The Great Pretender

In Charlotte Alter‘s article for Time magazine, she discusses the findings of a study published by the University of Pennsylvania regarding the type of language different genders use on Facebook. The researchers conducting the study was interested in finding out whether computer analysis of the type of language used on Facebook statuses could reveal the age, gender and personality of the users better than traditional psychological tools, which are often self-reported by users. The results of the study revealed that both psychologists and computer scientists were able to predict the user’s gender with an accuracy rate of 92%, just by looking at the word choices of the Facebook statuses. Unsurprisingly, women used more emotion words, such as “excited”, “love you” “yay” whereas men used more swear words, such as “fuck”, “shit” and referenced objects more frequently, such as “x-box” “ps3” and “black ops”.

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Words, phrases, and topics most highly distinguishing females and males.

Alter agrees with one of the researchers of the study, Dr. Margaret Kern, who cautions that the word clouds produced by the study represent the extremes of both genders, and that certain words are just more likely to be used by a woman than a man. However, she also proposes that the results of the study is actually revealing less about who the users are, and more about how they want to be perceived, because “social media isn’t about expression, it’s about performance.” In her words. “our Facebook statuses are not about who we are, but rather about who we wish we were.”

This clearly relates to Zizi Papacharissi‘s article, “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter“, where she discusses the idea of the “performance of the self”. Users of social media, are actually extremely aware of their audiences and think of their potential readers before posting. The use of language in “essential to performantivity”, because it it both “describes and presents a form of doing” (Papacharissi, 2011). Not only that, but while words can possess a material effect, they are also at the same time, “reiterative of conventions and customs that reflect context and established way of doing things (Papacharissi, 2011). I certainly agree with Alter’s echoing statement that Facebook is not the place for breaking norms,  but a place we go to have those norms reinforced. As Papacharassi suggested, our performances online draw on conventions and customs that we are used to, and reflect the context in which things are done, and the established way that they are performed. Not only are we presenting ourselves, but we are also reiterating and re-solidifying custom, even stereotypes and re-establishing them as the norm.

This creates a never-ending circle where we perform activities that might not necessarily reflect the entire facet of our personalities, but might represent what we assume would appeal to the most people, or as Alice E. Marick and Danah Boyd call it, “the lowest common denominator“. Our imagined audience, real or not, has a heavy impact on the way we present ourselves online, on the content we upload or “like”, and especially on the way we speak.  Drawing upon Hugo Liu‘s article Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances, we can see that people use and update their profiles as a way to define who they are, and to represent their identity through one’s interests, consumption, and possessions. We update our profiles to display our “taste statement” Liu’s article suggests that we are based on our tastes and that people pass judgement on the type of people we are based on what we like. Therefore, we will obviously, willingly, and carefully only display our likes and tastes to ensure that people see us as we wanted them to.  It is easy to understand how the data from the study can skew towards a common stereotype of women and men. Women may update their statuses about their recent shopping trip to showcase which stores they shop at, which brands they buy, or how fashionable they are. They may confess their emotions to show how emphatic they are. They readily expose relations to show the type of people they know and the type of relationships they have. Men may be more willing to display negative emotions on their status, and may be more willing to engage in shows of masculinity in their interactions with other people.  Since a user’s status update is easily one of the most fundamental expressions of their personality, the language that they use in their updates is important as a representation of how they wish to be seen, and that representation can be influenced by the updates of other people.

Whereas Alter did touched upon important considerations of how the results of the study might not be an accurate assessment of the type of people that are Facebook, I think her article could have benefited from more in-depth considerations of the study’s findings that status updates reinforced stereotypes. She did question how today’s most cutting edge social technology could be reinforcing outdated conventions, it would have been more interested to see if there have been other research that studied language on social networks and found different results.

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Defying Stereotypes

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