Somewhere in the vicinity of a decade ago, my internet fascination germinated, took root, and bloomed into a vibrant, entwining addiction. Before long, I’d discovered a group by and for women who lived in, worked in, and who were also fascinated by technology and what was then called “new media”. That group was WebGrrls, founded by a woman named Aliza Sherman in 1995, and by the time I found it, a year or two later, there were already chapters around the world, and more were being formed. Girl Power! Or something…
As much as there was value in the group, and people with great knowledge and skills and ambition, there was something wrong with the group – and I specifically refer to the Toronto chapter here, though from what I’ve heard it’s not a solely localized problem by any means. The group was… toxic. Even a decade and dozens, if not hundreds, of stories later, I cannot think of a better descriptor.
While many women do join and try to take part in a community, never in my life have I witnessed such a mind-boggling group of bitchy, self-centred, backbiting, harping, bullying, alienating, irresponsible cunts.
And now for the caveat. 🙂 There were, are, and will be people who have worked very hard for that group, and have given herculean amounts of time, effort, and patience to make it work. They have exhausted their sanity trying over and over again to swim against an endlessly thankless tide. And when do they find salvation? When they give up.
There are a lot of us who’ve left. There are a lot who still hang around the periphery, but who know better than to take a damned thing that goes on seriously. There are a lot of us who’ve gotten much closer to each other as a result of the trials and tribulations of the group. WNET was founded because of WebGrrls, and my WNET girls are one of the best, brightest, and sanest things in my life.
In 2000, WebGrrls underwent an evolution, and become a for-profit group. At one point WebGrrls was headed by a man, which I thought was fantastic. Might still be, for all I know. And so, Digital Eve was born – basically the same thing as WebGrrls had been, but remaining non-profit. And insane. I’d been a Toronto WebGrrls member while I was in university, and joined the Sydney chapter when I went to Australia. 2000 was the year I was back in Canada, and I remember the founding members of KW Digital Eve (a blonde clique from RIM) tried to recruit me to be on the steering committee. The juju felt bad, so I bolted. Whew.
When I was in Sydney, Aliza Sherman, at that time still pretty internet famous, was invited to speak at a conference in New Zealand. She figured she’d make the most of the trip and stop over in Australia, too. We had a meet and greet in Sydney. Being the only two North Americans, and being attached to the two largest chapters (at that time) – New York and Toronto – we had a lot in common with regards to the group. And I learned something entertaining: the Toronto chapter was legendary. Groups in other countries knew about them and their insanity. The infighting, the snarking, the driving away of newbies. Basically, how the group went against everything the group was supposed to stand for: community, learning from each other, sharing, mentoring.
Which brings me to what I’ve been wondering about, again, since a bit of a kerfuffle yesterday relating to the (ghastly) revamped Digital Eve Toronto web site (or DETOx, as we so affectionately call it). See, back in 1999, I was living with my then-boyfriend, a geek, and our two geek friends/housemates in Sydney. And they – all males – didn’t get WebGrrls. It was to be early evidence of something I’ve come to very thoroughly understand. NO male understands WebGrrls. The bitchiness flummoxed them, to be sure, but more fundamentally, they couldn’t grok why it even existed. Men in the technology sphere, hell, men in general, just didn’t do that. Didn’t organize and plan and shoot a hundred emails back and forth just to arrange getting together for a beer. And what they were going to talk about while drinking beer. And what was Off Topic while drinking beer. And when they would plan another event to eat wings, because it wasn’t on the agenda to eat wings while drinking beer. And bloody HELL that newbie has no idea how to drink beer. Heh.
Men don’t plan networking, beyond shooting out an email or instant message or phone call to inform the usual suspects what, when, and where. If they do plan networking, it’s called a conference and it’s very expensive and it’s actually organized by a lot of very tired and annoyed women. Trust me. Men don’t need to arrange to have men with skills get together with other men who are learning skills. They just swap knowledge and info and stories and connections. Successful business people (in tech and out) don’t get jobs and contracts and inside info by crossing and dotting a set of i’s and t’s set out by the steering committee and voted on at the group’s annual general meeting in… ohfortheloveofgod…
So yeah, they didn’t get it. And women apparently didn’t get how men did it, either. Because there were a dearth of women in tech, and they had no idea how to blend with the guys, and many weren’t managing to be as successful, and so they attempted to close ranks and use their logical brains to come up with something else that would work for them. What the hell happened? Something. Aliza Sherman ended up taking off across country in an old motor home. No, really.
Aren’t women supposed to be better at communication and reading people and all that interpersonal stuff? Why hasn’t this worked? I can’t imagine it can totally be blamed on the phenomenon of internet invisibility – how people abandon their actual personalities for much racier, rawer, more controversial, and generally more rawkin’ personalities once they grok that online, they can be anybody. Though I certainly suspect that few of those women are THAT nasty in person. Even the eternally angry radical feminists or stereotypically “angry lesbian” ones (and yes, it makes me sound sexist, but they’re out there).
So what was it? It has since occurred to me that there is a strain of hardcore geek woman that I just don’t like. And they all seem to fit like a glove into the stereotype of antisocial, women-avoiding, men-distrusting, cat-owning, competitive, paranoid, short-tempered, painfully shy, occasionally outspoken, socially awkward female geek that people are somewhat familiar with. By no means are all female geeks like this. Fortunately WNET is well-stocked with excellent specimens who are both fonts of endless knowledge AND great to hang out with. BUT. If women in the former category thought they should try and form some sort of group. Something to give them advantages in a male-dominated industry that the men already had. Something to help them meet people and learn skills and find out about opportunities. What would result?
Ahh, so is that it, then? Maybe. One could attempt to chalk it up to just isolated bad luck. Except for one thing. I’ve had a number of friends involved with the group over the years, running various sub-groups and lists and in various management positions, for some time since I’ve left. They’re among the aforementioned people who go waaaaay above and beyond the call of duty to try and make the group work. And to a one, they leave eventually: exhausted, depleted, disgusted. So it wasn’t just a bad time, or bad place, or bad few apples. It’s still like that.
But it’s not all of us. WNET was formed as a response to The List. You see, one monumental point of contention has always been conversation getting off-topic on the lists. And I mean… hello? We’re women. Conversation is organic. It moves, it grows, it evolves, it goes completely off the rails. And yet, there’s always someone, or a few people, who simply cannot deal with that. And so, thanks to Dana, WNET was born. Where we can, and do, talk about everything under the sun, from Linksys to lingerie. Do we get along every second of every day? No. Are there bones of contention? Sure. Do people like some people more and others less? Of course. We’re normal people. But the group works, and has done for over a decade. So it is possible.
But my God. Maybe it’s because I’ve had all kinds of exposure – good and bad – to the corporate world now. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in and around IT for some time. Maybe it’s because I pretty much exclusively date geeks and get pretty well how they tick. Maybe it’s because I have formed and maintain fantastic female friendships that have worked within and beyond the corporate sphere (and this from someone who once upon a time never thought she got along well with women). But when days like yesterday happen, and stories of the ridiculous crap these friends of mine put up with come to light, as a woman and a professional and someone who is still addicted to technology, the only thing my mind can squawk out is… WTF girls?