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The Sexist Side of Social Networks

May 7, 2010

“I live alone so i need a friend or a female partner.”

“Your so sexy dear i love you will you marry me.”

“A woman that she accept me and know me and give me very hot love for my life”

As the Community Manager of a social network—the explicit aim of which is to “raise women’s voices and build cultures of peace”—I have the opportunity to communicate on a daily basis with women around the world who, in various capacities, are doing awe-inspiring work to build peace in their communities.

And I also have to deal with individuals like those quoted above.

Can someone please tell me where in “We engage, connect, and amplify women’s voices as the most direct and powerful ways to create cultures of peace around the world” it indicates that we are a site to find love, sex, or companionship? Perhaps it’s in the same seemingly ubiquitous yet unspoken memo that makes catcalls permissible in streets and groping acceptable on public buses and trains.

Why is it that men have the audacity to think it is acceptable to join an online community focused on women’s issues and blatantly state their misogynistic desires? Why don’t they feel intimidated or the least bit hesitant to enter a space that is obviously not intended for them and why doesn’t that result in them keeping their unwelcome desires to themselves?

At times, when I’ve reached the end of my rope, I want to recommend that we prohibit men from joining our online community.

I know. That doesn’t address the problem. In general, I don’t support women-only solutions.  I don’t agree with many of the absolutes—about both women and men—that often characterize this approach. All men aren’t sexist, and all women don’t support feminist approaches. I think that the only sustainable way forward is for women and men to work in partnership with one another for gender equality.

But then I receive this message: “I seriously need a white lady for serious love, and should be between the age of 25-45.”

Seriously?!?

Since managing a social network I’ve learned a lot about this specific segment of the larger, and growing, social media phenomenon. As it has been referenced in several other posts on this blog, social media has distinct potential for women, and for feminism. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said herself,

“The social world is led by women. And they’re leading that charge online.”

In addition to leading the charge in everything from blogs to online organizing (www.momsrising.org is considered one of the best in the business), women are the majority of users on many of the biggest social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Bebo and Flickr. Facebook is 57% female and attracts 46 million more female visitors than male visitors per month. Women are also more active on Facebook – they have 8% more friends and participate in 62% of the sharing.

According to a recent Forbes article there are not only more women in social networks, they also do different things than men once they are there.

“The difference between how men and women operate online mirror their motivations offline. While women often use online social networking tools to make connections and share items from their personal lives, men use them as means to gather information and increase their status.”

I agree that women and men conduct themselves differently online, but are we really going to boil this, too, down to an explanation of women are collaborative and men are competitive? Does that explain why on a site where women are engaging in meaningful discussions about conflict in Israel-Palestine and sharing ideas on how art can be a tool for social transformation, men are busy trying to find a lover?

I’ve read several articles recently addressing the fate of young people, in particular, on the Internet. I learned from yesterday’s New York Times that teenage insults are now on the web rather than on bathroom walls – “Formspring.me, a relatively new social networking site, has become a magnet for comments, many of them nasty and sexual.” And according to this article on Huffington Post, “In teaching social networking, virtual presence, aggressive electronic messaging and cold-blooded manipulation of group dynamics, Facebook is preparing young people to thrive in business life, particularly on the executive level.” Either, as one mother stated, “this whole online social media thing is a huge experiment on our children” or it is simply an extension of the offline world. And not everything about how the world looks right now is very uplifting.

Societies are sexist and so are their online counterparts.  There are feminists and feminist discussions both online and offline – and as a result there is irrefutable progress towards gender equality. But will the day ever come when I am able to go to social news sites and not read sexist comments? Will online communities (or streets and buses for that matter) ever be truly safe spaces for women?

Mostly I want to know, will the fact that women are “leading the charge online” get us to online gender equality any faster?

The argument often gets made that if women were in more positions of power the world would be better off. Could the internet be our place to prove that? The web has, at least to some extent, shifted power paradigms and women are clearly present online. So, perhaps this could be the place where women’s power eventually comes to fruition — and everyone benefits as a result. I hope so.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to figure out how to preserve the integrity of at least one online space for women.

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