Hong Kong young women and their personal websites1
Abstract and Keywords
In this chapter, we will examine how young women in Hong Kong use cyberspace as a site to construct their identity as women in relation to their significant others, focusing on both their self-representations in cyberspace and in real-life settings. Contrary to the long-established belief in ‘female technophobia', the case of young women in Hong Kong shows that women could possibly be ‘techno-guerrillas’ who actively participate in cyberspace by hosting their personal websites. The ways in which they try to construct their identities and present the different aspects of themselves in their personal websites are perhaps a form of resistance for these young women. This chapter explores the kinds of images they use to represent themselves on their personal websites and how these images reflect their needs, concerns and desires. We will also examine how these women make use of cyberspace to expand their social circles, leading to the merging of the real and the virtual space. The merging relationship between the real and virtual spaces can create new sites and spaces where participants can try and exercise their own intrinsic power.
Every once in a while we are reminded of the ever-increasing popularity of the internet and the addiction of the young to it.2 The Asian internet growth rate is found to be very high (Mitra & Schwartz, 2001). The rapid growth of (p.280) the internet is increasingly international, with young people being the early adopters in most countries (Skinner, Biscope & Poland, 2003). As witnessed in our own lives, the first thing many of us do in the morning is to check our mail-boxes—the virtual ones. In addition to using email and instant messengers, constructing and maintaining personal websites has become one of the most popular online activities.3
In an online survey conducted by a nongovernmental youth service organization, Breakthrough (2005) suggested that 75.5% of respondents from the ages of 10 to 29 have been writing online diaries.4 According to Miller and Arnold (2001), the real space of cyberspace is on the bodily, nonvirtual side of the screen, and the webpage presence can be a means by which people increasingly find ways to tell their stories in their own voices. We observe that, by regularly updating their websites, young webmasters establish and maintain a virtual connection with other webmasters, thereby expanding their personal networks and social spaces.
One of the popular assumptions about cyberspace is that it allows individual users to express and actualize themselves. The survey conducted by Breakthrough also supported this idea, and suggested that most young people writing online diaries aim at expressing their own emotions and points of view.5 But when we take a close look at the survey, it is surprising to find (p.281) that the research method generalized the respondents without paying much attention to their gender difference. In the following sections, we will show that gender implication is often overlooked by researchers analysing the sociocultural influences of emerging digital media (e.g., online diaries and personal websites).
Our investigation must not only involve issues of self, but also gender. As Youngs (2002) noted, “Technology is not a neutral realm … in broad terms, there are historically entrenched differences between men’s and women’s socially constructed relationships to the broad realm of technology and the innovation associated with it.” In effect, many researchers are keen to explore the gender differences in various cyberspace activities. While it is significant to explore how cyberspace activities contribute to women’s understanding of the world, there are only limited studies which concern their selfhood in cyberspace.
In this chapter, we will examine how young women in Hong Kong use cyberspace as a site to construct their identity as women in relation to their significant others, focusing on both their self-representations in cyberspace and in real-life settings. Contrary to the long established belief in “female technophobia” (Van Zoonen, 2002), the case of young women in Hong Kong shows that women can possibly be “techno guerrillas” who actively participate in cyberspace by hosting their personal websites. How they try to construct their identities and present the different aspects of themselves in their personal websites are perhaps a form of resistance for these young women (Foucault, 1983; Garey, 1999; Ho, 2001, 2007; Ho & Tsang, 2005). We will explore the kinds of images they use to represent themselves on their personal websites, and look at how these images reflect their needs, concerns and desires. We will also examine how these women make use of cyberspace to expand their social circles, leading to the merging of the real and the virtual space (Alker, 1996; Mitra & Schwartz, 2001). As Foucault (1986) argued, “we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites” (Foucault, 1986, p. 23), and so the merging relationship between real and virtual spaces can create new sites and spaces where participants can try and exercise their own power.
Some scholars have indicated their interest in the relationship between personal homepages and their authors’ self-identities. For instance, Alexander’s (2002) research attempted to explore how queer identities are constructed and represented on US web servers. In the field of educational research, Robbins (2001, p. 8) examined how the use of the internet makes possible “the search for identity, the exploration of social relationships, and the quest for personal competence and accomplishment” for adolescent girls in the US. The basic and common understanding underlying Alexander’s and Robbins’ studies is that a homepage is a medium for communicating one’s ideas, and that the production of a homepage is a self-motivated, intentional and deliberate practice to present oneself to the public. The authors concluded that analysing self-representation on the web is a significant scholarly undertaking which helps us understand better “how [individuals] represent themselves and are represented on the web, and what such representations might mean for our understanding of ourselves, our cultures, and our futures, both locally and globally” (Alexander, 2002, p. 85). Our study shares Bell’s (2001) view that “as a self-conscious articulation of self-identity … homepages make a useful starting point for opening up the question of identity in cyberculture” (Bell, 2001, p. 118). Similarly, there are scholars like Cheung (2000) who, convinced that “homepage self-presentation is a wholly voluntary affair”, have asserted that these homepage authors “can choose which aspects of their multiple and contradictory selves they wish to present” (Cheung 2000, p. 45). Under the premise of self-presentation, Cheung applied Goffman’s concept of symbolic interactionism (dramaturgical account of presentation of self) to understand the homepage creators. In the virtually constructed text, the multiple sets of carriers of information or “sign vehicles” manipulated by the homepage authors, Cheung argued, constitute “a much more polished and elaborate delivery of impression management compared to face-to-face interaction” (Cheung, 2000, p. 45).
We are, however, cautious about the tendency of these scholars to perceive personal homepages as a virtual sphere where the authors have “total control over the production of the site (within the structural confines of the medium)”, equating it with “total control over the production of the self” (Bell, 2001, p. 118). We doubt if the production of the self in cyberspace is carried out by an isolated existence which provides an individual with total autonomy and “free will” to create whatever content or forms of self-presentation he or she (p.283) wants. Challenging the popular conception that one has complete control of self-presentation in the virtual sphere, we argue that the authors of homepage or personal websites are also subject to the different kinds of social and cultural constraints that apply to their “real-life” situations. It is important that we reconceptualize cyberspace self-representation and problematize the dichotomy between “virtual” and “real”.
Cheung (2000) suggested that personal homepages emancipate their authors, who no longer need to feel embarrassed, rejected or ashamed when they are presenting themselves to other people. For Cheung, the homepages also liberate those who want to present the “hidden”—perhaps also “forbidden”—aspects of their personalities to the public.
Cheung argued that a personal homepage “is a very powerful medium for ordinary people to present the selves that may not otherwise be displayed in ‘real life’” (Cheung, 2000, p. 48); but we take a more conservative stance regarding the emancipatory function of personal websites for their authors. This is not because we deny the impact of cyber self representation of identities, but because we were forced to rethink the issues in relation to the narratives of the young women we interviewed and the way they made sense of their own experiences. What are the meanings of personal websites to their authors? Do they see them as self-representation projects? If personal websites are the intersecting points of their authors’ complex, multiple and contradictory identities, can we, by simply regarding the “hidden” aspects of self, explain how the process of emancipation takes place?
Cyberfeminist perspective on women’s online activities
Attempting to introduce a gender perspective into the discussion of cyberspace and self-representation, cyberfeminists hope that “by shaping and putting the new information and communication technologies to work from women’s points of view, we would have a different way to organize tomorrow’s societies” (Arizpe, 1999, p. xiii). In other words, cyberspace could be a “possible way out” for women to resist existing patriarchal social structure. Arizpe called for an awakening of women’s consciousness and hoped that “… women should be active agents in ensuring that the satyr-like potential of information technologies is directed towards enhancing human well-being rather than strengthening existing power monopolies … the meanings of tomorrow must be created today and women, especially young women, now have greater (p.284) freedom of spirit and of experience to be creative” (Arizpe, 1999, p. xiv–xvi). The idea of emancipating women via information technology is also shared by other cyberfeminists like Brayton (1997), who stated that “cyberspace offers women the platform and environment for putting forward their own versions of reality, the body and identity; a place where gender becomes fluid and the body becomes embodied”. Influentially, it is becoming an increasingly popular view that cyberspace can help shape and recreate one’s gender identity anew.
Apparently, these cyberfeminists are expecting women, particularly the young ones who possess the technical competence to take action in cyberspace, to work towards the goal of the “breakdown and disintegration of contemporary gender boundaries” (Brayton, 1997). Other cyberfeminists experimenting with the use of electronic art projects are often fascinated to find how, unlike men “who more typically participate online to avoid face-to-face personal communication” (Kaplan & Farrell, 1994, p. 11), these young women are able to “supplement and enhance their communications with others” (Kaplan & Farrell, 1994, p. 11).We keep seeing how the projected images of cyberspace, for these cyberfeminists, are optimistic possibilities to empower women “over there—online”. Yet we are skeptical about the underlying, fundamental assumption that cyberspace is an isolated virtuality or a totally new dimension of living which sharply contrasts with reality. According to this view, the reality that has been structured and entrenched by gender ideologies can be transformed by young women’s actions in cyberspace. Such arguments are problematic for a number of reasons. First, they fail to delineate the “nature” of cyberspace in relation to its sociological and cultural structures. More importantly, they do not provide us with a way to listen to the voices of the young women involved and to understand their lives in the new era of information society.
Lately, there have been studies investigating the proposition that women can make use of cyberspace to speak for themselves. For example, Gajjala attempted to see if a South Asian woman could “produce her own counter-sentences to narratives regarding her identity—thus finding a ‘ space’ to speak from email discussion groups” (Gajjala 2004, p. 19). These studies mainly focus on the narratives of women within a social organization—in particular, within well-organized women’s groups. In exploring the possibility of the empowerment of women in cyberspace, we are inspired by the cyberfeminists’ viewpoints, but we want to go further in investigating how individual young women can make use of their personal websites as practices of self, or self-representation projects, to deal with the difficulties they encounter in their everyday lives.
Kember argued that “the challenge for cyberfeminism—which, like other aspects of feminism … is to recognize the plurality of positions which simultaneously undermine and strengthen not just its own case but that of its supposed adversary … Resistance and opposition are only rhetorics in the face of an enemy which is neither unified nor static” (Kember, 2003, p. viii–ix). We agree with Kember that in our effort to explore the use of cyberspace for resistance or as a tool of empowerment, we must go beyond the conceptualization of homogeneous discourse. The great source of conflict and control does not rest in a unified category. Similar to Kember, we seek to work against the binary opposition of “virtual life” (VL) and “real life” (RL) that underlies the problems of many of the works and theories in the area. Dichotomizing VL and RL has trapped us in an imagined cyberspace in which individual web users, be they presenting themselves via websites or playing online games or bidding eBay products, are only practicing “the virtual” and have little negotiation or interaction with the “real” life. Such an imagined cyberspace fails to recognize how the space online is inextricably intertwined with the space of everyday life. We can no longer distinguish virtuality from reality by drawing a clear-cut boundary between the two. Nor can we be content with the argument that cyberspace has intruded into people’s real lives, given the rapid development of information technology and its common application in everyday life practice. Cyberspace is already a part of our real lives! If we are to be historically and culturally specific in the discussion of certain Hong Kong young women’s self-representations in cyberspace, we find it almost impossible to talk about the differences between VL and RL as if they were two separate spheres of life (Mitra & Schwartz, 2001).
The existing literature related to cyberspace and women’s identity has provided us with a basis on which we have been able to set the main focus of this study. We are aware of how we should attend to these young women’s talk about their lives in terms of a mixture of “on-screen” and “off-screen” selves if we are to come up with a more contextualized analysis. By focusing on the engagement and dialogue between the on-screen selves and off-screen selves of the subjects, we hope that this study will throw light on the relationship between personal websites and their authors’ self-identities, and particularly on the meanings of these websites to the identities of women, and on whether there are any possibilities for liberation or empowerment. Practical experiences (p.286) of Hong Kong young women in creating personal websites will be studied with a view to exploring the dynamics between gender and cyberculture.
Data collection for this study was conducted by Ho. K. C. and Tang, two of the contributing authors to this essay, through interviewing four young women webmasters who called themselves “Toppy”, “Caprice”, “Sim” and “Dimzi” on their respective personal homepages. The four interviewees were selected by the researchers via their own informal and virtual networks of personal websites. Two of the authors played dual roles: as webmasters of their own personal websites, and as researchers of young women’s websites. We have thus made use of our own experiences as participants in cyberspace to help understand these young women’s lives. Tang’s sharing of his observations of these women’s websites with this study’s participants served as prompts for further discussion. In a way, this study documents the experience of an informal sociocyber network of six persons, whose ages ranged from 22 to 27. Having hosted their personal websites for between one and a half and five years, they were proficient in web design, although their occupations bore no direct relationship to information technology. The interviewees included full-time university students, a flight attendant, a freelance music teacher and a scriptwriter for a local TV station.
First, we will present an overview of how meanings of the concept of “self” are textually conveyed on the informants’ personal homepages. We will examine the contents and styles of narratives on these self-published websites, in order to analyse the construction of self-identities of their authors and the ways these authors represent themselves in virtual space. Subsequently, by conducting in-depth interviews, we will seek to understand how these website authors make sense of their own presentations and the personal meanings these websites have for them.
We first encountered the interviewees via each other’s websites a year before this research commenced, when we began reading and responding to one another’s web writings. Subsequently, after several “offline”, face-to-face gatherings, we became friends. The virtual connection between researchers and interviewees thus facilitated the conducting of interviews in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. We were also interested in the roles these websites play in the social lives of their authors, particularly in how they have affected their (p.287) relationships with us the researchers, their significant others, as well as those they have met via the net.
As we aimed at contextualizing their cyberspace experiences, particularly the interactions and negotiations between their cyberspace and social activities in a “real-life” complex, a set of questions listed in our interview guide was raised in both written and oral formats. Some key questions included: why did you start building your personal website? How often do you update your website? What is your favourite section of your website? What is the subject matter that you like to write about in your website? What do you think you are like in the eyes of your web readers? Do your family and friends know that you have your own personal website? In what ways have they participated in the production of your website? What are their views on your website?
Virtual community and personal websites of local young women
In order to create a dialogue between life on-screen and life off-screen, we analysed the personal websites before interviewing their creators. These four cyberspace authors were selected not only because we personally encountered them via their published websites, but also because we found them as part of a virtual community that is developing and struggling between cyber-liberty and sociocultural pressures—a point that we shall discuss later at length.
The website authors were all locally-born young people who were in their twenties, and well-educated with tertiary education. At first glance, these young people were not interested in gender issues. However, gender did play an important role in the production of personal websites in their case. Tang, for instance, had been hosting his personal website for more than two years, but most of his male friends did not share his interest in website hosting.6 He found that in general, the personal websites of local young men were more thematically organized than those of young women, with more varied contents ranging from film, music, and book reviews to social and political commentaries and cultural critique.
(p.288) We observed that a great number of young women’s websites appeared on different hyperlink webpages—yet what drew our attention to them was the frequent updates of their layouts and contents. We were impressed by the frequent, usually daily, updates of these websites, which showed how strongly self-motivated these young women were in the production of their self-images, as the newly added elements on their website enabled a constant renewal and re-creation of their self-images. Another characteristic of this virtual network was the interconnection of hyperlinks: when we checked out the hyperlinks of their websites, we were often directed to the personal websites of other authors, but as we continued to explore the hyperlinks further, we very soon circled back to the websites of the same four authors again. This strange network can be considered as a union of “interest groups” which form personal relationships in cyberspace (Rheingold 1993), although the structure is neither formal nor institutionalized. Our interviewees suggested that the friends they have encountered via their websites often shared similar interests in films and books and had similar attitudes and worldviews. These young women treasured the friendships they have developed from “on-screen” to “off-screen” so much so that they considered being able to develop intimate and life-changing friendships the greatest reward for their investment of time and energy in their webpages. In recalling the gathering at which these young women first met their “web friends”, the interviewees expressed much excitement and joy. “It’s like heading into a new world,” said Dimzi, one of our interviewees, who felt her life circle had suddenly expanded because she could hang out with her “web friends” at coffee shops and talk to them in a way she could never do with her own “real” friends.7 The study also yielded the observation that their new sociovirtual network was formed primarily among young women of more or less the same age, with the addition of only one or two male members. As an informal union, the existence of which the members were not fully aware, this unclassified network became a minor league of young women, nurturing a sense of “sisterhood”. The young women closely attended to each other’s lives via their respective websites, and were very ready to provide immediate support and encouragement when necessary. Toppy, another interviewee, said that such spiritual and emotional support became more readily available after the development of their “off-screen” friendship. Both Dimzi and Toppy felt that (p.289) once they had grown from being “web friends” to “real” friends, their topics for sharing began to shift more to daily routines like shopping and dining—the kinds of topics they tend to share with their own “real” friends. The new “off screen” activities that netfriends shared were, according to our interviewees, “shallower” than the messages they left on the guestbooks of each other’s websites. Having said that, they did think these friends generally knew them better because of their “on-screen” and “off-screen” meetings, and they were confident about developing these friendships “off-screen”. They were convinced that their web writings were truthful, and that those who frequented their websites prior to their meeting in person tended to have a good understanding of their personalities.
All four personal websites we studied were built and developed very competently. Unlike some template-based Open Diaries (e.g., the online journal and weblog services provided by www.diaryland.com and www.blogger.com), these personal websites all had individualized designs.8 Although their layouts may sometimes be simple and their navigation designs not too skilful, their contents were always rich. Apart from literary texts such as diary entries, poems and other forms of creative writing, multimedia elements like photographs and music were usually organized rather systematically. They usually featured interactive devices like message boards and hyperlinks to other personal websites.
While these websites all varied in details, they shared some general characteristics. Autobiographical introductions, for example, were a common feature on these websites and provided useful background information about their authors. The personal information offered, however, consisted of manipulated facts that required readers to make use of their imagination and ability to make associations, as the authors often sought to project their images by appropriating those from popular culture and mass consumables such as bestsellers, movies, music, places and food, thus shedding light on the cultural capital that they possessed.
(p.290) One of the popular ways of presenting a biography was to list “100 things about me”.9 Although the format was standardized, the contents varied. Ranging from personal particulars like name, nickname, birthday, horoscope and schools attended to refined expressions like “[I have] the ability to swallow seven pills all at once”, they testified to the authors’ freedom to present the multifaceted aspects of their self-images in cyberspace.
Another ubiquitous feature was the online diary section. In the interviews, we spent a great deal of time discussing what they liked about diary entries. It is clear that interviewees attached great importance to personal sharing. From elusive explanations like “to share one’s feelings”, we noticed that their narratives, both on the web and in the interviews, seemed to suggest that the means and the channels for expressing and sharing personal feelings with others were missing in their real lives, and they badly needed a new venue for such expressions. Furthermore, for these young women, active participation in the building of personal websites was less about quantity than quality. When asked what they would like to achieve through their writings on their websites, one of our interviewees, Dimzi, answered firmly: “To write about myself”. Other interviewees gave similar answers, such as “to express my feelings towards life” and “to express my personal feelings”. Indeed, we found that the theme of the online diary entries of these young women was extensively centred on the issue of “self”—a phenomenon less common on the websites we have seen of young men in Hong Kong. Our interviews with these authors confirmed our initial observation that these young women had attempted, rather consciously, to express their innermost feelings in their very own cyberspaces, and that this element of emotional expression was most crucial in their self-representation projects.
When we went on to ask what kinds of feelings they liked to express, all of them, quite surprisingly, said that their diary entries allowed them to record and express less about the “ups” than the “downs” of their daily lives. Dimzi said that she thought she wrote better when she was frustrated. Toppy even emphasized that she tended to put her depressions over “there, online” when she was heartbroken. Caprice, posted on her website a huge number of drawings in (p.291) the style of some Taiwanese “illustrated stories”, a popular cultural form which combines both literary text and drawings to express emotional and sentimental feelings, especially sadness.10 We asked these women what they thought they were like in the eyes of their web readers. Their replies were, once again, related to sorrow and sadness. They were conscious that the images they projected online were of “an unhappy person”, “a sad girl” and “an emotional girl”.
“Actually I feel very embarrassed,” said another interviewee, Toppy, who disclosed her personal website to her former classmates and friends.
When they discovered my mellow writings over there online, they were shocked, because I have always come across to them as such a cheerful and easy-going person. Maybe such a great contrast will make them wonder if I am schizophrenic!
The trouble caused by her online diary entries was in fact two-sided. While her sorrow made her a “psycho-freak” to her former classmates, her ability to express her feelings through literary writings also earned her the snide nickname of “the talented writer-girl”11 among her colleagues who had accidentally come across the address to her personal website from the information column of her instant messenger (ICQ). This story suggests that, in the context of the social encounters these young women have with other people, they feel that they have been assigned a role with a happy face—that they should always be cheerful, even if it is an empty happiness and they are hurting inside.
The interaction between Toppy and her colleagues can be viewed as a conflict between two different sets of expectations and practices from two agents. On the one hand, her colleagues had expected that Toppy, as a “normal” girl her age, would reiterate in cyberspace the “usual” practice of a cheerful young woman, just like the Toppy they know at their workplace. On the other hand, Toppy’s revelations of her deep thoughts and sorrowful feelings in front of an “anonymous” audience surprised and almost completely contradicted her colleagues’ understanding of “typical” girls at Toppy’s age. Although our research has not unearthed a coherent set of gender norms applying across (p.292) young women in Hong Kong, we seemed to detect some traces of a “perfomative discourse” which constantly disciplines how they should perform and behave in front of different parties.
Tension between life on-screen and off-screen
My boyfriend doesn’t seem to appreciate my website … It is absurd that he used to love reading my stuff there before we began our relationship. He told me that he had spent three days “studying” all my online writings when he first came across my website. Then he had a crush on me and wanted to date me. But after we developed a stable relationship, he resented my dedication to writing on the web. He says that I am revealing “too much” of my personal feelings to strange web visitors. He thinks it is “potentially dangerous”.
Apparently, Caprice’s boyfriend did not want her to expose herself to people who might exploit her openness. Neither Caprice nor we could assert any unspoken intention in her boyfriend’s literal proposition. Did the resentment emerge out of jealousy? What did the boyfriend mean by “potential danger”? Did he feel threatened by some unknown male readers of her website? We could not tell. What we do know is that Caprice was determined about not giving up her website. She told us in a firm voice and with a serious expression so contrary to her usual manner of politeness and deference: “We have quarrelled over this matter several times already. Finally, I told him that he should simply avoid reading my stuff if he feels uncomfortable.” Thus, she uses her personal website as a tactic to draw boundaries to resist a kind of domination: the expectation for her to be a good girl who relies on the protection of the people she loves for the security of her identity, be it physical, psychological or social. Except for Dimzi who was not engaged in any intimate relationship, all the interviewees had experienced conflicts with and in fact had received explicit objections from their boyfriends over their “rights” to write truthfully on their personal websites. Toppy was accused by her boyfriend of sharing her sadness with “strangers” but not with him. Perhaps he felt quite uneasy that “strangers” were able to become intimate with Toppy through the sharing of these negative feelings that are “usually” not disclosed except to close friends. In the quarrel, she found herself “speechless”, and decided that the next time she were to start a new relationship, she would simply keep her website out of sight and out of reach of her boyfriend.
(p.293) Unlike the operation of the “performative discourse” of cheerful young women in the workplace, dating relationships involve more dynamic and penetrating aspects in everyday life crowding up virtually all the physical and mental spaces between a couple. Over the course of their relationship, these young women had to fulfil their boyfriends’ unspoken expectation: for the women to be weak dependants who sought protection solely from her boyfriend. This regulation only surfaced when one of the less safeguarded sites—the women’s personal websites—was trespassed by a third-party web surfer. The myriad reactions of their boyfriends, including their verbal resentments, the quarrels and the suggestions of the risks from the women’s disclosure of their feelings were performing as “soft commands” on the young women. If these commands were not followed, they would probably be repeated as stronger commands. For these young women, their personal websites constituted a partially “autonomous” space in which they could express their “truthful” feelings towards life. This freedom was, however, often challenged, and could never be taken for granted.
Their dating relationships aside, the interviewees also felt that their personal websites could be potential sources of conflict with their families. All four interviewees said that they had “good” relationships with their families. Toppy, for instance, told us that she would go over to her parents’ bed and have a chat with them before she went to sleep. The interviewees all believed that as “good daughters”, they should not make their parents worry—in fact, they all tried very hard not to give their parents reason to worry about them. Their complicated representations and depressive feelings expressed on their personal websites, however, seemed to violate and subvert the ideal image of trouble-free daughters. Dimzi said, “It would be like being seen naked by them … Usually I would write my stuff late at night, after they go to bed, because I don’t want my parents to know that I am not happy.” Toppy was once caught by her father when she was updating her website. Her father read her words out loud, but Toppy lied that the passage was written by someone else. She then realized that she did not want her parents to know she was hosting a personal website, even though her parents were not computer literate. Dimzi’s father also expressed a negative view when he saw his daughter reading One Hundred Years of Solitude12 because of the sad title of the book. Both Dimzi and Toppy had disclosed their (p.294) websites to their siblings, but they had a tacit understanding that their parents must not have any knowledge of the sites. When asked whether they would one day take off the “mask” and reveal their websites to their parents, Toppy did not answer directly. If she had to, she said, she would see to it that she could explain in great detail the reasons for building her personal website, in order to avoid shocking her parents. One of the contributing writers to this chapter, K. C. Ho, also had difficulty revealing her website to her parents. She knew that if her parents ever found out about her website, they would call her “weird” and “too radical”. More importantly, she wanted to preserve a sphere of her own in which she could express her vulnerable emotions. It was important for her to present herself as their toughest and smartest daughter every time she saw her parents, for she knew they were proud of her. For these young women, their websites should best remain a secret from their parents.
Being a “trouble-free”, sweet daughter like Toppy and Dimzi is another facet of the “performative discourse” of young women in Hong Kong. As daughters, the conflict between these young women and their parents is both momentary and permanent. This lifelong identity is and will be carried by these young women, but unlike for the sites of men-women relationships, they are obligated to perform the “trouble-free” daughter role only in the sites where family activities take place. The momentary absence of their parents, as in Dimzi’s case where she updated her website late at night, would immediately break loose this “voluntary” duty. And as they are stepping into independent adulthood, they also have more flexibility to arrange their engagement in family activities.
Through analysing the different situations where their personal websites would shock and predictably upset their relations, we have observed three facets of the “performative discourse” of these young women in Hong Kong. Social encounters, family, and dating relationships were the major sources of institutional constraints these young women had to deal with in developing their self-identities. From one site to another, the obligations were imposed upon them. As a result, they all preferred to keep their websites not only separated but also blocked from their loved ones, especially from their parents and boyfriends. This attempt and determination to conceal could be read as the reaction on the part of the interviewees to the domination and control imposed on them daily by the people they love. Their roles as girlfriends and daughters apparently deprived them of a greater sense of control over themselves, which perhaps explains why they wanted to create their personal websites in the first place. Only in their self-created cyberspheres could they experience precious moments of true freedom, and release their innermost feelings.
From our interviews, we noticed that the liberating effect of cyberspace promised by some feminists must not be assumed. Cyberspace does provide a highly accessible medium for computer literate young women. Their “on-screen” self-expressions can be perceived as a constant reflection and acknowledgement of their ways of living, of their ideas and desires. The construction of a personal website is a self-motivated project, not entirely different from the act of taking care of oneself, in which each participant can possibly actualize her ethical subjectivity as a young woman (Foucault, 1988); the sense of freeing oneself from the normal gender constraints is evident. But, at the same time, these moments of freedom foreground precisely the limits of such freedom: such resistance is by and large set by the “real society” they are living in and the kind of gender socialization they have been subject to. In our research, the social and communal support our interviewees received from their self-representation projects in cyberspace (on-screen) was not particularly helpful for dealing with various kinds of performative constraints in their real-life settings (off-screen). On the contrary, their personal websites often contributed to the conflicts between the webmasters and their boyfriends. Their projects of the self, these women felt, should also be hidden from the sight of their parents because the complicated feelings they expressed online often contradicted their presentations of themselves as good daughters. The closer we look into how each woman dealt with her multiple roles as “daughter” and “girlfriend”, the more vividly we see how these young women had to face conflicts between their socially assigned roles and the “personas” they put up only when they were online. Cyberspace was a site of contestation between their own selves and their significant others. More so than often, their actions in cyberspace further complicated the unbalanced power relations between these young women and their significant others in various “real-life” situations. As such, we cannot always assume that cyberspace gives women all the unfulfilled freedom they need in real life.
There will always be tension between one’s on-screen and off-screen identities. As we have discussed above, the obstacles to these women’s pursuit of freedom often sprang from their intimate relationships, especially from their boyfriends and parents. These obstacles do not, and will not, disappear with the construction of their personal websites. The courage to face these obstacles has to be sought in any micropolitical situation, where individuals strive for their (p.296) sense of autonomy by directly addressing their grievances and concerns to their role partners (Ho & Tsang, 2007). Without the social conditions for freedom of speech and expression in their real-life settings, these self-construction projects in cyberspace do not offer any sustainable resolution, since the crux of the problem lies in their relationships with their loved ones. The constraints are imposed often in the name of love. On-screen activities like setting up personal websites could yield positive impact on women’s construction of self, but what engenders conflict and tension off-screen cannot be solved simply by activities and actions on-screen.
The interviews were conducted in September 2004. Nine months later, one of our interviewees, Caprice, posted an announcement of her wedding on her website’s index page. She created a little feature on a pop-up window for her web readers. Clicking the link “Go to my wedding”, we saw a few pictures of Caprice, the bride-to-be, in a white wedding gown. In the final page, she gave a statement confiding her feelings about getting married at the age of twenty-three. “Let us believe, with innocence, in love and marriage, which are actually simple and beautiful,” she concluded.
Ten days before her wedding, Caprice kept writing on her website about her thoughts and emotions, her early marriage, the troubles she faced during the preparation of the wedding, and her anticipations for her married life. As readers of Caprice’s website, seeing her wedding announcement, we suddenly realized that we were witnessing her entry into a new stage of life since the time when she was twenty years old. Sooner or later, we also realized, our respondents will move from girlhood to womanhood, perhaps even to motherhood. What will happen in the brave new world? Will they keep writing on their personal websites? What kinds of conflicts will emerge from the new sites created by marriage? What kinds of struggle will they go through as they age? Will they be able to acquire more autonomy with their experience of creating and recreating themselves in cyberspace in their changing situations? It will certainly be a worthy task to continue further exploration into the changing relationships of these “techno-guerrillas” as they go through their life-course.
(1.) This paper was first presented at the Second International Symposium on “Chinese Women and Their Cyber-network” in October 2004 when the Web 2.0 phenomenon (generally understood as blogging and other online activities involving the sharing of user-generated contents and the collaborations among cyber-citizens) was still very much underdeveloped in Hong Kong.
When compared with bloggers who make use of advanced internet technologies to interact with the world, the webmasters we interviewed experienced a different form of interactivity: there was no effective and organized means to “trackback” someone’s writings, give publicly accessible comments, subscribe to a personal website via RSS, or share and vote for an interesting post in any digital broadcasting platform with only a few clicks. Yet before the term Web 2.0 was publicized, these authors might have been engaging in “blogging” practices already—particularly in the sense that they were using the internet as a platform to share thoughts, views or feelings with a known or unknown audience, and were developing a form of social and cultural exchange that is now widely acknowledged and celebrated as one of the key contributions of the Web 2.0 phenomenon.
While we do not wish to generalize the diversities and specificities of different forms of negotiations about selfhood in various cyber activities, our paper offers empirical examples of how these young women in Hong Kong appropriated their basic level of technological literacy and realized the potential to express and negotiate their self-images online when internet technologies were less advanced and available in 2004.
(2.) A study by the Commission on Youth (2002), which involved the surveying of 1,218 Hong Kong parents and 1,713 of their children aged 9 to 24, revealed that the young in Hong Kong were better acquainted with computers than their parents. New arrivals to the city from mainland China had even less experience than Hong Kong parents. Details of the study can be viewed at http://www.info.gov.hk/coy/eng/report/it.htm.
(3.) Personal websites are different from online diaries. Though they are both platforms in cyberspace that allow the writers to upload and share text, image and other content materials, users of online diaries would face more constraints, while webmasters of personal websites would have to solve more technical problems. We will further elaborate the differences between the two in the following sections.
(4.) The survey, conducted in Chinese, was publicly reported by Breakthrough Ltd., a non-profit-making youth organization based on the Christian faith, in April 2005. The results were generated by an online questionnaire posted on local websites and newsgroups. A total number of 1,064 questionnaires were submitted, achieving a response rate of 51.0 percent. Among the completed questionnaires, the majority of the respondents were students (80.9 percent), and 62.5 percent of the respondents were female. http://www.breakthrough.org.hk/ir/Research/29_onlinediary/onlinediary.htm [Retrieved 25 June 2005]
(5.) According to the survey conducted by Breakthrough (2005), most respondents thought that the most important function provided by the online diary was the opportunity for self-expression and emotional release. 77.9% of the respondents declared that the online diary enabled them to unleash their feelings, ideas and opinions. 50.4% of respondents thought that it was a space of expression. At the same time, 77.7% of the respondents made use of this cyber platform to freely express their feelings, and 61.5% of the respondents claimed that the medium drove them to share their feelings with other people. 49.9% of the respondents even suggested that the online diary gave them courage to say things that they did not normally dare to. The study also showed that 67% of the respondents learned more about their thoughts and feelings via blogging.
(6.) Instead of building their own websites, some young men in Hong Kong simply upload the photos they take to online photo albums like “Yahoo! Photos”〈http://photos.yahoo.com〉 and share them with their friends. Although this observation has not been confirmed by any quantitative research at the moment, as far as we are concerned, the relatively “practical” use of the Internet by these young men is quite common.
(7.) Instead of hanging out at coffee shops, Dimzi and her “real” friends usually went to karaoke boxes and had meals at popular dining places like Korean barbecue restaurants.
(8.) Weblog and other online diary services provide their subscribers with some standardized templates into which the users can input their contents conveniently. At the cost of convenience, only a certain degree of modification of the layout is allowed.
(9.) 100 Things About Me is a popular internet project which encourages its participants to come up with a list of 100 things about themselves, and to put their lists on their own websites. For more information, see: http://www.mizdos.com/100things.htm [Retrieved 19 February 2005]
(10.) One of the Taiwan-styled “illustrated stories” artists who is very well-received in Hong Kong is Jimmyspa. For more information on his work, see: http://www.jimmyspa.com [Retrieved 19 February 2005]
(11.) During the interview conducted in Cantonese, Toppy used the Chinese term cai nu. This is originally a positive recognition of a woman’s talent, but in the context suggested by Toppy, its meaning was ironic.
(12.) Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Dimzi was reading the Chinese translation of the book.