In my last post I raised several questions about the nature of participation in blogs and other computer mediated communication (CMC) fora, based upon research detailing the life-cycles of such fora. An additional, related line of research that seems to me important for the future of a blog such as Times and Seasons is a substantial body of work exploring the gendered nature of CMCs.
This research arose out of observations that suggested a surprising scarcity of female participation in openly accessible CMC fora. Subsequent empirical and ethnographic studies by Susan Herring and others suggest that men and women have different discursive styles that are accommodated quite differently by CMC technologies. Analysis of messages posted by males in CMC fora find a masculine discursive style that tends to be aggressive, confrontational, and argumentative, placing a high emphasis on rationality and logical consistency. Posts by women on the other hand, are apt to be more conciliatory, emotive, and empathetic, placing a high emphasis on consensus and understanding. There is also evidence that the former, masculine form of discourse tends to rapidly dominate CMCs unless actively chaperoned by a moderator.
Drawing on the work of Carol Gilligan, Herring and others have theorized that because of these differences, the medium itself tends to exclude female participation. Feminine discourse, they suggest, is heavily dependent on non-textual cues for much of its communicative exchange. Since CMCs tend to lack any cues from tonal inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the like, it is inherently hostile to feminine discursive forms, especially when the forum is swamped with masculine discourse. CMC discussion fora offer essentially a one-dimensional communication channel — the naked text. “Smileys” and other emoticons are an attempt to make up for the missing communicative dimensions, but offer only an impoverished substitute.
A strong version of this theory argues that CMCs are actually designed in such a way as to embed values inimical to feminine discourse. Since the technology was designed by Pepsi-swilling Unix programmers (no doubt wearing black “Van Halen” tee shirts), they built the network in such a way as to support their preferred form of cerebral argumentation, but not to carry the nuance that other discursive forms might require.
Given that disciples of Christ ought to be cultivating kindness, charity, and love unfeigned — attributes of what the Herring school would label “feminine” discourse — the question as to whether CMCs lend themselves to contention strikes me as important for a blog such as Times and Seasons. My own past experience suggests that there may be something to this view; after several years of active listserv participation in the mid to late 1990s, I dropped out of virtually all the discussions I had previously frequented. Whether it was the nature of the medium itself, or the culture pervading the medium, I found that I disliked the more belligerent tone that was infecting not only my online, but my off-line interactions.
The second, corollary question relates to the participation and comfort level of women in the forum. The number of regular female bloggers at Times and Seasons is presently fixed at two. But a glance at the “Recent Posts” listing shows relatively few female (or at least, self-identifying female) commentators, and a heavy predominance of male (or at least, apparently male) commetators — and certainly no sign of anyone self-identifying as female in the “Most Comments” column. Does that say something about the subject matter of Times and Seasons, or about the character of the technology, or both? And can — or should — anything be done to counteract such characteristics?