North American studies report that more than half of all blog authors are women, that they persevere longer and write more (Perseus, 2003), and that at least 50% of journal bloggers in particular are female (Herring, Kouper, Scheidt, & Wright, 2004). However, the most influential bloggers are Internet veterans who tend to be white American males. This has led in recent years to fervent discussion among bloggers about the relative position of male and female bloggers and suggestions (accusations?) that the blogosphere is inherently sexist. Some suggest that, as long as quality is measured in terms of popularity, women bloggers will never achieve equal recognition.
Blogging is not the first form of computer-mediated communication (CMC) to be accused of sexism. While research into CMC dates back to the 1970s, it was not until the 1990s that researchers turned their attention to the issue of gender. Despite earlier suggestions that online communities were gender-blind, democratic places where all were offered an equal opportunity to participate anonymously, researchers such as Herring (1993, 1996), Kramarae and Taylor (1993), Hall (1996), and Gurak (1999) claimed that rather than neutralizing gender, the electronic medium in fact encouraged its intensification, and that participants in online communities were likely to bring with them pre-existing patterns of hierarchy and male domination conditioned into them early in life. In this, gender and CMC scholars built on the work of researchers in the field of face-to-face communication, such as Lakoff (1975), Tannen (1991), and Coates (1993).
Herring (1993, 1996), for example, investigated electronic discussion lists and suggested that men and women constituted different discourse communities in cyberspace and that such communities were different but not equal. She proposed that women and men have different online styles, with the male-gendered style being more adversarial, including strong assertions, self-promotion, lengthy posts, put-downs, and sarcasm aimed at others. In contrast, the female-gendered style was characterized by supportiveness and attenuation, including appreciation and community-based activities, thanks, apologies, and questions. In direct contrast to a democratic, gender-blind utopia, Herring suggested, other users were regularly able to infer the gender of posters on the basis of features of these styles and therefore react to posters on the basis of their presumed gender (Herring, 1993, 1996).
In discussion lists in the 1990s, men typically outnumbered women (Herring, 1996). Yet such is not the case with respect to blogs. If there are equal numbers of male and female bloggers, in what sense can it be claimed that the blogosphere is sexist? In the blogosphere, popularity is measured in terms of links. It has been remarked that men tend to receive more links to their blogs from other bloggers than do women. (For references to the extensive online debate, see Garfunkel, 2005; Pollard, 2003; Ratliff, 2004a, 2004b.) Having more links places a blog higher in the popularity ranks; this effect is amplified by blog-monitoring sites such as Technorati, which use page-ranking algorithms that give greater weight to links from blogs that are themselves highly ranked. Ratliff (2006) produced evidence that men’s postings also receive more comments than women’s. It has also been claimed, in the North American context, that a greater amount of attention is accorded in the mass media to male bloggers (Herring, Kouper, et al., 2004).
Since it is now possible to make money from blogging by selling advertising space on one’s blog, the perception that women’s blogs are less popular than men’s puts women bloggers at an economic, as well as a social, disadvantage. Considerations such as these have led to the establishment of the BlogHer movement in the U.S. (http://blogher.org/), with the mission to create opportunities for women bloggers to gain exposure, pursue education, and create community.
North American commentators have proposed a variety of explanations for the imbalance in the portrayal of the U.S. blogosphere and in popularity rankings. Blogs about technology and politics, which are popular subjects throughout the Internet, are more likely to be authored by men. It is suggested that men are more likely to blog about external events, rather than personal ones (Herring, Kouper, et al., 2004), and are therefore more likely to be found by prospective readers when using a search engine (Pollard, 2003). Men are more likely to market their blogs aggressively to other bloggers and thus get them incorporated into a blogroll (lists of other recommended blogs, which most blogs have) (Pollard, 2003). Meanwhile, women’s blogs make up only 15% of all blogrolls (Perseus, 2003). The “A-list” (top 100 blogs) is dominated by men and, as Pollard (2003, n.p.) suggests, such a power curve tends to be self-perpetuating: “To break into the A-list you usually need to get noticed and linked to by an A-lister. Guess which gender is more likely to benefit from that?”
The British Blogosphere
The vast majority of academic investigation that has so far been carried out on the blogging phenomenon has focused on the U.S. This imbalance is now being redressed in relation to non-English language blogging, for example, by Trammell, Tarkowski, Hofmokl, and Sapp’s (2006) examination of the state of the Polish blogosphere. As yet, however, few studies have specifically investigated the British blogosphere (see, e.g., Auty, 2005; Pedersen & Macafee, 2006; Thelwall, 2006). In certain respects, British bloggers of both sexes are in a similar position to American women bloggers—less noticed and less commented upon.
What follows is a snapshot of the British blogosphere based on a pilot study of 48 British bloggers undertaken in the winter and spring of 2005–2006. We were interested to see whether blogging in the U.K., which in general started somewhat later than in North America, is reproducing the gender differences in blogging behavior and the gender inequalities in recognition that have been observed in studies based largely on U.S. bloggers (e.g., Fallows, 2005; Herring, Kouper, et al., 2004; Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, & Schwartz, 2004; Ratliff, 2004a, b). Our goal was to shed light, from a different direction, on some of the reasons that have been advanced for women having less influence and less popular success in this CMC domain.
In addition to discussing the different online styles of men and women, Herring and her colleagues (Herring Kouper, et al., 2004; Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, & Wright, 2004) have emphasized the growing number of personal journal blogs in the blogosphere. They investigated the media representation of weblogs, finding that it focuses on filter-type blogs produced mainly by adult males. They claim that this misrepresents the fundamental nature of the weblog phenomenon and indirectly reproduces societal sexism and ageism.
The research of Nardi and her colleagues (Nardi, Schiano, & Gumbrecht, 2004; Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, & Swartz, 2004) into personal journal blogs (which are more likely than filter blogs to be written by women) found that most blogs had a fairly small set of regular readers and that bloggers received feedback on their blogs not just from such commentators but also off-line. While “A-list” blogs may receive hundreds of comments a day, Nardi and her colleagues suggest that most personal blogs will receive comments and be read by only a few friends, and that bloggers have “regulars” who they know are reading their posts. They also found that people typically encounter blogs through other blogs that they are reading.
Fallows (2005) has suggested that men are “more avid consumers than women of online information,” while women are more enthusiastic online communicators (p. ii). Her report also suggested that, as of April 2005, men were more likely than women to create blogs. Ratliff (2004a, 2004b, 2006) has focused on the “where are the women” debate, particularly in political blogging, and the explanations that are advanced by both male and female bloggers for the gender gap (Ratliff, 2004a, 2004b, 2006).
We first set out to determine whether the same gender imbalances in popular recognition are also found in relation to British blogging. A quick survey of some of the sources that offer to identify “top” blogs suggests that British male bloggers are more visible than British female bloggers—although neither group scores highly as far as international visibility is concerned. Technorati’s “top 100” sites, also known as the “A-list,” included two British blogs on March 21, 2006 (a better showing than Canada or Australia, with one each); both bloggers were male.
In the mass media, two recent items from the British press discussed the blogging phenomenon: The Independent on “top blogs” (Caesar, 2006), and The Guardian on the top British political bloggers (Burkeman, 2005). The Independent mentioned six bloggers, four of whom were male, while The Guardian mentioned seven bloggers, six of whom were male. The Guardian also runs an annual Best British Blog Competition (Best British Blog Competition: Result, 2005); we examined the winners and shortlist for 2005. Out of 22 bloggers, 19 were male.
Another source is the Britblog Round-up (http://timworstall.typepad.com/timworstall/britblog_roundup/index.html), which is based on readers’ weekly nominations of blog postings. A selection from the year 2005 was published in book form (Worstall, 2005). Out of the 119 contributors to this volume, 106 were male and only 13 were female. Finally, we considered the “British or Irish” section of the 2005 and 2006 “Bloggies” awards (http://2007.bloggies.com/ for links to awards since 2001). Out of the 22 bloggers shortlisted over both years, only seven were female.
While this is necessarily only a partial snapshot of the most visible parts of the British blogosphere, in all of these lists of “top” British bloggers there is a preponderance—sometimes an overwhelming preponderance—of men. However, this is not to say that there is no media interest in British female bloggers. As noted at the outset, the media have a prurient interest in women who blog about sex, although honorable mention should be made of The Guardian’s “Women” page, which has run articles about feminist bloggers in Britain, even though at least one article focused on the perceived lack of women bloggers (Taylor, 2004). Overall, however, female bloggers are usually represented as a minority in discussions of British blogging, unless the subject under discussion is sexual confession, in which case 100% of the bloggers discussed are women.
The Population of U.K. Bloggers
The growth of blogging and its expansion beyond early adopters has taken place against a background of growth in Internet access in the U.K. The U.K. was one of the first European countries to have widespread home Internet access, along with Germany and Italy (Ryan, 2002). A recent study put the percentage of U.K. households with domestic Internet subscriptions at 57% (National Statistics Omnibus Survey, 2006). Moreover, by March 2006, 69% of U.K. domestic Internet subscribers had broadband (40% of U.K. adults) (National Statistics Omnibus Survey, 2006) Middle-aged adults appear to have caught up with younger ones where Internet use is concerned, but women are still less likely than men to access the Internet (65% of men compared to 55% of women had accessed the Internet during the previous three months) (National Statistics Omnibus Survey, 2006).
How many British blogs are there? As with web pages, estimates of the numbers of blogs worldwide vary enormously and rapidly go out-of-date: On March 15, 2006, Technorati was tracking 30.6 million blogs, but by 5 July 2007 it claimed to be tracking 90 million blogs. Access to some blogs is restricted by password to a small number of readers or to an organization. Many blogs are abandoned: Sifry (2005) estimated 45% in August 2005. Huffaker (2004) likewise found that 43% of his teenage bloggers had abandoned blogs. As Perseus (2003, n.p.) puts it, “the majority of blogs started are dissolving into static, abandoned web pages.” Some are never used, but are created as tests or as automatic features on social networking sites (Perseus, 2005a). An increasing proportion—9% as of February 2006—are fake or spam (Sifry, 2006a).
Attempts to enumerate British blogs specifically encounter further difficulties, because of what Riley (2005) calls “the Anglosphere problem,” i.e., the existence of a common body of service providers and readership across the English-speaking Internet. Riley estimated in July 2005 that there were 2.5 million British bloggers. This is consistent with a recent estimate that 7% of U.K. Internet users maintain a website or blog on at least a weekly basis (Office of Communications, 2006). Given that 64% of the U.K. adult population of 47.8 million is estimated to access the Internet (Internet access, 2006), this yields a figure of about 2.1 million adult content creators. This probably over-estimates the number of adults, however, by assuming that adults are as likely to create Internet content as are teenagers. In a 2005 survey, 19% of American teenage Internet users were found to have created their own blog, in contrast to only about 7% of adult Internet users (Lenhart & Madden, 2005). Whatever its exact size, however, the population of British bloggers is certainly measured in seven figures.