder whether a slowed-down Internet would be more constructive.

I’m one to speak. You call this a blog? I worked on this over the course of nine days. Of course, it Halley Suitt had waited that long, the time for the bloghercon may have passed again.

Another one to speak is Gail Collins, the first female editor of the Times Op-Ed page, who was quoted in Maureen Dowd’s column Sunday, considering why women aren’t as common on the opinion page: “they’re less comfortable hearing something on the news and batting something out.”

Op-Ed columnists aren’t that pathetic. That’s the world of blogging as we perceive it today, as practiced by the alpha bloggers– the wingers, and the fingers, as I’ve categorized them. How many more opinions do we need on whether the college kids who passed along Apple’s trade secrets on their blog were doing the right thing? How many times do we need bloggers to forward along with an article in the Times that most certainly everybody else has read?

When you look at a comparison of online political writers, you can see a leading indicator as to how popular they are: frequency of posting. Many posting ten times a day. This seems to be the worst excesses of the masculine brain: don’t listen. don’t think. react.

I would give anything for some of these writers to file away 9 of these 10 pieces, and to concentrate on writing one good one. Though to be fair, the elegant and unique style and format of Josh Marshall deserve praise. Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center travels with the A-Listers, but he keeps to his own beat, revealing stories from Africa and Asia. But many of the rest are absolute hacks, and it’s not even clear that they can muster one original idea a day.

Then again, I don’t need them. I can read Shelley Powers or I can read Chris Nolan. Both women are professional writers and refuse to see the blog format as an excuse to slack off. I may know their politics, but then again I don’t care, for they are constantly surprising me with what they say.

We read because we need new eyes to look at the world. What we have on the blogs is a way to rotate our eyes every now and then. If we can’t bring people to new voices here, where can we do it?

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