NETWORK : Women get wired

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart on a book that aims to help women get the most from the Internet

"I have been involved with the Net for over 10 years on a professional level, and many of my female friends started asking me about how to get started on the Web. I said, `Why don't you get a book, there's about 200 of them out there.' Then I started looking at these books and realised they were dreadful; huge tomes, like car manuals, full of boring examples."

So Rye Senjen decided to write her own book, with her partner Jane Guthrey, and The Internet for Women - already dubbed the "geekgirl's bible" - is the result. Ms Guthrey provided quirky cartoons and cultural research; Ms Senjen concentrated on the technical aspects of the Net - as well she might, being senior research scientist at Telstra, the communications giant, in Melbourne, Australia.

The Internet for Women is clear, concise and packed with useful information. Particularly inspiring is the section on the history of women in computing, giving an overview of some extraordinary figures, including the mathematician Ada, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), who worked on Charles Babbage's Analytical Machine (forerunner of the computer), and Grace Hopper, who was part of team that developed Cobol. And during the Second World War women entered computing in surprisingly vast numbers as programmers.

Bringing the story of wired women up to date, Senjen and Guthrey talked via e-mail to hundreds of women who have engaged with the Net. Among them were Rosie Cross, who edits geekgirl, an inspirational online webzine, and Amy Goodloe, who heads Women Online, a Net consulting business, and runs Lesbian.Org, promoting sapphic visibility online.

Ms Senjen stresses the possibilities for empowerment through the Net and the potential for women to subvert existing media messages. "For instance, at the Beijing conference, women were constantly posting eyewitness accounts on the the Net of what was really going on out there. Events that you couldn't, and wouldn't, get to read in the press."

The Net has also proved essential in maintaining social interaction, especially for people in remote rural areas, she says. Forming new ties or reaffirming old bonds is one way that women are using the Net and bypassing extortionate international telephone bills in the process.

Cultural associations aside, Ms Senjen has not shied away from explaining complex technical elements of the Net, yet all her details of protocols, Telnet and how to survive in a MUD are clear and helpfully accompanied by pictorial representations.

Harassment, pornography and privacy are three words that are constantly dragged up in discussions about women and the Net. The Internet for Women is thankfully calm on these issues, taking the line that if you don't want to access porn then don't go looking for it: "It is unlikely that pornographic material will arrive uninvited in your mailbox."

There's a useful section on how to encrypt, on how to send anonymous e-mail and use digital signatures, 60 pages of worthwhile resources, mailing lists to check out and organisations to join online as well as an extensive glossary.

Most importantly, The Internet for Women is written in a non-patronising tone, aiming to bypass the general fear of technology that women supposedly have. Unlike the chummy style of "Hey! It's Monday, let's get into IRC!" of other "how to" books, Ms Senjen and Ms Guthrey's primer is informative and down-to-earth. An essential tool for any female (or male) user who wants to participate in the future and change the way they communicate for ever via the Netn

`The Internet for Women' by Rye Senjen and Jane Guthrey (Spinifex, pounds 12.95, ISBN 1-875559-52-3).

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