Home is Where You Hang Your @: Australian Women on the Net
Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences
School of Communications and Multimedia
Australian Research Council
ARC Number : DP0211751
This article argues that the emergence and growth of the domestic computer and Internet connectivity within Australian homes has important implications for social research, and particularly for analysis of the socio-cultural relevance of the Internet for women and the family. Women are incorporating the Internet into their everyday lives in a manner similar to that previously seen with the telephone, which, in many ways, has "increased women's access to each other and the outside world ... [and] improved the quality of women's home lives"(Wajcman, 1991, p.l05). Just as the telephone can be viewed as a women-friendly technology (Gillard, Bow, & Wale, 1994), women seem to have embraced and feminised the Internet in their own distinctly female manner. The Internet has generally been said to affect everyday interaction and communication by either decreasing sociability - where it may draw people away from other types of social engagement through the provision of individual entertainment and information facilities (Holmes, 1997, p. 32), or transforming community - by allowing for expedient and economical communication with communities of shared interest from widespread locations previously difficUlt to engage with (WeIlman, Quan-Haase, Boase, & Chen, 2002, p. 5). However, the recent feminisation of the Internet provides us with a new understanding of the Internet as a supplement to everyday community and sociability - an adjunct to existing face-to-face social relationships. Under this model, personal interests and civic engagement are not diminished, but rather enhanced, through the use of the family Internet by many women. Australian women's engagement with the Internet has rapidly increased over the last few years with similar participation rates for women and men. Dale Spender (1995) anticipated this potential-for the Internet to become a women's technology. Computers are for naltering on the net. A computer connected to the information superhighway is more like a telephone (with the added benefit of pictures and text) than it is like an adding machine. Like the telephone, the connected computer is just crying out for women to use it (p. 192). Drawing on illustrative material from face-to-face interviews with Western Australian families we will show that most of the families we have researched incorporate (use) the domestic Internet as an adjunct to existing social relationships - as well as to augment enjoyment of their own interests and priorities. Women in this study don't seem to be braving out the gendered exclusion and/or harassment involved in many male dominated sites (Spender, 1995) but rather carving their own more selective pathways on the Internet. This takes a variety of forms ranging from teenagers' extensive use of MSN instant messaging (with existing offline friendship groups); sites dedicated to women's agendas, priorities and interests; to women's use of email to keep connected with friends and family. We will also argue that many women have appropriated and incorporated this teclmology as their own, engaging in telecommunications practices which fulfil their own specific social and familial needs and desires; and that women have become self-determining users of the Internet, feminising this technology by incorporating the Internet for both relational and functional purposes and in a manner different from men. Early findings from this study suggest that the family Internet, as incorporated and feminised in many homes, seems to supplement the pre-existing notion of sociability and community - rather than diminish or transform it. Women in this study tend to display their own unique patterns of use, allowing for a feminised cruise along the information superhighway. Their online communication often mirrors their face-to-face relationships and "the online content that women normally look at really provides a map of [their] offline interests and priorities"(Axelrod, 2000).