How Sex Reveals Itself Online

Popular culture of the 1990s could cite the famed book title, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus to explain everything from Meg Ryan’s rom com misadventures to Heidi Fleiss’ little black book. One of the best-selling self-help books of all time, Dr. John Gray’s 1992 manual helps readers navigate the differences between the sexes, aiming towards happier, healthier relationships.

Nearly 20 years later, men and women still appear to be from different planets. We remain distinct on basic genetic, chemical, and psychological levels. The male and female brains are characterized by separate tendencies and ways of thinking. Men follow systemic processes and are driven to “analyze, explore, and construct a system.” Meanwhile, women are programmed to process information empathetically and to understand another person, “to predict his or her behavior...and to connect or resonate with him or her emotionally.” These sex differences, of course generalizations, occurred over the course of evolution due to the differing demands placed on each.

Though men are no longer the only ones making tools and fending off predators, and women are no longer the only ones nurturing children, the way we react to information still diverges. One place this becomes abundantly clear is within the comments section on many of our favorite sites, particularly the nouveau-literati-snark-meets-opinion-meets-journalism genre populated by blogs like The Awl, The Hairpin, and Thought Catalog.

In the October 12th Hairpin post, “Amusingly Horrible Things Bosses Have Said: The Bracket,” the first comment (of 297) by “but i’m a bird” (someone safely assumed to be female) details her own experience with a horribly inappropriate supervisor making a pass at her, which launches a torrent of empathetic responses from other (safely assumed to be female) commentators, who also share their own horror stories. Thusly, these women are building a connected, welcoming community, albeit fairly anonymous and perhaps fleeting, to tackle these experiences and commiserate together. A virtual tea and knitting date.

Contrast that with the Hairpin’s brother site, The Awl and Choire Sicha’s September 29th post, “When Twitter Gets Useless." The piece, a few screen grabs from an iPhone exemplifying the inane reactions to crazy moments in sports games and the annoyance of reading back and forth @ responses, prompted 16 replies, seemingly a mix of male and female. Here, the fourth comment by “Murgatroid,” (safely assumed to be male) is a short to-do list for the writer, telling him how to avoid such annoyances (5. Just delete your Twitter account already), essentially trying to fix the “problem” instead of understanding and appreciating it.

Though the best and most influential positions in our society have long been dominated by men, It’s become abundantly clear that women are equally, if not more, qualified for such roles and that these gender barriers are well on their way to shattering (Ginni Rometty will be IBM’s first female CEO starting in January). Though barriers shouldn’t exist, differences still do, and when we sit down to take in our daily nuggets of information, we’re reminded that sometimes our reactions are just hard wired. This dichotomy is so clear online, but when it manifests elsewhere, are we noticing?

By: Lirra Schiebler (inspired by conversations with Joey Camire)