Friday, April 15, 2011

Male researcher: Women who post Facebook pictures could be appearance-obsessed, attention-starved, competitive sluts

You know that scene at the beginning of “The Social Network,” where the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg gets in a fight with his fictionalized girlfriend in a bar, then storms home and gets revenge by inventing a “hot or not”-type site that includes his (now ex-) girlfriend’s picture?

Reading about this study made me wonder if its lead researcher had been in a fight in a bar with an ex-girlfriend who likes to post Facebook photos of herself.

Women who post numerous pictures of themselves and have lots of friends on Facebook aren't just sociable, or proud of their photos—they’re actually kind of messed up, according to the study, which was conducted at State University of New York at Buffalo, reported in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, described here in a university press release and publicized in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. In fact, the researchers seem to have concluded, it’s not just prolific picture posters but all women whose Facebook habits reveal identity and security issues.
[R]esearcher Michael A. Stefanone, PhD, and colleagues found that females who base their self worth on their appearance tend to share more photos online and maintain larger networks on online social networking sites.
He says the results suggest that females identify more strongly with their image and appearance, and use Facebook as a platform to compete for attention.
… Among other things, the team looked at the amount of time subjects spent managing profiles, the number of photos they shared, the size of their online networks and how promiscuous they were in terms of "friending" behavior.
Dr. Michael A. Stefanone finds women's Facebook habits "disappointing."
Thwarted romantic obsession might plausibly explain why, although half his subjects were men, Dr. Stefanone, an assistant professor of communications, hardly even mentions men except by implied favorable comparison to “females.” It might also explain the choice of the word “promiscuous,” which of course is Latin for “slutty,” to describe someone with lots of FB friends (though, to be fair—since the whole study isn’t available online without a subscription—there’s no way to know whether that word originated with Stefanone or the author of the press release). And surely post-rejection bitterness might shed light on why a researcher, examining what most people consider an innocuous, everyday activity—posting pictures of oneself on a site that, um, offers a popular tool with which users post pictures of themselves—interprets it so skeptically, at least when engaged in by women, as both a symptom of misplaced values and self-esteem and a calculating ploy to “compete for attention.”

Actually, up to a point I’m willing to go along with Stefanone’s ideas. I’m as interested in subtle sociological patterns as the next lifestyle journalist who took a few sociology classes in college, and I think studying the way people behave on Facebook—an novel communication medium now entrenched in the daily lives of millions—is worthwhile. I’m sure the lab coats could draw all kinds of fascinating conclusions about our innermost thoughts based on people’s Facebook habits, their status updates, their tendency to clutter up your newsfeed with their Farmville activity.

But … come on.

Not that my own FB experiences are empirical evidence of anything, but most of my friends who post lots of pictures of themselves strike me as people who like taking pictures and who do things like travel or get together with friends, activities they believe (rightly or wrongly) are of interest to others. Some of these Facebook photo posters are—get this—men. (“So if a man posts a lot of pictures on Facebook, does it mean he’s a woman?” asked one online commenter.)
No argument here with at least one of Stefanone’s findings, that women in our culture are concerned about their appearance. But that hardly requires extensive personality testing of Facebook users. It could be more easily demonstrated by, say, flipping through pretty much any random magazine this side of  Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking (and maybe that as well; again, I don’t have a subscription, so I have no way of knowing if it typically features weight-loss and makeup articles and photos of celebrities in bikinis).

Still, even if Stefanone and I agree on the phenomenon’s existence, I recoil at his description of it:
 “Although it's stereotypical and might have been predicted," he says, "it is disappointing to me that in the year 2011 so many young women continue to assert their self worth via their physical appearance -- in this case, by posting photos of themselves on Facebook as a form of advertisement. Perhaps this reflects the distorted value pegged to women's looks throughout the popular culture and in reality programming from 'The Bachelor' to 'Keeping Up with the Kardashians.'”
Perhaps?? I would think it obvious to anyone from the Kardashians to Naomi Wolf that cultural influences play a role here. Otherwise, why would it matter that the year is 2011? Implied in Stefanone’s quote is the assumption that, due to recent cultural changes, women should be over all this appearance-related “advertisement” bullshit by now. (Speaking of advertisements and women’s appearance, here is a great story and slideshow illustrating one important way cultural influence on women's appearance-consciousness has been and still is leveraged and how, as is so often the case, it’s tied to corporate profits.)

If cultural influences didn’t play a role, if instead every woman in Stefanone’s study were spontaneously and independently driven to act in this "disappointing" (at least, to Stefanone) way without having received any external cues … then we are left with either the also quite viable possibility that young human females are biologically driven to employ visual signals in their mating behavior (in which case it wouldn't much matter if it were 2011 or 500,000 B.C.) or we’re all living in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

By the way, I became curious about what Michael A. Stefanone has posted on his own Facebook page, so I—promiscuous Facebook slut that I am—sent him a friend request. He accepted it right away, no questions asked. That is, whereas I was somewhat familiar with the person to whom I was extending an offer of friendship, he readily friended a total stranger. Wonder what conclusions about male behavior we can draw from that.

For the record, Stefanone has 8% fewer friends than me. He also has fewer photos.

However, of the 38 photos I’ve posted, I’m in seven. Stefanone has only 16 photos, but he’s in 13 of them.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Good news on the job front

I know it’s lame to start a post with an apology and/or excuse for going so long without posting, but here goes: Sorry I’ve gone so long without posting. I’ve been busy.

The good news is that I’ve been busy … with work!

Those of you who saw my essay “Regrets of a stay-at-home mom” on Salon or one of the other places it appeared or was discussed will know what a welcome turn of events this is. As I wrote in that essay, which is about the financial risks parents take when they give up work to care for children, I mentioned that since 2008, when I got divorced and moved back to Mineapolis, I had sent out countless resumes resulting in but a tiny handful of interviews, that I’d been passed over for jobs I wouldn’t have considered in my 20s, that I’d tried but failed to land jobs that would have paid $20,000 lower my last full-time salary, 15 years ago.

How things can change in a few months—a few months in which, not coincidentally, a Salon essay about your miserable job prospects and pathetic finances goes slightly viral, gets passed around by friends, so it gets noticed by editors at your local paper as well as reprinted on its Sunday op-ed section, the local paper being the workplace out of all local workplaces for which your job skills happen to be most ideally suited.

That’s how I came to be hired as a writer for the niche products department of the Star Tribune, my local paper in Minneapolis, where I started work last week.

What are niche products, you’re probably wondering. They’re the special sections the paper puts out now and then throughout the year, on subjects such as aging, health and wellness, autos, back-to-school preparations. These sections were created, originally, as vehicles for advertising. At one time they contained nothing but advertising. Gradually they evolved, first acquiring bland filler and then better freelance-written pieces. A few months ago, the newspaper made them part of the editorial department, with an editor and now, a writer. Me.

It’s a wonderful job in so many ways. The work, I think, is going to be fun—we’re inventing from the ground up a product for which the bar, historically, has been set low. That lends the enterprise a giddily freeing sort of creativity. How good can we make these things? It’s entirely up to us!

Frankly, as someone who has foot-tall stacks of unread magazines in at least three rooms of my house, 60 books in my Amazon shopping cart (that’s not even counting the ones I’ve already purchased, but not yet read), 23 tabs currently open on my computer screen (which is less than usual, actually), a dining room table covered with newspapers and other assorted pieces of paper with words on them, I have no interest in foisting additional writing on the world unless I can make it as worth reading as possible. That’s the fun challenge of the job.

Also, the job is part time, a great way to segue back into the workforce. I can schedule my 25 hours a week just about whenever I’d like (“The only thing I can tell you for sure is that you can’t do them all in one day,” said my easygoing editor), which makes my work-family balance relatively easy to maintain (and by “easy” I mean “impossible,” though by "relatively," I mean "slightly less impossible than if I worked a rigid full-time schedule"). And I can fill my so-called “free time” with freelance assignments and personal projects like essays, a memoir and, er, blogging.

Put it this way: If this job had been available 15 years ago, I might never have given up a steady paycheck for freelancing in the first place.

Oh, there are a few downsides. Salaries in the niche products area are capped about midway up the guild scale—to keep the products competitive with similar publications—so although my hourly wage is actually a bit higher than it was 15 years ago (and much higher than the wage offered by literally all of would-be employers who ultimately rejected me), my paycheck will still be smaller than if I worked, as I used to, as a regular newspaper reporter. Because I’m part time, I don’t get health insurance, so for now I’m stuck continuing to throw away $200 a month for a private policy with a deductible so high that the only way I’ll ever receive benefits is if something terrible happens to me. And although writing for sections designed to be profitable seems to me a perfectly valid strategy for practicing journalism in the face of the industry’s current business-model crisis, you can probably guess that mine is not the highest status job in the newsroom. I may not win a Pulitzer anytime soon, and don’t look for my picture on the side of a bus.

But so what? It’s a better job than all of the jobs I interviewed for, better than most of the jobs I sent resumes to, better than most of the jobs in the entire world, for that matter. In fact, for me right now—and, as I say this, I’m knocking furiously on the laminated particleboard or whatever it is my desk is made of—this job feels ludicrously perfect.