Back in the mid-'90s, just 10 percent of Internet users were women. I was working for one of the early online companies, called Women's Wire, and reporters writing about the then novel subject of "wired women" would frequently ask the company's founders this question: Should women thinking about getting online choose gender-neutral e-mail addresses or handles to avoid harassment?
At the time, I found this suggestion a bit hysterical. Why should women hide their gender on the Net any more than they should in the offline world? As more women got online, it would obviously be less of an oddity for a female name to show up on the screen. Plus, why scare off women who weren't yet online by hyping the harassment they might experience if they did get wired? In short, it seemed like a nonissue, which would sort itself out in short order as the Net rapidly went mainstream.
Today, American women still slightly lag behind men in their use of the Net, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Some populations, like women under 30 and black women, are even more likely to be online than their male peers. Yet, apparently, when it comes to revealing your gender online, everything old is new again; just yesterday, the Associated Press ran a story titled "Female Chat Names Generate More Threats." It begins: "Next time you chat online, think twice about your screen name. A new study finds that using a female screen name like Cathy, Melissa or Stephanie is more likely to elicit threatening and sexually explicit messages."
Michel Cukier of the University of Maryland's Center for Risk and Reliability conducted a study with chat bots, sporting various names. He found that bots with obviously female names received an average of 100 "malicious messages" per day, while bots sporting obviously male names received just four. Bots with ambiguous names like "Nightwolf" or "Orgoth" got an average of 25 such messages.
This finding may not seem like news to anyone who hangs out in public chat rooms. It wasn't to Parry Aftab, an "online-safety expert" quoted in the AP piece, who said: "It's sad that we have to say to men and women, but especially women, 'Don't give away too much information and that includes your gender.' There's no reason for people to have to know that you're a woman." There goes my theory that when the Net went mainstream there would be nothing novel about having a female screen name.
Broadsheet readers -- male and female -- do you consciously go out of your way to disguise your gender online? Why, or why not?