Cyberspace is not a physical space. You cannot enter it physically. However, we experience it as if it were just another place we can go to, enter, and spend time in it. We use expressions like “I visited Twitter or Instagram.” In our experience, Cyberspace is a world filled with places we can visit and meet other people in each one of them. In fact, many of us spend more time in Cyberspace than in any other place. This is because we can be there while being physically in any real-world place. This also means that we socialize with people in Cyberspace more than we do in real-world places, even those we know in the real world, family, coworkers, and friends.
Cyberspace is such a place that is also a social space, just like one’s family home, school, or workplace. Each of us can realize that in each of these places, we are slightly or maybe considerably a different person. We don’t behave in our workplace as we do at home. Whether consciously or not we navigate between different personalities as we navigate between various places, or to be more precise, as we navigate different social spaces.
What we call “personality” is the visible interface of our identity. As we navigate seamlessly between different personalities we present or perform different identities. These identities are all gendered, for gender constitutes a huge part of “what we are,” that is what we and others think we are, or how we and others perceive our identities. Others perceive most if not all of our physical or social characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, verbal, and gesture expressions, etc., through the lens of the gender they believe we are.
As simple as the above conversation might seem, it glosses over many controversial details. For instance, while nobody would argue against the idea that we present different personalities as we move from one space to the other, most people will still believe that inherently, or deep inside, each is the same person. In other words, most people believe that no matter how many personalities one may present to others, there is one which is our true self. However, the generally accepted scientific view is that our very own perceptions of our true identities are themselves socially constructed. The process through which we acquire our identities, including our gender identities, continues throughout our lives. Depending on the weight of influencing factors of social interactions we engage in, changes to our identities might be so minor and negligible, or they might be significant.
This paper depends on scientific evidence to argue that given that Cyberspace can be proven to be a social space, it can be safely assumed that it impacts the constitution of gender identities of people interacting with each other within it. It also depends on empirical evidence from previous research that studied gender practices online, especially later research focusing on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Next, the paper moves on to examine different examples of gender-specific practices and presentations as they developed throughout the last three decades. This highlights the fact that under the influence of Cyberspace mediated communications (CMC) the way people expressed their gender online has changed. In its conclusion, the paper discusses the question of whether the socialization processes within Cyberspace may be considered empowering for women or otherwise.
The Social Space is a concept of sociology that allows the study of social interactions specific to a group of people whose membership in this group is predicated on specific conditions as well as being required to obey a set of norms to gain the perceived benefits of their membership in the group. Examples of real-life social spaces are the family, the school, the workplace, etc. People constituting a family, those belonging to a school (students, teachers, and the rest of the school staff), or belonging to a workplace are examples of groups whose interactions can be studied using the social space concept. A very close, if not identical, concept is the social field as introduced by the French sociologist and thinker Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu’s fields theory goes deep into objectifying the positions people assume and the relationships they have with each other within a field. Part of the discussion of this paper is informed by this theory.
One more concept that is of great importance for this paper’s discussion is Socialization, which is the process through which an individual learns and internalizes the behavioral norms and cultural practices, and values of their society. Through socialization, people acquire identities intelligible in their society. This intelligibility is necessary for survival in a society or any of its sub-social spaces. The learning and internalization processes of socialization are constitutive of an individual’s identity or to be more precise identities. Most important among the individual’s identities are their sexual and gender identities. Like other identities, gender identity is constituted and one’s perception of it is constructed through social interactions within the different social spaces they navigate throughout their life.
Being a learning process means that socialization is an ongoing process that ends only when an individual’s life ends. It doesn’t however mean that Socialization is a one-way process. Recent studies are more of the view that Socialization is a negotiation process in which an individual plays an active role and vis-à-vis their group. This makes sense as socialization is more of a group process in which every member of the group both teaches and is taught by other members of the group. The extent to which an individual assumes the role of teacher or pupil depends on many factors though seniority and power relations defined by the social space structure/positionings play the most important part.
A social space is a governing context within which socialization processes take place. This is why these processes are defined by their parent social space.
Cyberspace as a social space
Cyberspace has rather loose membership or entry conditions. Generally speaking, it requires nothing more than access to the Internet. Nowadays this doesn’t really say a lot about a person. The majority of the world’s population today has access to the Internet. Accordingly, Cyberspace is more like a society when we consider it as a social space, that is to say, it is more of a container of child social spaces with more specific socialization processes that lend themselves more easily to being objects of study. Like real-life societies, however, Cyberspace still has general characteristics common to all its subspaces, which allow some sort of unified experience throughout them.
The first characteristic of Cyberspace as a social space is that all communications and interactions among people within it are computer-mediated. By a computer here we mean any device with processing capabilities that can connect to the Internet. By this definition personal computers (desktops, laptops, and tablets) as well as smartphones and TVs are computers. Entry into Cyberspace requires owning or having access to at least one of such devices. As mentioned above, this no longer constitutes a barrier for a majority of the world’s population as far as affordability is considered. However, technical expertise in using computers varies widely and considerably impacts how individuals can navigate the different subspaces of Cyberspace and how they can interact with others in these subspaces. Specifically, as Cyberspace has become increasingly multi-modal, i.e. allows the use of media of communications other than text, devices connecting to the Internet have become more and more complicated, and controlling one’s presence online has become an involving process. This contradicts the popular view that computers have become more user-friendly. In fact, the user-friendly interfaces through which people interact with their computers and devices are maintained by hiding away the complicated details at the expense of depriving the user of real control over the device.
This, usually overlooked, aspect of people’s experience of Cyberspace space is quite important in our discussion. While the gender gap for accessing the Internet has been already closed in large areas of the globe and is fast closing in other areas of it, the technical expertise gender gap is far from being closed. When this is coupled with the fact that maintaining digital security is still dependent on the user’s technical expertise, this is actually a hidden and understudied factor of why Cyberspace is still not safe enough for most girls and women.
Another characteristic of Cyberspace is the fact that people interacting within it are more in control of the way they present themselves to others. One can choose to post this or that photo of themself either with or without retouching, tell this or that real or totally fabricated information about themself, and set up this or that aspect of a recorded or live video, etc. This characteristic of Cyberspace interactions is very important when it comes to the options available for its population for constructing and presenting their own online identities as well as the way this is reflected in how they come to perceive these identities and other people’s identities both online and in real life.1
Development of Online Gender Expression
Three main stages can be defined for the development of online gender expression that match developments of Internet technologies and uses. The first stage is what might be called the pre-history and the ancient Internet. It is the time that starts when the Internet didn’t exist with this name and continues till the creation of the Web. ARPANET the American Department of Defence network has almost no women connected to it. The scarcity of women connected to the Internet continued into the early 1990s when women constituted only 5% of Internet users. This changed with the advent of the second stage, starting with the commercial boom of the Internet in the mid-nineties. In 2000, women connected to the Internet in the United States were actually more than men. This of course wasn’t the case in other areas of the world. The third stage starts with the advent of Web 2.0 and interactive sites, blogs, and social media platforms. This, coupled with the spread of smart mobile phones, marked a beginning of a revolution of online social interactions.
Online gender expression throughout the above-mentioned stages was marked by perpetuating most of the social gender stereotypes prevalent in real-world societies. In the first stage as per controlled experiments, men dominated the interaction in discussion groups, even when anonymity was maintained. Several research experiments and surveys at the time found that men tend to be aggressive, especially toward women. Other gender differences included the tendency of men to post longer messages and to challenge others. In contrast, women posted short messages and aligned themselves with others. On the other hand, it was noticed that the majority had an effect on behavior. In mixed groups with a clear majority of men, women tended to be more aggressive. On the opposite side, in mixed groups with a clear majority of women, men tended to align themselves with others rather than being challenging.2
Studies carried out during the second stage found little change in difference based on gender. Men continued to be dominant in mixed online spaces.3 However, professional women on specialized sites dedicated to their profession were found to alternate using counter and aligned discourses.4 In a study that observed social interactions in two teenage chat rooms, researchers found that girls were sexually assertive while still tending to use sexually implicit expressions compared to boys who were more explicit.5 Women tended to use much more emoticons and exclamation marks.
The third stage witnessed the move toward the dominance of multimodal communications in Cyberspace. Additionally, the Internet became the dominant communications medium and a new generation of young men and women was brought up in a world where the Internet became a part of everyday life and constituted the majority of Internet users. These factors led to noticeable changes in online gender expressions. People, in general, tend to divulge more personal information publicly through social spaces. However, girls and women tend to post more personal stuff to their accounts on social media platforms than men. Photos and videos became dominant tools for self-presentation online. Again, girls and women tend to post more photos and videos of themselves than men.
A trend was noticed especially in online game spaces in which users are represented by 3D avatars, where females prefer to use and even design avatars with emphasized and exaggerated bodily sex characteristics.6 This complements other research studies that reported the trend of women using sexualized pictures for their home pages.7 Self-sexualization and self-commodification are noticed to become sort of the norm for girls and women online. Girls and young women are increasingly posting personal photos and videos where they wear revealing clothes, talk, behave, or dance in a sexually provocative manner. The fact that this trend accompanied the move to monetization of online content creation emphasizes the self-commodification explanation of it.
It can, however, be argued that self-sexualization breaking the norms of compulsory modesty imposed on girls and women can be viewed as self-empowerment practice. This is reinforced by other gender expressions that also break the norms of modesty without actually being suspected of sexual provocativeness like the explicit mention of menstruation, and using explicit colloquial vocabulary when referring to genitals. Such gender expressions are empowering in the sense that women find it no longer acceptable to be implicit about their femininity as if it was something to hide out of shame. Being explicit about their sexuality may fall within the self-empowering gender expressions in this sense.
The role of algorithms
Scanning content on some online platform within a specific period of time to isolate gender expressions may accurately reveal the distribution of these expressions across different categories such as traditional stereotypes vs deviations from and challenges to them. This distribution however wouldn’t reflect the actual experiences of the platform’s users, as the content each is exposed to depends on many factors other than the overall gender expressions produced. These factors include whose accounts a user chooses to follow, but a factor of increasing influence is online platforms’ content moderation and promotion policies. This factor plays a decisive role in determining what gender expressions a user may be exposed to. Additionally, the content moderation and promotion processes have become mostly automated through algorithms. Accordingly, algorithms “exert a profound influence on how gender is experienced, processed, and recirculated.”8
A trend that has grown in dominance with the emergence of Tik Tok has shifted the weight of the content users are exposed to from that created by people and entities they follow to content selected for them by the platform’s algorithms based on how these algorithms profile them, their preferences and their previous interactions. This trend has led in the last few years to algorithms having even more influence over what content users are more likely to be exposed to.
One of the earliest studies about algorithms bias was carried out by Safiya Umoja Noble. In her book “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism”, Noble has shown that Google’s search algorithms prioritized results that reflect discriminatory gender and racial stereotypes, so a search for “women of color” had returned first overly sexualized and pornographic content. In Noble’s view, algorithms bias is rooted in the design and training processes that is carried out by predominantly male white software developers. The lack of women and people of color in high-ranking influencing positions in big tech companies makes it more difficult to rectify this bias. Noble cites Heather Hiles, a former CEO of a tech company, who argues that “it’s a system in Silicon Valley that isn’t set up to develop, encourage and create pathways for Blacks, Latinos or women.9
In a commentary, Jonathan Schroeder (2020) accuses online social media platforms algorithms of going against the cultural shifts towards an understanding of gender free of the male/female duality, working instead to reinstate the stereotypical notions of gender. He cites a field study by Anja Lambrecht and Catherine E. Tucker where an Ad of job opportunities in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields designed specifically to be gender-neutral was delivered to several social media platforms. The study found that the Ad was shown to women considerably less than it was shown to men across several social media platforms. This wasn’t due to that women were less likely to engage with the Ad, as it was shown that on the contrary, they were more likely to click it than men. The study has found that the reason why women were shown the Ad less than men was that women as a demographic group are a more valued target of online advertisements. Accordingly, advertisers compete harder for a place on women’s timelines, which leads to crowding out gender-neutral Ads.10
Has Cyberspace helped gaining on gender equality?
The plain short answer is “No, it has not.” A longer more nuanced answer would be that the evidence is rather mixed with most of it leaning toward reporting that gender stereotypes are more perpetuated and even reinforced than challenged online. Sexist and misogynistic expressions are prevalent online. These in themselves are gender expressions consolidating gender inequality by terrorizing women into submissive behavior in fear of being targeted by online bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual violence.
Taking the latest developments in Cyberspace into consideration it appears that it is currently more of a force for reinstating traditional gender stereotypes rather than the contrary. The greater influence algorithms have gained and the fact that they are designed mainly to serve maximizing profits leads to promoting content that reflects gender stereotypes. This happens because giant companies can always offer the highest bid for promoting their advertisements. As these companies had long invested in tailoring their products according to gender segregation with each industry more specialized in catering to one gender or the other, they tend to emphasize gender stereotypes in their messages. The same companies invest in the new influencers economy by sponsoring those who more reflect gender stereotypes.
Cyberspace will not bring about the disruption of gender norms and stereotypes by virtue of its characteristics as utopian dreamers of the early days of the Internet evangelized. However, it still has the potential of being used as a tool for achieving this end. This would require a great deal of organized online activism that shouldn’t seek to guide or reorient girls’ and women’s gender expressions but rather seeks to re-appropriate them in an empowering manner. Some online gender expression trends that seem to reinforce gender stereotypes have solicited aggressive backlash from society and state institutions, especially in third-world countries with prevalent conservative leanings. That is because while reinforcing stereotypes about women’s sexualization and commodification they challenged deep-rooted norms concerning women’s ownership of their own bodies. Focusing on this aspect and its likes of such online gender expressions can encourage discussions of foundational societal pillars of gender inequality, revealing their inner contradictions.
This paper has sought to offer an overview of how Cyberspace affects social interactions and practices through which individuals construct and perceive their gender identities as well as negotiate their perception by others. A theoretical background explained the basis of the potential effect of Cyberspace as a social space on the construction of gender identities. The paper also offered a brief exploration of the research findings about online gender expressions throughout the three stages of Internet development. Finally, the question of whether Cyberspace does or can help accomplish gender equality was considered.
1 Selfe, Cynthia L., and Paul R. Meyer. 1991. “Testing Claims for Online Conferences.” Written Communication, 8(2): 163–192.
2 Herring, Susan C. 1993. “Gender and Democracy in Computer-Mediated Communication.” Electronic Journal of Communication, 3(2). At http://www.cios.org/EJCPUBLIC/003/2/00328.HTML
3 Koch, Sabine C., Barbara Mueller, Lenelis Kruse, and Joerg Zumbach. 2005. “Constructing Gender in Chat Groups.” Sex Roles, 53(1–2): 29–41.
4 Bucholtz, Mary. 2002. “Geek Feminism.” In Sarah Benor, Mary Rose, Devyani Sharma, Julie Sweetland, and Qing Zhang (eds.), Gendered Practices in Language, 277–307. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
5 Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, David Smahel, and Patricia M. Greenfield. 2006. “Connecting Developmental Constructions to the Internet: Identity Presentation and Sexual Exploration in Online Teen Chat Rooms.” Developmental Psychology, 42(3): 395–406.
6 Kolko, Beth. 1999. “Representing Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design.” The Information Society, 15: 177 – 186.
7 Blair, Kristine, and Pamela Takayoshi. 1999. “Mapping the Terrain of Feminist Cyberscapes.” In Kristine Blair and Pamela Takayoshi (eds.), Feminist Cyberscapes: Mapping Gendered Academic Spaces, 1–18. Stamford, CT: Ablex.
8 Schroeder, Jonathan. “Reinscribing Gender: Social Media, Algorithms, Bias.” Journal of Marketing Management 37 (October 14, 2020): 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2020.1832378.
9 Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
10 Lambrecht, Anja, and Catherine E. Tucker. “Algorithmic Bias: An Empirical Study into Apparent Gender-Based Discrimination in the Display of STEM Career Ads.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY, March 9, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2852260.