Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Women in Cyberspace

Oh dear, you’re so valuable in cyberspace

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Savvy businesses see cyberspace as a repository of valuable information left by surfers that could be turned into databases for target marketing, which eliminates wasteful advertising and lowers costs.
A company like Google is much more than a search engine; it is a gigantic information sucking and manipulating device, a global mind that profiles people and places and cultures.
Cyber profiling is emerging as an important business tool for reaching the right customer through narrowly focused and targeted popup and banner advertising and e-mail marketing. But since most of the domestic buying in the United States is done by women, data miners and cyber profilers are concentrating on websites aimed at women, which has been raising some serious concerns in academic circles about information privacy. Nevertheless, users don’t seem to care much about their privacy. Convenience is all.
Once cyberspace held so much promise for women, wrote Ann Bartow in University of San Francisco Law Review, that it was the closest women could come to be accepted as equal to men in brainpower. “In cyberspace, we would not be judged by our bodies. No one would know when we have bad hair days. We would not have to wear make-up and high heels. We could be even ‘men’ without hormones or expensive surgery. Then we began shopping and chatting over the Internet. Shortly thereafter, we learned that anyone in cyberspace could ascertain our gender, ages, incomes, education levels, marital status, sizes, consumer purchase proclivities, aspects of our health, and employment histories, and the number, ages, and genders of our children, and that this information could be used to sell us goods and services. Now, instead of brains in boxes, we are ‘eyeballs with credit cards’.”
That’s a great disappointment for women who thought that the anonymity of cyberspace would enlarge their freedom and empower them vis-à-vis men. But what is true of women is equally true of men. Instead of reaching new thresholds of freedom and equality, both men and women are giving up privacy through profiling.
May be privacy has become an overrated virtue in cyber age. It is no great surprise that advertisers and marketers have begun to use the Internet in befriending women because they control effective spending at home. Only in the matter of high expenditure items like buying a new house, car or going on a vacation, men throw their weight around.
Mostly the woman’s voice is decisive. Advertisers of course have known the truth about women all along. In the 1920s radio began to develop as a mass medium with a potential to reach millions of women, most of whom did not have jobs and stayed at home with children and extended families. Companies like Proctor & Gamble that sell household products developed daytime serial dramas to entertain and keep women listening to soap commercials. That’s how daytime radio dramas came to be called soap operas. In the 1950s when television started to dominate American homes, soap operas moved on to the new medium and they have continued to retain their popularity, in spite of the fact that most women work today.
“The Guiding Light,” the oldest daytime serial drama, began in radio in 1937 and was transferred to television in 1952. You can see the last seventy years’ visual history of American women in this remarkable soap opera, which along with other daytime dramas is moving to the Internet, YouTube and other platforms. Soap operas dramatise women’s problems ranging from date rapes and workplace harassment to raising children and keeping up with husbands in a culture where sometime “I Do” is quickly followed by “Now I Don’t”.
Those who do not succumb to the charm of slow moving daytime dramas cannot resists the temptations of Oprah Winfrey, her talk show, her “O” magazine, and her Oxygen Media, where TV and the Web converge. She has become probably the most glamorous and sexy platform where women come and go talking of democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama today and Islamic jihadists’ guiding light Osama bin Laden tomorrow. But every time they log off her website, they leave an immense stream of date behind. Women are incredibly desirable not only in cyberspace but also in the media because ultimately they control the shopping cart. It’s that simple. Women love to shop and they shop for everything. Men do not know even the size of the shirt they wear, though they may be particular about their beers and wines and vodkas. Home Shopping Network and other interactive television shopping malls run on the power of women, which is increasing everyday as more women enter the global workplace.
The future of cyberspace as a medium of e-commerce is growing.
More and more businesses are building high quality websites where women feel comfortable and do not mind shedding valuable data that can be aggregated and collated into reliable individual profiles.
Imagine every woman having her own personal boutique in cyberspace where everyone knows her tastes and preferences and where all her problems can be solved. So when Jane enters iVillage.com or Oxygen Media portal, she could join women’s chat group and make new virtual friends; explore fitness and beauty, food, working from home and parenting; find advice about her job and tips about marriage, dating and love; and publish her personal story on the Web.
As women become comfortable in their own personal cyber retreats, they will be scanned lovingly of all their personal data, including the size of their breasts, but unlike at the airport, where touching and probing and electronic scanning can be so humiliating, in cyberspace it will be so entertaining that they would love it. If women are turned into databases, can men be far behind?

(ND Batra is the author of Digital Freedom and Professor of Communications and Diplomacy at Norwich University)

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