Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Language and gender on the internet

Millions of people around the world take part in large-scale group discussions on the internet. These discussions have been likened to very large-scale  conversations. We might wonder, therefore, whether the same kinds of gender differences exist in computer-mediated discussions as have been noted in face-to-face discussions.

Susan Herring set out to investigate this question by analysing four public computer-mediated discourse samples from three academic discussion lists. In some of the online discussions there were more male than female participants, while in others there were more female participants.  She found that in the male-predominant samples the discussion took place over more days, contained longer messages on a single theme, and was more argumentative in style. This behaviour can be thought of as paralleling what researchers have found in previous studies on face-to-face communication, where male speakers prefer a one-at-a-time pattern of speaking with one person holding the floor at any one time, often speaking as an expert. In contrast, in face-to-face communication female speakers prefer a collaborative floor with overlapping speech and with utterances often jointly produced by all participants in the conversation. In a somewhat similar way, and as expected, in Herring’s online samples the female-dominant discussions contained shorter posts, multiple themes and there was more agreement than disagreement. However, female contributors also showed some more hierarchical patterns of behaviour, mainly in the all-female discussions. In both female-predominant and male-predominant discussions, a small number of active individuals, both women and men, tended to dominate, initiating topics, posting the most messages and receiving the most responses.

Herring points out that we might expect to find a ‘one-at-a-time floor’ in computer-mediated discussions. Messages have to appear in a chronological order and although we can interpret posting a message as taking a turn in a conversation it is not possible to interrupt a post, as we can a turn in speech. But the technology does not explain why the women in this study took shorter turns overall, nor why there tended to be multiple themes to their discussions and more agreement than disagreement. These findings, she maintains, call for an explanation in terms of social rather than technological factors. On the other hand, the fact that in same gender discussions women as well as men dominate in participation and response rates calls for an explanation in terms of power rather than gender.

Herring concludes that men and women are socialised to manage conversational interaction differently, with men conventionally assigned greater power and privilege in public floors, but with certain powerful floor management practices available for use by empowered individuals of either gender. This interpretation can be extended to face-to-face communication, too: the different turn-taking styles that have been attributed to men (who are thought to prefer a one-at-a-time style) and to women (who seem to prefer a collaborative style) may be inherently power-based. These styles then map onto gender in ways that associate more powerful discourse management strategies with men rather than women.

Herring, S.C. (2010) Who’s got the floor in computer-mediated conversation? Edelsky’s gender patterns revisited. Language@Internet, 7, article 8. (urn:nbn:de:0009-7-28579)

accessed March 29 2013

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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