Program in Linguistics
University of Texas 1994
1) women and men have recognizably different styles
in posting to the Internet, contrary to the claim that CMC neutralizes
distinctions of gender.
2) women and men have different communicative ethics
-- that is, they value different kinds of online interactions as appropriate
in analysis of communcations on the LINGUIST-L list during "flame wars" which the two major theoretical camps within the field became polarized around an issue of central interest.
Both men and women not contributing ("lurking") on the LINGUIST discussion cited "intimidation" ("participants were trying to rip each other's lungs out").
Men tended to accept such behavior as a normal feature of academic life: "Actually, the barbs and arrows were entertaining, because of course they weren't aimed at me."
In contrast, many women responded with profound aversion: "I am dismayed that human beings treat each other this way. It makes the world a dangerous place to be."
68% of the messages posted by men made use of an adversarial style: the poster distanced himself from, criticized, and/or ridiculed other participants, often while promoting his own importance.
Almost all messages posted by women, in contrast, displayed
a.features of attenuation -- hedging, apologizing, asking questions rather than making assertions.
b.personal orientation -- revealing thoughts and feelings and interacting with and supporting others.
This pattern is typical for many lists.
Lists devoted to women's issues (and traditionally "feminized" disciplines such as ESL and librarianship):
Women held forth in an amount consistent with their numerical
presence on the list.
Different interactional norms: little or no flaming, and cooperative, supportive exchanges.
Summary of "characteristic style:"
(Susan Herring herself hedges: "I do not mean that all or even the majority of users of each sex exhibit the behaviors of each style, but rather that the styles are recognizably -- even steoretypically -- gendered").
The female style takes into consideration what the sociologist
Erving Goffman called the "face" wants of the addressee --
a. the desire of the addressee to feel ratified and liked (e.g. by expressions of appreciation)
b. her desire not to be imposed upon (e.g. by absolute assertions that don't allow for alternative views).
The male style, in contrast, confronts and threatens the addressee's "face" in the process of engaging him in agonistic debate, eg absolute assertions limiting response to aquicesense or confrontation.
Consequences of gender style difference:
Users regularly infer the gender of message posters on the basis of features of these styles, even in conflict with names (which can turn out to be pseudonyms).
The existence of gendered styles has important implications for the mythical but popular claim that CMC is anonymous, "gender-blind", and hence inherently democratic.
Members of the non-dominant gender will adapt their posting style in the direction of the style of the dominant gender, but style-mixing often retains a bais in the original direction.
Ethical dimensions of gender difference in flaming?
Contrary to the popular explanation that flaming is a by-product of the medium itself -- that the decontextualized and anonymous nature of CMC leads to "disinhibition" in users -- the gender difference suggests flaming also derives from communcation ethics and other values held by users.
Survey: subscribers from eight Internet discussion lists ranked their like or dislike for 30 different net behaviors, including "flaming", "expressing thanks and appreciation", and "overly tentative messages", on a scale of 1 (like) to 5 (dislike), as well as several open-ended questions (eg "What behaviors bother you most on the net?").
No evidence suggested that there was significant difference in men's and women's value systems.
Herring concludes (based on open-ended questions) that
male tendancy to flame is due to emphasis on freedom from
censorship, forthright and open expression, and agonistic debate as a means to advance the pursuit of knowledge.
Here I disagree with Herring's methodology -- I don't think the difference can be attributed to conscious choice or ethical decision-making, but rather has to do with deeper, subconscious aspects of gender identity.
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