Friday, December 30, 2005

Gender and Web Use

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has just released a new report on gender differences in the use of the Internet. It is fascinating to analyze the way this report is discussed in the popular media. Here are some tidbits:

Deborah Fallows, senior research fellow at Pew and author of the study, told the Chicago Sun-Times, "There has been a 'feminization' [of the Net] in the sense that women took a different fork in the Internet road from men. Men use and appreciate the Internet more for the experiences it offers -- to do things -- and women use it and appreciate it more for the human connections they build."

Steve Jones, an Internet researcher and communication professor based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the report demonstrates that "Net users are not some kind of monolithic 'them' and the Internet is not just a giant mass medium. The Internet is a multi-medium, which men and women use differently."

Fallows expected that the Net would free the sexes to behave in "unstereotypical ways," such as men acting more "touch-feely" and women being more comfortable exploring new technologies.

But she said online behavior reflects traditional offline behavior among the sexes. Women like to go online to use e-mail to nurture and build personal relationships, look for health information, get support for health and personal problems, and to pursue religious interests. Meanwhile, men go online to check the weather, read news, get do-it-yourself information, check sports scores, investigate products and download music.

Fallows found that women like to use the Net to send e-mail and e-cards and are pulling ahead of men in use of instant messaging and text messaging on cell phones, while men are more likely to use online chats and discussion groups and to make Net-based phone calls.

Or this one:

"If there is an overall pattern of differences here, it is that men value the Internet for the breadth of experiences it offers, and women value it for the human connections," Fallows said.

And then we generalize one more step and come up with this headline:

Men want facts, women seek relations on Web - survey

Interesting. Let's see what the study actually says, what the basis for these generalizations might be. I am going to do something that is not usually done with studies which analyze gender: I am going to give you a small example of all the things in which no gender differences were found by the researchers, and this is only a tiny sample. You can pick almost any table in the study and find only one or two statistically significant gender differences.

Here it goes:
Men and women are equally likely to log on from work, to have internet sessions of varying length, to access the net daily or only every few weeks, to have dial-up at home or at work. Men and women are equally likely to use a search engine, to get information on hobbies, to get travel information, to buy a product on the Internet, to buy or make travel reservations, to watch videos or to listen to audios, to visit a government website, to look up phone numbers or addresses, to take a virtual tour, to instant message, to bank, to play online games, to get information on where to live, to get information on someone, to share files, to read a blog, to download computer games, to donate to charity, to send e-invitations, to create a blog, to take classes for credit, to play lottery or gamble and to order from spam.

And this is just from the first section of the study report. But because the purpose of the study is to find differences, differences are all we are going to hear about.

Let's look at the difference which became that last headline I quoted, the one about men wanting facts and women seeking relationships on the net. Here is what the study says on this question:

More men, 30%, than women, 25%, said the internet helped them a lot to learn more about what was going on, while more women, 56%, than men, 50%, said it helped them connect with people they needed to reach. These differences are statistically significant.

The results are statistically significant, yes, but are they practically significant? We are not talking about all men looking for facts and all women looking to connect; we are finding a fairly small percentage difference in the answers of men and women to questions about facts vs. connections.

And this difference of roughly five percent becomes....what? It seems that it becomes a wholesale judgement on all women and all men who use the net.

For the sake of fairness I should note that the contents of this quote are not the sole basis of the researchers' conclusion that men prefer facts and women connections. They also use the small percentage differences in various answers to e-mail questions. And a biased way of viewing what "facts" might be, I might add. After all, seeking support for a health problem on the net does not preclude also learning many useful facts from the very same support group. Likewise, action and relationships in general are really not mutually exclusive categories that can be easily assigned to male or female interests. Mostly they overlap. Just think of sex. Well, think of sex after you finish reading my post.

I very much doubt that Deborah Fallows, the senior researcher of this study, actually expected not to find what she "found", for it is her interpretation of the findings more than the findings itself that cause the impression of greater sex differences than actually exist. The only really sizeable difference* in the whole study is in the percentage of men and women who use the net to find sports scores, by the way.
*On second reading I found another largish difference in the percentages of men and women looking up financial information on the net.