Girls Carve Out Their Own Space Online
5.6.10 | According to an emerging body of research—including recent studies by Northwestern University communications professor Eszter Hargittai —the digital divide is frequently a gender divide.
Serious gamers are more likely to be boys, and boys are also more likely to “geek out” in online worlds. Men use the internet during their job searches more often than women. Men also believe they have higher skills than women, even when they don’t. Women are less likely to claim knowledge about online terminology and features.
Yet when it comes to blogging, young women are carving out their own niche. Katie Davis, a Harvard University doctoral student working with Howard Gardner’s Good Play Project, had originally sought out the popular online community LiveJournal to examine adolescent development, but when she discovered that the vast majority of bloggers in her age group (17-21) were female, she became curious. Did the girls’ online writing reflect the adolescent development process? And was it affected by the process?
Focusing her study on 20 young women age 17-21 who had been blogging for more than three years on LiveJournal, Davis noticed several patterns. Early blog entries, created when the girls were age 14 or so, focused on creating lists of favorite things (music, books, movies, ice cream flavors), taking quizzes and creating content that reflected a concrete self-definition.
“If you think about early adolescence,” Davis says, “you are just beginning to make the transition from concrete thought into more abstract ways of thinking.”
The list-making and quizzes reflected that stage. “It fits with defining yourself by what you like, instead of ‘what are my values’ and ‘what do I hope to accomplish in the future.’”
The content of these early blog entries was also peer driven, with novice bloggers looking to their friends for cues as to what they should write. Early on, the young women also tended to frequently change their blog’s physical appearance and focus on its aesthetic effect.
Over time, however, they cared less about how the blog looked. They changed the background less frequently. The lists were gone. They started to share their thoughts and deal with larger topics.
“It became more about the composition of their writing and the way they expressed themselves through words,” says Davis. “They started to gain confidence in how they were communicating their ideas.”
They began to write about their values, thoughts and relationships. The blogs became a hybrid of diary writing and the kind of communicative, communal world women tend to create for themselves, which is where much of the gender difference comes in.
“There’s been a lot written about why that is. For instance, men have typically, at least until recently, been associated with the public sphere of commerce and civil society, whereas women have been seen to reside within the private sphere of the home,” Davis says.
“The girls themselves told me they think that blogging is so heavily weighted toward women and girls because girls like to express their feelings more than boys, and they typically engage in more in-depth and personal conversations with their friends than boys do.”
A Room of Their Own?
According to Davis, the young women in her study were initially attracted to blogging because they saw friends doing it, and they wanted to participate in a shared experience. Many, she says, had also been keeping their own hand-written diaries and liked the idea of putting it online where they could share it with friends.
While many of her subjects said that blogging was “just another outlet for self-expression,” they also described it as offering things they couldn’t get elsewhere.
“It gives them a space that they can control, where they can get their thoughts out there and on the record,” Davis says. “They felt that it was a space where they could say what they had to say without being interrupted – because it was their blog.”
Davis also found that the young women considered reading and commenting on their friends’ blogs just as important as what they posted on their own site.
“They felt that they were being heard and their friends were really listening to them and responding in a very validating way,” Davis says. “It’s like writing a diary, but different because it’s public.”
On the other hand, the public nature of their writing also gave them pause. They sometimes edited themselves, creating an ideal image. They omitted things they didn’t like about themselves, or that they thought others might find unattractive or uninteresting.
“They don’t want to share everything,” Davis says, “but yet they feel the self they are showing is authentic and a reflection of who they are.”
Fan Fiction as an Outlet
About half of those who Davis studied were deeply involved with fan culture (the creation of fan fiction, videos, music and other media based on everything from “Harry Potter” and “Smallville” to Pokemon and the Beatles). And those young women, she found, had developed impressive technical skills, much of it the result of feedback from more experienced LiveJournal members. Their technical prowess, in fact, challenges the notion that boys are better with tech than girls.
This comes as no surprise to Henry Jenkins, who has been studying fan culture for roughly 30 years. When he first started, devotees of “Star Trek” and other shows didn’t have an easy time finding a community or communicating with fellow Trekkies.
“At that point it would have been face-to-face conventions, and there were only a few of those each year,” says Jenkins, a professor of communications, journalism and cinematic arts at University of Southern California and the author of “Convergence Culture.”
“Their communication was conducted through the mail, [with] letterzines and zines. It was cumbersome and there was relatively little response.”
Today, however, on platforms like LiveJournal, young people can connect with peers and adults who share the same interests, often establishing an informal mentor-student relationship rooted in feedback regarding fan-created media. And in some ways, it is extremely well-suited to helping young women overcome the digital divide. (For more on this divide see Spotlight’s Are Girls Less Involved with Technology Because Parents Fear Online Predators?).
Whereas boys and young men like to “geek out” with technology and learn about it as a way of entertaining themselves, women have often needed a more social reason to embrace computers and the internet.
“With these kinds of social networks, women share their passions about what matters to them,” Jenkins says. “It provides the motivation to overcome the technology, because it’s a means to something they deeply value.”
Armed with that kind of motivation, young women in fan communities can go on to write fan fiction and produce videos, music and podcasts. They can create animated images and cross over into gaming based on the common interest of whatever fan community they belong to.
With more experienced members of those communities offering feedback and advice, young women can find themselves deeply engaged with technology, but also in a safe space in which to express themselves, both in a literal sense and in broader terms.
Given that fan communities are constructed to protect their members and are often out of view of the general public, girls are able to communicate and create with little fear of negative commentary from non-members. Equally important, these groups are a place where girls can express their true fan selves in a fuller way.
As one girl in Davis’ study said, “I can definitely be more of a deranged fan girl in my LiveJournal than I can in real life.”
“They are being taken seriously as a member of that community in a different way than they would be treated at school,” Jenkins says. “They share more of themselves than they would in other circumstances. They do find a greater voice.”
Photo courtesy of Stephen Brown.
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