Well, the time has come to ask, since I have been unable to discern an answer on my own. I have conducted some serious literature review over the last few months and can find no relevant studies on the matter. So when I find myself banging my head against the virtual wall, I realize it is a subject for which I need to seek guidance. So I turn to you my friends, because you are the people I respect in this virtual world.
It’s a failing, I admit. I’m not one to own up to weakness in such a public manner, but this question has vexed me for well over a year now, and I am curious beyond all modesty.
How do we discern gender (or sex, depending on your intellectual orientation) from the avatar one uses or the screen name one chooses? I ask because I have learned over the last two years that the combination of my screen name and the avatars I choose to use somehow seem to stump other on-line friends and respondents about my sex, and a whole bunch of other things.
I use what most would consider a sex-neutral screen name: ChrisR266. I use it consistently from place to place I roam on the world wide web so those who may pay attention to screen names might realize that it is really me they are encountering on a site where we might not have encountered each other before. I am blessed or cursed with the name “Chris.” My baptismal and given first name is longer, but “Chris” is what all who have mattered in my life know me by. I detest other versions and perversions of my full name, so I chose at an early age to stick with Chris. Chris I am.
Chris is one of those interesting appellations to the extent that it is sex (or gender) neutral. When you are addressing a Chris, you only know what sex the person is if you are speaking to the person live–like “Pat,” we would consider the name gender or sex neutral. In fact, the most popular college textbook on basic Interpersonal Communication (The Interpersonal Communication Book by DeVito) uses the names Pat and Chris in all theoretical conversations constructed to illustrate concepts and theories discussed in the text. It is fascinating to read these theoretical conversations, because as DeVito constructs them, it is almost impossible to discern which speaker, Pat or Chris, is male or female.
I raise the issue because in my experience, almost no one I have interacted with on line assumes me to be the sex I am. Even after informing people I have interacted with at length, they have difficulty retaining my sex and addressing me appropriately. It has made for some hilarious conversational situations, but it has also made me consider at length the unspoken assumptions that operate for all of us at deep cultural levels.
When I think of this issue, my mind always wanders to a wonderful essay written by Julia Copeland in 1999, entitled “The Parable of the Crayon:” http://2011sye402.pbworks.com/f/The-Parable-of-the-Crayon-(2).doc I encourage you to read it. The essay is short, but powerful, and her words remind us that our culture teaches us many “default assumptions” about the way things are supposed to be, who rates in the world, and how we process ideas and experience based on those assumptions.
“Parable of the Crayon” is relevant here, because it goads all of us to ask some important questions: Am I obligated to use an avatar that informs people by inference that I might be male or female? Should I write in a specific way so people can tell immediately who I am and then of course infer what I might be thinking? Are we rightly or wrongly indoctrinated to a masculine or feminine style that hinders us from seeing people and their ideas in a more objective and fair light? Is there a written style that we connote male or female? And why the hell is it that I can ALWAYS tell when a poster here, at HP, or on almost any other site is male or female? Oddly, despite what I think are my clearly distinguishable posts, 99% of the respondents who chose to use identifiers get my sex wrong?
I have more questions, of course. But I think the few I pose here are a healthy start. I think it’s time we spend a bit of our time thinking about the deep assumptions that organize our cultural world. I became very sensitive to this issue when I realized what I was saying to commenters that I flagged at HuffPost. I always felt the need to inform commenters that I was flagging them and WHY. One evening, I realized that I was qualifying my flag in a particular way: “I know you are a dude because no woman would make a comment so crass.” It was crystal clear to me then, as it is to me now. And, I suspect, it is crystal clear to you, too.
Ironically, the world wide web (or the internet, whatever you prefer) has created an interesting paradox. It authorizes people to speak their minds on a variety of things. At the same time, it also allows people to be anonymous and thus unaccountable for the words they speak. As lack of accountability for words spoken seems to be a significant issue in our public dialogue, it might well be the time to ponder the role of virtual interaction in public dialogue.
Just my four cents (inflation, of course).