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The secret sexism of social media
AT THIS year’s SXSW festival held in March in Austin, I ran into a social-media wonk from New York and asked him how he had been enjoying it. He said it was great: he had won five badges from Foursquare, a geosocial service that lets users check in at various locations, securing the mayorship of his hotel's pool.
It occurred to me that I have yet to hear a woman brag about getting a badge from Foursquare, and that I never will. In fact, come to think of it, I barely hear women mention such services at all. Over the following weeks I kept a sharp eye (and ear) out, and only found one friend—tech-savvy and typically an early adopter of all manner of gadgetry—who described herself as a Foursquare fan. Just the other day, she said, she had been sitting by herself eating a lonely crepe. Killing time, she checked in to the restaurant and, as luck would have it, a friend who was in the neighborhood dropped by.
Rummaging around the internet, I found that my friend was indeed an outlier. According to Pew, a research outfit, geosocial services like Foursquare and Gowalla attract twice as many men as women. What makes this finding striking is that, in general, women use social media more heavily than men do. (The pop-psychology explanation: women are more social then men.) So why do women lag men in geosocial media?
I would offer two hypotheses. The first is that women's concerns about security differ from men's and are warier of broadcasting their physical location. The second is that Foursquare and Gowalla are partly about competition: if users check in frequently, they can win points and badges. And broadly speaking, I don’t think women are as motivated by badges as much as men are. (Incidentally, the Pew numbers also showed that online Hispanics are far heavier users of geosocial apps than online whites and blacks—I have no idea what to make of that, but perhaps our commenters do.)
Either way, the gender disparity clearly exists. In the case of Foursquare and Gowalla, this is not much of a problem; while these services may be fun, no one is severely disadvantaged (at least not yet) by failing to participate. But any business should be aware of its inadvertent biases, and entrepreneurs ought to be attentive to these gaps in market coverage. Foursquare and Gowalla are growing, but they might grow more quickly if they figured out how to encourage the other half of the population to sign up.