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.

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