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Book reviews

Nattering on the net, Dale Spender
Netchick, Carla Sinclair
The Internet for women, Rye Senjen and Jane Guthrey

WISENET Journal 42, November 1996, pp. 20-21.

Nattering on the net: women, power and cyberspace, Dale Spender, Spinifex Press, 1995, ISBN 1875559094

Netchick: a smart-girl guide to the wired world, Carla Sinclair, Allen & Unwin, 1996, ISBN 1864481552

The internet for women, Rye Senjen and Jane Guthrey, Spinifex Press, 1996, ISBN 1875559523

Reviewed by Jean Weber

The internet, the World Wide Web, the 'information superhighway' - the news media is full of references to this rapidly expanding communication resource and source of information. WISENET Journal has carried articles in the last few issues, and the group has discussed the best ways to use this resource.

Media discussion typically varies from wild enthusiasm to dark prophecy. Arguments over censorship (whether, how, and of what) get a lot of attention in some quarters; discussion of practical means to make a lot of money dominate in others. Some people worry about declining standards of literacy; others seek ways to enhance and enrich education by electronic means.

The three books reviewed here approach this phenomenon from quite different angles.

Dale Spender's book, Nattering on the Net, is (not surprisingly) the most scholarly of the three. The first several chapters look at the history of information dissemination, from 'monks and manuscripts' through to public libraries, with discussions of readers, authors, literature, the telephone, radio, television and education along the way.

She points out, with many examples, that the control of information and education has long been a concern of the elite of a society, and points out some important parallels between reactions to the printing press and reactions to the internet: predictions of a decline in standards, concern about the dissemination of misinformation (and of any information that the elite would prefer to have supressed), and so on. She shows how each development has led to an increase in opportunities for people and to changes in social structure.

Most importantly, she shows how each development, while initially exploited by men, came to be an opportunity for women to exert more control over their lives. She argues strongly that 'cyberspace' holds the same promise for women, but only if we take the necessary steps to develop its potential.

I read the last chapter of this book ('Women, power and cyberspace') first and found myself arguing with a lot of points, but after reading the entire book, I see that Spender has covered most of my objections.

For example, she appeared to spend a disproportionate amount of space talking about negative things (male domination and harassment of women on the net, for example) and things that have been overtaken by events (such as difficulties in locating female-friendly resources). The latter is a major problem with any book about the internet: things are moving so quickly that any specifics are likely to be obsolete before the book is even printed.

However, after reading the entire book, I can see that she has mentioned many positive developments in response to the problems discussed, and has made a major point about the opportunities for women, ending with a call for women to exploit this resource.

The next two books, published only 18 months after Spender's, show that young women are certainly claiming their space on the net, with enthusiasm. While some girls and young women may have been intimidated by the male orientation and techno-nerd image of the net only a few years ago, clearly Carla Sinclair (the author of Netchick) and her friends have found much to excite them - and when they haven't found what they wanted, they invented it!

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Netchick is an enthusiastic romp through the resources of the World Wide Web, along with interviews and stories about women's experiences (mostly good, but some cautionary tales are also included). Topics covered include sex, fashion, music, art, news, and various less-classifiable 'just fun' sites. There's a bit of history thrown in, and a chapter devoted to practicalities: how to get connected, etiquette, definitions and so on.

The book is very visual, with lots of graphics, photos and splashy layouts, rather like many student newspapers I've seen, but with better editing.

One could argue with the lack of analysis and the inclusion of material that might disgust some readers (the author does remark that some of the sites disgust her), but I thought the non-judgemental approach was fairly refreshing. The overall tone is 'get on the net, girl, and go for it'. I should think this would appeal to young women, even if it doesn't appeal to their mothers.

A more practical book, quite readable but with a fairly stodgy layout, is The internet for women by Rye Senjen and Jane Guthrey. It gives a brief background on the internet (what it is, who uses it, what it has to offer) and an overview of some gender issues (harassment, pornography, etc), then explains how to get connected. Chapters are devoted to each of the major resource types available and how to use them: email, mailing lists, newsgroups, chat groups and the web. Tools such as gopher and telnet, which I have never previously understood, are clearly explained and examples given.

I found the explanations quite clear. Although I've been using email for several years, and the web for 8 months or so, I picked up some useful tips on the other functions.

The last section is devoted to an extensive list of feminist email addresses and web sites, with the caveat that things change rapidly and many may be out of date. And finally there's a bibliography and a glossary.

I'd certainly recommend this book as a practical starting place for any women wanting to get on the internet.

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