An Analysis of Gender Portrayal and Perpetuation on Social Networking Sites

“You’re my Facebook friend!”

An Analysis of Gender Portrayal and Perpetuation on Social Networking Sites

In recent years, the development and expansion of social networking sites has reconfigured our world tremendously. Whereas studies of the effects of mass communication were limited to one or two media and seen to be a source of strictly output, the creation of social networking sites has allowed the interaction between media consumers and distributors to be just that: interactive. Men and women are able to socially construct their public presence on sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LinkedIn, yet the generational and gender implications are more prevalent in various ways through each of these sites. When media outlets and social networking venues extend beyond the reflection hypothesis, one is left to wonder whether men and women are merely perpetuating their associated gender stereotypes through these networks and exactly how dynamic their public presence is. Social networking sites will be evaluated and observed to see whether the hypothesis of gender perpetuation is accurate and to what extent. Objectivity is an important characteristic of the study yet through a subjective perspective as well, one will be able to gauge that no matter the cohort or prevailing social construct one has been placed, they still continually hyper-perpetuate these norms in the online social sphere.

In this study, a brief explanation will be given on the top four social networking sites currently- Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and LinkedIn. Following this explanation, several communication theories will be examined to validate and explain the claim that gender and identity are socially constructed; Afterward, gender will be examined more critically, specifically the differences in communication between males and females; Then, the observational study of the four social networks that was conducted will be explained in detail in relation to various age demographics, Finally social and online activism will be evaluated to determine whether those labeled as ‘social deviants’ still perpetuate their gender and social stereotype.

Social networking sites have been around in our society for quite some time, for different demographics of people and interests, including old favorites such as BlackPlanet and MiGente. However, in recent years the capability and dynamism of social networks has expanded greatly contributing to social networking monopolies like Facebook and MySpace. MySpace is a social sphere for networking, similar to Facebook, but at the inception of each there were vast differences between them. Facebook was a social network primarily for the use of college students but now currently exists for anyone. Twitter, a more recent phenomenon, is a social network based solely in the real-time statuses of others, commonly referred to as tweets; Twitter allows its users to keep an active and current account of their lives in 140 characters or less, and is a popular way for members to associate with celebrities. Lastly, LinkedIn is the fourth largest social network extending itself to a more professional presence- allowing members to add professional contacts and post information most commonly found on resumes. All four of these social networking sites vary in the primary demographic of its users and the most commonly associated uses, however they are all means of communicating with others who exist either in or beyond a direct association.

Too often in the hallways of high schools, college social gatherings and company cocktail ours one will overhear and use the following phrase: “Oh! I know you … you’re my Facebook friend!” Suddenly the invisible social barriers that existed between the two strangers are immediately lifted as a simple comment thrusts them into the realm of friendship. Having a Facebook or MySpace friendship, no matter how dynamic, speaks volumes to the association and cordiality of two people. To many, a Facebook or MySpace friendship with co-workers, employers, family, peers, celebrities and strangers is an active and tangible illustration of a person’s social presence and in many cases, social and self worth. Several theories within the communication discipline give explanations to the social construction of reality and self, and thus must be examined in detail.

The Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead discusses interpersonal communication in depth. Within the realm of this topic is the discussion of the creation of the self. “Mead discussed the idea that we could get glimpses of who we are through introspection. He claimed, instead, that we paint our self-portrait with brush strokes that come from taking the role of the other– imagining how we look to another person. Interactionists call this mental image the looking-glass self and insist that it’s socially constructed,” (Griffin, 59). Through face-to face (FTF) social interactions with others on a daily basis, one internalizes the impression that others have of themselves, and uses this looking-glass self to create the “Me”. To further this, Mead and other symbolic interactionists have created the term of the generalized other. “The generalized other is an organized set of information that the individual carries in her or his head about what the general expectation and attitudes of the social group are… We take the position of the generalized other and assign meaning to ourselves and our actions,” (Griffin, 61). In the context of social networking site, the looking-glass self and the generalized other not only play a dynamic role in the creation of a person’s public and personal presence but is hyper-evaluated and constructed. Expectations of society (while varied among its different members) help form the generalized other– essentially the social schema that one constructs on how to think and interact within a community. However, the self that is socially created through FTF interactions is hyper-evaluated and created through interactions within the online social realm. This cycle of self creation, evaluation and validation is ongoing in the physical sphere of life and even more prevalent in the online realm where a constant presence prevails. Through social networking sites, people participate in the process of sharing and constructing their social identities. “One implication of the looking-glass self idea is that each of us has a significant impact on how others view themselves,” (Griffin, 63). Further examples of this will be illustrated in depth in the observation section.

The Social Information Processing Theory of Joseph Walther examines interactions and developed relationships of computer-mediated communication (CMC) versus face-to-face communication (FTF). An important element to examine with this theory is the selective self presentation with CMC, where one has the ability to disclose certain information and characteristics about themselves while concealing others. Through this theory, it is validated that ones portrayal on social networking sites can be completely contradictory with their actual presence. “That’s because they can write about their most attractive traits, accomplishments, thoughts, and actions without fear of contradiction from their physical appearance, their inconsistent actions, or the objections of third parties who know their dark side,” (Griffin, 149). It must be noted that the nature of social networking sites allows members to comment on contradictions and offer another perspective to a persons online portrayal, however the general theory agrees with the notion that a person’s online presence may not always be accurate. After discussing key communication theories, it is now necessary to discuss the gender implications of these theories and with the prevailing topic of social networking sites.

The topic of gender and communication envelops many differing perspectives and schools of thought. Deborah Tannen researched and argued the conversational style of men and women, most commonly known as Genderlect Styles. “According to Tannen, women and men have different communication styles and different communication goals,” (Curran and Renzetti, 141). To further this, Tannen argues that women are concerned with seeking human connection; men are concerned with status (Griffin, 473). “They are working hard to preserve their independence as they jockey for position on a hierarchy of competitive accomplishment,” (Griffin, 473). Using this theoretical explanation, in addition to the other theories most prevalent in the communication discipline, one can carefully analyze profiles and subsequent public presence on social networking sites to determine if (in a broad sense) women and men perpetuate their gender and social stereotypes.

As stated previously, the effect of gender on communication and vice versa has been closely examined in relation to newspaper, audio, visual, and advertising/rhetorical elements. As found in Women, Men, and Society, the output of the media is directly correlated to the consumption and public desire of the media, “Simply stated, the reflection hypothesis holds that media content mirrors the behaviors and relationships, and values and norms most prevalent in a society,” (Curran and Renzetti, 144). However, while examining media consumption and perpetuation is an important aspect to understanding society’s gender stereotypes and notions, the public presence that one distributes is equally as important. Therefore, in this study, only the profile pictures, written description, and statuses will be examined because they are a direct output of information from a person to the online social sphere.

The study

The people examined were randomly selected and while an air of subjectivity must be noted in regards to the Facebook examination of profiles, it is the very bias of this study that lends insight into the topic. For, a purely objective approach to studying portrayals of persons on the internet could contribute to a distorted view of the accurate, FTF self; it is a slightly subjective bias, that allows the observer to notice whether the public presence of a person is congruent with their actual, FTF presence. The people examined were 2 males and 2 females in each academic class of college: a recent high school graduate/ freshman in college, a sophomore in college, a junior in college, a senior in college, and a recent graduate (’08) of college. Those examined are of various race and ethnicities, backgrounds, and schools. The careful examination of demographic in this research is to conclude that gender stereotypes are (on average) globally perpetuated and not merely an example of selectivity. For privacy purposes, the names of those examined will not be disclosed however, because the information is distributed on a social and public site, the information that is publically shared with users will be used as examples.

The people examined attend/ recently attended an undergraduate institution at: Loyola, Truman State University, and University of Missouri at Columbia, Washington University in St. Louis, Purdue University and St. Louis University. The recent high school graduates attended high school in St. Louis, Mo. One member of the observation is joining the army and is from Kansas, City, Mo.

The Results

Women: The women examined vary in maturity level and self-disclosure. Approximately 80 percent of the profile pictures are at parties and/or friends, the rest of the pictures include close up shots in dressy attire, and drunken photos with friends. The “About Me” section of Facebook is typically very vague and self-disclosure is at a minimum. Approximately 70 percent of the statuses of the recent high school graduates and current college students refer to a relationship, recent breakup or friendship. The recent college graduates discuss recent endeavors with careers, embellish life experiences and showcase growth. Regarding confidence, the women examined typically exude self- confidence however, it must also be noted that hyper-self confidence can also be masking of insecurities.

Men: The men examined also vary in maturity and self-disclosure, as this observation and survey is not fully representative of the entire demographic. However, in comparison to the women, the public presence of the men is a lot more varied. The activities of the men include volunteering, sports, “partying”, and “girls” (Facebook). The “About Me” section of their profiles is fairly limited, typically a few words. The statuses of the men mention sports, alcohol, and women; in some cases, the man referenced women in very derogatory manners. The statuses depict confidence in the men, and ability. Finally, the profile pictures of the men feature them with girlfriends, however for the most part they were dressed up, or at parties. About 30 percent of the pictures are of them with family members.

While it must be noted that the observation is not fully representative of either demographic, and that there is a bias as to the members involved, the overall examination of the profiles lend to significant evidence. Every person examined contribute and perpetuate the social stereotypes associated with their gender- either through statuses as “getting’ my Bill Clinton on tonight” by one of the males or the frequent mention of relationship and friendships of the females. Moreover, the statuses and profile pictures of the males suggest status and independence; the statuses and profile pictures of the females perpetuate the stereotype of closeness by referencing personal relationships. In addition, the younger the men and women were, the more public their Facebook profiles were and the more they perpetuated stereotypes; the older the men and women were, the profiles were less public and had less of an immature public presence.

Through doing this research and observation, it is concluded that men and women perpetuate the social stereotypes of their gender, and that interaction among the sexes varies between male to male, female to female, and male to female. It is also concluded that the women focus more on relationships with others and the men focus more on their social presence and standing. The results of this observation are subjective and slightly biased, and it is encouraged to conduct the observation individually to either refute or further agree with the previously stated hypothesis.

The Older the Wiser?

The observations of the previous study are on the collegiate demographic in the United States and thus any implications and associations made are strictly within the realm of that demographic. As such, it must be noted that beyond the studied demographic, the uses and image portrayal on social networking sites appear to be on different ends of the socially acceptable spectrum. Teenagers, it was observed, tend to have a more sexual presence on these sites and have more public of a profile ( Adults, while sharing a public presence on websites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LinkedIn have more private of a profile and use the sites more for professional purposes. “Most but not all adult social network users are privacy conscious; 60 % of adult social network users restrict access to their profiles so that only their friends can see it, and 58% of adult social network users restrict access to certain content within their profile,” (Pew Internet).

Feministing on Facebook? Online Activism

While the research conducted contributes to the claim that gender is socially constructed and socially perpetuated on social networking sites, it must also be noted that these sites are being used by social activists of various genders to generate social change. Members were observed who publically associate themselves as feminists, and homosexuals and were observed to use the social networking sites to further their claims for change and market liberal-mindedness. While this public portrayal also perpetuates the social stereotypes of these individual cohorts, the hyper-feminism and overt homosexualism contributes to the hypothesis that members of social networking sites utilize its public presence to support and challenge ideals. This notion suggests that the presence doesn’t perpetuate a gender stereotype associated with a certain sex but rather a social stereotype of a social category. A recent article in Ms. Magazine discusses the trend among mothers to blog, and use twitter oftentimes in an unconscious feministic underlying of portraying motherhood in a different light than what society portrays. “I think a lot of moms who don’t identify as political activists or feminists are writing on sites increasingly about issues that are important to them.” Then, as they get comfortable talking about their own mothering issues online, they are ‘finding their political selves,” (Ms.Magazine, Summer 2009). Therefore, it is suggested that while gender and social stereotypes can be/consistently are perpetuated on social networking sites and through an online presence, the ability to utilize the internet for the purpose of portraying another side to an associated gender and for social activism is apparent.

The vast expansion of social networking sites has the power to contribute to sexist ideals and stereotypes regarding gender, race, and sexuality. Millions of users on these sites unconsciously contribute to these prevailing notions that exist in society, and millions more are joining these networks daily. However, due to the nature of the internet, men and women who wish to showcase more than images of sexual objectification, gratification, and masculinity that are too often perpetuated in traditional media forms, have the power to do so. “Nevertheless, gender is one of the basic categories for understanding the social world. It is not just because it is usually easy to determine but, as has been emphasized by Bem (1981), it is also not only about differences associated with reproductive abilities and anatomy, but that ‘each gender category is assigned some specific characteristics, roles, behaviors and skills, which make up the stereotypes or images of men and women, functioning in our minds (Cross and Markus 2002:52),” (Sharpe, 5). Gender is socially constructed through interactions with others, either face-to-face or computer-mediated and it is through these interactions that we are able to develop a self, self-worth and esteem. While this observation has concluded that gender stereotypes are perpetuated through social networking sites, it is important to understand and realized that just as interactions with others can negatively affect media output and social worth, the internet as a presence can be used to socially construct whatever it is we allow ourselves to create.

Cited References

Curran, Daniel and Claire Renzetti. 2003. Women, Men, and Society. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Griffin, Em. 2006. A First Look at Communication Theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Riffe, Daniel. 2009. “Media, Celebrities, and Fans: An Examination of Adolescents’ Media usage and Involvement with Entertainment Celebrities.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 86:23-45.

Siemienska, Renata.  2009. “Value Systems and Social Roles in Cross-National Perspective.” International Journal of Sociology. 38:4

Ms. Magazine. Summer 2009. Cyberhood is Powerful. 14:3


Published by Kristyn Potter

Founder of Left Bank Media. Editor of Left Bank Magazine. Copywriter. I write about music, and New York mostly.