ROFLCon, Women, and Digital Natives

This past weekend, I spent an amazing two days at ROFLCon, a conference self-described as a mix of a “bunch of super famous internet memes [and] some brainy academics.” As promised, it was provided lots of laughter but also posed some interesting questions. During the opening panel, the question was asked(I’m paraphrasing), “If the Internet is a thought of as this democratizing force, why all the panelists white men?” Various retorts and theories were thrown around the issue, and it become somewhat of a running gag throughout the conference. “I apologize for being a white male,” said Christian Lander, writer of Stuff White People Like, before beginning his talk.

As the conference progressed though, it became obvious that all the panelists were overwhelmingly male. (To be fair, Alice Marwick gave one of the keynotes and women were well-represented in both the ROFLCon attendees and organizers.) Yet if ROFLCon aims to bring together the most famous people on the Internet, it seems like the most famous people on the Internet are usually white and male, even though online interactions are usually gender-blind. What makes this particularly striking is the fact that girls are no longer a minority on the Internet. Pew Research Center’s Dec 2007 report on “Teens and Social Media” found that of teenage content creators, 55% were girls and 45% boys.

This is a sweeping generalization, of course, but it may simply be that girls are interested in using the Internet in different ways. Girls are more active on social networking sites dominate the teen blogosphere (Pew) as a way of keeping in touch with their friends. Along the same lines, there exist certain online communities online dominated by females just as there are communities dominated by males. And the type of humor that ROFLCon particularly caters to just happens to include a lot of men.

The crucial distinction is that ROFLCon does not reflect the average Digital Native. It represents certain niche communities, outside of which names such as 4chan or Anonymous have little resonance. Parsing the gender discrepancy of the panelists is really a moot point, as they represent a very specialized demographic within the Internet, not the Internet at-large. Although the exact definition may still be open to discussion, the term digital natives encompasses far more people than those whom we – for lack of a better term – would call geeks. In includes Kyle, who figured out how to connect a computer to IRC in 1st grade, and me, who’s never gone on IRC, and my roommate, who’s never heard of IRC. In short, it includes a generation of young people who have grown up immersed in this digital technology, be it cellphones, iPods, YouTube, or Facebook.

Related posts:
No Boys Allowed
“Digital Natives” Under Attack

– Sarah Zhang