Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Gender + internet, Text + love

Over a month with no posts! Woe!

Here are a couple of things I've been storing up the past few days.

1. New Pew Internet and American Life study on gender differences in internet use:
How Women and Men Use the Internet: Women are catching up to men in most measures of online life. Men like the internet for the experiences it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes.

Pew director Lee Rainie and BoingBoing's Xeni Jardin spoke with NPR's Talk of the Nation yesterday about the report. Another guest, a performer in the play Defending the Caveman, explained the differences with a hunter-gatherer metaphor of internet use. As in, women are gatherers, gathering contacts and communiques, whereas men are hunters, seeking out facts and information. The metaphor seems a bit shaky to me, but whatever. His foundation seems to be:
In principle, internet users have high regard for the internet as a tool of communication; 85% of both men and women say they consider the internet to be a good way to interact or communicate with others in their everyday lives.7 But similarities end there. Men and women differ in their modes of online communication, in what they communicate about, and in how much they value their online communications.

That's a bold claim, there, for some pretty close-to-being-similar differences. For instance, while women are more likely to email than men (94%-W v. 88%-M), men and women are about equally as likely to IM (42%-M v. 39%-W), send greetings (41%-M v. 44%-W), or text message (33%-M v. 37%-W) [none of those latter three differences are statistically significant]. Now this is sort of interesting, given that women are said to seek more highly interactional or "involved" communication, which you'd think would be fostered by IM, not email. So I suppose this is just saying that women are communicating more in general - though men are slightly more likeley to use chat rooms (24%-M v. 20%-W), and more likely to use internet phone (9%-M v. 5%-W), so hmm. There are more detailed findings about the kinds of email and so forth - check it out.

2. Text messaging in the Washington Post

Life and Romance in 160 Characters or Less: Brevity Gains New Meaning as Popularity of Cell Phone Text Messaging Soars

Another article about text messages and their use to flirt, facilitate dates, and (gasp!) break up. Some interesting comments about speed:
The brevity of a text message gives it a certain poetic beauty, said Washington resident Erik Lung, 34. As in enigmatic haiku, there is lots of space for reading between lines, particularly in an early-stage romance.
"You can send a quick little message saying you're thinking of her," the operations research analyst said. Then "you start paying attention not only to what the message says, but you care about the response time." There's a meta-message: The shorter the response time, the more she cares.

And about language:
Now, text messaging -- like its older cousin instant messaging -- is giving rise to a new, electronic written culture that is truncating all of that [reflection, contemplation. - ed.]. A text message sent via mobile phone is usually confined to 160 characters or less and takes several seconds to send. To accommodate this short form, language is acquiring acronyms -- "H8" (hate), "iluvu" (I love you) and "ruok" (are you okay) -- that allow text messages and other instant messages to relay information about life's mundane details as well as its emotional brambles.
Messaging alters language and composition style, said Tom Keeney, director of messaging for T-Mobile USA. Slang has gotten more detailed and sophisticated, making it possible to say more on a tiny canvas, much like poetry, he said. "It's almost like letters gave way to postcards. It was a way to say something on the go."

Nothing too heavy here, but always nice to see normal people interviewed about their thoughts on these technologies.

As *I* (though not necessarily anyone else) would write in a text message: Hap New Yr!

happy 2006! man, thst all the stuf you picked up on Google news :-) :-P
i agree with your skepticism of the results from the pew study. i'd guess that none of the percentages you list are significant, and the 94-88, if it is significant, is barely significant. nowhere in the report does it talk about some of the imporant factors that may be influencing why people are using the online media that they use (they are required by their job, they have family members who are also online, they're members of online communities that use a specific medium, etc.) all of these kinds of factors can exert significant influence over the choice of media and the how the media is being used.

for me, this kind of general research that looks at trends in interent use is pretty useless without some kind of social (and perhaps demographic) context in which to place the research. it could very well be that women in general aren't using email more than men, but rather the women surveyed hold jobs that require them to use email more than the men surveyed. it seems like the researchers are trying to do too much here and make too many over-generalizations. to me, it would be more valid to look at the correlations between the social/demographic information of the participants and their usage patterns and see if there is a difference between use by men and women as opposed to looking directly at the usage patterns of men and women as the basis of the research.
(not sure if that makes much sense... still have my vacation brain in :(
I managed to get rid of my vacation brain, but I haven't found a replacement yet. This may be why I don't even understand the difference between "experiences it offers" and "human connections it promotes" (aren't they the experiences it offers?). Same issue with "gathering contacts and communiques" and "seeking out facts and information" (does it imply females turn their computer on, log on the internet, and wait to see what happens, or do I just confuse "gathering facts and informations" with "seeking out contacts and communiques" ?). It looks to me as a typical re-affirmation of cultural categories through predetermined interpretations of results. The interesting linguistic aspect here being maybe just the rephrasing of the same action into a feminine and masculine clich├ęs, through different semantic fields, in order to construct two distinct actions.
good points. it seems like the researchers wanted to show that men and women use the internet differently, so they constructed a study that asked people how they used the internet. imagine that... they found what they were looking for. it would have been interesting to see if the results would have been different if they focused on how people use the interent, and then see if there are any patterns of use specific to men and women. while i don't think this study is useless, it's just very preliminary. it needs to be combined with a study that explores some of the more complex factors in society (on and offline) that may be responsible for these patterns.

my point here is that if you only look at male/female as the locus of the analysis, then you'll only be able to find trends with relevance to male/female. it could be that lower-income earners use email more than IM because of access issues, connection speed, friends being online at the same time, etc. the report doesn't mention anything about these possibilities because it doesn't tell us anything about its methodology. how many people were surveyed? how was the data collected? were correspondences analyzed or were people interviewed? how old were the participants? by including information like this in the report, we would have been able to ascertain whether the results were reliable or whether they were a product of the methodology.
and a bit of trivial, Deborah Fallows, the author of the report graduated from UT Austin with a PhD in Linguistics...
the more dig, the more i find... it seems like most of the data that this Pew American Life Project collects is admitedly "general" and based on telephone surveys :(

while this interview doesn't deal directly with the report we've been discussing, Fallows talkes generally about the purpose of the project and their methodology.
In the interests of fairness, I would just like to point out that the report in question does describe the sample and methodology on p. 53 of the pdf report, and on the last page they include a link where researchers (or anyone) can actually download their survey data. So if you were really interested in picking apart their findings, you could download the data and run your own tests.

That said, I think the aim of the Pew Internet group is to do general, trend-based research, and I don't think they claim to be doing the same kind of work that is traditionally associated with peer-reviewed journals.

kokolas, you said "Same issue with "gathering contacts and communiques" and "seeking out facts and information""
These to me seem to be two separate ideas: contacts and communiques would be *people* with whom you wish to communicate, and seeking out facts and information is a very different process that does not necessarily have to involve interacting with another person. I see the same difference with the other set of constructs you critique: while much of what happens through the Internet is human communication, there are many other experiences one could have that do not necessarily involve interacting with others.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge fan of gender-difference survey research as a rule, but I just thoght I'd throw that out there, from my "end of vacation" brain.
thanks for pointing that out kris. i never saw the entire report there. i thought that the summary was the report. i'll have a look.
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