Doubting the Democratizing Potential of the Internet

Social media marketing platform illustrating its global reach.

The notion that social media holds a democratizing potential carries within in it a feminist discourse in that it establishes a space in which freedom of expression can be experienced without reservations to create radical and innovative change.  That the internet might serve as an “escape” from female embodiment, however, may have been a pre-mature optimistic vision of what it could be but an underestimate of the potential growth the internet would experience both socially and economically, an order of hierarchy that would merely reestablish itself from the corporeal world to the virtual one.

The democratizing potential lies in the ability for ideas and movements to be organized across vast spatial dimensions, building global commonality among diverse communities such as feminists.  Women can participate in ongoing conversations, debate, activism or protests.  They can express themselves, though not always, without direct physical threats.  In the material world, women are often valued and judged with a primary emphasis on our appearance, our intellect and abilities second.  But realistically, can the internet truly provide the opportunity to break away from these limitations?

Despite the internet providing a ‘virtual’ shield of protection in favor of egalitarianism, the social structure of the material world has embedded itself within digital culture, preventing women from escaping female embodiment.  For example, as Jesse Daniels points out in her chapter in Cyberfeminism 2.0, corporate companies have infiltrated women’s blogging and other new media organizations in order to exploit what they see as an economic opportunity.  While feminists seek to escape embodiment through the internet, corporate companies merely reshape it, keeping orders of hierarchy intact and preventing social freedoms by infiltrating “surveillance culture” into such mediums of media.

“Surveillance culture” therefore reaffirms and strengthens social hierarchy in that it sustains the foundation of power for affluent, white, heterosexual and gender-conforming individuals.  Because the internet is immaterial and can disguise physical and social characteristics, it is regularly assumed that those who fit the descriptions just mentioned occupy most virtual space.  Whether or not that is true, making these assumptions gives further power to those specific individuals, and the various forms of imagery of those who do not conform to these visual/social descriptions continue to be embodied stereotypically.  Feminist bloggers and online activists, in particular, who have used the internet to critique and deconstruct these images, are in fact met at a new level of struggle that challenges the idea of whether the internet is truly a democratizing, non-oppressive, liberatory space.  Kahn and Kellner, in their article New Media and Internet Activism, state that “the new information and communication technologies are indeed revolutionary” (2004, pg. 93).  My argument clearly contradicts that potential with the belief that material society is simply mapped onto the internet, hindering the chance for subcultures such as feminists from gaining effective force.

Feminist politics and resistance to surveillance culture have no doubt been creative, motivating and significant.  I do not underestimate or diminish the effort and pains of their work nor do I to overestimate imperialism.  It is the internet that I question as being a new platform in which feminists and other groups can escape embodiment in order to successfully counter an omnipresent, oppressive cultural mentality.

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