From Mashable - by Jessica Faye Carter
Jessica Faye Carter is an award-winning author and columnist. Her company, Nette Media develops social media technologies for women and multicultural communities, and she blogs at Technicultr.
A few months ago, I wrote about how social media presents women with increased opportunities for influence and professional development. In the comments, I found a number of commenters (both men and women) who relegated women’s interest in social media to superficial reasons like “girl talk” or women’s natural abilities as “connectors.” I pushed back against those characterizations because I thought they were too superficial and limiting only to have one commenter suggest that there was no shame in women’s natural social skills.
This explanation was a bit too surface for me, so I set out to understand more about the reasons why women are such avid users of social media beyond the fact that it’s an opportunity to be social. My interest in the subject wasn’t just in defense of my own ideas; I instinctively felt that there was more to explore about women’s interest in social technologies. The level of female involvement struck me: of the 87 million women active on the Internet (Internet) in the U.S., an estimated 67.5 million women are engaged with social media. And by now you’ve probably heard that women are now the majority of social media users on sites like Facebook (Facebook), Twitter (Twitter), and MySpace (MySpace). This level of engagement indicates that there’s more to the story than just simple enjoyment of social interaction.
What I discovered might surprise you. It turns out that sociolinguists have found women to be innovators when it comes to communication, especially with new forms of languages. The shift from “ye” to “you” in 15th Century England? Women were behind it. Common phrases such as, “Like, ohmigod,” known as Valley Girl uptalk, were started by young women from California. And in the mid-20th century a group of young women from Oberwart, Austria shifted the primary language of a bilingual community from Hungarian to German, which was a powerful move in a community that had resisted the influence of the German language for close to 400 years.
Today, women are continuing this linguistic innovation by adopting social media, a sort of hybrid of written and spoken language, and a perfect example of the kind of new linguistic form that women flock toward.
One reason for women’s interest in social media has to do with its symbolic capital, and what it represents in our culture. As language changes often signify underlying social change (think tutoiement in the French Revolution), people adopting emerging forms of communication like social media, are also embracing the consonant social identities. Social media represents an identity that is modern, connected, and a little bit daring. It’s an identity that is understood to be comfortable with a certain amount of transparency, promotes information, and has a global outlook, as technology crosses geographic boundaries. It is participative in nature, and this opportunity to add new layers to their identities is part of what makes social media so attractive to women.
The other reason is more pragmatic: social media offers benefits and improvements to a woman’s quality of life. Whether it’s adding convenience to a work arrangement, harnessing information for decision-making, managing relationships, or juggling a variety of other responsibilities, social tools provide a convenient and efficient way for women to manage the various aspects of their lives. The practical benefits that social media affords, combined with its emotionally fulfilling features make it likely that women will not only continue to engage with social media, but with future related innovations, as well.
By now, you’re probably thinking that the emotional and practical benefits that women find attractive about social media are also attractive to men, and you’re right. These factors explain, at least in part, why women are engaging with social media, but we’ll need to go further to understand why more women than men are using social media. To answer that question, we’ll need to revisit the issue of social change.
Social Media & Social Change
As I noted earlier, language changes (or the introduction of linguistic variants, like social media) are symbolic of social change. What social media symbolizes is increased access to both information and platforms to express ideas. It has opened the door for new leaders, experts, and voices, and can help get them a “seat at the table.” Women stand to benefit from this type of social change more than men because women generally have less access to influential networks and leadership roles in society than men do. We sometimes forget that despite considerable progress, women continue to confront numerous inequities and considerable marginalization from influence in our society. It is precisely these challenges that fuel women’s greater interest in social media and social change.
Understanding the underlying reasons for women’s engagement with social media gives the discussion of women and emerging technologies an entirely new flavor. It’s not about a communication style that is unique to women, nor is it based on some supposedly evolutionary instincts that women possess. It’s about engaging women across the various layers of identity that they carry. Female consumers are not monolithic: they hail from diverse ethnic backgrounds and countries, have varied familial structures, do or don’t have children, have a range of education levels, and share many other differentials.
By recognizing women as complete people, and not just as limited stereotypes, and by understanding that their interest in emerging technologies is a reflection of the various aspects of their identities, is a useful starting point for organizations that hope to reach and engage women online.
Now that’s “girl talk” that I can get used to.