Is Social Media Making Gender Roles Obsolete?

by Chris Kenton on November 24, 2009

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The best thing about staring at web data all day is that I get to see trends as they emerge. Usually it’s just little shifts in the drift and flow of online dialog. But sometimes I get a front-row seat to a tectonic change that points toward some unexpected and emerging truth. A clear view of a reality that’s just beginning to unfold.

I had one of those experiences recently working on a project for Creative Labs. Creative is doing a lot of exploration in social marketing, and one of the areas of interest was digging into the phenomenon of Mommy Bloggers. If you’re not familiar with the trend, blogs written by moms reached a tipping point a couple of years ago and have grown to be a significant market influence.

As part of our research into online dialog and influence, we spent a lot of time looking at mommy blogs and daddy blogs, and variations on the content they create, the audiences they attract and the communities they develop. All very interesting stuff that would fill a good marketing brief. But the most interesting insight was a simple observation about the nature of mommy and daddy blogs. Moms are writing a lot about consumer gadgets, Web 2.0 and tech, while dads are writing a lot about changing diapers and teething. It’s a striking role reversal that’s fascinating to observe.

It’s not hard to speculate about what’s going on. Men have had hundreds of sources to learn about gadgets and tech for decades, but few to share about how to be a good dad, while the opposite is true for women. Women have unlimited opportunities to compare notes with their peers about parenting, but where can they connect with other moms about new technology? In the world of mainstream media, we accepted these cultural boundaries for which there was apparently little interest in crossing. But the mommy and daddy blogs demonstrate there is a huge pent-up audience for gadget moms and diaper dads that mainstream media never found a reason to serve. Traffic on these blogs is now a full blown phenomena.

Beyond any commercial fascination, there’s a profound social implication. The phenomenon puts a stark lie to the notion that mainstream media simply reflects social values and expectations, and suggests instead that mainstream media has played a central role in sustaining traditional values and expectations–if through no other means than projecting the world view of the tiny minority that has controlled media for the past 100 years, or whatever world view they could exploit for advertising dollars. Clearly they never conceived of the kind of content that would emerge when you unleash media and let ordinary moms and dads, or any other constituency, loose on the world to talk about whatever really interests them.

It’s equally clear that mainstream media is not only coming apart at the seams as a financial model, but its peculiar power over the stories we accept about our lives is quickly being rendered impotent. As media is democratized, ordinary people are gravitating to the stories that resonate with their lives–and those stories emerge in a more authentic and compelling way when they emerge from a shared interest among a group of like-minded people rather than being projected from a board room focused on a demographic chart.

In a very real sense, we’re returning to stories told around a fire after a lifetime of only listening to stories told from a stage. And if the content driving traffic on mommy and daddy blogs is any indication, it’s going to be a radical shift in the way we see ourselves.

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A Selection of Sources for Gender Roles and Social Media « Knowledge Management (Fall 2012) @ UR
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Kenton November 24, 2009 at 6:39 pm

I heard someone talk recently about the “telling stories around a fire” meme, but I can’t remember who it was or what the reference was. If you know, please comment so I can give the hat tip.

2 Andrea Learned November 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

Thanks for sharing this, Chris. I agree and am excited that social media is helping shatter gender stereotypes. When gender roles are obsolete, we can all get down to a lot more productive living and business. I wrote a somewhat related post yesterday myself: http://learnedonwomen.com/2009/11/women-social-advantage/

My closing idea for that piece is:

So, we can assign women a social advantage and call it good, focusing only on them. Or, we can dig deeper into what makes any person social, or how that social behavior is inspired or expressed, and broaden the reach of our messages accordingly.

3 Chris Kenton November 25, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Andrea–

Thanks for your comment. I liked your post–and I agree completely: the anonymity of the web has made it much easier to cross these lines. It’ll be interesting to see how this evolves. It’s tempting to believe we’ll just knock down all the boundaries, but it already appears as if new boundaries are being enabled as well. Look at the political division that’s deepening as it becomes easier to simply find stories that support our perspective rather than compromise and come to the middle. We’re even seeing just how much truth can be interpreted and projected as true belief when “facts” are so easily assembled from the Web to support a preconceived truth. It’s a brave new world. Like you, I find a lot to be encouraged even while recognizing the potential dangers.

Nice to meet you, Andrea.

/chris

4 MairHeard February 16, 2010 at 11:40 am

I’m a grad student studying new media, and I am taking a sociology gender course. I’m currently working on a research paper about gender roles on the Internet and how the roles are reversing. This article was a great piece of motivation, have you written other articles relating to this subject?

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