Social Media and Gender: The Paradox

As social media continues to develop, different genders are interacting on one united platform like never before. However, social media has created a paradox of integration and division between men and women. While men and women become more integrated by communicating and socializing on the same platform, they are becoming divided by their unique purposes and usage of the Internet. The tension between this division and integration continues to shape our behavior by pushing people to conform to gender stereotypes and to join together based on interests.

Why Different Genders Use Social Media

Similar to traditional media, men and women both engage with social media based on different desires and motivations that reflect their behaviors and interests offline. While women are drawn to social media sites for the purpose of socializing, men use social media for the purpose of gathering information and increasing their status. In a study conducted by Jodi Kahn from iVillage, 75% of women use online communities to stay up-to-date with friends and family and 68% use them to connect with others like them (Goudreau). Women tend to use more social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and MySpace. Meanwhile men use social media as a way acquire information, boost their influence and compete with each other (Goudreau). Men are on more information and status driven sites like FourSquare and YouTube. The different reasons people use social media dictates their behaviors online and offline, even foreshadowing an initial divide between genders.

Behavior on Social Media

With the initial purpose of following stereotypical behaviors offline, men and women tend behave according to their stereotypes, which would signal a divide in their social media usage. Driven by a desire to socialize, social media naturally attracts women more than men. According to a Pew Internet Research conducted in 2010, about 56% of the social media users are women and only 44% are men. Compared to 2008, the gap between men and women using social media has grown, which could be attributed to the development of more social sites that would be more pertinent for women rather than men.

That same study shows that 64% of women are on Twitter, 58% of women are on Facebook, and 57% of women are on MySpace. Meanwhile, 63% of men are on LinkedIn (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, Purcell). Much of the gender usages of certain sites correlate with their initial purpose to engage in social media with a larger percent of women on social sites and a larger percent of men on status and information driven sites. In a recent study conducted in May 2011, seven in ten women online use social networking sites compared to only six in ten men (Madden, Zickuhr). Of that 48% of women go on a social networking site each day (Madden, Zickuhr). The difference usage of social media by each gender reflects their offline behaviors.

Ironically, compared to 2008, 53% of the users were women and 47% were men (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, Purcell). This three percent change between two years implies a greater gap between the genders.The growing division between men and women on social media could be attributed to the rise of Facebook, a “safer” site, and the fall of MySpace, two gender neutral, relatively speaking, sites.

According to a recent student conducted by United Sample, Inc., in a survey of 600 adults-296 men and 304 women- more than 40% of the women addressed concerns of privacy and personal security, meanwhile only 30% of men addressed those concerns. This demonstrates that women care more about personal privacy compared to men. This protection of privacy may come from the fact that women were raised to be on “high alert.” (Seymour). This desire for safety could be an indication of why Facebook became more popular, especially with women. Seen as the “safer” and more “trusted site”, Facebook drew women to its sites at a quicker rate and widened the gender gap.

Changing Behaviors on Social Media

            As social media matures, the way men and women conduct themselves online also matures. Their behavior online can be seen as an oxymoron with progress. Their actions are both becoming more divided and similar as time progresses. This change can be monitored through the development of social media from MySpace to Facebook, two platforms that both genders use.

MySpace

In the early stages of Web 2.0, MySpace presented itself as the top social media site with 85% of teens having a profile on MySpace compared to Facebook with only 7% in 2006. Even though 7% of boys and 6% of girls were on social media sites in 2005, about 70% of girls from 15-17 created MySpace profiles, and 57% of boys created profiles in 2006, demonstrating a stronger presence of girls on MySpace compared to a stronger presence of boys overall on social media sites (Lenhart, Madden).

Despite the skewed gender ratios on MySpace, about 91% of social networking teens reported using social networking sites to stay in touch with friends they often see and about 82% of teens used it to keep in touch with people they rarely see (Lenhart, Madden). The similar draw to join MySpace illustrates both genders coming together under a common purpose of connecting with friends, conflicting their initial distinct purpose for social media. However, women mainly used MySpace for connecting with friends and making new friends, while men were more likely to be interesting in dating and maintaining current friends (Lenhart, Madden). Women, about 89%, are more like to post comments on a friends’ wall than men at about 79% (Lenhart, Madden). Even though men and women possessed the same initial desire to use social media to connect with friends, women typically became more engaged with the site than men and entered the socialization aspect of MySpace. Once on the site, women conformed to their stereotype of being more social, while men followed their stereotype of being less social.

Although both genders’ behaviors mirrored their stereotype, MySpace changed the interaction between men and women online compared to offline. In a study to determine whether males had more male friends and women had more female friends, it was discovered that male and females both had more female friends in their the “Top 8” friends’ list, proving that off-site behaviors of having same gender friends did not translate online (Thelwall). A possible reasoning for both men and women having more female friends could be the social personality of women. Since women are more active online, they may friend both genders more than men would. According to researcher Michael Thelwall, “it seems that males and females do not have greatly differing friend gender preferences for their closest friends (i.e., approximately 7%), which contrasts with recognized gender differences in offline relationships” (Thelwall). In spite of different behaviors on MySpace, the interaction between men and women became more integrated and frequent compared to offline behavior.

Given the opportunity to create a new “social portrait” of themselves on MySpace, men and women identified themselves according to their stereotypes, instead of developing a new image. In a study with 51 females and 49 males, men were much more likely to not mention their significant others even once in the “About Me” section (43%) or in the “Interests” section (67%) compared to women who were over 2.5 times more likely to mention their significant others (Magnuson, Dundes). This research shows that women identify themselves in relation to other people, while men identify themselves in an interpersonal fashion, not needing others to dictate their identity. In addition, on MySpace, women portray their femininity and sexuality, while men portray their masculinity. Girls used MySpace represent themselves as feminine to by posting feminine pictures or posts that are modeled after the “ideal” beauty and femininity. Meanwhile, boys reinforce the ideal masculinity of strong and powerful (Stern). The ability to craft one’s own identity typically reinforces the gender stereotype and further divides the two genders.

Facebook

            After the fall of MySpace, Facebook reigned as the top social media possessing about 92% of all of social media users while MySpace had only 29% of users. Facebook also has 52% of its users using it daily. Out of all its users, 58% of Facebook’s users are women and 42% are men (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, Purcell).

Just like MySpace, men and women’s actions relate to their stereotypes offline with women socializing on Facebook and men utilizing Facebook for status and information. About 18% of women update their Facebook statuses once per day, while only 11% of men do. Women also tend to comment on their friends’ status more than men. About 25% of female Facebook users comment on a photo at least once per day and only 13% of men comment on photos on a daily basis. Men are more likely to have never “Liked” any of their friends’ content than women (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, Purcell).

Comment on a friends’ status, updating statuses, and liking friends’ content are utilized more by women just support the notion that women are more social online like they are offline and want to engage in personal communication and connections. Since men are information and status driven on social media sites, men are more likely to post links to current events or news on their profiles and post videos to their profiles (Watkins, Lee). Men are also more likely to comment on new sources’ website, post a video or photo regarding a political issue on Facebook, befriend a presidential candidate online, and join an online political group  (Watkins, Lee). These distinct gender associated behaviors that remain constant on both MySpace and Facebook indicates that men and women remain stagnant in their actions despite the change in social media platforms.

The formation of men and women’s identities on Facebook is a contradiction in itself. While men and women shape his or her identities to fit a certain ideal masculinity and femininity, gender profiles are becoming more gender neutral, surrounding around interests and reality. In a study lead by Washington State University, women tend to have more pictures and friends listed, suggesting a desire to appear social and friendly. In the activities and interest sections of Facebook, women listed more activities than men, mainly about sports, dancing, music, friends, sleeping and napping, shopping, cooking, and partying (Bryant). In terms of movies and television shows, women listed more feminine related shows and movies like The Notebook, Love Actually, Sex and the City, and Grey’s Anatomy (Bryant). Women’s profile pictures also contained family or family and portrayed an image of “friendliness” and “cuteness” (Bryant). Meanwhile men conformed to masculine identity claims with a less focus on socializing with fewer friends and pictures to portray an image of being too busy with other interest than to socialize (Bryant). In the interest section, men listed cars, women and sports. They listed movies and television shows like The Wedding Crashers, Pulp Fiction, Friday Night Lights, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park (Bryant). Men’s profile pictures typically had the man by himself to signify individualism (Bryant). This association with gender related interests reinforce the societal expectations.

Example of a Male’s Profile Picture Example of a Female’s Profile Picture

However, Facebook profiles are becoming less focused on gender stereotypes, but on reality and gender neutral interests. In our analysis of MySpace, women address their significant others more than men, indicating a sense of dependability on others to define them. With Facebook, 84.3% of men were likely to share their relationship status and 83.5% of women were likely to share their relationship status (Watkins, Lee). This shift in men and women to equally want to share their relationship status indicates a shift in men to not compartmentalize their lives, but to include all aspects of their offline life to their online life. Women are more likely to post photos to their profiles, meaning that women are more willing to share personal experiences with friends and maintain and build an online identity (Watkins, Lee). They share photos that are surrounded by family based-events, and by contrasts, men post photos connected to their personal interests like hobbies or scenery (Watkins, Lee). The difference in photo sharing reflects the different image both sexes want to show. Interestingly enough, the top photos both genders posts are social gatherings with friends, symbolizing the similar desire to build an image of socializing with friends (Watkins, Lee).

In the previous Washington State University study, although many of these interests reflect stereotypical interests, the mention of traditionally male activities like sports showed a crossover between gender associated activities and a diminished urge to remain feminine, but to express their true interests (Bryant). Both men and women are crafting identities match reality and no longer just conform to social expectations.

Analysis of MySpace and Facebook

The progression of gender behavior on MySpace and Facebook remains fairly constant, in the way that both genders act according to their stereotypes. In the MySpace analysis, men and women entered into social media with the same intension, but acted differently and shaped their online identity according to societal expectations of their gender. In the Facebook analysis, both males and females behaved the same way they did on MySpace, like their stereotype, but there was a shift in how they portrayed themselves. On Facebook, men and women portrayed themselves more in line with reality and what they were interested in rather than just stereotypes. Stereotypes did not act as a constraint on the image they represented on Facebook. In addition, the similarities in their online behavior emanate from a desire to connect with their friends.

The so-called “gender-neutral” platforms of Facebook and MySpace provided both genders an opportunity to interact regardless of any gender barriers. On MySpace, both genders had more female friends and the ratio for one gender was not heavily disproportionate. On Facebook, both men and women had more female friends. These sites have allowed for more engagement between genders.

Societal Implications of the Gender Paradox

The constant tension between integration and division on social media sites results from the behaviors of both men and women to personify themselves according to their stereotypes. For the first time, social media has given us a “blank slate” and the power to shape how we represent ourselves (Bryant). However, we have decided craft our identities according to the expectations of society of being feminine or masculine. However, it is this conformity that has lead to new innovations surrounding the needs of different genders. Social media has been shifted to match the demand of each gender. Key examples of this are Pinterest and LinkedIn.

Created just in 2009, Pinterest’s visitors shot up from one million in July of 2011 to more than 11 million in January, and of that about 70-80% are women (Fehling). Unlike previous social media sites like Facebook and MySpace that had a primary blue background with simple font, Pinterest has a red exterior and cursive, red font. The initial page has images of décor, flowers, and more feminine things (Jurgenson). The overall design of Pinterest targets the stereotypical women, becoming a safe space just for women to interact and discouraging men from using it. In result, Pinterest was considered the same as “walking into a woman’s bathroom” (Fehling). The rise of Pinterest fulfills women’s desires for their own space to pursue their interest, responding to the behavior of women on social media sites and their need for a private, welcoming space.

Meanwhile, LinkedIn has about 50% women and 50% men. However, men are 48% more like to visit the site than women. Men are also more likely to have more connections and interact more on the site. The purpose of the site, to build a network, is more aligned with the initial purpose men engage in social media. LinkedIn gives its users the opportunity to increase their statuses by increasing their network and posting their resumes and job experiences. LinkedIn naturally draws men to the site that are looking to network, compete with others for the best network, and show off their professional accomplishments. This site may not be a direct response to the needs of men, but it gave men an opportunity to interact playing off their need for information and status.

Even though the division between genders continues to grow and inspires the beginning of new social media sites, social media sites have also united different genders under one platform to communicate with one another. This common platform allows both genders to interact based on interests, not on gender. In addition, both genders are beginning to identify themselves according to their personalities, not their ideal stereotype, which consequently frees men and women from the bonds of stereotypes to be themselves.

This contradicting paradox of behaviors on social media implies the maturity of genders as a result of social media as well as the maturity of social media as a result of gender behaviors. We may not be necessarily conforming to any expectations or stereotypes like we did in the early ages of social media (i.e. MySpace) as much as we are now displaying our personalities and our interests. The mature social media sites allow people to be comfortable to be themselves on the same platforms as other genders. In a way the paradox is creating progress by bringing together two genders on one platform to express themselves.

Business Implications

The conflicting integration and division on a single medium provide companies with an opportunity to market to both genders. By understanding that men utilize social media for information and status and women use social media to socialize, companies can fulfill each gender’s desire to be on social media. For example, Patty Kennedy, founder of Kennedy Spencer, a communication firm for P&G and Coco Cola, uses transactional sites like LinkedIn and YouTube to attract more men. To market to men, she will share an article that men would like to spark their interests, since they are more information drive (Goudreau). To target women, she will go to conversational sites like Facebook to start conversations for women to share. Women are still making 83-87% of all online purchases and are two times more likely to share their online purchases with others (Goudreau). Kelly O’Neill, director of product marketing who works with Sephora, Tommy Hilfiger, and Urban Outfitters, will takes advantage of women’s likeliness to share information by advertising on Facebook or Twitter where sharing is easy. She will even create a virtual fashion show on these websites where the women can come together and be engaged (Goudreau). Taking advantage of these distinct gender-related behaviors can help business market in a more effective way.

More importantly, the unity of genders around a common interest becomes a far more effective marketing tool that allows companies to target a person’s interest rather than a generalized stereotype. In Johanna Blakely’s, a professor at USC, speech, she talks about social media acting as a freer of gender assumptions to connect based on interests (Blakely).

Targeting both genders based on interests becomes a more solid and effective way of reaching what your customers actually want. Companies can focus on marketing towards interests that will actually engage people and persuade them to buy your product compares to stereotypes.

References

Bryant, Erin. “A Critical Examination of Gender Representation on Facebook Profiles.” Conference Papers — National Communication Association (2008): 1. Print.

De Bonis, Lisa. “Can the Web Close the Gender Divide?” Campaign (UK).14 (2011): 17-. Print.

Fehling, April. “So Pinterest is a Woman’s World. Does that Matter? “ NPR. 2/22/2012 2012.Web. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/alltechconsidered/2012/02/22/147222619/so-pinterest-is-a-womans-world-does-that-matter>.

Gillette, Felix. “The Rise and Inglorious Fall of MySpace.” Bloomberg Businessweek. 06/22/2011 2011.Web. <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_27/b4235053917570.htm>.

Goudreau, Jenna. “What Men and Women are Doing on Facebook.” Forbes.com 4/26/10 2012.Web. <http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/26/popular-social-networking-sites-forbes-woman-time-facebook-twitter.html>.

Hampton, Keith, et al. “Social Networking Sites and our Lives.” Pew Internet & American Life Project. 07/16/2011 2011.Web. <http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Technology-and-social-networks/Summary.aspx>.

Herda?delen, Amaç, and Marco Baroni. “Stereotypical Gender Actions can be Extracted from Web Text.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 62.9 (2011): 1741-9. Print.

Hum, Noelle J., et al. “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: A Content Analysis of Facebook Profile Photographs.” Computers in Human Behavior 27.5 (2011): 1828-33. Print.

“Johanna Blakley: Social Media and the End of Gender “ TED Talks 02/2011 2011.Web. <http://www.ted.com/talks/johanna_blakley_social_media_and_the_end_of_gender.html>.

Jurgenson, Nathan. “Pinterest and Feminism “ CyborgTechnology. 03/05/2012 2012.Web. <http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/03/05/pinterest-and-feminism/>.

Lenhart, Amanda, and Mary Madden. “Social Networking Websites and Teens.” Pew Internet and American Life Project. 1/7/2007 2007.Web. 4/29/2012 <http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2007/Social-Networking-Websites-and-Teens/Data-Memo/More-details-from-the-survey.aspx>.

Madden, Mary, and Kathryn Zickuhr. “65% fo online adults use social networking sites “ Pew Internet Research 8/26/2011 2011.Web. <http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Social-Networking-Sites/Overview.aspx>.

Magnuson, Melissa Joy, and Lauren Dundes. “Gender Differences in “Social Portraits” Reflected in MySpace Profiles.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 11.2 (2008): 239-41. Print.

SEYMOUR, CHRIS. “Social Media and the Gender Gap.” EContent 35.3 (2012): 8-10. Print.

—. “Social Media and the Gender Gap: What do you share? “ EContent. 4/9/2012 2012.Web. <http://www.econtentmag.com/Articles/ArticleReader.aspx?ArticleID=81701>.

Stern, Shayla. Gender Constructed Online, Stereotypes Reified Offline: Understanding Media Representation of Adolescent Girls on MySpace. International Communication Association, 2007. Print.

Thelwall, Mike. “Social Networks, Gender, and Friending: An Analysis of MySpace Member Profiles.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 59.8 (2008): 1321-30. Print.

9 thoughts on “Social Media and Gender: The Paradox

  1. Great job Amanda. The small piece on privacy online helps to reflect how differently a woman will look at the world as compared to man. A woman will often have a plan on how to get home at night if she is travelling alone, these kinds of thoughts rarely pop through a man’s mind. To see that again, privacy and safety is a concern for females continues to show that women understand that online interactions could result in dangerous real-life situations.

    • That’s a great point! I have to agree. I think women are just more cautious about safety and that’s how we were raised. This personality trait definitely shows on social media sites because women are typically less inclined to give out personal information like email addresses or even their location. More men are using FourSquare than women. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Amanda, this was a great project. I presented just after or before you and was so nervous as you were saying in your presentation! I am so glad I got the chance to read your findings.
    I am very impressed by the amount of statistical evidence your found on the subject. I think a lot of the evidence is what I would have expected (e.g. women wanting to socialize versus men increasing their status). My favorite example was the comparison between Pinterest and LinkedIn and the reasons why it was more popular with each gender.
    I think that the paradox is really fascinating, I had believed in the power of the ‘blank slate’ that social media gives to people – you can portray yourself as whoever you want online – however, it seems that even social media can to some extent stereotype the gender roles.
    Thanks,
    Lisa

    • Thanks for the comments! I am glad that you enjoyed the part about LinkedIn and Pinterest. Before LinkedIn was mainly used by women then it switched and now more men are on it. I guess LinkedIn was just more appealing to men based on why they use social media.

  3. Amanda,
    I really appreciated your analysis of the “paradoxical progress” of gender roles in social media. It was a great way of explaining all of your findings! I also really liked your business implications section. It contained some great examples that really proved your points and emphasized how companies can utilize the gender divide.

  4. Thanks, Amanda. You state outright many differences between male and female online behavior that I suspected but never knew for sure. I’m glad to see that people are no longer feeling compelled to follow gender stereotypes online, and I think that is a reflection of society as a whole becoming more focused on activities and interests than playing up traditional gender roles.
    One thing I’m still not convinced of is Pinterest as a “safe space” for women. I’ve seen statistics that show Pinterest users to follow much closer to typical gender usage (roughly a 60-40 split) for social media in general. I think the site is picking up steam with men, but the beauty of it is that it is so customizable that it really can reflect anything anyone wants. Want to see women’s fashion and recipes, sure! Rather sports cars and men’s suits, you got it! I’d be hesitant to label it as a women’s site just yet.
    One thing I am curious of is WHY the usage gender gap is growing. Why are more women active on social media compared to men now than just four years ago? What’s caused this shift and is it going to continue? Are there ways to reconcile this usage and draw men back into the social media world?
    Great post, Amanda. Really thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you.

    • I agree with you. I think that the changing gender roles offline are translating online. I’m still wondering about why the gender gap is growing too. There’s not too much research on that topic. One reason I think is the increase in online privacy and safety attracts more women to social media. Before when MySpace was popular there were a lot of cases where women would be stalked online by creepy men and a lot of issues with safety, especially with women. Now Facebook has stepped up it’s privacy and women feel safer on Facebook, which could attract more women. However, that’s just an idea. There could be a lot of other contributing factors to that growth, but it’s definitely ironic that it’s growing by men and women are on the same platforms.

  5. Excellent project Amanda. What I found most interesting was your reasoning for the percentage of females using social media. In my project I saw similar facts and figures but I didn’t delve into it. From a marketing point of view it’s fascinating and, as you described above, companies really are looking into it and using the data

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