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Gender and Democracy in Computer-Mediated Communication

Herring, Susan C. (1993). Gender and democracy in computer-mediated communication. Electronic Journal of Communication 3(2): available at http://ella.slis.indiana.edu/~herring/ejc.txt

In this study, Herring examines the democratizing claim of computer-based communication, focusing on gender, in the context of academic listservs. Drawing on Habermas’ “rules of reason? (1983), Herring breaks down four characteristics claimed to foster democracy in CMC:
• Accessibility
• Social decontextualization
• (lack of) conventions of use
• (lack of) censorship
Herring’s research question is: how democratic is CMC in practice; specifically, does it produce gender equality in communication? Using mixed methods of ethnography, discourse analysis, and survey in analyzing two academic listservs over one year, Herring finds significant differences in:
• Amount
• Topic, and
• Manner of participation
That is, men participate more than women; men’s comments are responded to more frequently than women’s; men contribute more on theoretical topics while women contribute more on topics of real-world consequences; and that there are sex-based features of language where women tend to avoid confrontation and men engage in adversarial rhetoric—all of which point to a greater lack of democracy in CMC than previously thought. Herring concludes: “male and female academic professionals do not participate equally in academic CMC.?

This study is striking in its findings, particularly in light of the era in which it was conducted. Optimism in the medium was high. CMC was touted as a truly democratizing form of communication. Herring’s study was one of the first to test these early optimistic assumptions and studies (Kiesler et al, 1984; Graddol & Swann, 1989). In truly democratic discourse, according to Habermas, there can be no censorship: yet, Herring found internal and external instances of censorship in academic CMC. Of course, once again, we find claims made based on academia, a shortcoming for generalizability in this, and many other studies.