The Down Side of Slashdot

Back in the 1990s, somebody told me that infamous antiporn feminist Catharine MacKinnon used to joke that she wished sexism were biological, because biology is easier to change than culture. I remember this unverified quote half a dozen years later because I thought it was such a great response to the claim that men are dicks to women as a result of neurological hardwiring -- a claim you still hear all the time.

But is it dickish biology or dickish culture that creates a problem like Slashdot?

Among geeks, Slashdot has played the role of a New York Times-style news source for almost a decade -- it's the blog of record for techies, reporting and making "news for nerds." Everyone reads it, even if they sort of hate it or think it's stupid. So many people visit Slashdot that when its editors link to something, occasionally the servers hosting the referenced site go down or at least slow to a crawl -- this is known as the "Slashdot effect."

So, of course, any tech or science writer whose stuff goes on the Web (including yours truly) is at least a little bit invested in the idea of getting Slashdotted once in a while. It's sort of like being included in the Readings section of Harper's Magazine -- you automatically get a wider audience, and also the implicit approval of a venerable media institution.

Except if you're a woman. A few months ago, an article of mine was Slashdotted. But instead of resulting in a lively debate about technology and social justice, it instead produced a popular thread in the "comments" area about whether I was too fat to be considered attractive. At that point, I vowed to stop reading Slashdot. What the fuck? Why should I give a shit about those morons? I would read other geek culture blogs like BoingBoing, where the male editors are feminists and Xeni Jardin knows why it sucks that some creeps care more about her ass than the political op-ed she just wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

But, like I said, Slashdot is like the New York Times. No matter how infuriating and stupid its editorial policies, the site still breaks interesting news that everybody talks about. So I started peeking at my Slashdot feed again once in a while, then visiting the site, then actually poring over it daily as I used to do. Until my most recent Slashdotting, in which a guy linked to one of my more satirical columns and described me as a "gorgeous nerd" rather than a journalist or writer or columnist or even just plain "nerd."

You can imagine the comment threads that followed. Was I really gorgeous, or was I ugly? Wasn't it OK to evaluate my looks because my column wasn't really "professional," but rather "humorous"? (As if I haven't been writing this column seriously and professionally for six and a half goddamned years.) And, my favorite, wasn't it OK to talk about my looks because I write about sex? (This comment was followed by links to several articles I'd published about technology and sex, as if writing about vibrators somehow meant I was "asking for it.")

My friends said, "Ignore it." They said, "Those guys are morons." They said, "Let's just read and write things in other places where men aren't dicks."

Yet slowly I began to feel the same way about their comments that I feel when a right-winger tells me that if I want to promote socialism, I should just move to another country. The problem is, I love my country. It fucking rocks. And I love Slashdot too. I don't want to run away. This is my home, and I want to stay here and fight for justice. I want women to get excited by all the cool articles on Slashdot and not get driven away by a community that values them for their bodies instead of their thoughts.

So I went back and began rereading the comments on Slashdot about my article. At least half of them were written by outraged readers who asked why my looks were relevant. A woman had posted about how this kind of treatment was exactly why so few women are in the tech industry. It wasn't a solid wall of sexism -- there was a debate going on. And for every sexist dick, there was at least one feminist dick talking back to him. Even the guy who'd written the post sent me an e-mail apologizing for having used the word gorgeous, explaining that his English was really bad and he hadn't intended to inspire the kinds of comments he had.

I wasn't seeing biologically entrenched male domination at all. I was seeing a slow cultural evolution. The action on Slashdot is like a social version of that "missing link" fish with legs that some paleontologists just discovered. Maybe these guys don't have their gender equality land legs yet, but they've got the beginnings of feet growing inside their flippers.

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