Thursday, May 15, 2008

Does gender dictate our place in virtual cultures and Internet use?

No matter what part of the world you are in, how old you are, the job you have or the life you live, you are always going to encounter a gender debate. Gender has often been a key point of difference and inequality in access to online media (Flew 2004, 75). In the online/virtual cultures debate, “men have traditionally dominated the technology and have compromised the majority of users of computer networks since their inception” (Herring, 1994). However, in recent years women have begun to ‘catch up’ to men in the world of virtual cultures and new media technologies, and, especially in terms of Internet access, the ‘gender gap’ seems to be diminishing (Flew 2004, 75). I myself have experienced this lack of ‘gender gap’ first hand. As a female partaking in a Media and Communications degree, attending many classes based around virtual cultures, new media technologies and the creative industries, I have not once felt outnumbered or intimidated by male fellow-students. In most classes I have taken, the female to male ratio is relatively equal, and some are even predominantly female.

In December 2001, Neilsen/Net Ratings found that female Internet users made up the majority (52%) of the Internet population in the USA (Flew 2004, 75). A 2005 study by
Deborah Fallows of the Pew Internet and American Life Project entitled How Women and Men Use the Internet found that although the percentage of women using the Internet was slightly lower than men, “women under 30 and black women outpace[d] their male peers”. From this it is clear to see that, as Terry Flew (2004, 75) suggests in his book New Media: an introduction, the ‘gender gap’ in virtual cultures, the Internet and ICT’s is diminishing, and at a rapid pace.

However, although women are closing the gap, and in some cases overtaking men, are men and women using the Internet for the same reasons and with the same motivations? Or does our gender influence the way in which we use the Internet? When I consider the ways in which the men I know use the Internet, compared to the ways in which I and fellow females use it, my immediate thoughts are quite simply – no.
How Women and Men Use the Internet proves this, highlighting the many differences between male and female Internet use. One aspect that particularly interested me was women’s response to online communication and virtual cultures. The report states that “men like the internet for the experience it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes” (Fallows 2005). It goes on to say that women are more enthusiastic online communicators, and use email more frequently, on a more personal level than men. Women are also more likely to experience satisfaction with the role email plays in their lives, especially when it comes to nurturing and enhancing their relationships (Fallows 2005). Furthermore, a large-scale social networking study conducted by Rapleaf found that overall, women spend more time than men on social networks, building and nurturing relationships, and in turn making more ‘friends’. Alternatively, the study showed that men are mainly “acquiring relationships from a transactional standpoint” (Rapleaf 2008).

And so it seems that gender does play an influential role in virtual cultures and Internet use. However, doesn’t it always? To me the role of gender in online environments simply mirrors the role of gender in the ‘real world’ - the ‘gap’ between men and women has been rapidly diminishing in recent years, and in many cases, women are becoming the more dominant sex. And no matter what the activity or task at hand, men and women are almost always going to behave and react differently. I feel that if new media technologies are a reflection of the way in which society and human behaviour has advanced, then it is only appropriate that online human behaviours reflect this advancement too.


Flew, T. 2004. Virtual Cultures. In New Media: an introduction, ed. T. Flew, 61-82. Melbourne: OUP. Queensland University of Technology: Course Materials Database (accessed April 8, 2008).


QUTci said...

I firmly agree with your stance that gender roles in online, virtual environments simply mirror those already established in the 'real world'. Women are, by nature, more inclined to engage in communication, whether it be online or offline. We embrace any opportunity through any medium that allows us to better discuss, engage and learn from our peers.

The flip side of this argument that I find very interesting is the assertion that the Internet provides a forum for 'genderless' communication. By assuming an avatar or a screen name or a login we are in many cases given the opportunity to represent ourselves without the attached label of 'male' or 'female and all these connotation that these bring. We can establish that gender effects the techniques of communication, both in an online and offline environment. However, my question is do you think gender effects to the way our communication is interpreted and received by others in terms of its credibility ad reliability?

cheese said...

To answer your question, I think that it depends on the situation in which we are communicating. Unfortunately, I feel that despite the fact that women are relatively on par with men in the world of new media, many people would still question the credibility and reliability of a women comenting on highly technical aspects, a gaming related question... anything really that is a traditionally male dominated field. That being said, many would question the credibility and reliability of a man commenting on topics traditionally dominated by females as well.

As I mentioned in my blog, there is always going to be some sort of gender debate, in reality and virtually...... however (as you pointed out) the virtual world does provide us with the opportunity to be pretty much whoever and whatever we want to be, gender included.

Thanks for your thoughts!!

Anonymous said...

Gender does play an influence on one's place in virtual cultures and Internet use. Will use my personal experience as an example. I'm always talking about my server, installing web-based project management apps, PHP, etc - issues that are not really 'feminine'. I talk about it on a forum before eventually getting a comment from the 'alpha male user' to either "post photos of your tits or fuck off" (excuse the language). It's very frustrating. If they thought that I was a guy (and they did...until I made a mistake of allowing my name to be linked in), I wouldn't be getting those comments.