Feminist reflection on internet policies

Changing the way you see ICT

The “J Spot”at the 54th CSW: Celebrating women's social networking is not enough

Heike Jensen
Heike Jensen on 12 March, 2010 - 23:12
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Locating the J Spot1 at the 54th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 54) seems to prove almost as elusive as locating its embodied cousin has turned out to be. First of all, you will not find the J Spot in this year's intergovernmental and other official debates or proposed resolutions. You will have to seek it out in the vast parallel programme mounted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in conjunction with this year's meeting, and this is where the difficulties really begin in earnest.

Section J at the margins

Section J was not part of the biggest and most visible NGO event, the two-day “Global NGO Forum for Women” that preceded the opening of this year's CSW session. Neither could it be detected in the conference programme drawn up by the Center for Women's Global Leadership for their day-long “20th Anniversary Symposium” held in conjunction with CSW 54.

You will thus have to look out for the J Spot among the vast number of single panels offered by civil society organisationsi, UN organisations and others. Now why would that be difficult?

Finding out about events

To begin with, the most comprehensive listing of NGO events, consolidated into a handbook produced by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women and distributed at the NGO Forum, does indeed contain a vast amount of entries, yet these mainly reflect the sessions held at the Church Center and at the Salvation Army, the two main event locations that are a 10-minute walk away from each other.

A daily update on additional open events is available at the information desk of the Division for the Advancement of Women in the UN lobbyi behind the airport-like UN security, but it also only reflects a fraction of all the events that are actually going on. In addition, a huge number of organisations promote a multitude of events with their own flyers, with both the flyers and the events being scattered in many different locations.

Getting to the sessions

In the face of these difficulties in information packaging and flow (itself an interesting J issue), if you successfully and patiently collected such J Spot pointers at the 54th CSW, you will have learned about approximately 10 panels centrally pursuing questions related to media and information and communication technologies. Whether you will be able to attend them is another matter.

First of all, you need to physically cover the distances between the venues, scattered around Upper and Lower Midtown Manhattan, and involving security checks as far as UN buildings are concerned.

You also need to make sure that you arrive early enough to be admitted to the conference rooms once you reach them, particularly as far as the notoriously overflowing Church Center rooms are concerned.

But even being in time does not help you when the session turns out to be canceled after all or possibly moved to another location without a trace left at the scheduled venue. For events held in another UN building, you even need to obtain additional entry tickets, which many of us have not yet been able to lay our eyes on, let alone our hands.

Given these problems associated with on-site information flow and physical attendance, a tongue-in-cheek remark could point to the comparative ease with which media and ICTi coverage of the CSW 54 can be obtained, be it in the form of the “DailyLinks@CSW" newspaper produced by Genderlinks or through all the podcasts, tweets, interview snippets, press releases and think pieces available over the net. And this is not to mention the “CyberDialogues” held in conjunction with CSW 54.

However, we all know that there is something to personal human interaction that cannot be mass-mediated, and it is these transfers of feminist enthusiasm, energy, trust and solidarity that make it worthwhile to meet face-to-face.

Content of the sessions

Under these conditions, and with the CSW meeting still in full swing, it is only possible to give a tentative assessment of the thematics of the J Spot at this gathering. My impression is that two themes - with opposing emotional investments - predominate: One is the largely negatively assessed portrayal of women in mainstream print and broadcast media and their news, the other is the largely positively assessed involvement of girls and women in ICTs, particularly social media.

With respect to portrayals, the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) has just released the preliminary findings of its 2010 global study on who makes the news, and additional panels focus on specific issues concerning women's portrayal, reflected in session titles such as Portrayal or Betrayal: Women and the Media: How the Media Commodifies Women and Girls hosted by the Bahá'í International Community and the UK Women’s National Commission (WNC), and The Media's Portrayal of Prostitution offered by the Maryknoll Sisters.

As for ICTs and social media, the focus seems to be on concrete web initiatives and their possibilities for mobilising audiences. Here, we have sessions such as Promoting the Health Rights of Women through New Media offered by Americans for UNFPA, Shaping an Online Forum for Women in Peacekeeping' by the Institute for Inclusive Security (a session that I was unable to locate), and From Social Media to Social Action convened by Women's Intercultural Network.

What these panels and their organisers suggest is that at this year's CSW, media and ICT issues seem to be predominantly put on the agenda by organisations focusing on a broad range of issues beyond media and ICTs and looking at how information flows can help or hinder them in their pursuits of these issues.

In contrast, feminist organisations focusing squarely on media and ICTs are largely absent as organisers of panels, with exceptions such as the International Association of Women in Radio & Television, which offered the panel Mapping Women's Empowermenti through Targeted Media: Revisiting Section J and Re-evaluating the Role of Media in Empowering Women of the World.

So what gaps does this leave in this year's J Spot?

From the point of view of those of us involved in contexts such as the Internet Governance Forum and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN, there is a marked gap regarding central areas of concern to us: the ICT governance structures and web revenue mechanisms and their possible implications with regard to gender, be they economic, political or sociocultural. This gap is noteworthy for a number of reasons.

To begin with, it could be argued (and needs to be) that it is precisely on account of their governance structures and revenue mechanisms that mass media such as mainstream print and broadcasting are not in the business of satisfactorily answering girls' and women's strategic gender interests. The GMMP has since 1995 illustrated how immune these mainstream media and their news routines have been to feminist concerns, the many dedicated professional media women trying to improve gender-sensitive coverage notwithstanding.

Feminist theorists have since the 1970's explained the “male definition of news value” and the patriarchal structures within mainstream media organisations. But what needs to be analysed now is how the evolving global business structures, shaped by transnational conglomerates and business mergers, as well as economic pressures from online environments on older print and broadcast structures, relate to these earlier baseline findings.

Bad” women's media

Another blind spot in this context is the inattention paid to “bad” women`s media such as magazines concentrating on fashion, homemaking, stars and royaltyi. These “bad” media used to form a huge focus of feminist media studies in the 1970s and beyond, and my hunch is that it would be quite instructive to relate their fare to a lot of the content produced by girls and women in social media.

I would not be surprised if there are striking similarities regarding the themes addressed. I would also not be surprised to find similar sources of revenue at work underneath both traditional women's media and social networkingi sites, operating and doing extremely well because they put girls and women in the role of consumers of dream worlds and create community and a sense of belonging around consumption-based exchanges. Many interesting gender research questions, also looking at men in these scenarios, are here awaiting scholars.

Influencing governance structures and revenue mechanisms

The overall inability of feminists to significantly influence mainstream media content over the last decade could be interpreted to drive home the point that it is very hard to generate a feminist political impact in this sphere once its governance structures and revenue mechanisms have already been established.

This, however, would be all the more reason to engage with newly evolving governance structures and revenue mechanisms, such as those associated with the Internet and social media, as early as possible, before they are effectively determined by other, non-feminist forces.

This is why a mere celebration of women's social networking and participation in the internet is not enough and in fact even dangerous. Of course, it is important to encourage girls and women, feminist and gender-sensitive organizations to claim these new digital spaces in their daily lives and work. But it is similarly important to intervene in the development of these spaces' governance structures and revenue mechanisms.

One goal here is to safeguard the ongoing utility of the internet and its spaces for women and all people concerned with social justice. After all, the internet is a fastly evolving entity, and spaces for social networking and free expression that are here now may soon be gone or changed into something that is experienced as something less liberating.

Digital divides

A second goal is to make sure that the substantial kinds of financial revenue that the internet and its social networking sites help generate do not exacerbate the growing divide between the few that get richer and richer and the many that get poorer and poorer.

This issue also brings to mind the problem of different kinds of digital divide, which has not been mentioned here a lot, either. The growing social and economic inequalities, tied in with the growing power of a few industry giants, is a scary one to overlook in a pure celebration of social media, because these platforms may be used for “free” but still do not exist for altruistic motives at all.

Concurrently, an analysis of how transnational male business and political elites consolidate new forms of hegemonic masculinity is urgently needed (the word “patriarchy” seems to be currently out of fashion ;-)).

What to do about the J Spot?

It is with respect to the gaps that I have tried to outline above that media and ICT-focused organisations and scholars can make a big contribution in ongoing debates.

My feeling is that given the complexity of global media and ICT policyi and economy, and their absence from the discussion here, it would be important to mount a fact-finding and education campaign way in advance of the next big feminist gathering, because just offering a panel, however valuable that would be, would probably not be sufficient.

I would therefore advocate for developing a J Spot campaign. The next major events at which to aim could be the MDG meeting this summer and next year's CSW meeting, which is rumored to include a science and technology theme.

That's it for now, I am off to search for the next media or ICT panel:-)

Heike Jensen is a postdoctoral researcher in Gender Studies affiliated with Humboldt University Berlin. For the past eight years, she has focused on global information and communication technologyi politics, most notably the UN World Summit on the Information Societyi, the Internet Governancei Forum, ICANN, and questions of digital censorshipi and surveillancei. She is a member of APC WNSP network.


1Coin termed by Maria Suarez to refer to Section J in the Beijing Platform for Action