Women participation in online communities

Some observations from (Singaporean) commons researcher Natalie Pang, in our forum discussion at Ning.

The context was a call to improve diversity in the P2P Foundation participation.

Natalie Pang:

My research and observations on online communities and women participation in the digital environment has led me to derive the following thoughts (which are not independent of each other):

1) Structure of the online environment: there’s a huge focus on the structure of language, especially the written word, as the main interaction point between people in online communities. By no means do I imply that women can’t write – there are some awesome female writers I have seen in various online communities – it’s just that women generally do not ‘jump’ into online discussions that easily…some gender studies argue that women thrive better on ‘contextual’ interactions, which can be understood that they need more than the spoken/written word in order to communicate better. Think body language, facial expressions, and long-term relationships.

2) Security and belonging: In one case study I have done with a women-only farmers’ community in Australia, I was trying to encourage their participation in an online portal I have launched. The first few months of the project proved disastrous – participation was non-existent. Then I found various reasons for the lack of participation…some of these reasons were not tagged to gender, and some were, such as: sense of threat in participating in an online community in an ‘open’ way (there was a feeling that one would be putting herself ‘out there’ and ‘exposing herself unnecessarily’ without any good grounds for doing so), and lack of belonging in an online environment.

3) In the same case study I also realised that the reason for the lack of participation was probably also due to the fact that the community was a ‘real’ one in reality. The women in the group met together often, and even those who didn’t, interacted with one another often enough through email, telephone, and skype. So there was no need to see the online portal as a means of communication to discuss ideas, thoughts, etc. I narrowed this observation down to one thing I see almost everyday/all my life: women go to the restrooms in pairs (sometimes groups) while men just don’t do that (men go to the restroom, do whatever they need to, and they exit…full stop. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzO1mCAVyMw for details). Some women are community-oriented by nature (there are real communities happening in restrooms) and again, this is related to the earlier points – the structure of communication, the establishment of contextual interactions, and the need for a ‘safe’ environment (even though this may only be perceived) in their communities and online portals may not always provide these attributes.

And then again, I am always wary about any attempts to ‘categorise’ people in sweeping statements; which are counter-productive – so I’d like to also say that these are only general observations, and of course there are exceptions. On the flip side, the structure and various catalysts in the virtual environment can also be addressed to encourage female participation. Personally, I think any online community will go through the same stages/processes of face to face community – introduction, growth, coalescence, defection, maturity, etc. The velocity of growth for the Internet/online communities has simply not allowed many the luxury of keeping up their participation and integration into many communities.”

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