Special Session Summary Introducing Gender Into the Analysis of Techno-Consumption

Susan Dobscha, Bentley College
[ to cite ]:
Susan Dobscha (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Introducing Gender Into the Analysis of Techno-Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 91-93.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 91-93



Susan Dobscha, Bentley College

Technology has proliferated every realm of the cultural landscape, from the boardroom to the bedroom. Technology has changed everything from the way we think about conception to the way we find mates to the way we teach our children about the world. Broadly defined, technology is the "tools, devices or systems designed to help users carry out specific tasks (Koerber 2000)." We narrow this definition to include three forms of "techno-consumption": the production and use of new technologies, such as computer software and video games, the creation of personal web pages for public consumption, and the participation in computer-mediated communities, such as consumer or brand forums. Gender is a major discursive element in this new technocultural landscape.

This session supported the belief that "certain technologies have the power to define the way we think about ourselves as humans and, therefore, to influence how we think about gender (Koerber 2000)." If technology is "inextricably linked to particular patterns of power and authority" and reflective of the human condition in which it developed and used, then naturally gender emerges as a powerful context in which to critique and interpret techno-consumption. Therefore, the following questions were posed in this session:

* What types of gender identity are expressed through techno-consumption?

* Does techno-consumption reflect the gender dynamics that exist within society? Or does it create an opportunity to contest the current gender order?

* How is gender negotiated within a technological landscape fraught with gender stereotypes?

This session serves to challenge the prevailing meta-discourse in consumer behavior that seems to conceive of technology as gender-neutral and therefore, renders it immune to the usual critiques (Fisher and Bristor 1993; Hirschman 1993; Murray and Ozanne 1991; Stern 1993). While some consumer researchers have challenged the culture-neutrality of technology (Mick and Fournier 1998; Thompson 1994), few have examined closely the gendered nature of technological products and computer-mediated communications.

In the first paper, Brumbaugh and Gravois Lee examine the children’s computer game market to determine whether children’s play styles are reflected in development, thus explaining why boys’ games outnumber girls’ 2 to 1. Lee and Brumbaugh assert that toy manufacturers are merely reflecting the values inherent in technology (which have historically been male-centered) and therefore create software titles more in line with boys’ interests.

While Lee and Brumbaugh confront the gendered nature of children’s techno-consumption, Kozinets et al. examine the role gender plays in the formation and participation in certain consumption-based online communities. Applying discursive analysis to computer-mediated communications, the authors find that gendered communication emerges within consumption-oriented communities where the product or service can be characterized as "male" or "female." Their analysis concludes that the texts created by forums that focus on a traditionally female product (in this case, cat enthusiasts) reflect female communications styles and male forums reflect male communications styles, thus transcending and complicating the assumed "gender neutrality" of technology.

Finally, Schau and Muniz explore gender construction and maintenance within the context of personal web pages. Their research highlights the tensions that exist between one’s "real" gender identity and the identity that is created for public consumption on the web. Personal web pages more so than online communities reflect the intentional choices of their creators; thus, negotiating gender becomes a critical task. Schau and Muniz conclude that women who create personal web pages must dance a fine line between a desire to display their femininity while maintaining their status as "web-savvy" or technologically sophisticated.



Anne M. Brumbaugh, Wake Forest University

Renee Gravois Lee, Quinnipiac University

Evidence suggests that girls are underserved with respect to technology-based games (see, e.g., Borg 1999, Chaika 2001). Technology-based game platforms like Nintendo, PlayStation, Game Boy, the Game Cube, and X-Box have reached greater penetration and acceptance among boys than girls (Myers 1995). At the same time, research shows that girls are less comfortable with computers and are less likely to be interested in technology-related careers (AAUW 2000, Woodka 2001). For example, the National Science Foundation found that the percentage of computer science degrees awarded to women dropped from 37 to 27 percent between 1984 and 1997 (New York Times 2000).

Many factors have been attributed as the causes of this decline, but a recent observation suggests that the characteristics of computer games that grew exponentially in popularity over the past 15 years may have turned girls off of such games in particular, and disturbingly, technology in general (Technology Review 1993). Computer games’ emphasis on aggressive behaviors, gender-stereotyped characters, and individual (versus social) interaction are game traits that plentiful prior research on children’s play styles would suggest that girls may not find interesting.

Specifically, research has shown that girls’ play tends to be more collaborative and that girls play in small groups more than boys (Maccoby 1988). Girls’ play is based more on role-playing and pretense than boys’ play (Lindsey, Mize, and Pettit, 1997), and girls tend to exhibit more relationship-building behaviors (Leaper 1991, Maccoby 1985) than boys. In contrast, boys tend to be more aggressive and play in larger groups than girls. Their play is more physical and disruptive (DiPietro 1981), and though they may play in groups, they tend to exhibit more individualistic behaviors than girls in similar groups. Interestingly, when playing with the same toy, a stuffed clown, girls exhibit gender-traditional caretaking behaviors more than boys, who exhibit more physical play with the same doll (Cardera and Sciaraffa 1998). Toy design and advertising frequently emphasize these gender differences (Pennell 1994).

We assert that manufacturers have had an easier time creating technology-based toys for boys than for girls because boys’ play style is more consistent with the capabilities offered by such technologies. Computer technology has been characterized as an individual endeavor one performs alone, one that uses explicit rules for interaction and communication (Cooperstock et al. 1997). Ever advancing graphics capabilities provide game designers with the opportunity to create vivid action sequences, with graphics changing based on players’ input. Active, aggressive (even violent), individual, rule-based games would offer an experience consistent with boys’ play style, but inconsistent with girls’ more collaborative, social, flexible mode of play.

Therefore, in this research, we link research on gender differences in children’s play styles with the characteristics, popularity, and other features of technology-based toys. We inventory the breadth and depth of technology-based games, categorizing the sample of games on technology-related characteristics, gender-related characteristics, and other related themes. In addition, we analyze in depth a representative subsample of these games to assess the extent to which such games are consistent or inconsistent with gender-prescribed play styles. Not surprisingly, we find that the characteristics of technology-based games skew overwhelmingly male. As a consequence, consistency between game characteristics and children’s play styles exists only for boys, and this consistency encourages consumption among boys but not girls.

Based on this analysis, we offer propositions about how boys and girls will interact with technology-based games depending on the specific features of the games. Importantly, because of the inherent similarity between technology and boys’ play style, we appreciate the challenges game manufacturers and designers have in developing games that attract girls’ attention and maintain their engagement. In the interest of offering play experiences to girls that broaden their interest in and experience with technology, we offer suggestions about how to create technology-based games to attract girls as well as boys based on each gender’s preferred play style.



Rob Kozinets, Northwestern University

Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University

Miriam Catterall, The Queen’s University of Belfast

Margaret Hogg, UMIST

Given that email and various other forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have emerged as the most pervasive and compelling uses of information technology in the home (see, e.g., Kraut et al. 1998), much of the consumption of contemporary technology can also be said to be the consumption of electronically-mediated discourse. Our research stream seeks to provide an understanding of the consumption of electronically mediated discourse in online communities devoted to consumption-oriented topics. In this presentation, we identify and provide some theoretical understanding of some of the key issues pertaining to gender differences in this form of consumption.

When it comes to the consumption of CMC technology, many studies have assumed that the computer has no inherent gender bias and that CMC adheres to a democratic communication model (e.g., Turkle, 1988). This research has often highlighted the potential freedom of access and social anonymity that the Internet provides (Herring, 1993, Yates, 1993, Landow, 1993). Some of these researchers opne that the relative anonymity of the Internet’s text-based medium results in a lessening of consumption and communication inequalities based on gender, race, class and other social cues. Similarly postmodern perspectives promote the abstract concept of cyberspace and identity playfulness as escape routes from the physicality of biological sex and from the concomitant social and cultural constrictions of gender (Turkle 1995). However, research evidence to date demonstrates that, as with other technologies, the Internet is embedded in social structures and cultural processes that can never be neutral (Hock 1999).

For example, Herring’s (1993) study of web-based discussions found that males contributing to CMC disproportionately to females, that female’s messages gain fewer replies, that male postings are more likely to be information-centered, and that female postings tend to be more personal. Comparative studies of male and female discourse have often found similar differences. Male discourse has been found to be more thing-centered and aggressive, and female discourse more communal (for reviews, see, e.g., Cameron 1997, Lakoff 1990, Soukup 1999, Tannen 1984, 1994). This presentation explores and complicates these assumptions in a consumption-oriented context.

Using a combination of netnographic inquiry and discourse analysis, this current research reports findings from a longitudinal study carried out to explore discursive strategies employed in two consumption-centered online communities (for more on the importance of CMC to consumers and consumer research, see, e.g., Kozinets 1999, Muniz and O’Guinn 2001, Sherry and Kozinets 2001). The first online field site is a series of communities devoted to digital photography, with the majority of messages posted by self-identified male message posters. The second is a series of communities devoted to the care of cats, with the majority of messages posted by self-identified female posters. Our study examines the ways in which the consumption of the CMC medium differs between males and females between and within these two communities.

Netnographic studies (see Kozinets 2002) lend themselves readily to discourse analysis given the wealth of text-based data that are guaranteed. Discourse analysis is concerned primarily with the reality that texts construct, a reality that can be evaluated on its own terms (see, e.g., Hine, 2000). Discourse analysis’ central focus is on the ways in which textual contributions are justified and given authority and how authors construct and perform their identities through their postings (Hine 2000). We thus find discourse analysis an idea complement to netnography in the study on the simultaneous production and consumption of consumption-related CMC in online communities.

Our findings suggest that the consumption of CMC exhibits important gendered and gendering effects, but also that these effects are far more complex and situational than many prior investigations of CMC consumption suggest. Online community consumption related topics tend to skew discourse style towards particular male or female styles as they self-select particular targeted demographic groups. However, within these fragmentary and diverse groups, there is considerable room for individual maneuvering across an extensive continuum of gender positions (including asexual, combined couplehood male-female positions, and gay male and lesbian positions). Many of these positions appear to be coterminous with particular consumption positions inherent in the diversity of consumption interests and consumption styles. For example, digital child portraiture is seen as more female and its consumption promotes a more female discursive mode, while digital nude photography is seen as more male-centered and promotes a more male discursive mode. Similarly, competitive cat showing is seen as more male, and compassionate cat massage is seen as more female.

As Tannen (1994) notes, gender differences are embedded within a more complex framework of culture, polysemy, and pragmatics. To this, we would add that gender differences are also embedded within the complex framework of consumption interests and poitions. These consumption positions act as important contemporary factors that both reflect and influence gender discourses. Increasingly, these combined gender-consumption discourses are being shared and inculcated through the consumption of CMC, making studies such as this one increasingly relevant to our understanding of the social effects of high technology consumption.



Hope Jensen Schau, Temple University

Albert M. Muniz, Jr., Depaul University

Stacy Horn, President of Echo (a 'cyber salon’ devoted to feminist issues) once lamented "the statement 'we’re all equal on the Net’ really means everyone is assumed to be American, white, heterosexual and maleBuntil proven otherwise" (Press Release 1997). Five years later, it appears we are no closer to realizing the liberatory potential of an ungendered techno-utopia, nor has Haraway’s (1991) prophecy of a "post-gender world" (p.73) emerged in computer-mediated environments (CMEs). In CMEs, fueled in large part by the explicit display of traditional gendered sexuality (male-centric pornography), femininity is often a highly sexualized, objectified, commodified and generally vulnerable position. Women who identify themselves as females online are frequently exposed to sexually aggressive advances (bordering on harassment) and subjected to belittling and dismissive remarks or flames that call into question their technical capabilities, their general knowledge base, their objectivity and their emotional stability (Ananova 2001, Pennington 1996). We examine the performance of gender in personal webspace, specifically the use of brand affiliation (names, hyperlinks and logos), to illuminate the strategies real life (RL) women use to express gender symbolically in a domain that does not rely on lived bodily configurations. As in previous research tackling the intersection and interaction of gender and marketing (cf., Catterall, MacLaran and Stevens 2000, Costa 2000, Dobscha and Ozanne 2000, Scott 2000), we explore gender performance and the use of brand affiliation in the techno-consumption realm of personal webspace.

Using netnographic techniques (Kozinets 2002), including the visual analysis of personal websites as consumer generated texts, we identify operating strategies of gender performance within the context of personal webspace. Our data consist of personal websites as public displays of conspicuously constructed, performed (Carlson 1996) identities, and electronic interviews with personal webspace authors (email correspondence and captured chatroom discussions). Archived and analyzed in an iterative, constant comparison method, the data reveal that women use brands as a form of cultural shorthand to stake claim to feminine identities online and open themselves up to a host of limiting, often demeaning, positions: sexual object/prey, maternal role model, fragile ego, damsel in distress, technical novice, overly emotional and intuitive creature, man-hater, deviant, prude, bitch, and wayward child. The above positions mimic tropes feminists have critiqued and women have for generations been relegated to enact. The important difference here is that in CMEs women voluntarily perform these prescribed gendered roles and conspicuously employ brands (names, hyperlinks and logos). Although these positions, especially when taken separately are shallow, partial and in turns degrading, we find them in our data to be strategically employed by Net savvy women. Conversely, our data also demonstrate women who strategically choose to pass either cashing in on the assumption of the unstated masculine online identity or attempting to construct an androgynous, though not specifically male, one. In all cases, these gender performances in personal webspace are deliberate, include commercial referents, and in this specific data set, pertain to women who anchor their online identity in the corporeal (women’s RL bodies).

Our findings align with the recent theoretical moment in feminist studies, termed prosthetic feminism where the definition of feminine is not biologically driven, nor a social construction, but rather an intentional manipulation of the body, like a prosthetic device (cf., Browning 1996, Senft 1996). The women in our data wield their online gender performances, including commercial references, to the service of their own whims. They assert mastery over their online selves by enacting gender tropes unthinkable and indeed undesirable to them in RL, i.e., sexual deviant, helpless female, sexless matron. Maneuvering within the confines of a still male-centric and patriarchal domain, these women use familiar gender postures as sites of subversion, playgrounds and therapy. The women in our study engage in various gender performances: to express themselves, to role-play, to work through complex issues, to assert dominance, and to gain knowledge or material wealth. While it may be comforting to imagine "the image of each of us floating through the Internet as indiscernible and equal beings" (Pennington 1996), the reality of women performing gender strategically at will is perhaps a step toward gender empowerment. Perhaps to contradict Audre Lord (2000), they will succeed in dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools.