Gender, Sexual Identity, and Emoticons

Posted: September 29, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

The two articles that draw attention today are “Gender and Sexual Identity Authentication in Language Use: the case of chat rooms” by Marisol Del-Teso-Craviotto and  “Emotional Expression Online: Gender Differences in Emoticon use” by Alecia Wolf. The first of these deals with the problem that seems to keep rearing its head in my research lately: the problem of legitimization and authentication. The second touches on it, but not as directly. So I’ll get to that later.

First, Marisol Del-Teso-Craviotto’s article.To say this article was helpful for my research would be a huge understatement. There wasn’t much in here that didn’t help me. From the very beginning, when she writes that “The absence of visual and aural cues downplays particpants’ biological bodies, and thus greatly reduces the amount of personal informationa vailable in the [computer mediated] interactions” (251), I knew I had something that I could use. But I went to it thinking I could just find a few juicy quotes, support for ideas I already had, and then I’d move on.

But then she said “In chat rooms, the issue of authenticity has often been raised in regards to the truthfulness of the identities displayed in the rooms, taking’true identity’ as a match between the ‘real’ offline identity and the ‘virtual’ online one” (252). Well, that’s the big issue right there, put very clearly and succinctly. But why is it so important? Because “the process by which dating chat particpants present themselves as gendered and sexual beings constitute linguistic performances that are context-bound and locally managed, and, at the same time, are informed by social and cultural discources of what it means to be a gendered and sexual being” (252). So legitimization is important because the way we present ourselves online is performative, and they inform what we mean by gender and sexuality? Interesting. Tell me more.

And she does. She tells me that “online environments have offered a space for challenging traditional gendered practices and ideologies, and experimenting with different gender identities” (253), showing why these examinations are so important. When someone takes on a different gender identity online (engaging in ‘Netvestism’ if you will), they do so as a means of experimentation, which could help to not only understand dominant ideologies, but to challenge and even change them.

And authentication is an important part of that. Participation in a chat room requires being accepted as an authentic member of that room’s group, which in turn means a certain understanding of that group. Del-Taso-Craviotto writes that “the authentication of the participants’ gender and sexual identity is a performative act acheived through different linguistic strategies” (256). Well, as we’ve seen, looking at gender as a performative act seems like a good idea, and now it looks like we’re going to get a how to.

The question that comes to mind, though, is why we would want to do it?  Del-Taso-Craviotto tells us that “While gender and sexual categories and identities are normally conceptualized as based on the biological body, in text-based chat rooms there is no physical space that the bodies of the particpants can inhabit” which is good, because it removes all the gender and sexuality cues attached to the physical body,  and so “the variety of ways used to signal a gender identity in dating chat rooms is not only intended to index the gender of the ‘real’ person but also to create a persona, an online alter ego that may or may not share the identity of its offline counterpart” (256). Online, there is the opportunity to create a completely different identity. And why? Because part of the point, part of the exploration, is to create a persona, that alter ego who may be different from the real thing.

As for how to do it, one of the first things to consider is the screen name. “In general, we could think of screen names as standing for the body when it comes to attraction, since screen names offer one of the first impressions participants get of other participants” (257). So the screen name, be it “HotChick92” or “leslielovescocoa” or whatever, gives first impressions, just as a body would. Does this mean that there are, in fact, nonverbal cues online? I think so, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, let’s remember that “Given the lack of visual and aural cues in the medium, the range of personal images people can create has fewer limitations than in face-to-face encounters” (258), so even if there is an online body, it is one that can be consciously constructed.

In order to build these identities, we need to display gendered behaviors, like the use of emoticons, which seem to be used more frequently by women than men (259), or how men are more likely than women to want to speak privately, using the public room just as a starting point (262). However it is done, it should be remembered that “Gender and sexual identities are saturated with meaning, so even subtle references can be enough to evoke masculine and feminine images” (266); in other words, the gender performance must be continuous, because there are subtle cues that will authenticate a person as one gender or another (or another), and those cues must be considered.

What kinds of subtle cues? One that was suggested was emoticon use. For that, we look to Alecia Wolf’s article. She talks about emoticons, giving a brief history of their existence; supposedly the first ones were used as early as 1980 (828), and have grown in variety, but remain something that should not be overused, thus serving to further mute female users (829).

Wolf’s study shows that women use emoticons more than twice as often as men (830), particularly in mixed groups, usually to express humor. Men, on the other hand, tend to use them to express teasing and sarcasm (831). Interestingly, both men and women tend to use more emoticons in mixed company than they do in gender homogonous groups. In fact, men use emoticons so much more frequently in mixed groups that they tend to use almost as many as women do (832).

So it’s not exactly that women use more emoticons than men. They do, but only when alone. Once men and women are together, they tend to use the same number, though for different reasons. Maybe this is, as Wolf suggests, because of a change in the definition of ’emotion’ to include things like sarcasm (832), or maybe there’s another reason. Can’t really be sure, but this study is pretty suggestive of where to go from here. So I still think it’s useful, even if the result is in the “yeah, kinda, I guess. But no.” camp.

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