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?

WebGrrls.

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?

5 Comments on WTFGrrls

  1. Hear, hear.

    I only really got involved during the big kerfuffle about the Webgrrls-to-DE switch, and then quit the group entirely (for somewhat unrelated reasons). DETOx is just too much an Energy Creature.

  2. A very articulate post, Melle!!! I totally can’t believe the flame war going on about the new (and ghastly) DETO site!!! You’ve very clearly outlined the whole fiascol! WELL DONE!

  3. Wow! Just found this during a random Web surf fest. Very interesting and insightful. I have been wanting to write about the founding and imploding of Webgrrls, but my brain still cannot wrap around (or remember…) all the horrible things that muddied up the incredible parts.

    After almost 5 year running Webgrrls, I learned that there are women out there who simply hate to see other women succeed, who are incredibly territorial about their tiny shred of success and who will tear down another woman before they ever would think of lending a hand.

    Luckily, most of the 30,000+ Webgrrls in 1999 were not like that. Unfortunately, a few dozen women managed to dismantle Webgrrls International chapter by chapter by spreading lies and negativity until nobody knew the truth anymore. Overall a pretty horrifying experience for many awesome women who put forth so much effort to create a platform where women could network freely, support one another, and provide tangible jobs and other career benefits in the new media industry.

    A tiny clarification:

    “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.”

    Actually, Webgrrls was always a part of a for profit company Cybergrrl, Inc., the company I founded in 1995. Cybergrrl, Inc. spent thousands of dollars a year to support Webgrrls chapters, mostly through goods and services (free web space, free listservs, free tech support, etc) as well as the benefits of sharing a high-profile, well-respected name in the industry that helped bring sponsors on board. Each chapter operated independently with a royalty free license to use the Webgrrls trademark to publicize the chapter.

    Starting in late 1995, the New York City chapter members started paying annual dues (I think it was $25/year) – something the members insisted that I implement because I had been paying for every meeting out of pocket. The dues that members paid went right back into paying for chapter meetings, events, supplies and refreshments. Eventually, the dues from the NYC chapter helped pay a part-time staff member who took care of Webgrrls International business, supporting chapter leaders.

    Around 1999, before I left Cybergrrl, Inc., we tried to implement annual dues for all chapters under the same model as NYC. The money would go to supporting each chapter’s events and other needs so chapter leaders didn’t have to do so out of pocket. We continued to offer all technical services for free and did not charge for the right to use the Webgrrls trademark.

    We were still working out the kinks in terms of exactly how money would pass from chapter to headquarters and back to chapter when a few chapter leaders (who had never met me, by the way), balked at the idea of charging their members and began telling everyone that I was trying to “line my pockets off the backs of Webgrrls members” or something to that effect. They began saying how I was already rich (ha!) so why did I need Webgrrls members’ money, that this was a betrayal of the whole spirit of Webgrrls, etc.

    I think the main rub was that my business partner – a man – was trying to implement the changes, and it rubbed the chapter leaders the wrong way (partly because he was male and also partly because of his approach).

    The Webgrrls chapter leaders who were angry formed their own private listserv and slowly recruited other chapter leaders, fanning the flames of a fire that was started out of a complete misunderstanding. Webgrrls chapters began to splinter off, forming groups like Digital Eve and Web Women, among many others. They all used the same model of Webgrrls down to the way meetings were run except that most applied for 501c3 nonprofit status.

    Personally, I think the 501c6 trade organization nonprofit status would have been totally appropriate for Webgrrls, however, I had a business partner who didn’t want to make one of the most exciting parts of the Cybergrrl, Inc. company into a nonprofit entity. He had a different vision for Webgrrls.

    I just wanted to help other women succeed in the industry and didn’t care if I made a dime off it or not (I never did). He saw it as a valuable moneymaker (which it had the potential to be for everyone). Other women’s organizations went on to use the for-profit model to much success such as Witi.com and WorldWit.org. I think they didn’t have the same problem as Webgrrls because they started charging dues right out of the gate.

    It was devastating for me to see Webgrrls implode from the infighting between the women. The organization still exists in skeletal form and is still run by the same man. I left Cybergrrl, Inc. in 1999 once I knew the company was going in a direction that went against everything I believed in. I walked away from the company, literally giving my shares back to the corporation and losing ownership of all of the trademarks, web sites and products I created.

    Other than taking a small salary from Cybergrrl, Inc. in 1998 and 1999 (less than the office manager and all earnings from the company’s Web development consulting work that I spearheaded), I received no other money from either Cybergrrl or Webgrrls. I was lucky to have been able to leverage the media exposure from Cybergrrl, Inc. (actually a Wall Street Journal article about my company) into a book deal in 1998 that opened doors for me as a writer. I continue to do some Internet consulting now and then while pursuing my interests in writing, radio, television and filmmaking. So I went from new media to old media – go figure!

    Whew! This was meant to be one small correction, but as you can see, this stuff is just packed inside of me dying to get out. Thanks for writing about women and networking. To this day, I still marvel at how great women can be at networking and am equally horrified with how evil women can be to one another.

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