The Forgotten Women Who Built The Internet

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You know the Apple origin story with the two Steves in the garage. You know the Facebook origin story with Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm. But journalist Claire Evans argues, if you want to tell the internet's origin story, you have to talk about women: Elizabeth Feinler and the women of the Network Information Center, network protocol engineer Radia Perlman and early social media creator Stacy Horn, among many others.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Elizabeth Feinler, Network Information Center Administrator

Claim to fame: invented the concept of ".com"

Claire Evans: The people who created the yellow pages if you will of the early internet? It was a bunch of women working in this office called Network Information Center, the NIC, at Stanford. They basically were the Google of their day. The head of this office was a woman named Elizabeth Feinler. And she was the person who answered the phone if you called the internet. If you had a question — seriously — if you had a question about where some piece of software was running, or who was in charge of some location. If you wanted to add your computer to the early internet and you wanted to know what protocols you needed to have, any question, you would call this office. And this woman would answer the phone and she was the one.

Anne Strainchamps: But my God, you're saying the internet basically WAS a woman.

CE: That right! She was eventually the person who came up with the idea of separating the internet into domains — she came up with .com, .edu, .gov.

Radia Perlman, Network Engineer

Claim to fame: The spanning tree algorithm, a key aspect of ethernet networking technology

CE: (Perlman) was fundamental to the evolution of technology called ethernet. She is a network protocol routing designer.

AS: She's also funny — she adapted her spanning tree algorithm to that famous poem, "I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree."

Algorhyme

I think that I shall never see
Agraph more lovely than a tree.
A tree whose crucial property
Is loop-free connectivity.
A tree that must be sure to span
So packets can reach every LAN.
First, the root must be selected.
By ID, it is elected.
Least-cost paths
fromroot are traced.
In the tree, these paths are placed.
A mesh is made by folks like me,
Then bridges find a spanning tree.

—Radia Perlman

CE: Yeah, that's so beautiful. She wrote this iconic algorithm — I mean it's still sort of the Golden Rule in network design circles — that allows packets of information to travel across the ethernet network without colliding into each other. And she wrote it in this moment of inspiration in just an afternoon. And then she had the rest of that weekend to kill before she had to go back to work on Monday. To write a beautiful algorithm and then to follow it up with a beautiful poem about your algorithm is just ... it's the kind of thing I want to see more of in tech.

Stacy Horn, Founder Of "EchoNYC" Online Community

Claim to fame: Created one of the first online spaces that counted equitable numbers of men and women as users.

CE: I think it's important to remember, I think most people don't realize this — that women didn't really come online in any significant numbers really until the worldwide web took off in the mid-1990s. So from the birth of the internet, from this network information center with a group of women answering the phones, to the mid-1990s, women represented something like 10 or 15 percent of the online population.

So if you were a woman on a really early online service, like a bulletin board service or listserv or something, you were an oddity — and that usually came with a lot of undesired attention and harassment.

A lot of women used male aliases or gender-neutral pronouns when they used those services to avoid all of that. And so it made it kind of genuinely difficult for women to find each other on the early internet. It was complicated further by the fact that a lot of men would take on female aliases to talk to women online. It was kind of a morass.

So Stacy Horn, who is this former telecommunications employee, she worked for Mobil Oil, she really wanted to create her own social space online — in 1989. And so she started her own social network — a really early social network, a bulletin board system (BBS) — in New York. And again, this is a time at which women represent this tiny percentage of the online population, but her service had parity or close to it. Her users were 40 percent female.

AS: How did she get such high numbers?

CE: Because she was the only person trying, frankly. She made the efforts that none of her contemporaries made. She pounded the pavement in New York. She went to art galleries and concerts — really anywhere she thought somebody interesting might be hanging out. She tried to convince people, mostly non-technical people, that they should do this crazy newfangled thing, which they called "computer-mediated communication" in those days.

The early net was mostly crowded with programmers and engineers and early adopters. But she wanted artists and writers and the kind of people that you meet in New York City.

AS: She had a catchphrase I love "the highest percentage of women in cyberspace, and none of them will give you the time of day."

CE: Yeah, isn't that the best? I often come back to her because I think (undertaking) this kind of outreach — of just reaching beyond the expected user base and looking for people who might be interested in your service, but might not know about it because they're not hard-nosed technical early adopter types — and then making it as easy as possible for them. So she taught courses out of her apartment on how to use the service. She made access free for women for a year. She would give areas of the service over to different women's groups. She made an area of the service women-only so women could sign on and talk to just each other, amongst themselves, the way that women do when we are talking amongst ourselves.

But the most important thing, I think, is that she made sure that for every male moderator — or host, as they were called in those days — there was a female moderator. Now, it's a simple gesture, but it meant that anytime a woman signed on, most likely for the very first time in her life, she would see herself reflected in the power structure and culture of this place. And that made it so that women felt more comfortable just jumping into conversation. They weren't lurkers — they were part of the culture, and that made the service the platform more interesting for everybody. It made it more dynamic. It made it more alive. It made it so that people were talking frankly about their lives instead of just listening to the people who were most willing to jump on a soapbox and talk.

Is today different?

AS: It's just such a poignant story because today many of us ... I'm just listening to you and thinking that I wish the internet was like that today. It's a horrible space for women.

CE: I think about this a lot. I mean, (what) if Stacy had had the money to make the jump to the worldwide web when the worldwide web came along? Or even just if the architects of our present day social networks had just made the same kinds of efforts at outreach and inclusion — these really sort of no-nonsense efforts that Stacy made because she just knew that it was the right thing to do. What would our social networks look like today? What if those values were part and parcel of the way that we built things instead of being tacked on as an afterthought, once the damage has already been done.

CE: That's really the value of looking at this history — seeing the kinds of simple strategies that are just waiting there for us to reclaim and re-adapt to our time. Sometimes those strategies are simple, just making sure that there's a woman moderator in the same room as the male moderator. It's not a big thing, but the modern day equivalent could be really powerful.

AS: Does uncovering this history make you angry? Because it makes me kind of angry thinking about what it's like to be a woman online today. So many women encounter just blatant misogyny. And yet, this is a space that could have been — should have been — ours as much as anybody else's. How did we go so wrong?

CE: Certainly, yes, I get angry about it. I also try to be hopeful.

I think that there's value in digging up these stories and letting them loose on the world, and letting them work their magic on the people who are susceptible and who have the power to change things, to design things.

I think it's also important to remember that the early internet wasn't a utopia. There was plenty of utopian thinking, but it had its problems. There were trolls — Stacy's service had one Nazi. It had sexual harassers. It had people that just enjoyed sowing chaos. But that's just humanity, right? There's always going to be that aspect to it.

I think the difference is a consequence of scale. It's impossible to create a safe and equitable social platform when the goal is to have billions of users. It makes moderation impossible and it forces us to outsource moderation to contract workers who suffer deep trauma. I think there's this holdover from the first wave of internet culture, this kind of utopian thinking that has influenced this popular misconception that the internet is a community technology. But it's not necessarily a community technology anymore, because I think our social media platforms have figured out a way to hybridize community and commerce by selling communities to advertisers, and to each other.

So, I think having a clear-headed sense of where we are and how far we've come, (I think we should be) looking at some of the strategies that were in play early on and trying to implement them now. I think it's more helpful to think about what we can do, rather than feel hopeless about what we've done.

AS: I'm curious, what does "cyberfeminism" mean to you now? Where would you like to see it go?

CE: I think the important thing is to create spaces that are safe for everybody. I don't think it's necessarily about making female corners of the internet or something. I think it's about building platforms and networks and communities that have a scale that makes them manageable. That makes people feel invested and like they're stakeholders in their own community.

CE: The way we have it now, I don't think online communities really are communities — I think they're products. And I think we need to think about how to build real communities where everyone feels safe and taken care of. Where everyone feels like they have a little bit of power, and that we're all coming up with what to do next together, rather than outsourcing that to some megacorporation that is just profiting from our infighting or something.

So I think it's not so much about making places for women as it is making places for everybody, and then everybody benefits.

AS: You're also part of an online collective, Deep Lab — what sort of community is that?

CE: Deep Lab is a loose affiliation of women who are interested in these kinds of topics: hardware hackers and artists and curators and writers and women who are working in the space of tech — with a specific kind of artistic bent. It's kind of just a mutual support group, frankly. I really think that's sort of my favorite thing about the internet today — it's not so much what happens in the public sphere, but it's what happens in the group messages and the DMs and the Slack channels or the email lists, or whatever it is. Communities coming together and helping each other where they can.

CE: So I'm part of several different Facebook groups of women who support each other where possible. Flag possible dangers for one another, put each other up for jobs, give each other mutual support. I think that kind of thing is what the internet can be really good for — it's about using the affordances of these technologies to help each other out.

AS: Who are the women who are doing important work on the internet of tomorrow right now?

CE: Great question. You know it's funny — you spend years writing a history and everybody wants you to talk about the future. I feel that there are women doing great work all around us that hopefully future historians — or maybe even more importantly, present day historians — can celebrate and amplify.