On Internet Punditry and Engendering Change

One day a very well known Internet theorist writes a rant on women. The rant generates controversy, controversy lands theorist on WNYC (On the Media), despite the fact the he does not really work on the politics of gender. If this is so, why then give him more air time and focus on the NPR show? There are three lessons that precipitate from this social fact that are worth highlighting:

1.The fact that NPR chose him to pontificate and not… a woman nullifies Shirky’s thesis that behavior is one of the most important factors in keeping women behind, unless of course NPR asked a bunch of women but they were too meek to be on the air (not likely). If they wanted to keep the star power that is Shirky, the very least they could have done is had a woman respond. The solutions to get more women in the limelight are so easy to implement but they do require some thoughtfulness and foresight.

2.So what I am saying is that it is in part about networks and Shirky, isn’t he a theorist of networks and behavior? It seems to be to more controversial, he really did not address how important networks are for the politics of visibility and for encouraging behavior, instead he focused on individual behavior. If famous highly networked folks, most of them men, don’t highlight women in their blog posts, their twitter feeds, and don’t invite them to conferences, it is going to make very little difference whether a woman is meek or confident. Indeed, getting props from others is a real confidence booster. So if there are more guys that are visible, which is certainly the case, it is as much their job to help engender change, not so much by pontificating but acting.

3. I realized that though I first thought his rant was a reflection of his personality (at least his public persona, I am sure he is a nice guy), in fact the rant is valuable to an anthropologist interested in digital media because it is an auto-ethnographic snapshot of web 2.0 punditry culture. It often comes across as smarmy and snarky, which is due in part, to how difficult it is to get your message heard in the sea of many voices. Just like there is an aesthetic of audaciousness in a lot of Internet memeology, for example, the pundits too must often act in extreme ways to get attention — which might in fact be one of the reasons why they are reluctant to share the stage once they have worked hard to get there.

Biella Coleman