The sun is shining and I'm feeling adventurous, which is why I decided to say a few words this time (to introduce Summer's February blog article) and let you know that I really appreciate you taking the time to read my blog and post your comments. A big thank you (and a hug) to all of you out there!
Summer's article addresses a topic that never goes out of fashion because it is so important. New communication technologies develop all the time, language changes, fashions change, but human nature essentially stays the same. Read here what sociolinguistics has to say on the gender bias in our new "online" era.
Speaking of language change, I find it amazing how creative people are with language. You might know the German word "Kampfansage", but you may not have heard the word "Streitansage" which I recently heard on the radio. Are our fighting days over and are we set to become civilised linguistic quarrelers? Let's hope so (though, of course, the word "Streit" does not imply using words only). Have a nice week!
Gender and Language Online
by Summer Worsley
Depending on your age, think back or ask a Gen Xer to reflect about experiences of communicating electronically in the early 1980s or 1990s. Obviously, we’ve come a long way since then in terms of technology.
As naturally happens with language over time, there have also been shifts in how we describe what we do online. Does anyone ever say they’re going to look something up on the worldwide web anymore? Nope, it’s just a simplistic matter of going online to check something out.
As a means of communication, the computing and internet experience started out as gender biased in terms of both use and discourse. It was, predominantly, a man’s world. Then came the freedom for anyone and everyone to communicate in a gender-neutral way – but did we then and do we now?
Is it obvious from written text online what gender someone may be in their own body and mind from either what they say or how they write? Yes, apparently so.
Getting Connected in the 80s
If you were around in the early 80s, air-conditioned high school computer labs, and computer rooms in workplaces, were pretty much the secretive domain of guy geeks only. If you were female, chances are you were encouraged to take typing classes on manual or electric typewriters, with predominantly female classmates.
For many women in the workforce in the early 80s, their first piece of electronic computing equipment may well have been in a chunky IBM desktop PC. Its use may have been in gender-stereotyped roles in payroll, accounting, word processing and in the early days of the introduction of electronic mail.
There were, of course, exceptions. The smart futuristic types, who broke and blurred boundaries. Males and females who learned the invaluable skills and core language needed from learning both skill sets.
What’s more, things began to change. In the corporate world, women in their shoulder pads were getting in on the vernacular of the boardroom. A new generation was exposed to social marketing and initiatives and mantras such as “girls can do anything” to encourage gender diversity in traditionally male roles.
The internet hadn’t quite arrived. But the encouragement to break with gender stereotypes in terms of communicating as an adult had.
Using the Web in the 90s
The internet became more commercially available to the public in the early 1990s. With it, came the ability to use electronic means to communicate with other people around the world. By the mid, to the late 1990s, the ability to talk online had taken off in people’s private and professional lives.
With that came the supposed ability to be whoever you wanted to be. This was, of course, pre-Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media giants. These are the big guns that brought self-promoting selfies and real name log-ins to the world.
Text-based chatrooms, list serves, discussion groups, and instant messaging platforms with pseudonyms and monikers prevailed. Initially, a more faceless and anonymous means written communication, the bias, and barriers were gone.
Hope sprung that this would be a democratic medium of communication offering a possibility for gender equality and neutrality. Unless you disclosed it by using your real name or stating your gender, nobody would know whether you were male or female, right?
A now iconic New Yorker cartoon from 1993 with the idiom “On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog” has continued to be cited and reworked today. You’ll still find the phrase used in the context of everything from abusive online cyberbullying and trolling to the use of AI-generated content and responses.
Academic findings of the late 90s soon concluded that not only was the infrastructure around the internet still very much a male-dominated industry, but early users were too. Use and engagement with the internet eventually evened out between genders by the 2000s.
However, no matter whether people use a gender-neutral name or pseudonym, correlations were soon identified in the way genders communicate and interact with others online. We tend to behave using written methods online that correspond with the same gender tendencies in spoken communication.
The Differences Between Men and Women
Socialization plays a big part in how we communicate both in private and in public. How we navigate taking turns to speak can be influenced by power dynamics around combinations of age, status, education, gender, and so forth.
In patriarchal societies, men generally have been attributed with a tendency towards conversational dominance in public settings and conversations. Male communication styles will lean towards being more individualistic, and females to being more collaborative.
Men may focus on building individual status and taking the floor, so to speak. The inclination of women, on the other hand, is to interact with others on more of a level playing field to relationship build and form connections. There are also differences in the strategies genders use to change topics, question, use minimal responses and take control.
Over time, the online world is also changing the way we write. However, from analyzed text content online, it seems that the ways people form phrases and interact online can be a gender giveaway.
The types of language and punctuation used to express assertiveness, aggressiveness, supportiveness, disruptiveness, cooperativeness, verboseness, politeness, and so forth, can be telling of your gender. Generally speaking, men may be more verbose to get their point across. Women will tend towards more punctuation and use of emoticons to convey emotion and feeling.
What Does It All Mean?
Everyone knows by now it is hard to stay truly anonymous online. Not only has the web become more commercialized over the past few decades, so too has the use of the very data and text we create ourselves become invaluable.
The ability of social scientists to differentiate between genders from textual data from the front end of online platforms is only part of the equation. The combination of both front-end conversations with back-end behavioural data is a rich mine for generating advertising revenue indeed.
If you’re looking for gender anonymity online – good luck! Or maybe AI spun content will be able to help with that...