Introduction: Real Problems in Virtual Communication
The differences between genders and the peculiarities of the communication within completely male and completely female mini-societies have always been key issues that allowed a borderline to be drawn between the two genders.
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Indeed, predetermining men and women’s roles in society, the aspect of communication between the former allow to establish a paradigm for a certain social behavior, which is completely different between the two genders.
As Barrett & Davidson (2006) stress, “it has been shown that women and men use email in ways that replicate gender roles and communication style differences in other forms of communication” (133).
In the given paper, the specifics of the use of and access to the Internet and social media are discussed.
Social Media Use and Access
Established long ago and shaped throughout the centuries of human development, the communication within the female and the male mini-communities has taken certain shapes, which, although slightly changed with the advent of feminism, still remain relatively the same, mostly because of the behavioural patterns established for both genders; as Barrett and Davidson (2006) explain, women’s speech patterns “are asserted in terms of contrast with male norms, which means they are linked with subordinate roles rather than leadership” (p. 10).
However, in the sphere of virtual communication and the social media, due to the considerable change of the environment, behavioural patterns might change, which could lead to different attitudes and different specifics of female and male communication and “suggest new, variant patterns” (Barrett & Davidson, 2006, p. 14).
By understanding the way new technologies impacts the communication of men and women, it may be possible to determine how the future communication of the two genders will evolve and whether “using these technologies will retain or change previous research findings about male and female communication patterns, suggest new, variant patterns […]” (Barrett & Davidson, 2006, p. 14).
It seems that the cyberspace, first defined as the “electronic space of data and representations generated, organized, and presented consistently to all viewers connected to a set of globally-networked computers” (Benedikt, 1993), has become much more than merely a storage of facts and information.
Entering the sphere of social media and the Internet, people try to determine their new roles and see if the new space differs from the real one (Munusami & Ismali, 2009).
However, even though the virtual reality allows users to create any image possible and literally break any stereotypes, people still seemingly prefer to act in their online communications according to the gender roles which they have in their real life: “Because of its anonymity, online communication may be more uninhibited.
This may in turn lead to more, rather than fewer, gender-based stereotypical comments” (Barrett & Davidson, 2006, p. 133).
Analyzing the peculiarities of the communication processes carried out via the Internet and social media, one can see the way gender issues impact the atmosphere and the course of the communication among men and in female circles in the virtual life.
When the Virtual Borderline Is Washed Away
Online communication differs greatly from the real-life communication, mostly because of the lack of visual support and non-verbal communication. In most cases, the people involved in online communication cannot see each others’ facial expressions and gestures; as Jones (1998) explained, among the needs that have not been fully satisfied yet, “the primacy of the visual, the tendency toward the image” (p. 10) “is being developed” (p. 10).
Therefore, allegedly, a user can bend the communication rules much harder in online conversation and reinvent his/her image and even the image of a certain social layer as a whole.
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For example, at times, the lack of visual or audio information allows to erase the gender differences and make it easier for women to integrate into the online communication. F
or instance, the infamous problem concerning the way women’s voices differ from those of men is removed: “I am convinced that the belief that women’s voices are high-pitched and shrill is one way of disqualifying women from public speaking” (Spender, 1998, p. 40).
The Internet and Men: A King in His Castle
When taking a closer look at the way in which men communicate in their online communities, one can see distinctly that the internet and the social media are highly gendered and that there is a certain line drawn between the communication within masculine and feminine circles (Ono & Zavodny, 2002).
Male communication patterns are quite different and the way men socialize online presupposes different approaches (Munusami & Ismali, 2009).
To top it all, the aims of men and women in their online conversations and the use of social media are quite different – while women pursue a chance to plunge into a relaxing atmosphere and exchange their impressions with each other, men tend to see the Internet and the social media as a way to establish their superiority, take the lead and train their skills in arguing and drawing conclusions (Barrett & Davidson, 2006).
Taking online conversations as another variation of a hunting game where they have either to lose or to win, men use the Internet as the training ground for their skills.
The Media Access: Be the Leader
Like in most spheres, men tend to be leaders even in the access to the Internet (Ono & Zavodny, 2002). Despite the fact that gender inequality is already a history in most countries, women still have less access to the Internet than men, as Ono and Zavodny (2002) claim.
According to the latter, “about 5 percentage points more likely than women to have access to the Internet in 1996 and 1998 – a statistically insignificant gap – but the gap increased to 10 percentage in 1999 and was significant” (p. 3).
As the authors assert, the difference in the rates of access opportunities between men and women can be explained by the lack of technical skills among women (Ono & Zavodny, 2003).
Media Usage: Veni, Vidi, Vici
According to Spender (1998), the way men communicate in real and virtual life is developed “in the interest of promoting their own primacy” (p. 151).
Therefore, men use the Internet and the social media in the same way as they address the issues of the real life, which involves “such masculine behaviours as verbal dueling, arguing, dominating the floor, being cool and reserved” (Cameron, 2000, p. 88), which must be stemming from the well-known “masculine social privilege” (p. 145).
Hence, it appears that men try to establish their superiority with the help of the online communication, thus, enhancing their status even more and reaching the top of their leadership career.
According to what Jones (1998) says, the amount of time taken by men during the use of the social media is much greater than the time women usually spend: “[…] if we consider amount of time spent on computers, the type of equipment, and the influence on programming, everywhere the technologically elite overwhelmingly are men” (p. 109).
Internet and Women: Treading the New Territory
It can be suggested that the media tend to reinforce social and gender stereotypes for adults and, especially, children, offering certain role models to follow and certain patterns which people have to accept as the only ones that are suitable. As Cameron (1992) emphasizes in her Feminism and linguistic theory,
Children are treated differently according to sex both inside and outside the family from the moment they are born. Gendered behaviors are modeled or hem, and explicitly taught to them.
Peer groups and social institutions (like schooling and mass media) reinforce norms of masculinity and femininity all the time. All these social processes are embedded in language, and all of them contribute to a child’s linguistic development. (p. 181)
Therefore, the behavioural patterns among women in Internet and social media display the typical communication style similar to the one which is accepted in the real-life environment: according to the Gender styles in CMC research (n.d.), women “…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.”
Such stereotypes contribute to shaping children’s vision of gender and sexuality, which prevents from various sexual deviations (Cameron & Kulick, 2003).
However, it could be argued that such stereotypical perceptions of people are not the kind of attitude that the 21st century world should experience.
Thus, it is rather doubtful that the Internet and social media will revolutionize the sphere of female communication and provide the changes that will offer at least a slight change in the social patterns of female communication.
The Media Access: New Experience
The access to the media in present days seems hardly an issue; owing to the gender equality principles which have already been established, women and men should have the same amount of opportunities in media access (Ono & Zavodny, 2002).
Since women are no longer oppressed by men, it must be supposed that women should have the same chances to access Internet as men do. Indeed, as Munusami and Ismali (2009) say,
However, if we look into today’s education opportunity and technology advancement, Internet access and gender imbalance is not as significant as the access is readily available for both genders.
In other words, there is a democratic space to which both genders have equal excess to the Internet. However, despite all the equal excess opportunity, gender differences are still apparent in the extent and purpose of its usage. (309)
In addition, despite the fact that the access to Internet often demands the technical skills and knowledge which men typically possess, women obviously access Internet almost as frequently as men; according to the statistical data offered by James Stewart (n.d.), women access the Internet in 41.8% of cases, while men make 58.2% of users who access the Internet efficiently (5).
Hence, women have fewer opportunities to access the Internet.
The Media Usage: Careful Exploration
In terms of certain violations that users commit when using social media, men display tendencies to practice interruption of communication much more frequently than women; as Coates (2004) explains, the given specifics of male conversational strategies stems from childhood: “Sociolinguistic researchers have found that boys in secondary schools interrupt others more than girls do” (p. 192).
Rather similar to the latter, though considerably milder, the approach of overlapping is quite a widespread phenomenon for a conversation among women, which allows to suggest that the female communication is also flawed; however, as Coates (2004) explains, overlapping technique is more frequent “in mixed conversation” (p. 137).
Still, it is important to note that the overlapping technique used by women in their communication serves a different purpose from the one of interruption.
While the latter is used to demonstrate power and leadership, overlapping keeps the conversation going and prevents its ceasing or becoming uncomfortable and “may come into conflict over overlapping talk” (Coates, 2004, p. 137).
However, the percentage of women using the Internet still remains lower than the percentage of men; according to Stewart (n.d.), only 41.6% of the Internet users make women, while men make the remaining 58.4% (5).
In addition, out of 41.6% of all Internet female users, 41% are at-home users, as Stewart (n.d.) explains.
Gendering of the Access to and Use of the Internet: The Comparison
To understand how access to and use of the Internet and social media are gendered, one has to compare the peculiarities of the ways in which men and women communicate online.
Therefore, the specifics of the online behavior, the perception of both genders online by their partners in conversation and the typical topics of their conversations must be discussed.
Thus, the full picture of the online gender issues and the most widespread stereotypes can be obtained and a complete analysis will be conducted.
Men and Women in Social Media: The Similarities
It is rather peculiar that, disregarding the differences between the two genders, men and women actually display certain similarities in their communication strategies, such as the practice of overlapping (Coates, 2004, p. 137).
Transferring these strategies into the sphere of the online conversation, both genders create relatively similar patterns of behavior, which make it possible to suggest that the online space can be used as the grounds for breaking the stereotypical ideas about the way men and women communicate.
However, taking a closer look at the way women and men nowadays access the social media, it becomes clear that in present days, women and men have relatively equal chances of accessing the Internet and other social media.
According to what Munusami and Ismali (2009) say, both genders have the same opportunities in accessing the Internet and seem to make efficient use of their chances:
If we look into today’s education opportunity and technology advancement, Internet access and gender imbalance is not as significant as the access is readily available for both genders. In other words, there is a democratic space to which both genders have equal excess to the Internet. (p. 309)
Therefore, as for access to the Internet and social media, women and men have presumably the same opportunities.
Therefore, the access to the social media is gendered according to the modern idea of equality between a man and a woman. Hence, there is very little difference in the specifics of access to the social media between men and women.
Men and Women in Social Media: The Differences
Mostly because of the fact that people transfer their real-life social roles into the virtual space, men and women display patterns in their online communication, which are similar to those which they demonstrate in real life, e.g., men play the part of leaders, while women prefer not to get involved into online arguments and conflicts, which, according to Barrett and Davidson, “women were less likely to resolve” (Barrett & Davidson, 2006, p. 212).
When it comes to the actual use of the Internet and the social media, it can be considered that women are more likely to structure their own style of relationships and create their own universe based on the ideas and patterns introduced earlier by men: “Men certainly play a pathfinder role in adoption of technology, through particular employment distribution, interests, resources and as a result of marketing, but women quickly follow” (Stewart, n.d., p. 5).
Creating their cyberspace reality, in most cases women follow the strategy that men used earlier, and do not attempt to create any new concept, thus, only evolving, but not revolutionizing the virtual communication patterns, softening them to make these patterns more “feminine”: “Some findings are that men tend to interrupt, take long, sole-speaker turns, and use direct forms, while women tend to use indirect or modalizing strategies” (Barrett & Davidson, 2006, p. 52).
In the sphere of online communication, men tend to take matters in their own hands, preferring to manage the entire process of communication (Cameron, 1998), leading even to the situation when women are isolated from the communication process.
Such actions are quite rough, yet rather typical of the male population of Internet users. According to one of the examples offered by Jones (1998), there are certain pages on the Web that have high traffic, with mostly men having online conversations, for instance, in the sphere of business.
Men and Women in Social Media: The Results
Nevertheless, one must admit that, in certain cases, men and women display complete equality concerning the use of Internet and social media, without splitting into certain categories and showing specific patterns of communication.
According to what Al-Deen & Iendricks (2011) say, “However, Gerlich, Browning, and Westermann (2010) found no significant differences between male and female college students in their Internet usage, social media usage, or beliefs about social media sites in general” (p. 139).
Nevertheless, most people tend to transfer the specifics of their real-life communication in the Internet and social media. Thus, the typical split between male and female culture exists.
Whilst allowing the culture of genders to remain stable, the Internet and social media have made it considerably more flexible: “Our results indicate that there is no longer a gender gap in Internet usage.
However, there continues to be a gender gap in frequency and intensity of use, although this gap appears to have diminished over time” (Ono & Zavodny, 2002, p. 11).
Conclusion: Gender Issues in Virtual Communication
It can be concluded that the development of virtual communication and social media allows women and men explore new tactics of communication.
Despite the fact that the first steps made by women in the sphere of the online communication and social media life are quite careful, it could be suggested that that the shift in gender roles owes much to the modern social media.
Although the social media powered by online communication can be used as a powerful weapon to establish even more prejudices concerning the role of a man and a woman in the present-day world, it is evident that women can try a relatively new behaviour within the boundaries of the Internet and may then stretch it even further, into the real-world social life, which will enable the eradication of numerous stereotypes.
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