One of the most discussed studies in recent memory, at least in the digital world, was the one on female (self-) representation in social networks, published a short while ago.
The study analyzed the top 100 German Youtube and Instagram accounts for their content and presentation. The result shows that the new media are dominated by men, who constitute two thirds of contributors and cover a very wide range of subjects, whereas women make up only one third of that group and largely deal with issues like fashion, beauty, interior and food. It doesn’t seem like all that much has happened since the 50s, when the gender roles seemed so much more clearly distributed. But we live in the year 2019, and we have come a long way when it comes to gender equality. So how can the inequality in representation and self-representation on social media be explained?
So how can the inequality in representation and self-representation on social media be explained?
The study made waves and was picked up by a large number of outlets in the old and new media. I took a reflective stance, observed the discussion and read a lot of article dissecting the results. Many journalists took to it gleefully, presenting opinions which also communicated the silent reproach that most women actively nurture gender clichés on social media. After all, the top influencers are all slim, pretty, and proper. The undertone was accusatory: the younger generation, members of which are particularly active consumers of social media, are once again under the negative spell cast by villainous influencers.
At some point I lost my composure, noticing how many people don’t seem to have understood the concept of social media.
Here’s the thing: On social media, there is no higher editorial tier as e.g. in a publishing company. No one but the market – i.e. demand – regulates who gets a platform, attention and reach. In other words: the more valuable the content for a large group of people is, the more followers the associated account will rack up.
That doesn’t mean that there are now accounts on which girls or women deal with subjects outside of the typical segments like fashion and beauty – there are. Women voice there opinion online, about music, films, politics, sports, you name it, and much of the content is critical in approach.
It’s just that the reach of these channels tends to be much more limited.
The real question is:
why do followers choose men talking about a wider range of subjects over women?
Is it a matter of education, of gender stereotypes so deeply imprinted on our minds that we can’t shake them?
Don’t we define men much less based on visual criteria?
How many of us subconsciously consider men more competent than women?
Do we define ourselves, and other women, too much based on superficial, i.e. physical criteria? Do we automatically consider women who show an interest in fashion and beauty to be less competent?
Of course, it’s easy to lash out on influencers, to make them responsible for social inequality. But all that influencers really do is hold a mirror to society.
As long as we keep the perceptual sub-current of “men have knowledge, women have hobbies” running, we can’t really be surprised that women are clearly underrepresented on social media, and that they tend to embody gender stereotypes that we long thought overcome.
If we don’t follow women with real opinions, we can’t really complain about the fact that our entire feed is tinged in pink, and that every pic looks alike.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in fashion and beauty, nothing wrong with following accounts that deal with such subjects, nothing wrong with retouching a pimple on a picture or to strive for a healthy body. It’s another cliché to overcome, isn’t it? Women can be interested in fashion and beauty and still be knowledgeable in politics, economy, technology etc. And this should be reflected more in out online-behavior, i.e the accounts we consume and follow.
We can start with ourselves, with a simple reflection of who we follow and why, who we gift our likes to, who we consciously support that way.
After all, one of the major strengths of social media is that we can democratically increase the platform of people who have something of substance to say, who are role models of a new kind for many of us, and who share messages we consider truly important. All we need to strengthen these voices is some consciousness about the power of our thumbs.
And to break it all down to a more concrete level, here are 13 new accounts you should definitely follow, and which deserve all of our support, in my humble opinion: