By Bent Eilif Noddeland
Social interaction in virtual space is becoming increasingly important to many people. This article looks at the gendering of those spaces.
I was very young the first time I realized that certain areas, rooms or spaces were generally associated with either men or women: my mother had shooed my father out of the kitchen for “trespassing”. While certain such spaces, like the kitchen itself, perhaps have become more “androgynous” in recent years, others have remained gendered, for example the “man-cave” or the “walk-in closet”. By “gendered” I mean that spaces, through human acts, speech and thought are associated with gender, and in some ways become an extension of gender roles, imposing certain restriction on access to or activity in those spaces. The exact gendering of these spaces is certainly open to negotiation on an individual level – many men might enjoy a walk-in closet – but in popular culture many spaces carry with them certain ideas and notions that are associated with gender roles. This is also true for spaces outside the home: certain professions, and the spaces associated with them, remain strongly gendered in popular culture. While a typical office might be somewhat neutral, an industrial site carries connotations to physical masculinity, and a nursing home nurturing aspects of femininity. These aspects of such spaces are the sources of humour, used as themes in fiction, or are the hotspots of politics.
Perhaps less commonly discussed is the gendering of virtual space. By virtual, I am here specifically talking about “spaces” we create as we communicate online through social media. In this article, I will consider the gendering process of an internet forum, which recently went through a deliberate process to alter the gender boundaries that had been created over a decade earlier.
“The Spire”, the subject of this article, is an internet fan-forum, dedicated to a series of popular American fantasy novels, The Wheel of Time, by author Robert Jordan. In the novels “The One Power” – essentially magic – is split between feminine and masculine aspects, somewhat like the Chinese concept of Yin & Yang. Men access the masculine aspect of magic and women the feminine, respectively. They are able to cooperate however, and there is a running theme within the books that it is through this cooperation that the most powerful magic is made possible. Within the fictional setting of the novels, a particular organization of magic-users (generally called “channelers”) has created a sophisticated society with a distinct gendered structure. What is relevant for this article is that the web forum in question has replicated this structure to an extent. This is understood on the site as a form of “light roleplay“, where users will rise through ranks taken from the setting of the books as they progress within the hierarchy of the web forum, not entirely dissimilar to how members of Salvation Army use military ranks despite not literally being members of an armed force. People who hold the status of moderators or administrators will similarly have titles borrowed from or inspired by the books.
As a result of the above, users, based on their gender, have typically been restricted to rising through a series of male-only or female-only ranks in two separate “paths” or “branches”. This entails a very concrete structural organization of a site-user’s experience. While most of the basic sub-forums are accessible to all users as long as they are registered members, there will be certain spaces they are unable to access or even see, based on their gender as users progress to a higher level of membership. That is not to say that there is no connection between the gendered paths; the site has taken inspiration from the books to introduce various cross-gender “bonds” which are meant to allow access for certain individuals who’ve become friendly with members of the opposite gendered path of higher membership.
To complicate matters, each gendered branch maintains several “sororities” and “fraternities”, respectively. These are also inspired by the books’ fictional setting, and thus have differing rules. For example, members of the “Alpha Sorority” are able to bond with several individuals each from the male branch, whereas members of the Delta Sorority are not allowed any such bonds. The remaining sororities are able to bond one member each from the male branch. Members aspiring to higher levels of membership choose to join one of these groups, usually based on similar desires and interests as the members already present in the groups, or on some sense of fitting in. There is a degree of humorous mutual stereotyping of the different groups, which may or may not have some degree of basis in reality.
“The Spire” was created as a fan forum for the Wheel of Time books in 2001, by two fans of the series. It steadily grew over the years, moving to forum service platforms that provided greater stability and more utilities, and expanded its staff until it became registered as a non-profit organization under US law. By the time I joined the site as a curious teenager in August 2006, the site had more than two thousand registered members, of which several hundred were active on at least a weekly basis.
What is important to note is that the site had by then become significantly more than a forum strictly for “fandom”. Its members discussed health, careers, personal issues, other literature than the Wheel of Time, TV-series and movies, politics and religion. Relationships were formed which ranged from long-distance friendships to marriages. Over the course of the site’s history from 2001, members have had their children join, and former members have passed away. The site hands out a scholarship each year, and local members across the world arrange annual parties or casual get-togethers, a few of which I’ve attended here in Oslo.
An issue that has come up several times over the course of the site’s history however, is the nature of the gendered branches of the higher levels of membership. A number of members have expressed displeasure with being denied membership in a certain sorority or fraternity, due to their gender. A policy emerged which allowed transgender or genderqueer members to choose the gendered path they themselves identified most strongly with, but it was still based around a rationale of gender identity, and consequently this option was not open to cissexual individuals (people who identify with their assigned gender).
Site Reform Survey
The issue of site restructuring was aired by the site’s administration in early 2012, according to archived transcripts of annual administration meetings. This was followed by an official site survey in late 2013. The term for the restructuring was “integration”, referring to the integration of the previously segregated gendered paths. The exact nature of this integration, however, was yet to be defined.
Nearly 200 members responded to the survey, of about 400 active members at the time. 60.9% of those who answered were positive to integration. Furthermore, about 67% said they would be “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to recommend “The Spire” if integration was carried out. On the other hand, ca. 8% responded that they would be unlikely to recommend the site. These results seemed fairly consistent regardless of the gender of those who answered.
When it came to look at the usage of the sub-forums, however, a somewhat different picture emerged. Members of the female path were overall more persistent users of their sorority-specific sub-forums (82% used them at least weekly), whereas male higher members were less likely to frequent their private fraternity-specific sub-forums (67% at least weekly). However, bearing in mind the bonding mechanisms mentioned above, these forums actually do have members of the opposite sex who can access them. It is possible that this disparity in usage is down to the fact that there are more female high-ranking members on the site than male, and so activity naturally gravitates towards their forums. When it came to the truly gender-restricted sub-forums, the numbers showed less difference, with females using their gender-segregated sub-forums slightly more (61% at least weekly) than the males (54% at least weekly).
When it came to how comfortable different members would be with gender integration, this was also addressed in the survey. All in all, about 58% of the higher-ranking female members were at least somewhat comfortable with having gender-integrated private forums, while 36% where at least somewhat uncomfortable. For the male higher-ranking members, 88% were at least somewhat comfortable and only 9% where at least somewhat uncomfortable. Notably, no male members stated they would be very uncomfortable, whereas of the 36% mentioned above, 21% were very uncomfortable among the female members. This was the clearest difference among the gender so far.
The reasons for the difference are somewhat speculative, but it is possible that this is due to the matters and topics discussed within the female gender-segregated forums, as well as notions regarding safe-spaces. This was supported through conversations I partook in later in the integration process, where a few female members raised concerns regarding discussing sensitive topics in front of men (fearing a “chilling effect”), and desiring a space where only trusted conversation partners could enter. This in turn caused some resentment from certain male members who felt that their presence had been branded as a negative influence through no fault of their own. This may be influenced by the observed tendency for females to be more open within their interpersonal networks regarding sensitive topics, as opposed to the generally lesser degree of desire for interpersonal emotional exchanges among men. Another possible explanation is that some females felt that men largely controlled spaces in “real life” (outside the virtual spaces of the forum), and so giving them equal access on the forum actually amounted to a form of inequality, from a holistic point of view. Ultimately, any explanation remains tentative, and it is unlikely that any one model could accurately account for the varying opinions.
The results of the survey were later mentioned in the annual meeting of the site administration in spring 2014. Here it was noted that gender integration would proceed, but would not be implemented until January 2015. The gravity of this shift for the users was exemplified by this statement from the site’s leadership:
“I fully acknowledge that this is an extremely sensitive subject, which is why we’re taking as long with it as we are being as deliberate with it as we are.”
The exact nature of the integration was still unsure, however. Three different solutions were offered, summarized as:
- Complete integration across all [sororities/fraternities].
- Keeping [the] current organization and creating 1 all-female [sorority] and 1 all-male [fraternity].
- Moving to complete integration but leaving 1 all-female [sorority] and 1 all-male [fraternity] for those so inclined.
Ultimately, the two latter were rejected, as it was deemed unseemly to lump together wildly different individuals in a group based simply on a desire to be with or without another gender. This did leave a number of other issues, however. In order to properly discuss the various issues, such as when a person would have to pick their desired path and/or group, or how to configure specific level of sub-forum access and so on, the administration created an Integration Focus Group, composed of 47 individuals from all the different user groups and membership levels. As I had been an active member for several years by then, I was asked to join in, representing lower-ranking members (who do not have access to any of the gendered sub-forums, though many aspire to) together with two other individuals. The Focus Group worked from May 1 to October 18, 2014, and various issues too numerous and specific to detail here were addressed in turn by request of the administration, and sometimes revisited once new factors had come into play. Eventually, a model of membership progression was reached and selected by the administration. By the time the Focus Group was closed, most issues had either been resolved, or had at least been addressed to a degree where the administration felt confident enough to move ahead.
Integration of the forum was put in practice January 1, 2015. By the time of writing, the integrated site model has been in practice for over a year. A few members have joined user groups that would have previously been denied them. A future endeavor or interest would be to interview various members on how they felt the reform worked, and conversely, didn’t. Certain members vocally stated their displeasure of integration during the work of the Integration Focus Group, and it would be interesting to see if their concerns have come to pass. Ultimately, all of this lies outside the scope of this article.
The focus in this article has been to show an example of deliberate gendering and subsequent reform of a virtual space with a high degree of continuity relative to most other Internet communities. In delving into this issue I have tried to make a point of emphasizing that “virtual” does not mean “imaginary” by pointing out the very real personal relationships that have formed and persisted for well over a decade in some cases. Virtual interaction is becoming increasingly important in mainstream socialization, and it is my opinion that experiences from sites like “The Spire” offer us valuable insights.