The Blogosphere: Boys ‘n’ Their Toys

Click around the blogosphere and you’ll see a lot of ideological diversity. Bloggers are posting from left, right and center, from perspectives that range from Libertarian to Marxist. And on the surface, that diversity extends to other arenas: Men and women, recent studies show, blog in roughly equal numbers. A notable exception: Women are responsible for as little as four percent of political blogs — “sites devoted to politics, current events, foreign policy, and various ongoing wars” — according to the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE).

When it comes to politics and campaign commentary, in other words, the blogosphere looks a little like your high school chess club: Even though everyone’s invited to join, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone posted a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the classroom door.
Of course, you probably didn’t need Campaign Desk to tell you that. From Instapundit to Daily Kos to Atrios to Andrew Sullivan to Calpundit, men run the poli-blogs with the most buzz — and the most traffic. There is only one female-run blog, the venerable Wonkette!, listed among the top twenty at The Truth Laid Bear, which ranks a number of blogs by their daily traffic.

By contrast, according to the NITLE study, twice as many women as men write personal diary-style blogs. If the numbers are to be believed, then, outspoken male bloggers all live on Mars, while the more introspective women are blogging away from Venus.

But why does the blogosphere conform to such traditional social mores? This is a community that prides itself, after all, on being the closest thing the media has to a meritocracy. With no glass ceilings or institutional barriers to entry, anyone with a computer can broadcast his or her punditry to the world. Why haven’t women been able to force their way into the political dialogue?

Perhaps because the blogosphere doesn’t quite live up to its hype as barrier-free. Clay Shirky and others have argued that even the blog world has an Establishment, with dominant blogs garnering an amount of traffic disproportionate to their quality. And while the blogosphere has been hailed by itself as a horizontal (or links-driven), not a vertical (or hierarchical) universe, there are those who claim that male bloggers have benefited from what amounts to a first-mover advantage.

“Blogs have their origins in the male-dominated tech world,” says New York University professor Jay Rosen. “In any group, there’s an in-club dynamic. That mentality can prevent the cream from rising to the top.”

Rebecca Blood, who started her blog in 1999, disagrees with Rosen. “Women have been represented from the very beginning,” she says. Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds, whose site gets roughly 100,000 visits per day, agrees. “Among the first wave of well known bloggers,” he says, “there were a lot of women — Virginia Postrel, Joanne Jacobs, Rebecca Blood. The problem is that female bloggers tend to drop off the map. I try to find female bloggers and send people to them, but there just aren’t that many. A lot of the time, the ones I do find end up disappearing.”

Nonetheless, says Rosen, cultural expectations inevitably play a role in defining who gets attention. “The definition of a ‘political blog’ itself is the product of a male dominated culture,” he says.

Columbia University professor Sreenath Sreenivasan is another who rejects what he considers the myth of the idealized blogosphere. “It’s just not true that it’s all based on merit in the blogworld,” he says. “You’ve got the same problems there that you do in the mainstream.” Sreenivasan advocates a sort of blogosphere affirmative action, with bigger bloggers making more of an effort to link to women and minorities. Such a program would violate the meritocratic ideal of the blogosphere, but it would also correct what Sreenivasan sees as a too-often-unacknowledged institutional bias.

Blood, who has written a book about blogging, argues that for a weblog to attract a wide audience, it has to have a narrow focus, a formula that works against women bloggers.

“A lot of the women who have weblogs will post about a lot of different things,” she says. “They generally won’t focus only on politics. I think that writing style tends to strike people as more personal, even when it really isn’t.”

Calpundit’s Kevin Drum, who until recently diverged once a week from his steady focus on politics to blog about his cats, has seen firsthand what happens when you stray too far from the formula.

“Sometimes I get these incredibly angry emails about the Friday cat blogging,” he says. “It’s a blog, you know? If you don’t like something, you can scroll down to the next post. But some people get really upset about it. Blogs aren’t like newspapers, where you’ll see a lot of different content. People only want to read about what they’re interested in, and that’s it.”

Ana Marie Cox, a.k.a. Wonkette, acknowledges that she would have had a hard time breaking into the upper echelons of the blogosphere without the backing of British publisher Nick Denton (Gawker, Gizmodo, Fleshbot), who Sreenivasan refers to as “the New York Times Company of the blogosphere.” “I was running my own personal blog for a while, and I like to think it was pretty good, but it didn’t get anywhere near the attention Wonkette! gets,” says Cox. She argues that there would be more female political bloggers if more women were led to believe that their opinions matter. “Vestiges of hundreds of years of gender stereotypes are still with us,” she says. “Women get a different message from men about how to express their opinions. Women are not as encouraged to shout out their opinion. At times they’re actively discouraged.”

Reynolds acknowledges that the differences between Martians and Venutians are deeply ingrained, without getting into whether they are culturally-mandated or intrinsic: “Men are programmed to show off to impress women and impress other men, and so blogs where you can be outspoken are naturally appealing to them — although if anybody thinks blogs are impressing women,” he adds, almost parenthetically, “they’re in trouble.”

“I think being one of the top bloggers requires some level of obsession,” says Drum. “Women tend not to get quite so obsessed with things. They tend to have more diverse interests.”

Meantime, outside the world of political reporting and commentary, women continue to storm the barricades of journalism. These days, it’s hard to find a mainstream media newsroom that isn’t at least 25 percent female, and at several top newspapers the figure hovers around 50 percent. Nationwide, there are more female collegians studying journalism than males.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, argues that the largely female-free poli-blog world isn’t really all that different than the political beat on any newspaper or network.

“Look at political talk radio as a reference point,” she says. “You’re going to look pretty hard to find a woman. Males dominate the network broadcast news and the Sunday morning shows. They dominate among the columnists. The political opinion world is white male.”

Ellen Goodman, a Boston Globe columnist currently on a book tour promoting Paper Trail, a collection of her columns, makes the same point when she derides TV news talk shows as little more than frat boy “food fights.” When she dismisses most news talk shows as just so many “men screaming at other men in front of a male audience,” Goodman could just as easily be describing the world of poli-blogs. Goodman finds these spectacles annoying, and, she says, “I think most women do. Women in general have had quite enough angry men in their lives.”

If Jamieson believes that women remain disenfranchised from the world of political reporting and comment, Goodman holds that they are simply alienated from it. Either way, it’s clear that the avenues made available by new technology haven’t led to any noticeable rush of newly-empowered women making like either Dan Rather or like Josh Marshall.

If you accept the premise of the blogosphere as a true meritocracy, a place where our intellectual (and emotional) impulses can flourish unchecked, then you’re buying into the concept of the blog world as a window into human nature. If that’s the case, the blogosphere — with perhaps just four percent female participation in poliblogs — shows us that while women are just as interested as men in spouting off, they’re fundamentally less interested than men in spouting off about politics.

But if the blogosphere comes freighted with the same cultural considerations and institutional biases that weigh down the rest of the world, then blogs offer us no more window into our natural inclinations than the mainstream media — and the blogosphere’s claim to be the great equalizer is nothing more than the emperor’s newest clothes.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.