Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the privileging of platforms

A handy-dandy Twitter link pointed me toward this post in the Economist's culture & technology blog: The secret sexism of social media. The author focuses mainly on Foursquare and other geosocial networking services. Citing a Pew study that shows twice as many men as women using these services, the author posits a few explanations (none of them particularly compelling) as to why this disparity in social media and networking user bases might exist.

While I'd be interested in knowing the answer to that particular question, the post actually started me thinking about an issue that I've kept in the back of my mind for a while: how are social media platforms gendered, and what impact does this have for research efforts and journalism that are engaged with the new media question?

A confluence of events over this past few months has me thinking about the ways that we privilege speech that happens on some online platforms over others.  Back in April, LiveJournal -- a popular blogging service -- experienced a number of serious functionality problems due to a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. As an advanced skimmer of the internet, I came across a number of comments that expressed disbelief that anyone would want to take down a journalling service populated mostly by teenage girls. Fourteen year old girls writing emo poetry and Harry Potter fanfiction: this is LiveJournal in the social media imaginary.

At least, that's LiveJournal in the English-speaking, US-centric world. Elsewhere, things are understood a little bit differently. In Russia -- where SUP, the company that owns the license to LJ is located -- LiveJournal is synonymous with blogging itself. A link to an LJ in the English speaking world is a step away from the serious analysis hosted by Wordpress and TypePad; a link to an LJ in Russia can be an act of political resistance.

Similarly, there's been a lot of focus on the role that Facebook and Twitter have played in the political upheavals of the Arab Spring. I've already linked to a few pieces on the subject (Clay Shirky at Crooked Timber, and that Malcolm Gladwell piece everyone and his mother linked to from the New Yorker), but there is a imperialist undertone to the notion that the uprisings could not have occurred without these social media platforms. By placing US-centric, English language platforms at the center of reportage on Middle Eastern unrest, we colonize the revolutions and claim them as victories of our own. Look at these tools of freedom we have created, we say, pointing towards our own techno-social accomplishments and feeling heroic that we provided such a space. This not only elides the fact that a significant proportion of political organizing outside the Western world happens outside of the services that we are most familiar with, but also diminishes our understanding of the relationship between online communication, political action, and information sharing outside the confines of those platforms we've deemed to be 'important'. South Korea faced virtually-organized anti-government protests in 2008 not because of Facebook, but because of message board fan communities for popular music artists. Our unrelenting focus on Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, blogs in the Wordpress genre) often directs our attention away from smaller platforms -- local and global -- where online organizing and interaction takes place.

So what does gender have to do with all of this? Well, a few different things. The gendering of social media platforms -- and websites in general -- seems to occur on two different levels. First, there is the usual "what are the demographics of the userbase" question. This one tends to be easily answered, and often skews male globally (although in North America the numbers are a lot more even). Second there is the question of which voices speak the loudest on the social media platform. Here things get a little more tricky. This year, The Week nominated one (out of eight) female bloggers for their "blogger of the year" award -- and that blogger was Digby, who doesn't actively construct a female identity online. We know that the feminist blogosphere runs a secondary parallel to the mainstream progressive blogosphere. Twitter -- when not being used for celebrity gossip (an eminently female pursuit) -- is the outlet for male dominated news outlets, mainstream or otherwise, to make their voices relevant. Facebook, though more personal and thus less likely to carry with it the gendering that comes with journalistic engagement, appears in the news as a gathering place for social movements gendered masculine by their leaders and tactics. LiveJournal, in the West, is female all the way down.

One of the difficulties of studying online social interactions in an environment where a large number of your colleagues aren't regular -- or particularly savvy -- users of the internet is that you often find yourself trying to describe the platforms you work with to individuals whose only experience with social media is Facebook and some major blogs. The question of "why this site? why this community?" tends to come up with astonishing frequency. And while colleagues of mine have no difficulty selling their peers on an ethnographic study of dying bingo halls, it's strangely difficult to convince anyone that a 1500-member, active LJ community is worth a (social scientific) look. This is obviously in part an outgrowth of the fact that it is simply too daunting a task to know which online interactions are sociologically significant -- though my tendency would be to go with "all of them", until proven otherwise. But I think there is also an element of privilege embedded in our practices of focusing our journalistic/sociological gaze on those platforms that the mainstream media finds trendy and 'important'. Too often, those communities and services are the ones that are dominated by masculine voices, leaving platforms like LiveJournal -- with it's 14-year old girls and their emo poetry -- in the abyss of the understudied and unimportant web.

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