Blogging in a Different Voice

June 19, 2004 | 23 comments
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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?

23 Responses to Blogging in a Different Voice

  1. Grasshopper on June 19, 2004 at 9:07 am

    fix bug

  2. Grasshopper on June 19, 2004 at 9:15 am

    Or is it that men, especially in Mormonism, generally have more “free” time for this sort of thing? My wife, a stay-at-home mother of five, would enjoy participating here. We frequently discuss some of the threads here at T&S, and some of my comments are derivative of remarks she has made, but five small boys make it difficult for her to follow the conversations, let along contribute regularly.

  3. Kristine on June 19, 2004 at 9:58 am

    “five small boys”

    Five? Five?!! It’s amazing she can still speak at all :) I say we kick *you* off the computer for a week and invite her to guest blog!

  4. cooper on June 19, 2004 at 12:06 pm

    Interestingly, I think you’ve got it spot on. Thus, my user name. I find as long as my name is not gender specific I do better in discussions. Especially on the automobile CMCs I frequent. I also know that there are many women that do the same thing.

    Where I don’t see that happening is in the food related CMCs I visit. However, there still seems to be a slight gender bias there due to men being more likely to be industry professionals who take the time to blog. But it isn’t obvious.

    I really don’t think it has to do with technology all that much.

  5. Julie in Austin on June 19, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    Excellent topic. A few thoughts:

    (1) You didn’t quite connect the dots, but your statement about Gilligan and then the statement about the Gospel seeking to inculcate stereotypically feminine virtues points to a huge critique of Gilligan from an LDS perspective: you can’t identify female and male ways of being/ethics and let it go at that; from a gospel perspective, the goal is to cull out what is sinful (whether traditionally male–like over-aggressiveness–or traditionally female–like over-passivity). Which is a roundabout way of saying that references to Gilligan always make my neck tense up.

    (2) I think the personal conenctions, as mentioned in a previous post, do provide that level of connectivity that keep it civil (for the most part) around here. Also, and don’t laugh, I think the photos of the permabloggers help. Seriously, I would probably be a lot ruder to Adam as I attempt to disabuse him of his sexist notions if I had never seen a picture of him, or esp. his cute baby.

    (3) Grasshopper’s experience interests me (although I second Kristine’s notion about booting him and hearing from his wife) because my husband is the one too busy to post, although we frequently discuss T & S over dinner. I do think that as more at-home women discover that places like T & S are a great way to take a break, and more stimulating to boot, that female participation will increase. Although it does take a certain level of confidence and aggressiveness to put your idea out there for 700 people (one of which inevitably ends up being an expert in what you said and humiliates you for your naivete) to read. Are enough LDS women aggressive enough to do that? I don’t know. But I was just thinking the other day that probably 80% of comments in Sunday School are from women. Is that typical?

  6. Dan Burk on June 19, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    Julie — You’re right that I let a good deal of the iceberg remain under water in this post, in part because because blog readers have only so much patience, and in part because exposing the rest of the iceberg is what the comments are for.

    I think that references to Gilligan make everyone tense up a bit; she was in hindsight probably less careful than she should have been about her data and about distinguishing biology from culture. But the reaction also to some extent comes from a lack of hindsight, failing to put her contribution in the context of the psychological development theories she was critiquing. Nonetheless it seems to me that the model was really revolutionary, and still has a good deal of traction. I know Susan Herring moderately well, and know that she and others influenced by Gilligan have tried to put the appropriate caveats and analytical rigor into their work.

    Having said that I think you point to an important lack of critical examination of the congruencies between certain strands of feminist theory and the Gospel — a failure that is perhaps due to unhealed wounds from the ERA wars, and perhaps due to the mistaken impression among Mormons that feminism is monolithic and belongs necessarily to the MacKinnons and Dworkins of the movement. I get the impression that a bit has been said about this on this blog in the past, but the search function for the archives is so minimal that it’s hard for me to tell.

    My wife just told me that Mormon culture makes women less likely to post on a blog like Times and Seasons, although as a victim of Mormon culture, she’s not going to post that observation.

    And all Cretans are liars.

    Cooper’s comment points to another body of CMC research regarding the tendency of women to use neutral or masculine names in order to avoid harassment or foster neutral interactions in discussion fora. There is again in that area the question as to whether the technology fosters these attitudes or the attitudes influence the technology. But some of the data collected by Amy Bruckman and her co-workers studying the “Turing Game,” where questioners try to determine the gender of panels of participants, is pretty interesting on the question of gender stereotypes and recognition. (AI afficianados will recognize this as an Internet version of the thought experiment that Turing proposed as a precusor to the famous “Turing Test” for artifical intelligence).

  7. John David Payne on June 19, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    Dan: I can’t speak for any of the other cretins, but I can affirm that I myself am a liar.

  8. Michelle on June 20, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Here’s a theory: maybe you have so many more male participants because more men have jobs which entail sitting in front of a computer for many hours a day each day. If you are, for example, a lawyer engaged in drafting documents on a computer all day long, as well as communicating with the other attorneys in your firm, opposing counsel and clients via e-mail, it’s not really such a diffucult or disruptive thing to check in on the latest entries on T&S every hour or so.

    If however, your daily work consists of laundry, dishes, cooking, cleaning, driving to lessons of various sorts, applying band-aids, grocery shopping, reading stories to pre-schoolers, etc., each time you log on to a discussion format such as this, you (by which I mean I) feel painfully aware that you are engaged in something other than your primary responsibilities. And if, as you are quickly checking to see whether gender essentialism (or whatever) is prevailing on a recent thread, your 5-year old daughter says, “Why won’t you play with us, Mommy? Don’t you love us? Why are you always on the computer?”, you might sense that this is perhaps not the best use of time, although in many ways it’s more appealing than doing yet another load of laundry or playing baby rabbits living in a village with fairies.

    Similarly, I think it would be difficult for someone of either sex whose profession was, say, a doctor, dentist, landscaper, or elementary school teacher, to be really engaged in the forum. They might check in once a day, but it would be hard to be involved in the ongoing point/counterpoint type of discussion that goes on here. It seems that the highly engaged blogger needs to be on-line almost constantly.

  9. Kristen on June 20, 2004 at 7:51 pm

    Good point, Michelle. My husband is one of those whose work takes place in front of the computer, so half the time he’s blogging, I’m telling the kids they need to leave Dad to his work. That’s part of the reason I don’t comment very often. Another reason is that I often put my foot in my mouth and embarass my husband by saying something stupid or mean, like when I want to tell lyle that I want to throw things at his head. But the main reason is that any time I want to use the computer, I have to use one hand to keep the baby from smacking the keyboard.

  10. Dr. Tarr on June 20, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    Anytime you feel embarassed about telling Lyle that you want to throw things at his head, let me know, and I’ll be glad to tell him for you.

  11. Michelle on June 21, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    I kind of like Carol Gilligan. I wonder, Julie, if your neck tenses up because you see her writings on the gender differences as prescriptive rather than descriptive? True, sometimes she does seem to be a champion for the female kinder, gentler interactions that place a higher value on relationships than logic. But can we accept that many women do act and think the way that Gilligan describes without saying that this is the way women should act and think? I feel like she had a lot of good insights and observations.

    I was at a talent show at the elementary school the other day. The talent was for the most part mediocre. Lots of little girls dancing to pop songs in a suggestive way that made me uncomfortable, a few singers, a couple of piano players. But the one that most bothered me was an act by three girls who looked to be among the oldest in the school – tall, slightly gangly, and showing signs of “budding womanhood”, if I may use a particularly gag-worthy phrase. They were dressed in cute and modest 1950’s garb (poodle skirts, etc.), and they had a perfectly acceptable little song and dance number to some 50’s pop song. What was so bothersomse was the fact that these girls could barely make it through their act due to acute embarrassment and non-stop giggling of the pubescent girl variety. You know what I’m talking about. Tee-hee, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe we’re up here in front of the whole school, Oh, my gosh, this is just so totally embarrassing, can you believe it? Hee hee hee. Talk about wanting to throw something at someone!

    I watched them and felt simultaneously angry and sad; angry at them, which I know is irrational, and sad for them and vaguely for the rest of the girls in our sociey. What is going on that girls who seem so outspoken and self-confident in 4th grade become these ditzy, giggly, perpetually mortified 6th graders? Isn’t this what Gilligan talks about? (Admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve read her book or sat in her class).

    And if a large number of girls “lose their voice” during this stage of life, how many ever regain it? Do you notice that among LDS women in particular there are a lot who speak in a very high, sweet, tentative, girlish tone of voice? Growing up in N.Y., we called this a Utah accent, but I have since learned that many people from Utah do not speak this way, and many LDS women from around the country do. (And though I am loathe to admit it, I think I occasionally talk this way myself, due, I think, to intense feelings of insecurity and a desire to come across as “nice”.)

    Julie and Kristine are such a breath of fresh air because they are so well-educated, intelligent, and unafraid to put forth strongly held opinions. But may I point out the emperor’s lack of clothes and say you are not typical LDS women?

  12. Michelle on June 21, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    I kind of like Carol Gilligan. I wonder, Julie, if your neck tenses up because you see her writings on the gender differences as prescriptive rather than descriptive? True, sometimes she does seem to be a champion for the female kinder, gentler interactions that place a higher value on relationships than logic. But can we accept that many women do act and think the way that Gilligan describes without saying that this is the way women should act and think? I feel like she had a lot of good insights and observations.

    I was at a talent show at the elementary school the other day. The talent was for the most part mediocre. Lots of little girls dancing to pop songs in a suggestive way that made me uncomfortable, a few singers, a couple of piano players. But the one that most bothered me was an act by three girls who looked to be among the oldest in the school – tall, slightly gangly, and showing signs of “budding womanhood”, if I may use a particularly gag-worthy phrase. They were dressed in cute and modest 1950’s garb (poodle skirts, etc.), and they had a perfectly acceptable little song and dance number to some 50’s pop song. What was so bothersomse was the fact that these girls could barely make it through their act due to acute embarrassment and non-stop giggling of the pubescent girl variety. You know what I’m talking about. Tee-hee, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe we’re up here in front of the whole school, Oh, my gosh, this is just so totally embarrassing, can you believe it? Hee hee hee. Talk about wanting to throw something at someone!

    I watched them and felt simultaneously angry and sad; angry at them, which I know is irrational, and sad for them and vaguely for the rest of the girls in our sociey. What is going on that girls who seem so outspoken and self-confident in 4th grade become these ditzy, giggly, perpetually mortified 6th graders? Isn’t this what Gilligan talks about? (Admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve read her book or sat in her class).

    And if a large number of girls “lose their voice” during this stage of life, how many ever regain it? Do you notice that among LDS women in particular there are a lot who speak in a very high, sweet, tentative, girlish tone of voice? Growing up in N.Y., we called this a Utah accent, but I have since learned that many people from Utah do not speak this way, and many LDS women from around the country do. (And though I am loathe to admit it, I think I occasionally talk this way myself, due, I think, to intense feelings of insecurity and a desire to come across as “nice”.)

    Julie and Kristine are such a breath of fresh air because they are so well-educated, intelligent, and unafraid to put forth strongly held opinions. But may I point out the emperor’s lack of clothes and say you are not typical LDS women?

  13. Julie in Austin on June 21, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    I don’t have a problem with anyone reading Gilligan descriptively (while considering Dan’s critique of her research, above). The problem I have is when LDS appropriate her work, as was done in Campbell’s _Eve and the Choice Made in Eden_. It seems blatently contrary to the Gospel to suggest that women have one ethical code and men have another. Again, if you are just using her work to describe stereotypes and begin a plan to work past them, fine, but the way I read Campbell is that she is enshrining the differences. Not OK.

    As for your talent show, I think _Reviving Ophelia_ does a far better job of addressing what was going on there than _In A Different Voice_.

  14. Michelle on June 21, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    I kind of like Carol Gilligan. I wonder, Julie, if your neck tenses up because you see her writings on the gender differences as prescriptive rather than descriptive? True, sometimes she does seem to be a champion for the female kinder, gentler interactions that place a higher value on relationships than logic. But can we accept that many women do act and think the way that Gilligan describes without saying that this is the way women should act and think? I feel like she had a lot of good insights and observations.

    I was at a talent show at the elementary school the other day. The talent was for the most part mediocre. Lots of little girls dancing to pop songs in a suggestive way that made me uncomfortable, a few singers, a couple of piano players. But the one that most bothered me was an act by three girls who looked to be among the oldest in the school – tall, slightly gangly, and showing signs of “budding womanhood”, if I may use a particularly gag-worthy phrase. They were dressed in cute and modest 1950’s garb (poodle skirts, etc.), and they had a perfectly acceptable little song and dance number to some 50’s pop song. What was so bothersome was the fact that these girls could barely make it through their act due to acute embarrassment and non-stop giggling of the pubescent girl variety. You know what I’m talking about. “Tee-hee, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe we’re up here in front of the whole school, Oh, my gosh, this is just so totally embarrassing, can you believe it? Hee hee hee.” Talk about wanting to throw something at someone!

    I watched them and felt simultaneously angry and sad; angry at them, which I know is irrational, and sad for them and vaguely for the rest of the girls in our sociey. What is going on that girls who seem so outspoken and self-confident in 4th grade become these ditzy, giggly, perpetually mortified 6th graders? Isn’t this what Gilligan talks about? (Admittedly it’s been a while since I’ve read her book or sat in her class).

    And if a large number of girls “lose their voice” during this stage of life, how many ever regain it? Do you notice that among LDS women in particular there are a lot who speak in a very high, sweet, tentative, girlish tone of voice? Growing up in N.Y., we called this a Utah accent, but I have since learned that many people from Utah do not speak this way, and many LDS women from around the country do. (And though I am loathe to admit it, I think I occasionally talk this way myself, due, I think, to intense feelings of insecurity and a desire to come across as “nice”.)

    Julie and Kristine are such a breath of fresh air because they are so well-educated, intelligent, and unafraid to put forth strongly held opinions. But may I point out the emperor’s lack of clothes and say you are not typical LDS women?

  15. Michelle on June 21, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    Yeah, I’ve read Reviving Ophelia, too, and it may be that I’m confusing the two. And sorry about the multiple posts. But just think, if I continue to make such mistakes, I can perhaps catapult myself on to the list of prolific bloggers and increase the female presence on this site!

    I did not find Campbell’s book helpful in my struggle to understand this very complicated story. Maybe you could publish your own take on it, Julie.

  16. Julie in Austin on June 21, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    Uh, Michelle, that’s actually on my list of things to do!!

    (1) have baby
    (2) learn Hebrew
    (3) write book on Genesis

    So, maybe sometime around 2024 . . .

  17. lyle on June 21, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    Feel free to throw things. Kinetic energy is a great way to release stress. And the Army didn’t teach me to dodge; so I could use more practice. :)

    I think that dial up speed has a lot to do with it. At work…there is usually a T1 connection. At home…more Americans have dial-up…if that. Who wants to take the time to boot up the computer & wait for the modem to connect?

    However, rather than having the anon Dr. (?) Tarr do it Kristine…just ask my wife. We’ll have cable internet at home starting sometime on Thursday & then she will start making tentative appearances herself I believe. Perhaps she will tell you why she reads & but choses not to comment.

  18. Laurie Burk on June 21, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    Michelle wrote: “What is going on that girls who seem so outspoken and self-confident in 4th grade become these ditzy, giggly, perpetually mortified 6th graders?”

    and Julie answered: “As for your talent show, I think _Reviving Ophelia_ does a far better job of addressing what was going on there than _In A Different Voice_.”

    May I also suggest reading _A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls_ by Susannah Sheffer. The book interviews homeschooled adolescent girls and finds that they *don’t* seem to experience the loss of self, loss of voice and other ‘reviving Ophelia’ type problems. Rather they keep their sense of self and their childhood strengths into and through adolescence.

  19. lyle on June 21, 2004 at 4:58 pm

    Laurie: Thanks for the suggestion! I’ll put that one on my reading list. Just one more reason to home school! :)

  20. Kristen on June 21, 2004 at 10:07 pm

    Um, Lyle. My name’s Kristen. Not that I haven’t been called Kristine many times in my life. Speaking of which, I was annoyed at someone, I can’t remember who, addressing Kristine as “Kris”. Maybe he knows her personally and has permission to do this, but nothing makes me more angry than people who automatically shorten someone’s name – too familiar. See why he doesn’t want me commenting?

  21. Kristine on June 21, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    Kristen, I’ve been called Kristen a few times in my life, too. (I don’t mind, I just always have the inexplicable sense that one should be prettier than I am to be called Kristen)

    lyle can be forgiven (only this once!) for mistaking you for me on this thread; I believe I’ve committed the verbal equivalent of throwing things at his head more than once.

    And there are a few people around here who know me well enough to call me Kris; I don’t remember anybody assuming that familiarity.

    Anyway, if throwing things at heads becomes necessary at any point, we can both do it until people are so confused by the name thing that they holler uncle ; )

  22. Kaimi on June 21, 2004 at 10:54 pm

    A comments check of the files shows that there are four people who have referred to Kris(tine) as Kris. The comments are mostly from Melissa Proctor and me. There are also one each from Gordon and from Kris herself.

    I know that Kristine and Melissa are good friends. I also like to think that I’m a friend (hopefully enough to call her Kris, since I’ve certainly done so) though I haven’t met her in person. In any case, we are co-bloggers and on good terms; I would think (hope) that if I’m not supposed to be Kris-sing all over the place, she would throw something at me. Ditto for Gordon, I think.

    (For empirical support, see http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000864.html#013534 http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000755.html#010905
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000620.html#008137
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000607.html#007752
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000586.html#007658
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000587.html#007256
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000544.html#006445
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000507.html#005936
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000507.html#005904
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000450.html#004607
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000441.html#004416
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000438.html#004295
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000398.html#003406
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000202.html#003256
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000202.html#003251
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000308.html#002222
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000250.html#001341 ).

  23. Kristen on June 22, 2004 at 12:46 pm

    Kristine- apparently no one told my parents about the pretty/Kristen link. Sorry to vent about the Kris thing. If it doesn’t bug you, that’s great. My husband tried calling me Kris once and we both thought it was just too weird, so only my parents and grandma ever call me that.