Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Battle of the texters

Gender and text messaging come under the spotlight in a recent piece of research from Indiana University carried out by Susan Herring and Asta Zelenkauskaite, reported here in Science Daily.

According to the summary on Science Daily, the usual patterns of gender interaction* - men talking for longer and using more non-standard forms - are reversed when men and women use text messaging to interact in public forums.

Expecting findings consistent with past research on gender-patterned public communication, Herring and Zelenkauskaite were predicting men would post more and longer text messages, and that men would also employ more non-standard techniques. Instead, the opposite was true when it came to communication within a new, convergent medium that mixes interactive television (iTV) with SMS or texting.

The study found women used more non-standard language such as abbreviations or expressive insertions that represented characteristics including enthusiasm, sadness, emphasis and individuality. And while women were both more economical and expressive, they also came closer to maxing out, or did max out, on the 160-character message limit more often than their male counterparts.

So, according to this research, if the length of a text message equates to the length of an utterance in spoken mode, then it's actually women who are "saying" more and "saying" it more often. But of course, this isn't quite the texting we're used to here, because (as they explain in the article) the texts are used as part of an interactive TV forum, rather than phone to phone. Presumably you text in and your message appears on the screen.

Would the same patterns hold true in phone to phone texting or would the usual patterns* of gender and spoken language kick back in? And might this research throw up these findings because the nature of the text "conversation" is flirtatious and expressive in nature?

But whatever the quibbles over the possible differences between this and "proper" texting, it does raise lots of interesting questions about how we negotiate computer-mediated communication and blended modes, and whether the patterns sometimes noted in spoken interaction can be seen directly translated over onto these newer modes.

(*I'm using this term with some qualification, because as you can see here and here, generalising about gender and language is a bit of a mug's game)

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