Thursday, December 2, 2010

Works Cited, remember the ladies edition

Look, I have a blog that's called Works Cited, so I'm going to have to just point out something that's been driving me nuts.

Rei Terada recently posted an insightful reflection on the aims and meaning of WikiLeaks, drawing on some easily available but little-read essays by Julian Assange. There are still zero comments on that blog post. My colleague Aaron Bady (or "Adrian," as Clay Shirky recently accidentally dubbed him in a Twitter shout-out) then wrote a post on WikiLeaks that I feel confident in saying would have been impossible without Terada's post. (Aaron explicitly links her post.)

Aaron's post has received 326 comments and counting and links from the likes of Jon Dresner and Clay Shirky. Granted, a large percentage of those comments come from internet armchair-policy-wonk blowhards, but that comes with the territory. While it makes sense that Aaron's post would initially attract more comments than Terada's--he has a wider readership and posts more regularly than she does--the stark disparity between the attention the two posts are getting strikes me as almost unbelievable. Three hundred and twenty-six versus zero. Without diminishing Aaron's post--it is smart, and bonus points for gratuitous Teddy Roosevelt--Terada's already contains the core insight that makes Aaron's post so interesting, i.e. that Wikileaks is less about revealing secrets for the sake of the specific information involved than about disrupting what Assange calls, with a capaciousness that powerfully reorients the way we understand legitimacy, "conspiracy."

Given these facts, it's hard not to see this as another episode of When A Woman Says It, Crickets; When A Man Says It (Later), Genius!!! There are certainly circumstantial reasons that Aaron's post would get more attention than Terada's, but there's no legitimate reason that her post would be ignored. Every professional woman has had this happen to her, and every time it happens, the ghost of Simone de Beauvoir weeps. Now, I'm sure Terada herself isn't even remotely fussed about this. What would she want with three hundred blowhards commenting on her blog? But whether or not any individual commenter or linker is thinking, "whose substantive post should I read and link, that of a dude or that of a lady? Oh who are we kidding definitely a dude!", the effect is the same: dude gets a signal boost and is credited with genius, lady disappears from the political conversation. Citation is partly about credit, and there's some credit due here.

I'm not holding my breath, though.


UPDATE. I've seen the following objections raised to the above post, and while I probably oughtn't address this gender studies 101 stuff, well, I will -- briefly.

The objections:

1. There are factors besides gender that explain the popularity of Aaron's blog post.

Response: Yes, of course there are. My point (as I explicitly state above) is not that people who read or link to Aaron are making an active choice to ignore one of his sources on the grounds of gender, but rather that this pattern (as Meg brilliantly abbreviates it, WAWSIC;WAMSILG) is pervasive, and that this is objectively speaking an instance thereof. VoilĂ  les crickets. VoilĂ  the attention. This post first of all an attempt to draw more attention to the earlier and very worth-while post by Rei Terada. It is, second, a remark on the attention disparity, and on the broader pattern of failure to attend to what women say that is necessarily its context. This is a gender issue irrespective of whether any individual person is consciously or unconsciously deciding that women aren't worth listening to.

2. One quite often doesn't know the gender of a blogger, and 3. one of the first and most influential bloggers to link Aaron was Digby, a woman (2, 3).

Response: Since my argument was never "people are ignoring Rei Terada purely because she is a woman," these objections aren't quite on point. But it's worth observing that, since femininity is marked and masculinity is unmarked in present culture, the blogger of unknown gender, in the absence of stereotypical feminine markers, is usually (consciously or unconsciously) presumed masculine. Digby is actually the classic example of this. Digby rose to prominence as a left blogger under her pseudonym, and was for years almost universally presumed male, until she "came out" as female by accepting an award in person in 2007. She's understood as female now, but her reputation was made when she was "ungendered," which was received by default as male. Naturally you are enlightened and truly without gender bias in all that you do. But generally speaking the world isn't.


Aaron said...

The phrase "gratuitous Teddy Roosevelt" is meaningless, and no sentence that contains it can possibly be meaningful. Otherwise, I'm recusing myself.

Natalia said...

I feel the same way about Virginia Woolf.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly that WAWSIC;WAMSILG is endemic in general and is almost certainly operating in this case.

At the same time, I feel compelled to observe that gender isn't the only thing that shapes audience engagement on blogs. Two other factors that have a large impact are the specific readership (and to what extent the blogger has encouraged comments) and the way posts are written, e.g., whether the blogger has planted hooks for readers to wrap their locutory lariats around.

Another factor, which is bound up in the WAWSIC problem, is publicity. Aaron's blog gets spread around a good bit, whereas I didn't even know that Rei Terada had a blog until I saw your post. And that despite the fact that she is more famous (at least in my field) than he is.

[FWIW, I got here through Jon Dresner's linkage. And we all know a link is as good as a nod.]

Natalia said...

Thanks for your comment, Meg, but I'm not sure why you felt "compelled to observe" what I'd already observed, viz. "it makes sense that Aaron's post would initially attract more comments than Terada's--he has a wider readership and posts more regularly than she does[...]." You'll notice that I never claim that gender is the only factor at work here. Since we appear to agree entirely, I'm confused that your comment is framed as an objection.

Anonymous said...

Get a life, Natalia. Throwing childish tantrums on an unknown blog in no way advances the cause of feminism.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't trying to make an objection to your argument, Natalia. Rather, I was building on it -- unsuccessfully, it would seem -- to broaden the discussion somewhat. I apologize if that was unwelcome.

Jonathan Dresner said...

There are certainly circumstantial reasons that Aaron's post would get more attention than Terada's, but there's no legitimate reason that her post would be ignored.

I've been blogging for a long time, and I've had dozens of smart posts apparently ignored - no links, no comments (well, I've had hundreds of posts with no links or comments, but I'm discounting the stupid ones) other than my own self-promotional attempts (carnival submissions, self-tweeting). It happens. There are a lot of smart people on the internet, and sometimes they come to similar conclusions.

The systemic problem is real, and I've been trying to deal with it responsibly for years. But this case has too many circumstantial complications to be strong evidence without much more careful consideration.

p.s. I don't know much about Clay Shirky: is being of his ilk a good thing or a bad thing?

Natalia said...

Pretty much a good thing, Jon.

Jonathan Dresner said...

this is objectively speaking an instance thereof.

This is where the argument starts to go in circles. You've acknowledged that there are other factors to explain this particular case, but have never acknowledged even the possibility that gender is not actually a factor in this case. You're invoking a version of "if there's smoke, there's fire" which just doesn't, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphors, hold much water in this case. And you're conflating the political sphere - about which most of your readers can do little or nothing - with the professional sphere in which I see a lot of progress on the gender front.

Natalia said...

No circles, Jon. I can't imagine that it is really so difficult for you to grasp that events not specifically intended as gendered by individual actors nonetheless have gendered implications. Yet you're bending over backwards to insist that gender must not be considered here. Why?

Erin C-B said...

Just saw this and couldn't agree more - Aaron and I are actually having our own little back and forth about Assange. How's that for small worlds?

Your problem, of course, is that your argument rests on the (demonstrably true and cheerfully widely ignored) assumptions that (a) the discourse of sexism is reproduced in myriad non-overt ways and (b) t'interwebs have alway participated in the co-construction of gender hierarchy. At least you didn't resort to the 8-letter f-word, that really puts up the hackles of privilege.