Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs
Susan C. Herring, Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah L. Wright, Indiana University at Bloomington
Women and young people are key actors in the history and present use of weblogs, yet that reality is masked by public discourses about blogging that privilege the activities of a subset of adult male bloggers. In engaging in the practices described in this essay, participants in such discourses do not appear to be seeking consciously to marginalize females and youth. Rather, journalists are following “newsworthy” events, scholars are orienting to the practices of the communities under investigation, bloggers are linking to popular sites, and blog historians are recounting what they know from first-hand experience. At the same time, by privileging filter blogs, public discourses about blogs implicitly evaluate the activities of adult males as more interesting, important and/or newsworthy than those of other blog authors.
Many of these participants (including most of the journalists) are themselves female. Nonetheless, it is hardly a coincidence that all of these practices reinscribe a public valuing of behaviors associated with educated adult (white) males, and render less visible behaviors associated with members of other demographic groups. This outcome is consistent with cultural associations between men and technology, on the one hand (Wajcman, 1991), and between what men do and what is valued by society (the “Androcentric Rule”; Coates, 1993). As Wajcman (p.11) notes, “qualities associated with manliness are almost everywhere more highly regarded than those thought of as womanly.” In this case, discourse practices that construct weblogs as externally-focused, substantive, intellectual, authoritative, and potent (in the sense of both “influential” and “socially transformative”) map readily on to Western cultural notions of white collar masculinity (Connell, 1995), in contrast to the personal, trivial, emotional, and ultimately less important communicative activities associated with women (cf. “gossip”). Such practices work to relegate the participation of women and other groups to a lower status in the technologically-mediated communication environment that is the blogosphere, and more generally, to reinforce the societal status quo.
. . .In keeping with the Androcentric Rule, male authors historically have been more highly valued than female authors (Spender, 1989). Moreover, personal journal-writing, traditionally associated with women, is generally not considered “serious” writing (Culley, 1985; McNeill, 2003). This may explain why weblogs are being discursively constructed so as to exclude women and young people (also assumed to be incapable of “serious” writing), and why journal-style blogs receive little attention despite being the most popular form of blogging for all demographic groups.
We began this essay with an apparent paradox: Why, given that there are many female and teen bloggers, do public discourses about weblogs focus predominantly on adult males? The observation that men are more likely than women and teens to create filter blogs provides a key: It is filter blogs that are privileged, consistent with the notion that the activities of educated, adult males are viewed by society as more interesting and important than those of other demographic groups. However, the blogs featured in contemporary public discourses about blogging are the exception, rather than the rule: all the available evidence suggests that blogs are more commonly a vehicle of personal expression than a means of filtering content on the Web, for all demographic groups including adult males. It follows that more attention needs to be paid to “typical” blogs and the people who create them in order to understand the real motivations, gratifications, and societal effects of this growing practice. This would require advancing a broader conception of weblogs that takes into account the activities of diverse blog authors, considering personal journaling as a human, rather than exclusively a gendered or age-related activity, and conducting research on weblogs produced by women and teens, both for their inherent interest and to determine what differences, if any, exist among groups of bloggers.
Are weblogs inherently “democratizing,” in the sense of giving voice to diverse populations of users? The empirical findings reported for gender and age at the beginning of this essay suggest that they are. Yet public commentators on weblogs, including many bloggers themselves, collude in reproducing gender and age-based hierarchy in the blogosphere, demonstrating once again that even an open access technology—and high hopes for its use—cannot guarantee socially equitable outcomes in a society that continues to embrace hierarchical values.