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The impact on gender

NOTE: By the concept of gender we refer to the socially and culturally constructed differences between women and men.

In all societies there are gendered norms and rules that claim to be based on biological aspects, such as child care, but which vary considerably between different societies and throughout history. Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in this discussion, both to challenge and to express cultural conventions.

Transformation or conformity?

Previous studies of the impact of the Internet upon gender seemed to group around two quite opposed points of view. Some scholars were impressed by the way anonymity online enabled people to appear with an entirely different persona, such as crossing gender or indeed repudiating any other physical aspect. Firstly, this showed how much of gender was culturally constructed but also made it seem that online might become an unprecedented liberal space allowing women and men to freely perform their own created identities. At the same time other scholars were pointing to how new technology and new stereotypes such as ‘the geek’ perpetuated, extended and perhaps reinforced gender norms, including the dominance of males in most societies - a situation which was often described as patriarchy.

So, how do these views compare with our findings?

Our evidence suggests that digital technologies are neither patriarchal nor liberating in and of themselves. They simply create a potential, which is made manifest according to the contexts in which they are embedded. This applies to social media as well. We shall see that social media can be both more conservative and simultaneously more transformative than prior offline capabilities.

The idea that the Internet could foster a new liberal space of ungendered possibilities was based largely on the rise of anonymous chat rooms and online forums, which facilitated the creation of fake identities and thereby non-conforming gender behaviours. But, social media has now replaced these more anonymous online spaces with more transparent ones, which in most cases relate the online presence to a wider offline context. This produces two main consequences common to most of our nine fieldsites.

Public conformity

Firstly, the more public spaces of social media mainly reinforce pre-existing gendered norms and expectations. If anything, people are now less prepared to appear online as ‘themselves’ and more inclined to use social media to show how well they can perform these ideal gendered roles. For example, in south India a key function of social media is to present the ideal family. Even if you have already congratulated your relative on becoming a new mother privately, you will then publicly do this again on Facebook in order to perform the role of the perfect family. But in the next example social media seems to be a reflection rather than an exaggeration of what is happening offline.

In south Italy, the limited visibility of women in public spaces is reproduced on social media. It is extremely unusual for married women to post photos of themselves on Facebook. Instead they post images of domestic objects, Internet memes, artistic photos, or pictures of their own children. Especially after becoming mothers, women are expected to partially renounce their prior identity as individuals in order to fulfil their roles as wives and mothers. Yet, at the same time social media has become an important tool for women to communicate with an extended network of people and to maintain social relationships, when these may be somewhat limited in offline contexts. Women tend to use social media more than men, especially within lower-income families. So, while it may be conservative with respect to the presentation of the self, it is transformative in expanding the network of social relationships.

Similarly in rural China women are careful about their visibility on social media, because there is a feeling that simply being on social media might have associations that are less respectable. They use online spaces for the reinvention of traditional relationships based on Confucian ideals. Women and men publicly share material, which portrays what they see as proper family relationships, including pictures of children, parents or happy spouses, as well as memes with romantic messages. Although privately some men who frequently visit towns, have used location-based friend-finding services to organise extra-marital affairs.

Transforming males

So social media can have both conservative and transformative consequences for the portrayal of gender. An unusual example of the latter was encountered in our industrial China fieldsite, where the status of males has declined relative to females since the latter are the preferred workforce in factories. While men have retained a more traditional masculine character where they appear strong and resilient offline, when it comes to online, men are experimenting with much softer profiles concerned with love and sensitivity and sometimes they even take on the persona of women.

So if we return to the initial discussion, we find that social media has been used both for reproducing and also for transforming traditional gender roles and distinctions. The main discovery has been that these can be simultaneous and that they occur often in quite unpredictable and diverse ways that only make sense within the specific context in which we encounter them.

By now there is a clear generalisation apparent about the way private social media challenges traditional gender norms and constraints. Does this also apply in your own region?

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This article is from the free online course:

Why We Post: the Anthropology of Social Media

UCL (University College London)

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