Social Media and the End of Gender?

In my other life, I work as a social media consultant and spend ridiculous amounts of time consuming information about how social media transforms the way we communicate with others. It’s undeniably a powerful tool, has become one of our international grassroots eyes and ears (see: Egypt and Iran) and allows many of us to find new friends around the corner.

So I was pretty psyched to see this TED talk by media researcher and expert, Johanna Blakley, about the end of gender and social media. While I think she makes idealistic points, I’m not convinced by her argument that social media currently signifies (or will in the future) the irrelevance of gender in online spaces.

I agree with her point that marketers are getting more useful information about consumers through their interests and communities, and that women are more avid users of social media. That’s easily proven statistically. However, traditional advertisers know to target women. In heterosexual households, decision makers are often women when it comes to purchasing goods (they often decide what food, clothes, household items, toys, cleaning supplies, etc. to buy for the family). There hasn’t been an increase in hiring women in advertising, marketing, and/or PR fields necessarily because of this concept (even though we dominate these industries in numbers)…and it has not led to an increase in numbers of women in senior positions. Furthermore, if companies are hiring more women to target more women through social media, doesn’t that just confirm the visibility of gender online?

In a conversation about this with Samhita on Facebook of all places, she mentioned her frustration with the assumption that we somehow lose our identity markers online because we “invent” our identities. But, we “invent” our identities all the time offline too, whether we are going to work, out on a date, or in other social spaces; we behave differently depending on the situation. Through using social media, or through a quick survey of the blogosphere, it’s apparent that our identities become more distinct online and if anything that distinction feels exaggerated, not invisible. The feminist blogosphere is a prime example. While marketers can’t assume that we all like the same toothpaste or same brand of shoes because we identify as feminists, there are certain ideas and attitudes that unify us as expressed by the content and discussion in these specific communities, highlighting and sometimes exaggerating our identities.

Social media has become a place for niche community building, certainly based on similar interests but also based on demographics such as gender, sexuality, age, race/ethnicity, location, etc. A recent article in AdAge talks about racial segregation online in the context of Black Americans. There are numerous news and consumer sites based on Black issues which hold weight in framing debate and discussions even in more mainstream or “diverse” online spaces. (Remember the article about how Black people use Twitter?). However, I don’t think this means companies are discounting race online, but quite the opposite and are more closely monitoring these sites and conversations because we have such a strong online presence.

I support the idea of a media landscape (both in online and traditional spaces) that is not dominated by stereotypes and that’s based on more tangible personal interests. But it seems far-fetched to believe that because marketers are more interested in what we “like” on Facebook than just our gender that somehow gender is and will become irrelevant. And even if gender became irrelevant online, I don’t think that would change sexism or gender stereotyped attitudes and behavior which often unite women online. I agree with Ms. Blakley that this raises major questions about how we categorize people (women like this, Latinos like that, people in the Midwest like this) and I think only from here we can advance to a more gender-neutral and colorblind community offline.

Join the Conversation

  • nazza

    It’s all a progression. I think that the end of gender starts with self-reflection first, then spreads out from there. I don’t think that any company wants to see us as all individual or equal, because that makes their job more difficult. But I will say that it depends most upon the groups with which we frequent. And it depends on how much we know and discover about ourselves in the process.

  • anyadnight

    I’m not sure I want gender to be invisible. If anything, I’d like gender to be more visible in certain ways. What I mean is I don’t want anyone’s identity to be hidden. I’d like us to all feel free to fully experience our identity (and gender) and have that respected– even if that means being a girl.

    I agree that this revolution might be less a result of consumers and more a result of women within an industry fighting to carve out a place for themselves. We as consumers can help support smart media, but I’m just not sure the companies full of men with concrete ideas about how and what to sell to women are going to just step down and hand over the reins.

    • goddessjaz

      I feel you on the idea of not necessarily wanting to gender to be invisible. That idea is hard for me to wrap my head around…even though gender is socially constructed. One of the things I appreciate about online spaces is that we can build because of these commonalities. Gender is clearly not one-size-fits-all but it unites us in some really baseline ways. Thanks for bringing this idea up, I was struggling with that when listening to this talk and writing the piece.
      Today I was at a Social Media NY event about online organizing and out of the 5 panelists (including the moderator) only one was a woman. It bothered me b/c I know women are doing so much in these spaces but it confirmed my ideas about us not being the decision makers. Great panel but disappointed at the lack of female “expert” voices!

  • Maggie Capwell

    I’m not convinced by Blakely’s argument either. I think the online world is still extremely gendered – like you said, we’re constantly constructing our identities through where we go and what we do online This lets media/advertising companies trying to market to us target us based on what we present of ourselves to the online community. Additionally, while it is definitely possible to break traditional gender boundaries and barriers online that doesn’t mean that it’s happening everywhere. The NYT’s recent piece on Wikipedia contributors (>85% male) is an interesting look at how even online certain spaces and activities are still gendered.

  • athenia

    Yeah, seeing as how certain activities are already gendered off line since the beginning of birth, I fail to see how these activities can be ungendered—unless fans of all genders of that activities meet online and somehow reshape that activity.

    Online spaces might be able to give voice to certain fans who were ignored before–just because in the past those fans couldn’t easily organize and the Media didn’t give them a voice.

    But, at the end of the day, if women still enjoy going to see crappy chick flicks, I think The Powers That Be will not have a reason to change.

  • Alex

    When I changed my listed gender on facebook (without changing any of my likes or interests) the facebook targeted ads changed completely.

    • goddessjaz

      Wow…very interesting. Facebook ads crack me up because they assume so much based on such basic information. They assume I am a lesbian because I say I’m interested in men & women and because I post a lot of women-focused content (I’m bi). They assume I’m vegetarian/vegan b/c I post stuff about healthy food, food policy, etc…but I’m a omnivore. Totally speaks to your point!