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Spiderwoman, Wise-Women: Listservs to connect

Stephanie Brail was on the Internet before there was a web. “When I first got on the Net in 1988, the atmosphere was very hostile to women’s issues,” she would later recall. Brail, however, persisted in exploring cyberspace and began to find people like her—and more women. As the web moved out of academic circles and into the mainstream it broadened the scope and demographics of the Internet, if only slightly at first.

Though the digital divide would be slow to close—a problem that continues to this day—by the mid-1990’s, tech forecasters were predicting a more rapidly closing gender gap, somewhat reversing the predominantly male web of the first half of the decade. In 1995, Brail started the email listserv Spiderwoman as a way to capture women coming online for the frist time, and give them a space to speak their mind, support one another, and stay on the cutting edge of technology.

Listservs like Spiderwoman are a bit different than the social media and discussion platforms of our post-Web 2.0 era, but the way they were structured and used continues to influence modern social platforms. Most listservs were a blend of editorial content provided by regular contributors, and ongoing discussions in email threads. All of that is funneled through a single mailing list server, where subscribers route their messages through. Listservs provided an important function on the early Internet and web. They were a foundation for online communities and the web’s first grassroots movements. They were also a place where people could learn about the web, and how best to use it.

Spiderwoman became an immensely popular list, riding the crest of a wave of sites and organizations that attempted to address the outsized influence of men on the web—iVillage, Webgrrrls, Women.com. Its vibe was more indie retro than house and home, and Brail prided herself on creating a place where women could be open, and respectfully confrontational in their viewpoints. The list spawned hundreds and hundreds of discussions that over time were sectioned into different categories.

A screenshot from the short-lived Spiderwoman webzine, webspinning

As more and more women joined the web, Spiderwoman’s influence and popularity grew. Brail’s company, Digital Amazon, used the mailing list to spin out new ideas. Their website hosted chatrooms and forums, a growing directory of resources and links, and the short-lived webzine called webspinning, with features by Brail and Sarah Yoffa.

In 1998, Brail took it one step further with a formal venture known as Amazon City. A blend of magazine-style content, forum discussions, and networking opportunities, Amazon City launched with the slogan, “overthrow gender stereotypes, empower women, have fun.” Visitors were encouraged to become participants in the content, active “citizens” of a virtual city. The site even featured content broken up into a number of sectors laid out on a digital map—Body Zone, Soul Quarter, Community Square, complete with streets like Ada Lovelace Lane and Frida Kahlo Boulevard—and readers could chose which community they wanted to explore. It had links to popular resources, chat rooms for women to connect, and even a digital radio station.

Amazon City’s ambition widened further when they announced their plan to offer free web space for community members, something in the spirit of Geocities. With Digital Amazon laser-focused on future plans for the site, the Spiderwoman list serve began to unravel. Brail, and most of the community, had shifted their attention to the website, and it was left inactive and maintained. A few members of the list began talking about going independent, spinning off a version of the list to revive its original purpose. One of the listserv’s more active members, Dori Smith, offered to run the list on her own mailing server.

The virtual map of Amazon City displayed on their website, circa 1997

Like Brail, Dori Smith had come to the Internet well before the web; but her entry was through programming. Smith had first experimented with coding back in high school, followed by a computer science degree in the 1980’s. She worked at a few different tech companies as a programmer, but it wasn’t until she opened a web browser that everything clicked. The web struck Smith as dynamic and exciting. She learned HTML and the rapidly evolving server language known as Java, which had recently been popularized by Java applets. But Smith would soon become well known in the nascent web industry for her expertise in JavaScript and techniques of DHTML.

Smith’s career gradually evolved towards teaching other to code on the web. In 1997, she began teaching courses on JavaScript and web development. The following year, she and her husband co-authored JavaScript for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide, the first in a series of books they would write together. Negrino was an active technical writer for Peachpit at the time, but it was Smith that brought the technical expertise to the book. That same year, Smith joined the Web Standards Project, where she worked to bring consistency to the way JavaScript was implemented in the major browsers of the time.

Through her books, courses, her blog backupbrain.com, and involvement in the web standards project, Smith had a far reaching influence on the web. When the Spiderwoman listserv began to break apart in the late 1990’s, Smith had already had decades of experience as a programmer, and had been on the web almost as long as it existed. Spiderwoman had been a huge part of that, and had helped her advance in her career and in her expertise. Motivated by what it had done for her, Smith led the group of Spiderwoman expats to a new list, which they called Wise-Women.

Wise-Women was a little more technical focused than its predecessor, and cast off some of its explicit edginess. As Smith would describe, “we’re not chicks, babes, girls, or even grrls–we’re women, and we’re okay with being women.” The list was for anyone on the web, both men and women, as long as people were willing to be civil, helpful and engage in thoughtful conversations. But its primary purpose was to provide a space for women to support and coach other women with their technical issues.

A screenshot from the contributor page of Wise-Women from when it was active, with a bio on Dori Smith

Though Smith remained a primary influence and publisher of the Wise-Women list, it was made up of over a dozen editors and contributors bringing different aspects of web expertise to the project. Women from across the web contributed content, and hundreds more asked questions, took part in discussions and built up a growing base of knowledge for building with and on the web.

Just as Spiderwoman had done for Smith, Wise-Women served as a bedrock of influence and knowledge for many new programmers and users of the web. It was a rock steady source of information for thousands of people, and a cornerstone of learning web development.

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