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The Internet Hall of Fame has a diversity problem

Although it's getting better, the Internet Hall of Fame is still centered on white male innovators.


Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 28, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 12:28 pm CDT

What does it take to make it into the Internet Hall of Fame?

For starters, it’s not Internet fame. Instead, try white male privilege that seems to stretch as far as the Internet can reach.

The Internet Society, the organization behind the awards, which took place for the first time last year, aims to honor people who have been instrumental in making sure the Internet stretches across the globe and in developing Internet culture. A 21-year-old non-profit that works to expand access to Internet and Internet education around the world, the Internet Society has deep ties to global pioneers and leaders in technology development.  So it’s only natural that they’d want to award fellow “innovators” and “pioneers” in turn.  Except that most of those innovators and pioneers are, you guessed it, white dudes.

According to the Internet Hall of Fame website, the Internet Society aims to honor “Individuals who have played a significant role in the conceptualization, building, and development of the Internet in any region or country.” More specifically, they have three categories: one for pioneers of Internet development, one for innovators, and “global connectors.” In other words, people who have been instrumental in growing, developing, and expanding Internet access and technology around the world. 

What this means is that the “Hall of Fame” won’t represent an Internet full of YouTube celebrities and funny Twitter accounts, but instead the nuts, bolts, and on-the-ground spread of Internet technology and culture. It sounds good on paper: a long list of people from all walks of life, influencing Internet culture and education in their own communities across the world. Except that’s not the reality. Last year’s Hall of Fame list, while it contained many people instrumental to shaping Internet culture, was also incredibly Eurocentric. Of the 33 inductees, only 3 are women and only 2 are not white. While African Internet development is represented (by Nancy Hafkin, an American), Africans aren’t. 

Apart from one lone blogger who protested that last year’s list was “boring” and that future efforts should “try to balance out all the old white dudes,” the 2012 inductee list was widely heralded and largely uncritiqued. And it’s true that actual Internet legends are in abundance on the list of 33: people like Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, and Elizabeth Feinler, who ran ARPANET, the precursor to the modern Internet. But you’d think that with all the awards’ emphasis on the Internet’s global expansion, perhaps they would also emphasize diversity.

This year’s list is significantly better: out of 32 inductees, 6 are women, 5 are Asian, and Africa is represented by Nii Quaynor, a Ghanian engineer who played a key role in bringing the Internet to Africa. Still, the sea of white male faces on the list is depressing–almost more depressing because the inductees have obviously earned their place on the list. No one could possibly argue that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, the late Aaron Swartz, or Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow don’t deserve to be there. 

But the awards ceremony has thrown a harsh truth of the Internet into sharp relief: It was built largely around a white male, European and US.-centric culture.

“Even if we focus more broadly on the late ’60s and ’70s development of the network protocols that shaped early Internet platforms, we still find mostly men,” wrote Tara L Conley a year ago in an article entitled, “The Women and People of Color Who Invented the Internet:”  

The relative absence of women and racial and ethnic minorities during this period of tech innovation is not surprising given the oppression these groups faced in both public and private spheres, which largely kept them out of the field.

As Conley’s article goes on to note, it’s not that people of color and women weren’t active in the field, but rather that their contributions have historically been minimized and erased. And while the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame awards are obviously attempting to rectify the situation by being inclusive, the prioritization of the contributions of white men to the industry has never been clearer.

Another curious aspect of the Hall of Fame is that it seems to want to limit itself to a relatively narrow focus on the people who invented and standardized core concepts of Internet technology—but then it doesn’t.  If the awards were solely focused on acknowledging the inventors and key advocates of things like packet switching, IP mapping, protocols and domain assignments, then the list could be defined by foundational and fundamental technical achievements, regardless of gender.

But by broadening the scope of the nominations list to things like Craigslist and Wikipedia, the Hall of Fame awards also make the exclusion of non-white-male geek culture that much more evident. After all, is Al Gore, whose contributions to the actual development of the Internet boil down to being really really enthusiastic, more worthy of being on the list than Mary Lou Jepsen, creator of One Laptop Per Child? What about Viswanath Venkatesh, who is principally responsible for the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology and other technology acceptance models which have been applied to everything from education in developing nations to social media development? All of these people have significantly contributed to the worldwide expansion of the Internet. One of them is considered worthy of being a Hall of Famer; the other two are not.

The decision about who is and is not worthy to be inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame is a joint effort by the Internet Society and the Hall of Fame Advisory Board. While anyone can nominate someone for the Internet Hall of Fame, the nominees are screened and narrowed down by the Internet Society, then finalized and chosen by the Advisory Board and “a select group of past inductees.”

Then who is on the Advisory Board?  Interestingly enough, you won’t find many coders and developers here. Instead you’ll find engineers, academics, and even politicians: people who work at the higher levels of “ICT,” shorthand for Information and Communications Technology.  These advisory board members control regional networks, IP addresses, and computer security. Some of them have been instrumental in the development of concepts you and I don’t think twice about, like “distance learning” (a concept developed by board member C.L. Liu). 

But here’s the kicker about this year’s advisory board: Of the 15 members, only four are female, and of those four women, only one, Dr. Hessa Sultan Al-Jaber, is actually active in the ICT field. The other three are journalists writing about Internet development. Granted, outside observers may be in an excellent position to judge worthy Hall of Famers, but as a representation of women in technology, to have only one Advisory Board member be a woman actively involved in technical development seems like a puzzling omission.

And while three African nations are represented on the advisory board, only one of the representatives is actually African. 

So now we have a mostly white, mostly male, mostly Anglo-centric Hall of Fame list being selected by a mostly white, mostly male, mostly Anglo-centric advisory board. How, then, is the Advisory Board selected?  Wende Cover, the Internet Society’s Director of Media and Communications, told the Daily Dot by email that “the Advisory Board members are recommended from multiple sources.” 

We invite a broad array of people across industries and geographic regions — with diverse experiences and perspectives—to volunteer to participate.  Several Advisory Board members are associated with the Internet Society, but most are not. 

So the Internet Society is actively seeking and prioritizing diversity, and still ending up with an unsatisfyingly non-diverse list of Hall of Famers and people who choose them. And is it any wonder? Most of the advisory board members, even the non-European and American ones, were educated at American or European schools. While many of the campaigns to bring Internet to Latin America, Asia, and Africa have been spearheaded by scientists and technologists from those regions, a picture also emerges of distinct U.S. and European influence and leadership in global development—for better and for worse.

Essentially, what you discover when you look from the Hall of Fame inductees to its affiliated groups is a trickle-down effect. It’s not only technological advances that spread, ripple-like, from the inner circles of technology to the rest of us: it’s U.S. and European culture, white male culture, and patriarchal culture. It’s easy to see, looking at the kingmakers, as it were, how unified the power structure of the Internet actually is.

Science has been a white-male-dominated field for most of human existence. It’s not surprising at all that technological fields have the same problem. That’s why groups like the Ada Initiative, MentorNet, and Women in Technology exist. And it’s ultimately why the ripple effects of an exclusionary tech culture include ongoing, systemic misogyny, racism, and ethnocentrism within virtually every single aspect of geek culture, from gaming to Sci-fi to GitHub.

It’s not a surprise that this is the reality of the Internet—its history is well-documented. But the lack of diversity in the Internet’s origins, hierarchy, and continued expansion needs to be talked-about and critically addressed.

Maybe then we might have a truly universal, truly revolutionary Hall of Fame.

Photo by Ted Van Peltantam10/Flickr, remix by Fernando Alfonso III

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*First Published: Jun 28, 2013, 12:17 pm CDT