When it comes to social media, boys will be boys and girls will be girls. A new study published in PLOS One suggests that the words in Facebook posts by men and women are depressingly stereotypical. Hint: girls like shopping and boys like basketball. We’ve come so far.
Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania compared language in Facebook statuses with personality questionnaires to see what patterns emerged. The researchers were interested in whether computer analysis of language could reveal age, gender, and personality traits better than traditional psychological tools, which are often self-reported.
And the results were surprisingly accurate: psychologists and computer scientists were able to predict a user’s gender with 92% accuracy just by looking at the words in their Facebook statuses.
They found that words like “mommy,” “boyfriend,” and “best friend” were more commonly used by women, while men tended to post words like “Xbox,” “World Cup,” and “Chuck Norris.” Women said “sooo,” “yummy,” and “super excited,” while guys said “ftw,” “epic,” and every possible variation of the F-word (we have a censored image of the real word cloud.) Girls used the word “dress” about as much as boys said “engineering.” Who used more smiley emoticons? Take a guess.
Dr. Margaret Kern, one of the researchers who conducted the study, cautioned that the word clouds represented the extremes of both genders. “It doesn’t mean that this is how all women talk, or even the majority of how all women talk,” she said. “It just means that words like this are more likely to be used by a woman than a man in this sample.”
Dr. Kern is right. But remember the our Facebook statuses are not about who we are, but rather about who we wish we were. Social media isn’t about expression, it’s about performance. So the results of this study reveal less about who the subjects are than about how they want to be perceived.
And that’s the problem.
For example, the “female” words seemed to be mostly relationship words, with the highly original additions of “my hair,” “shopping,” and “chocolate.” So it seems like girls just want their Facebook friends to know that they are a) super pretty and fun, and b) people like them.
And while there were definitely references to wives and girlfriends, “male” words were about macho performance. “Black-ops” and “call of duty” were popular, along with every possible version of every unprintable curse word. So it seems like guys want their Facebook friends to know that they are a) mad tough and b) they don’t give a F—.
Does this mean that all the well-intentioned efforts to make girls want to be smart and boys want to be caring have failed? Or does it just mean that everybody behaves like a stereotype on social media?
I’d argue for the latter. Facebook is not the place for breaking norms, it’s where we go to have those norms reinforced. If a girl is at home coding a new app, she probably wouldn’t post about it online. If a boy is snuggling with his kitten, updating his Facebook status might be the last thing he’d do.
But how is it that the most cutting-edge social technology reinforces our most outdated conventions? If social media is about projecting a cool image, and that image is still so hackneyed, then we have a lot of work to do.
John Updike once famously said that celebrity is a “mask that eats the face.” If our online identities are a new, diluted form of celebrity, then couldn’t our social image bleed into our real selves?
It’s posturing that everyone does and everyone denies. In a TIME poll on happiness in June, 76% said that other people made themselves look happier, more attractive, and more successful online than they are in real life. But 78% of pople said that their own profile reflects how they really are. Sounds like a lot of pots looking at a lot of kettles.
Dr. Kern thinks that even if the results reflect some online posturing, those online performance sometimes come true. “There’s certainly this image-management aspect to everything, even who posts anything,” she said. “But even if that’s an image, that’s how all your friends start to see you. So in a way, that can become part of a person as well”