Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Online Community: Still a Sausage Factory?

This morning the NY Times reports on a study released by the University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future, in which men and women were polled about their feelings about online connections vs. real-world connections. According to the poll's findings, 60.3% of men value their online connections as highly as their offline connections, as opposed to just 47% of women. Men are also three times as likely to say that commitment to their online connections forces them to cut back on time spent with offline associates -- 21.5% of men vs. 7.3% of women.

Here's a link to the original press release (PDF format).

At first blush, this falls into the category of studies that are like cotton candy: they taste good at first, but ultimately are unsatisfying. How many men and women were polled? What was the age range, and how affluent were they? The numbers don't mean much if you can't place them in context.

A bigger problem with the study, though, is that it's being presented as an emerging trend:
"Visiting online communities and social networking sites is still an evolving experience for most Internet users, but we're already seeing gender differences of this type in online use," said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future. "These experiences will be major factors in social communication as relationships over the Internet increase."

Center researchers also report emerging gender differences in web surfing frequency and online reading habits. Findings from the Center's 2008 Digital Future Project reveal that men are more likely than women to surf the web "at least daily" (53.5 to 40.5 percent).
To which I can only say, where have these guys been? I can remember a day when online communities were for all intents and purposes 100% male. A gaming clan I used to belong to had a single woman among its 50-odd members, and that fact made us notorious among rival clans. It used to be that, if you met someone online who claimed to be a woman, acted like a woman, and uploaded pictures of herself showing that she was a woman, you were still pretty sure that "she" was actually a dude.

Interpretation always depends on your choice of baseline. If you posit -- as the authors of this study apparently did -- some mythical starting point in which men and women were perfectly equal in their likelihood to form online connections, then 60% to 47% looks like a worrying trend: we're throwing a party but no one's on the dance floor and the women are already starting to leave. If, however, your baseline is the actual history of online communities in this country, these numbers start to look a little different. 60% to 47% still looks like an emerging trend, but the trend line is moving in the opposite direction: far more women today are actively socializing online than in the past.

So, yes -- online communities are still numerically dominated by men. But, if this study has anything to teach us, it's that women are starting to show up in real numbers. Let's get this party started.