Gender Styles in Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC)

The proponents of Computer Mediated Communication are touting it as the solution to the unequal distribution of power in face-to-face communication. They say CMC will eradicate prejudice in communication and give every voice equal time. The anonymous nature of CMC makes it ideal as a forum for discussions in which all participants' contributions have equal merit. After all, sitting behind a computer conversing with another person behind his/her computer 1000 miles away (or even 10 miles away), it is not possible to notice things like race, sexual orientation, handicap, or gender that may influence your impression of the speaker...or is it?

While few of the researchers who identified or developed the theories of gender styles in face-to-face communication (like Lakoff, Spender and Tannen) have yet appeared online in discussions about CMC and gender styles, plenty of people have begun to research in the new media. It is interesting to note that while the media are different and new, the "old" theories still apply. At least, that is what many researchers are discovering and discussing.

In a talk entitled "Gender Issues in Computer Networking," at Community Networking: the International Free-Net Conference at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in 1993, Leslie Regan Shade presented a good overview of the research that is taking off in this area, which, of course, includes gender styles/issues in computer-mediated communication. She touched on all the issues concerning women and the Internet, including career choices, access, social interaction, pornography, and frequency of network use.

A few of the names already gaining recognition in discussions of gender styles and computer-mediated communication include:

Susan Herring, at the University of Texas' Program of Linguistics, who gave a keynote talk entitled "Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication: Bringing Familiar Baggage to the New Frontier" (see below);

Cheris Kramarae and Jeanie Taylor, who published a book entitled Women, Information Technology, & Scholarship in 1993, a chapter of which is called "Women and Men on Electronic Networks: A Conversation or a Monologue?";

Amy Bruckman, who published "Gender Swapping on the Internet" online (this file cannot be downloaded with Netscape Navigator);

Kathleen Michel, who published "Gender and Democracy in Computer-Mediated Communication" in the Electronic Journal of Communication, v.3, n.2 (available via KIDLINK); and

Gladys We, a master's student in communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who did an online survey -- her results are published online as "Cross-Gender Communication in Cyberspace."

Susan Herring conducted an extensive search into gender differences in CMC. Her research supports that Tannen's theory of gendered communication styles applies to CMC and also that women and men have different ethics about communication. Based on her research on various CMC discussion lists -- like LINGUIST-L, SWIP-L and POLITICS -- she concludes that men use an adversarial style of communication, employing strong assertions, sarcasm, and insults. Men dominate the discussions, even on feminist lists. This research relates to Tannen's theory of Contest, in which men vie for air time in a conversation, try to one-up each other and attempt to dominate conversations. Herring postulates that women use a style expressing support and attenuation. The women in her research:

          "...displayed features of attenuation -- hedging, apologizing, asking questions rather than           making assertions...[and] and a personal orientation, revealing thoughts and feelings and           interacting with and supporting others."

Tannen identified these same characteristics in female language and contrasted it to male Contest by calling it Community.

Herring also claims that men and women have different communication ethics. Where flaming on the Internet is concerned, men and women use different value systems in rationalizing behavior. In spite of a medium of communication that is anonymous for all users (and thus should encourage less inhibition across the board), it is primarily men who flame. It is interesting to note that the results of Herring's survey on communication ethics reveal that men and women agree on several issues -- they value expressions of appreciation, are neutral about tentative postings, and dislike flaming. As Herring states, "This makes male flaming behavior all the more puzzling; should we conclude then that men who flame are deliberately trying to be rude." In fact, the men are operating with a different value system, under which they assign greater value to freedom from censorship, open expression, and debate. Women feel they must be sensitive to the wishes of all participants for the benefit of the entire community.

In another recent study Kathleen Michel attempted to apply Deborah Tannen's theories of "rapport" and "report"styles of talk to boys and girls who participate in KIDCAFE, a networking project that links children around the world. She concluded that boys and girls do have different styles of communication but that the differences are not as discrepant as Tannen proposes. She claims that CMC can have very positive effects on school children by opening up more opportunities for cross-gender communication. In other words, CMC can be helpful in facilitating the neutral language that Tannen hoped for in You Just Don't Understand.

My Experience
While limited, my experience with things like academic listservs, chat rooms and MOOs would support Susan Herring's theories. I agree that the anonymity of the medium benefits every user. Anyone can post to a listserv, the Usenet, or talk on a MOO, especially send e-mail, and each message, missive or posting is as weighty as every other. Because of this, I think women have an opportunity to be heard online -- a reader's first impression is "intellectual" and not physical. But I do not think socialized gender characterics are eradicated just because the medium of conversation changes. Anonymity eliminates prejudice based on physical characteristics, and the lack of face-to-face conversation makes interruption impossible. But men still dominate listservs and the Usenet, and women are harrassed online because they are women. I spent the first five minutes of my time in a social chat room on a commercial provider fending off advances from male subscribers. I was continually asked to join the speakers in a private room to talk about sex. Choosing a name with a feminine ring to it accurately represents the image I have of myself, but I may reconsider my selection the next time around.

I think it is important to consider, too, that new prejudices will arise as communication media shift and change. A number of my graduate school classmates have been flamed or harassed or just plain ignored in their first ventures into MOO space. They were "newbies," so they were subject to the abuse of the more experienced MOOers. My classmates' experiences made me think of fraternity hazing. As a pledge, you are hazed. You hate it, but you tough it out, because you want to be a part of the organization. A perquisite of membership is the opportunity to haze the pledges in the coming years. The pledges learn their behavior from the model of the brothers. In the same way, newbies learn their behavior from experienced MOOers. Those with power, knowledge and authority usually set the pace.

I think it is possible to curb this abusive behavior, but I am not sure it will do much good. I think that it is natural that characters in virtual reality (who are humans in the real world) will attempt to gain a modicum of control or power in their space. If not for being new to a MOO, people will be subject to prejudice for other things, perhaps the way they use emoticons or how they design their Web page. Egalitarianism is a great concept not a practical reality.

It is Gladys We in her online survey project entitled "Cross-Gender Communication in Cyberspace" who best describes my feelings about computer-mediated communication:

          "[It] is a fascinating extension of the ways in which human beings already communicate. It has           the potential to be liberating, and it has the potential to duplicate all the misunderstanding and           confusion which currently take place in interactions between women and men in everyday life.           The choice of directions is not being made deliberately, but is being made in the thousands of           daily online interactions, the choices of ways of speaking, and of subjects, which are gradually           shaping, as a river slowly carves a canyon, the culture of cyberspace."

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