Sorry, Boys, This Is Our Domain

Sorry, Boys, This Is Our Domain

Geek Chic: Not Just For Guys


Published: February 21, 2008
 
THE prototypical computer whiz of popular imagination — pasty, geeky, male — has failed to live up to his reputation. 
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Research shows that among the youngest Internet users, the primary
creators of Web content (blogs, graphics, photographs, Web sites) are
not misfits resembling the Lone Gunmen of “The X Files.” On the
contrary, the cyberpioneers of the moment are digitally effusive
teenage girls.

“Most guys don’t have patience for this kind of
thing,” said Nicole Dominguez, 13, of Miramar, Fla., whose hobbies
include designing free icons, layouts and “glitters” (shimmering
animations) for the Web and MySpace pages of other teenagers. “It’s really hard.”

Nicole
posts her graphics, as well as her own HTML and CSS computer coding
pointers (she is self-taught), on the pink and violet Sodevious.net, a domain her mother bought for her in October.

“If you did a poll I think you’d find that boys rarely have sites,” she said. “It’s mostly girls.”

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Natasha Calzatti for The New York Times

LAUREN RENNER, 16 On Agirlsworld.com, blogged about
her daily life and worked on the site’s “My first prom” magic story
that lets girls fill in blanks and make a tale about themselves.

 

 

Indeed,
a study published in December by the Pew Internet & American Life
Project found that among Web users ages 12 to 17, significantly more
girls than boys blog (35 percent of girls compared with 20 percent of
boys) and create or work on their own Web pages (32 percent of girls
compared with 22 percent of boys).

Girls also eclipse boys when
it comes to building or working on Web sites for other people and
creating profiles on social networking sites (70 percent of girls 15 to
17 have one, versus 57 percent of boys 15 to 17). Video posting was the
sole area in which boys outdid girls: boys are almost twice as likely
as girls to post video files.

Explanations for the gender
imbalance are nearly as wide-ranging as cybergirls themselves. The
girls include bloggers who pontificate on timeless teenage matters such
as “evil teachers” and being “grounded for life,” to would-be Martha
Stewarts — entrepreneurs whose online pursuits generate more money than
a summer’s worth of baby-sitting.

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Natasha Calzatti for The New York Times

MARTINA BUTLER, 17 Stars in her own indie music
podcast on Emogirltalk.com. Last Sunday’s episode included music by
Sequoyah Prep School and Death Cab for Cutie.

 

“I was the first teenage
podcaster to receive a major sponsorship,” said Martina Butler, 17, of
San Francisco, who for three years has been recording an indie music
show, Emo Girl Talk, from her basement. Her first corporate
sponsorship, from Nature’s Cure, an acne medication, was reported in
2005 in Brandweek, the marketing trade magazine.

Since then,
more than half a dozen companies, including Go Daddy, the Internet
domain and hosting provider, have paid to be mentioned in her podcasts,
which are posted every Sunday on Emogirltalk.com.

“It’s
really only getting bigger for me,” said Martina, an aspiring
television and radio host who was tickled to learn about the Pew study.

“I’m not surprised because girls are very creative,” she said,
“sometimes more creative than men. We’re spunky. And boys … ” Her
voice trailed off to laughter.

The “girls rule” trend in content
creation has been percolating for a few years — a Pew study published
in 2005 also found that teenage girls were the primary content creators
— but the gender gap for blogging, in particular, has widened.

As
teenage bloggers nearly doubled from 2004 to 2006, almost all the
growth was because of “the increased activity of girls,” the Pew report
said.

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Natasha Calzatti for The New York Times

SARADA CLEARY, 14 On Agirlsworld.com helped create an online game for National Spay Day and contributes craft ideas like how to decorate jeans.

 

The findings have implications beyond blogging, according
to Pew, because bloggers are “much more likely to engage in other
content-creating activities than nonblogging teens.”

But even
though girls surpass boys as Web content creators, the imbalance among
adults in the computer industry remains. Women hold about 27 percent of
jobs in computer and mathematical occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In American high schools, girls comprised fewer than 15 percent of
students who took the AP computer science exam in 2006, and there was a
70 percent decline in the number of incoming undergraduate women
choosing to major in computer science from 2000 to 2005, according to
the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Scholars
who study computer science say there are several reasons for the dearth
of women: introductory courses are often uninspiring; it is difficult
to shake existing stereotypes about men excelling in the sciences; and
there are few female role models. It is possible that the girls who
produce glitters today will develop an interest in the rigorous science
behind computing, but some scholars are reluctant to draw that
conclusion.

“We can hope that this translates, but so far the gap
has remained,” said Jane Margolis, an author of “Unlocking the
Clubhouse: Women in Computing” (MIT Press, 2002). While pleased that
girls are mastering programs like Paint Shop Pro, Ms. Margolis
emphasized the profound distinction between using existing software and
a desire to invent new technology.

Teasing out why girls are
prolific Web content creators usually leads to speculation and
generalization. Although girls have outperformed boys in reading and
writing for years, according to the National Center for Education
Statistics, this does not automatically translate into a collective yen
to blog or sign up for a MySpace page. Rather, some scholars argue,
girls are the dominant online content creators because both sexes are
influenced by cultural expectations.

“Girls are trained to make
stories about themselves,” said Pat Gill, the interim director for the
Institute for Communications Research and an associate professor of
gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign.

From a young age they learn that they are
objects, Professor Gill said, so they learn how to describe themselves.
Historically, girls and women have been expected to be social, communal
and skilled in decorative arts.

“This would be called the feminization of the Internet,” she said.

Boys, she added, are generally taught “to engage in ways that aren’t confessional, that aren’t emotional.”

Research by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard
Law School, the result of focus groups and interviews with young people
13 to 22, suggests that girls’ online practices tend to be about their
desire to express themselves, particularly their originality.

“With young women it’s much more about expressing yourself to others in
the way that wearing certain clothes to school does,” said John
Palfrey, the executive director of the Berkman Center. “It ties into
identity expression in the real world.”

That desire is never so
evident as when girls criticize online copycats who essentially steal
their Web page backgrounds and graphics by hotlinking (linking to
someone else’s image so it appears on one’s own Web page). Aside from
depleting bandwidth, it is the digital equivalent of arriving at a
party wearing the same dress as another girl, Professor Palfrey said.

No wonder that girls post aggressive warnings on their sites such as
“Do not jock, copy, steal, or redistribute any of my stuff!” or, more
to the point: “hotlink and die.”

While creating content enables
girls to experiment with how they want to present themselves to the
world, they are obviously interested in maintaining and forging
relationships.

When Lauren Renner, 16, was in fifth grade, she
and a friend, Sarada Cleary, now 14, both of Oceanside, Calif., began
writing about their lives on Agirlsworld.com, an interactive e-zine with articles written for and by girls.

“Girls from everywhere would read it and would ask questions about what
they should do with a problem,” Lauren said. “I think girls like to
help with other people’s problems or questions, kind of, like,
motherly, to everybody.”

Today Lauren and Sarada are among more
than 1,000 girls who regularly submit content to Agirlsworld. They make
a few extra dollars writing online articles and dreaming up
holiday-related activities, like Mother’s Day breakfast recipes, which
are posted on the site.

“At school there’s just a certain type
of people,” Sarada said. “They’re just local. Online you get to
experience their culture through them.”

THE one area where boys
surpass girls in creating Web content is posting videos. This is not
because girls are not proficient users of the technology, Professor
Palfrey said. He suggested, rather, that videos are often less about
personal expression and more about impressing others. It’s an ideal way
for members of a subculture — skateboarders, snowboarders — to
demonstrate their athleticism, he said.

Zach Saltzman, 17, of Memphis, said content creation among his circle of male friends includes having a Facebook profile and posting videos of lacrosse games and original short films on YouTube.

“I actually really never thought about doing my own Web site,” said Zach after returning from an SAT class.

He hasn’t posted a video himself and doesn’t have a blog because, as he
put it, “it really never interested me and I don’t have time to keep up
with it.”

Zach does, however, have a Facebook profile where he uploads digital photographs.

“It’s really the only way I keep my pictures organized because I don’t make photo albums and stuff like that,” he said.

Asked
whether the findings of the Pew study seemed accurate to him, he said:
“That’s what I see happening. The girls are much more into putting
something up and getting responses.”


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