Recently, Bust editor Debbie Stoller compared Facebook to "passing notes," a girlish form, she said. She's not the only one who sees it that way.
Forbes has published a pretty comprehensive report on men and women's behaviors in social media, interviewing experts both on the form and on gender and communication. The conclusion? Men mostly use sites like Facebook and Twitter to "build status" and share information.
Women are the majority of users on many of the biggest social networking sites, including Twitter, MySpace, Bebo and Flickr. Men, meanwhile, are most active on sites like Digg, YouTube and LinkedIn, which are more content-oriented and promotional than discussion-based.
However, women don't just visit different sites from men, they use social media differently than men. Experts believe the difference between how men and women operate online mirror their motivations offline. While women often use online social networking tools to make connections and share items from their personal lives, men use them as means to gather information and increase their status.
We should all be skeptical whenever an "expert" says what men and women do as if it's an immutable fact. And yet there are very real signs that many women and men are using these media differently. Why are there so few women using Digg and sites like it? Is the heavy use of Facebook by women some sort of confirmation that we're the more "social" gender? And is it holding women back from mobilizing the same career advancement that some men are drawing from their time spent online?
The Forbes article leaves the door open that this is learned behavior, quoting Sherry Perlmutter Bowen, a professor of gender and communication:
"Girls and boys are often raised in two distinct cultures where they learn different rules and norms for behavior and talk: Girls learn to build relationships by sharing social information. Boys learn to compare and compete with others, always striving for more success."
There's no reason to think these tendencies should necessarily stop online; there may be a chance to build a culture from scratch, but so far the Internet often simply perpetuates the ones we already have. How much of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, one pink-themed site after another creating an expectation of the weaker sex trading tips on nail polish instead of stocks? And social media can clearly create its own form of group pressure: if everyone in your network is communicating in a certain way, it's easy to follow the cues.
So let's say it's true that women mostly use social media to share experiences — and, as the Forbes article has a duty to point out, be marketed to — and men to post on news sites and promote their careers. If we critique this as something that perpetuates women's exclusion from influence and power, are we internalizing the belief that if a woman does something, it's necessarily inferior?