Women in Technology

Hear us Roar

Interview with danah boyd

by danah boyd and Tatiana Apandi

danah boyd is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California-Berkeley and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

Tatiana Apandi: You've been involved in a lot of women-empowerment activities—from bringing the Vagina Monologues to the women's center at your college to producing a Tracy Chapman concert to raise money for women's shelters—what's been your impetus for doing those things?

danah boyd: To be honest, it's always been extremely personal. My mother is a goddess. She worked hard to make ends meet so that my brother and I could excel. When we were kids, she quietly worked two jobs while making certain that we had loving caretakers; she'd pick us up after a long day of work, make dinner for us, put us to bed, and then head out to waitress at night. Looking back, I don't understand how she did it. Growing up, I watched my mom face various inequalities, most of which I didn't understand until I was older. I watched her go through emotionally abusive relationships; later, I learned there was a physical aspect as well. I watched her struggle with businessmen who expected her to offer her body to get a raise or, simply, to keep her job. She kept her head high and she stuck to her beliefs and I've always been in awe of her dignity.

As a teenager, I experienced sexual violence firsthand. At different stages, I experienced various forms of harassment. It took me a while to get a grip, but there were amazing folks around me who helped me understand that it wasn't about me, that it was an abuse of power or an attempt to control me in one way or another. I decided at a relatively young age that I wasn't going to let abusive people control my life. It wasn't worth it. And I wanted to help other women realize that they needn't be controlled by abusive people either. I got involved with V-Day to help build a women's community... not simply a community of survivors, but a community of people who weren't going to take being abused and weren't going to let abusers abuse other women and girls. I carry that view with me in every aspect of my life.

TA: You've studied Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) and found that the system was sexist. Can you explain that a bit more?

db: Oh, that's a funny story... It requires a bit of backstory. When I went to Brown, I was immediately drawn to Andy van Dam, a professor in computer graphics who "got me." Everyone was terrified of him, but he made sense to me immediately, and I was totally in awe of his no-bullshit attitude towards everything. He had two daughters and was unbelievably frustrated that so few women were involved in computer science. He knew at some level that it was sexist and he was always trying to find new ways to support women. If you talk to most female Brown CS grads, they'll glow about Andy because he was such a champion of women in CS.

Well, we used to bicker about all sorts of things, probably because I simply loved to challenge him because he was so intimidating. He had just received funds to build a CAVE and he wanted me to work in it, and there was something "not right" about the CAVE. I told Andy it was sexist; he told me to prove it. One night, I was with a group of female computer graphics programmers and we were playing on the Nintendo 64. It was a silly game, one where frogs jump over gaps... And I kept noticing that my friends were failing at this simple task that my male housemates never stumbled over. There was something in my head that clicked... this wasn't simply cultural. The women programmed 3D; they knew 3D and were comfy in it.

I started scouring research trying to find an answer when my dear friend Dan Gould sent me a link to a military report that suggested that simulator sickness seemed to be correlated with spatial rotation skills; there was a footnote that women had greater sickness, but they could be trained to deal with this...the only caveat was that they got sick going back into "reality." I found this just before I left to study gender studies in Amsterdam for a semester. I started interviewing people who were transitioning male to female and female to male and found that they reported all sorts of strange visual issues while on hormones. They'd go to reach for doors and miss. These are things you normally hear at puberty, but the explanation had always been that it was due to pubescent children's growth spurts. These adults weren't growing—they were just experiencing a hormone shift.

After more investigation, I found studies of how spatial rotation capabilities were dependent on sex hormones and that transsexuals saw a shift in their spatial rotation abilities post-hormones. Bingo. All of a sudden, the military report made sense. Simulator sickness was correlated with spatial rotation skills because of hormones. So then I just had to figure out why. When I returned to Brown, I met up with Leslie Welch in psychology. She was interested in vision and she helped me devise an experiment to test which visual cues people prioritize when there is cue conflict. In my preliminary study, I found that men were more likely to prioritize motion parallax while women were more likely to prioritize shape-from-shading.

danah boyd
danah boyd

3D systems, like the CAVE, can't process shape-from-shading. People's eyes are constantly flittering to compute it and the computer can't simulate that. This is why women are more likely to get ill; they're more likely to experience visual cue conflict. The problem is that my study was a long way away from being publishable; I had found all sorts of holes in the research that I'd need to fill in to make a compelling and situated proof of this. Plus, I'd need to run a lot more experiments to prove it conclusively. In the process, I had learned that I hated psych experiments and the thought of running more made me anxious. Besides, I had completed my goal: to show Andy why I thought that the CAVE was sexist and why I wanted nothing to do with it.

I am still hoping that someone can take my preliminary work and actually show whether or not I was right. It's possible that my conclusions were wrong or that there are other issues at play. I hope that someone out there will look into it, but that person won't be me... I just can't bear the experiments. Either way, this investigation completely convinced me that this is not a cultural disparity, but a biological one. There's plenty of data to show that women are more likely to experience simulator sickness; we just need the work to show why.

TA: Do you feel that gender roles play out differently online than in person?

db: Sadly, no. There were all of these dreams that "on the Internet, no one would know you are a dog" (i.e., the New Yorker cartoon of July 5, 1993). The reality is that we primarily reproduce our embodied identity in the digital world. Ages ago, Josh Berman and Amy Bruckman did a study called something like "The Turing Game." They found that in 20 questions, you could figure out someone's embodied sex, regardless of what they pretended to be online.

We often kid ourselves into thinking that we can be anyone online, but it's really not true... most people are online to communicate with those that they already know and deception online is of little value. Check out Judith Donath's work in this regard. There are certainly examples of people getting away with deception, but it's not the bulk of online practice. And if you think twice, you can usually tell. I used to get kicks out of going into "lesbian" chat sites. I found that they were filled with men pretending to be women having virtual sex with other men pretending to be women. There aren't that many lesbians out there who model themselves after Barbie.

TA: How do you feel that participation in social network sites relates to gender?

db: Social network sites support practices that have existed long before social network sites. I don't think anyone would be surprised to find that men are more likely to collect "friends" while women are more likely to spend most of their time writing comments on each other's pages. The former is about generating weak ties while the latter is about maintaining stronger ones. (Note: I don't call them social networking sites because most users aren't "networking" per say. They are modeling and maintaining their pre-existing social networks.)

TA: You've studied the cultures of Friendster and MySpace. Do you feel that these sites can change the dynamics of how the sexes interact?

db: Again, not really, for the same reasons as I've stated earlier. The important thing to remember with social network sites is that they aren't about the virtual, they are about modeling offline connections and maintaining them. Gender dynamics are culturally embedded and that means that they seep into the online world.

That said, I think that they open up opportunities for conversation. I remember hearing of a discussion on Flickr between self-identified feminist Americans and women from the United Arab Emirates. The American women were irritated with the UAE women's desire to restrict images of women's tummies and breasts as "pornographic." The American women accused the UAE women of being victims of masculine oppression. The UAE women shot back with something along the lines of, "Why do you need to validate yourself by making yourself available for male objectification?" I found this discussion eye-opening. From the UAE women's perspective, modesty was feminine strength, a desire to be valued for something other than male gaze.

I built a private online community for V-Day organizers. We had so many amazing discussions about feminism, sexuality, identity, empowerment, etc. I think that community spaces that gather people around a shared interest in these issues are far more productive than social network sites, simply because social network sites are meant to support pre-existing networks while community sites are more about helping people gather around an interest.

TA: You mentioned that someone once said that you were smart for a girl. How do you usually deal with such comments? Is this something that you've often encountered?

db: When I was interested in working for Disney Imagineering, I approached a recruiter at SIGGRAPH asking if there were internships available. I was told that there were no internships for artists and I responded by saying that I was interested in development. His response: "But you're a girl!?"

Misogyny and sexism are everywhere. Usually, I'm too dumbstruck when people are outright sexist to actually say something on the spot. That said, I'm a big fan of calling people on their sexism and I tend to do so regularly, especially in the blogosphere. Sometimes, it's about public accountability; other times, it's about writing a polite note saying that someone is out of line. It depends on what it will take for them to get it. Another tactic is to encourage my male friends to call them out.

It took me a long time to get comfortable with my voice and I still have doubts. Luckily, I have an amazing support network of friends and colleagues who constantly remind me not to let the trolls get me down. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them. I can't count the times when I've wanted to crawl in a hole. It still stings when I get emails calling me whatever derogatory term you can imagine. But I've learned that breathing through pain is one lesson that women learn.

I also try to reach out to other women who are attacked and I encourage everyone to do so. Create a network of support. Let women know that they are wanted and loved, supported and valued. We don't spend enough time complimenting each other, especially in the tech world. It's far too easy to tear each other to shreds and that doesn't really help anyone. I think it's imperative that women and women-friendly-men stick together and support each other and challenge anyone who wishes to perpetuate sexist views.

Furthermore, while this interview has been about gender, I think it's critical that we don't forget that racism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of systematic and societal oppression are deeply entwined. To make the world a safe and equal place for all requires embracing everyone who is oppressed by hegemonic forces. Some of women's greatest allies are men of color and gay men. I only hope that I can be as supportive of their challenges as they have been of mine.

Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Be more aware of women's rights internationally: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm.

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