Some Cyberspace of Her Own
I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.
Ever since I was assigned to read A Room of One's Own in college eight years ago, I have kept it close for support. Besides the fact that, like Virginia Woolf, I had also read Leo Tolstoy's journals and was similarly enraged by the clarity he exhibited at such a young age, I felt she was on to something. "A room of one's own," however, wasn't quite it.
I grew up in the 1980s inside a charming, if small, Spanish-style California home with a mom, a sister, a piano, many dogs and two brothers who were relentless in their efforts to jimmy my locks with butter knives. Although I liked to think I had my own room, the space's original and (now that I'm an adult I can say it) idiotic plans called for its doubling as a shortcut to one of the house's more popular bathrooms. I went to great and occasionally violent lengths to discourage use of this particular feature. The results? Ha, as DrRogue would say.
Time and time again, my brothers broke triumphantly in, capturing me on my bed writing in my journal. I smile now, but back then, those intrusions enraged me. You see, unlike those jerks I was becoming a woman, and it was making me miserable. I liked being a girl. And it wasn't necessarily that I was surprised to discover that girls became women--in a rational way, I knew it happened all the time. It was just that I found the obvious sexuality of it offensive. It was clear to me that once breasts made their appearance against a shirt, a person could not be taken seriously.
I looked around at school and saw happy, pretty girls who went to the beach. They seemed content being female, and I liked boys too, so I did what they did. Then I went home depressed, slammed my doors, locked them and wrote to my journal about how much I loathed myself, until my brothers broke in after school. Here is a genuine entry from November 4, 1988: "I've gained five lbs. in a week if that's possible. I loathe myself. I'm sick of being regarded as 'muscular'--I want to be petite like Kate. Sports have ruined me."
Yes, you could say I was self-involved, melodramatic, petty. Worse, I was repetitive: November 4, 1988, was no date with an epiphany. Nonetheless, I was in pain. All I knew was that I'd gone from being an outspoken girl interested in everything to someone withdrawn and incapable of participating in class. I was depressed, but more than that I was hating myself for being a woman. I'd slipped onto a path that is as vicious and uncreative as it is a cliché of young womanhood. In a rare moment of teen lightness, I named it the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice. The Trail shouldn't be underestimated. Every day, another girl gets stuck in its mud.
Virginia Woolf would have liked DrRogue, a bright, confident writer with a lashing wit. As to whether DrRogue is a genius as defined by Woolf, only time will tell. In the meantime, she manages beyond the confines of a tiny school (there are just five girls in her class), her parents' limited financial means and, oh yes, childhood, to find experience and "a room of her own" for the cultivation of her talents. You see, DrRogue is known to those in her small New England town as 13-year-old Susan.
We met on July 14, 2000. I'm a part-time producer of commercial websites for teen girls and was spending some time perusing the vast number of homepages linked to one another on the Internet. There are thousands out there, colorful and animated, with names like Glitter Girl, Fairy Dawn, Overcooked, Pixie Kitten, Foily Tin, Quasi Grrrl, Peppermint and Intelligent Life. They can be constructed at established homepage-building areas of sites such as gURL, ChickClick, Lycos and Bolt. Or they can be created independently, then hooked into freer-floating webrings like "Shut Up You're Only 16!" and "Music Girl." Some are smart; some are sappy. Most are filled with poetry. If you visit, you may find writings, drawings, photos, interactive games and the creator's deepest, darkest secret. But you won't ever find her. Instead, your experience will be that of discovering an anonymous diary on a crowded city street. You can read it and learn everything about its owner, but look up and she's long gone.
DrRogue, however, is right here. I have no idea who she is.
She flashes onto my screen, an insistent clump of text in a small, square dialog box aboard America Online's ubiquitous Instant Messenger (IM).
DrRogue: Hey, Bronwyn!
Aha, exclamation points. Dead giveaway. DrRogue, I now know, is one of the dozen or so teen girls whom I have e-mailed about their homepages. By now, I've visited enough to identify the prints.
I flip through my list of teen e-mails. DrRogue is Susan, the one with the website called Intelligent Life. Evidently, she has made a note of my AOL e-mail address and posted it to her "buddy list" to see when I'm online. She's flashing again.
DrRogue: Hello, it's Susan.
(Slowness, you see, is terminal here.)
BGAR2: Yes, Susan, of Intelligent Life. Hello.
DrRogue: Yeah, yeah, just thought I'd reiterate.
In my web travels, I've discovered that most Internet-savvy, homepage-creating girls provide only first names on their sites and to people they meet online. Discussing this find via e-mail with many different young women, I learn that the "first name only" policy is pretty strictly followed in these parts. Not every teen, of course, approaches her online development in the same way. Websites like Goosehead, for example, the work of a 15-year-old student, her parents and a growing staff, serves up a huge number of provocative photos of the pretty tenth-grade founder. For self-run sites, however, those who forgo anonymity are just throwing bait to bad people. "Avoid the psychopaths," as DrRogue says.
Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of safety online. And both anonymity and online safety, I learn, are crucial to privacy. If you'd asked me in high school what privacy meant in my life, I might have said, locked physical space that cannot be invaded with a butter knife. I mention this to DrRogue. It becomes clear that things have changed.
DrRogue: Privacy is [about] having your personal space in a more intellectually abstract, metaphysical sense. It is making sure that no one can find out too much about your real life through your online follies, keeping relationships strictly anon and not putting yourself at risk of psychopaths.
Evidently, DrRogue's issues go beyond keeping her brother out of her room (although this is cited as an ancillary goal). No matter the "horror stories blown up by newscasters," Susan asserts that she doesn't "feel threatened that [her] anonymity is slipping away." On the contrary, she blames the media for exacerbating the situation with their stupidity:
DrRogue: Newscasters report the invasion of my privacy very sternly, as though they're the ones decoding the human genome. From the way they speak, as though every technical word is new and unknown, it's clear that they're still asking their kids how to log on to the Internet.
Notwithstanding adult ignorance, DrRogue's understanding of privacy, "metaphysical" as it may be, is still predominantly about hiding the cord that could lead "psychopaths" to the "real" her. But isn't this paranoia for good reason? I ask. Haven't we all heard stories of "psychopaths" locating teenagers from clues carelessly dropped in chatrooms? DrRogue blisters at this one.
DrRogue: And then we have, "Cyber stalkers! Are your kids safe on the net?" If they have an IQ higher than a rock. Never give your full, real name, specific location, or phone number to a stranger. EVERY kid should know that!
"Keeping relationships strictly anon," in fact, is just the beginning of what a user, child or adult, must learn about the web, according to DrRogue. Sensing my ignorance, she outlines society's paranoia, the real issues as she sees them and the solutions--albeit in a somewhat mocking tone:
DrRogue: "Companies are putting something called 'COOKIES' onto your hard drive to TRACK WHAT SITES YOU VISIT!" screams the television. Anyone with a brain and a mouse should know that you can clear all the cookies off your hard drive anytime, or even set your computer to not accept them at all. "CREDIT CARD FRAUD!" is another big one. If you have a grain of sense, you won't give your credit card number to sites with names like Bob's Discount Warehouse. If you're not sure it's credible, DON'T SHOP THERE. "A new virus is spreading like wildfire around the world and through major corporations!" Major corporations where the employees are so out of touch, apparently, that they'll download anything.
Although DrRogue and most of the teens I encounter online are very careful about their privacy, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's The Internet and the Family 2000 reports that 75 percent of teens consider it acceptable to reveal what the study has defined as "private family information" in exchange for gifts, online. These "older kids," aged 13 to 17, are even more likely than younger ones, according to the study, to divulge personal details, including the names of their own and their parents' favorite stores, the type of car their family drives, whether their parents talk about politics and what their parents do on the weekends.
In the adult world, a person's concern for her own physical safety goes without saying, while the current discourse surrounds public image more than it does personal safety. In a New York Times Magazine article on privacy and technology, Jeffrey Rosen states that through the interception of e-mails, the tracking of browsing habits and purchases online and statements made in chatrooms, one's "public identity may be distorted by fragments of information that have little to do with how you define yourself."
Indeed, we've all heard stories about e-mail fragments being taken out of context by employers and others. The Washington Post described the case of James Rutt, the CEO of Network Solutions Inc., who feared his years of candid postings about sex, politics and his weight problem might be taken out of context, thus damaging his reputation and his ability to run his company effectively. Consequently, the new CEO employed a program called Scribble to help erase his online past.
Rutt's story is not unusual. This fear of being taken for a "fragment" of information is enough for most of us to employ private e-mail accounts we switch to at work when we have something personal to communicate. Even though we take these precautions, everyone I know goes to great lengths to erase all of her business e-mails when leaving a company. Why? Because the medium is seductive: Web travel is about exploration, and e-mails begun as impersonal memos often become more intimate exchanges. Intimacy does not translate well to third parties.
Take the 1997 example Rosen cites of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig's e-mailed comment to a friend that he had "sold [his] soul" in downloading Microsoft Internet Explorer. Lessig, who had downloaded Explorer simply to enter a contest for a PowerBook, was not stating a biased opinion about the company, he was flippantly quoting a song. However, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had chosen Lessig as an adviser in the Microsoft antitrust suit, was forced to take such a bias seriously, removing Lessig as his adviser.
Rosen makes the point that we all wear different social "masks" in different settings and with different people. This may be true, even as it is socially taboo. From our estimations of Joan of Arc down to President Clinton, we celebrate and trust those with consistent (and consistently good) characters and criticize those who "waffle," or behave as if they are "spineless." Because we do not know how to define someone who changes with each new setting, we call her things like "mercurial," a "chameleon" or "two-faced." Consequently, the web induces fear in an adult not just for the things online crooks might do with Social Security numbers and other personal information but what a user herself may do to complicate her own "character."
However, while the adult world may suffer from a preoccupation with consistency, teens have the peculiar advantage of being dismissed as inconsistent before they begin. Adolescence is the societally condoned window in which we may shuffle through identities with abandon. My older sister, for example, horrified my grade-school self by morphing from punk to hippie to Hare Krishna to surfer girl all in the next room. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, I'd been through a few of those identities myself.
Besides their assumed role as explorers, teens may actually face fewer risks of this kind than their adult counterparts. Statistics relate that around 45 percent of large companies monitor their employees e-mail accounts, while few junior highs and high schools in America offer all their students computers or e-mail accounts. Even if they did, chances are that monitoring kids' private mail in public schools would raise countless legal issues. DrRogue's school is just now hooking up six new computers for the whole school of fifty-six students and has no intention of providing them with e-mail accounts. Ironically, it is this deprivation that has made monitoring less of an issue for students than it is for employees at big companies.
For girls like DrRogue who create and maintain personal homepages and explore the web's massive serving of chatrooms and boards, safety is not the only motivation for anonymity. "Bodilessness," it seems, can be the means to a more intellectual objective: credibility. Says Peppermint, a 17-year-old writer,
I definitely feel "bodiless" when writing for my page. The Internet has provided me with an audience that will forever be my biggest fan and my worst enemy. Just as I can say what I want on my site without fear of rejection, others can e-mail me their honest thoughts without the face-to-face consequences of criticism. My audience, as well as my privacy, is crucial to my development as a writer.
In a world with, as DrRogue sees it, "a seemingly endless supply of people to talk to and sites to visit, from all around the world," immediate, physical privacy gives some young women confidence they don't have when they're attached to developing physiques, school cliques or societal and familial expectations.
Only bodiless, confess some girls, can they relate certain ideas and thoughts at all. Indeed, screen names have become so popular that AOL is currently offering the option of seven aliases to the users of Instant Messenger. DrRogue herself has five that she can remember. In addition, girls can, if only for the experience, switch genders online. (Studies suggest 40 percent have done it.) "The ONLY reason I go into a chatroom is to pretend to be someone else!" insists DrRogue. Other young women are altogether wary of chatrooms. "I don't believe in chatrooms," explains Peppermint. "They've become a forum for online popularity contests and cyber sex." Does the monitoring of chatrooms add to their problems?
DrRogue: I've never felt like I was being monitored, because a monitor would do a better job of kicking out the scum.
Bodiless, many girls use their homepages as a sounding board before taking ideas out into "the real world." Others put the space and the "audience" to work on facets of themselves or ideas they plan to confine permanently there.
Peppermint, whose "real life" friends know her as Caitlin, addresses the consequences that she believes her physicality can have upon the reception of her ideas. "I do not post pictures of myself," she states in an e-mail, "simply because I want to be perceived as 'more than just a pretty face.'" Peppermint is so adamant that her physical self be distinct from her online self that she does not give her website address to "real life" friends.
Peppermint: I don't allow friends that I have known in person to have my Website address. The Web is a sacred place for me to speak to a receptive and critical audience, while at the same time, I do not need to worry about making a first impression, [about] coming off how I'd like to, or [about] what will happen the next time I see them. Because I don't need to make impressions, I am who I am, and I am being honest.
Peppermint believes her femininity and "real life" identity can negatively affect the reception of her ideas. She observes: "As a woman, I think we will always be viewed as sexual objects. [I want a person] to be able to look past the outside and realize that there is an opinionated, intelligent, creative young woman behind the pretty face." DrRogue, who at 13 is really just entering adolescence, simply may not have experienced her femininity as a handicap yet. If all goes well, she never will.
To many, appearance is the essential problem of female development. With the world standing by to notice her changing body, a young woman begins to perceive her somewhat limited access to what psychologist Lyn Mikel Brown (and many others, of course) points to as the patriarchal framework of our culture. From here, a struggle to retain her childhood identity and value system ensues, followed typically by a loss of voice, the narrowing of desires and expectations and the capitulation to conventional notions of womanhood. Yes, the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice is so trodden it is cliché. We've all seen countless articles on the phenomenon, but that doesn't make it any less painful for the young women going through it.
Less publicized, though more interesting than the pervasiveness of the Sucking Trail, is what Lyn Brown and Carol Gilligan (author of groundbreaking studies of female adolescence) have identified as a period before adolescence when girls' "voices" are at their most powerful. Young women, most of whom I imagine to be variations on DrRogue, actively resist dominant cultural notions of femininity at the edge of puberty. Finding a means to connect, harness and preserve the loud, defiant voices may empower girls to defy cultural norms and, in the process, eclipse the resentment that Virginia Woolf so protested.
On the one hand, Peppermint's sensitivity to a societal bias we'd like to think has passed is tragic. On the other hand, unlike those of us who were teenagers even ten years ago, Peppermint and DrRogue can literally construct their own worlds, with their own standards, where the only thing that matters is their ideas. They can't live in it forever, but maybe a few hours a day is long enough to change their lives.
BGAR2: how many hours do you spend online each day?
DrRogue: 1, usually.
BGAR2: really? That's nothing.
DrRogue: 2, really.
DrRogue: 3, if I'm bored.
BGAR2: still, I imagined more.
DrRogue: well, I'm prolly scaling down a lot.
BGAR2: why's that?
DrRogue: let's just say I've had to LIMIT my online time in the past.
BGAR2: ahh. los padres?
BGAR2: how much time did you spend yesterday?
DrRogue: lemme check my log.
DrRogue: ok, I lied. I spent 4 hours online.
Intelligent Life, DrRogue's latest homepage, which makes vague note of a Susan somewhere in the meat of its smart, sometimes acerbic, steadfastly spelling-error-free content, is exactly what it sounds like: an SOS for brain activity in a spectrum overwrought with misspelled emotion. Intelligent Life, when just a month old, had already received nearly 400 visitors--and that was during the summer. Whether they're up to DrRogue's standards is another matter.
Intelligent Life: I'm not being snobbish or narrow-minded, the time has simply come to draw the line. I want to meet people (of any age) who are bright and exciting, funny, kind, and intelligent. I want to meet people who are clearly individuals, not stereotypical, bumbling, senseless teenagers with limited vocabularies who take extreme liberties with spelling.
In short, do not visit Intelligent Life if you are, and there's no easy way to say this, a "ditz." Ding.
DrRogue: Have you been to Narly Carly yet?
Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page, to be specific, is DrRogue's spoof site--she recommended I look at it for research. Pulling the purple page with the rotating star up onto the screen, I see another reactionary move by DrRogue: a parody of the many sunny, earnest, "overwrought" teen sites splattered across the web. In the usual autobiographical style of these things, the fictional Narly Carly describes herself and her life, albeit without any of the eloquence DrRogue saves for, well, DrRogue. "I am a junior at Willingford High!" screams Narly at her visitors, "Go Wolfs!!!"
Although to the naked eye Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page looks quite a lot like any other teen site, its status as a farce lies in its suspicious abuse of exclamation points, the word "like" and an overload of personal information, among other things. Narly gives away reels of intimate details--for the visitors who "get it," this is a reproach of lax security. There is, after all, no one currently policing the Internet to keep people from divulging too much about themselves. In this era, something like Narly Carly serves as a gentle warning--as gossip does in a small town--to keep people in line. The irony is, of course, that a real Narly Carly may not understand irony.
Narly Carly bears the treadmarks of an adolescent critical of hypocrisy in older girls, making Susan appear to be someone Gilligan might identify as a "resister." Before they give up any measure of voice and shift into idealized femininity, girls are louder than ever, embodying what Gilligan believes may be political potential of an active adolescent underground. Whatever Susan's reasons for building an older "teenybopper's" site, they are her own. However, the underground political potential, along with Susan's strength and clarity of character, are palpable on Narly Carly. Indeed, a handful of the guestbook's visitors, whether male or female, passed the first test--they "got it." Said one visitor: "This page is so evil! I know whoever made it did this intentionally. No 'real' person acts this pathetic. And 'like' was WAY back in the 1980s. I know this is a joke and the person who made it is laughing their head off reading the guestbook."
When I argue that web diarists like her must be a bit self-conscious, DrRogue seethes: "People really put themselves out on these things!" Unlike my diaries though, they also get visitors who comment and provide discourse and insight, making the creator feel less alienated, making the pages actually useful methods of growth. Not to knock the diary--I certainly got somewhere venting in my own. Anaïs Nin kept a journal to "free" herself of "personae." The web is, in some ways, a more evolved journal, even as it is so many other things. Studies have shown that students write better papers and learn foreign languages more fluently when they actually have something to communicate to another person.
BGAR2: so these sites are like journals.
BGAR2: couldn't you print them out and store them in a closet or something and then delete them?
DrRogue: AH no!
DrRogue: that would defeat the purpose of the web!
BGAR2: what's the purpose?
DrRogue: interactivity, for one.
DrRogue: longevity of information, two. i can visit the Susan of a year ago. she's there in the same place, just as alive.
BGAR2: but how do you know when you're done?
DrRogue: I stop visiting it. I'm sick of it.
D.W. Winnicott defined a process of imaginative "saturation" in children's play in which the child plays with a certain toy or enacts an imaginative experience until all of the emotional ambivalence, fear, anxiety, etc., are diffused from that action or thing. DrRogues may be "playing" out their emotions to make offline "reality" less emotional. Selfishly, while she contributes to the textual wasteland of so many sites created and then abandoned, DrRogue hates to stumble upon such a "haunted" site herself.
DrRogue: It makes me feel really bad, manipulated almost, when I'm browsing a site, and then there's a date, and that date is like, March 13, 1996.
BGAR2: why, because it's old?
DrRogue: "does this person still exist?"
DrRogue: because I spent time getting to know the person
BGAR2: is it a waste if it's old?
DrRogue: it depends.
DrRogue: I like retail sites because they're constantly busy.
BGAR2: yeah, the idea of an updated site is good.
DrRogue: like someone's alive.
A good character's job is to "manipulate" her audience. Perhaps then, a date is some sort of narrative flaw that pulls DrRogue out of the story. What should a date matter to her anyway, I wonder: She'll never meet the site's creators. Why does she care whether she or he is still "alive"? The presence of a date on a site is like an actor's mustache falling off--it brings reality back into focus.
DrRogue's sense that a retail site, for example, might have human qualities, or something resembling a heartbeat, implies her ability to suspend disbelief so that the mechanism--words on the web--dissolves away. Further, it suggests a narrative view of the Internet, a desire to read and live through other people's stories. Susan seeks to learn about the world, about people and about herself, insight she can glean from any good story, regardless of its medium. I express some weariness of the homepages, but DrRogue says reading about their creators' everyday doings is fascinating, "sort of like having someone's life for a minute."
Stories, like "playing," can be powerful agents of personal transformation. "The right stories can open our hearts and change who we are," says Janet Murray, a professor of a digital fiction course at MIT. Indeed, ultimately the best stories render their technologies transparent so that we experience only the power of the characters and the story itself.
DrRogue created Intelligent Life to find other people, to hear their stories, to "have someone's life for a minute." In exchange, she shares her own experiences and, in doing so, develops a bit more as a human being. Logging on has enabled DrRogue to get beyond her small town, her age and her financial situation and has allowed her through narrative to experience the world.
Somehow, maybe because she pummels me with Instant Messages whenever I log on, I have come to associate the web with DrRogue. It is her "room," you might say.
BGAR2: shouldn't you be at camp or something
DrRogue: I said ALL my friends were at camp. I'm not so fortunate.
BGAR2: oh. sucks. well, you have the web.
DrRogue: I have the web.
Writing has always allowed people to step outside their skin, to try on different identities, to see through other perspectives. Lyn Lifshin, who edited a collection of women's journals by professional writers and others, recalled that contributors' friends were often shocked at the people represented in the diaries. For Foucault, writing was about growth and escaping the confines of identity. No one understands this better than the growth-hungry DrRogue, who, thanks to technology, can go even further in her explorations. She can gain experience of the world from a tiny room in Vermont.
The term "cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson, the prolific science fiction novelist, to define the virtual landscape of a human being's consciousness. It is voyeurism, entertainment, education, communication, interaction and self-expression all at once. Above all, it is a human environment, an extension of, rather than an escape from, the "real world." As such, it poses "real world" risks as well as opportunities. For young women like DrRogue and Peppermint, it is the real stories, the sense of community and communication, that keep them coming back.
Peppermint: Receiving responsive email to something I've written is the most rewarding part of the experience. I've received in excess of fifty letters, especially from girls a few years younger than myself, saying that I've taught them that there is nothing wrong with being yourself. This is a lesson that I wish I had learned at their age, and to know that I have taught it to someone younger than me is an incredible feeling.
DrRogue: IGG. [I gotta go.] Time to do something productive today.
BGAR2: Go write your novel.
I forgot to mention that, since she's not going to camp, DrRogue is writing a novel. It's tentatively titled: Teen Girls: Not as Stupid as You Think.