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The Future of Feminism is Online.  Are You?

September 14, 2006

If you want to connect with the 15 to 30 year old crowd, you’d better start inhabiting their world—the virtual one of MySpace, Facebook and Friendster, YouTube, and too many blogs to name.  Each is part of an exploding “social web” that a growing number of teens, ‘tweens and young adults, many of them female, are tapping into. Too often, the feminist movement navigates via cobwebs. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 86% of women ages 18 to 29 are online (compared to only 80% of men their age).  Social networks are capturing a big share of this traffic.  BusinessWeekOnline cites Nielsen//NetRatings in reporting that social networks claim almost 45% of “active web users.”  Generally considered to be the most popular website in the U.S., the social network MySpace boasts more than 100 million registered users—roughly 50% of them women and 40% of these in the 15 to 30 year old age group.  That’s 20 million young women who connect, IM, share music, and find friends—all online. A few feminist groups have staked out space in the virtual world of social networking.  Bitch and Bust magazines have MySpace profiles, as does veteran feminist publication, Ms. Magazine.  But many women’s groups didn’t even have websites until a few years ago.  Some still don’t.  Why aren’t more women’s groups spinning their own social webs? There are, to be sure, risks and challenges involved in going Web 2.0, a term web guru Tim O’Reilly uses to refer to the new breed of online collaborative and information sharing services.  Privacy issues and inadequate security for personal information continue to plague the online world—and dominate terrestrial news coverage of the virtual universe. Last month, AOL unintentionally posted the online search habits of almost three-quarters of a million of its members, potentially traceable by their ID numbers.  This followed on the heels of a Justice Department demand in January of this year that Google deliver a ‘random sampling’ of one million search queries.  Google refused.  Last year we learned that Yahoo cooperated with the Chinese government’s investigation of journalists by handing over personal emails. Equally unsettling is a recently solidified tech trifecta of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, MySpace and Google.  In July 2005, News Corp. (the third largest media conglomerate according to Hoovers, and parent company of Fox Entertainment) bought Intermix Media, owner of MySpace, for $580 million.  Completing the circle, Google signed a deal with News Corp. last month to pay $900 million in ad revenue for the privilege of becoming MySpace’s exclusive search and keyword ads provider. What will these three media technology corporations do with the wealth of personal and consumer based information they can tap as a result of this partnership? Social networks seem positioned to provide a rich and sophisticated system of data collection available for corporations to promote consumer spending and maximize profits. Yet, the transformative power of the web is too compelling to dismiss.  While in most cases virtual activism remains just that—virtual—there are exceptions. Take for instance the stunning success of the Howard Dean campaign during the 2004 presidential elections, or the recent immigration marches that were simultaneously staged in a number of major U.S. cities—due in part to the online organizing that took place via social networks. Let’s be real. The Internet, with all of its possibilities for connection, still does not a movement make. Women have to make the connections. Those who would expand and solidify the feminist movement in this new century need to draw on the grassroots activism that built and sustained the movement in the last. And to keep moving forward, organizers can use what technology offers:  social networks, blogs, email and all the tools of the Internet. Because if online networks are poised to become the community centers of the 21st century, the women’s movement must stake more than a few claims.