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Communication in the Real World: Blog

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Facebook's New Gender Options Help Users Better Communicate Their Identities

Facebook announced last week that it is finally expanding its options for gender identity. Martha Mendoza's story for the Associated Press notes:

"You don't have to be just male or female on Facebook anymore. The social media giant is adding a customizable option with about 50 different terms people can use to identify their gender as well as three preferred pronoun choices: him, her or them."

These expanded options are a relief, undoubtedly, to the Facebook users who don't fit into or resist the typical gender binary of male/female. While this development in the world of social media will allow people to better communicate and express their gender identities, it connects specifically to the transgender rights movement. to better understand the context behind this story, we must better understand how gender, communication, and identity intersect. The following is excerpted from the chapter on culture and communication in my book Communication in the Real World

"Is It A Boy Or A Girl?"

When we first meet a newborn baby, we often ask whether it’s a boy or a girl. This question illustrates the importance of gender in organizing our social lives and our interpersonal relationships.

A Canadian family became aware of the deep emotions people feel about gender and the great discomfort people feel when they can’t determine gender when they announced to the world that they were not going to tell anyone the gender of their baby, aside from the baby’s siblings. Their desire for their child, named Storm, to be able to experience early life without the boundaries and categories of gender brought criticism from many.[i]

Conversely, many parents consciously or unconsciously “code” their newborns in gendered ways based on our society’s associations of pink clothing and accessories with girls and blue with boys. While it’s obvious to most people that colors aren’t gendered, they take on new meaning when we assign gendered characteristics of masculinity and femininity to them. 

Social Construction of Gender

Just like race, gender is a socially constructed category. While it is true that there are biological differences between who we label male and female, the meaning our society places on those differences is what actually matters in our day-to-day lives. And the biological differences are interpreted differently around the world, which further shows that although we think gender is a natural, normal, stable way of classifying things, it is actually not. There is a long history of appreciation for people who cross gender lines in Native American and South Central Asian cultures, to name just two.

The Difference Between Gender and Sex

You may have noticed I use the word gender instead of sex. That’s because gender is an identity based on internalized cultural notions of masculinity and femininity that is constructed through communication and interaction. There are two important parts of this definition to unpack.

  • We internalize notions of gender based on socializing institutions, which helps us form our gender identity. 
  • We attempt to construct that gendered identity through our interactions with others, which is our gender expression. 

Sex is based on biological characteristics, including external genitalia, internal sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones.[ii] While the biological characteristics between men and women are obviously different, it’s the meaning that we create and attach to those characteristics that makes them significant.

The cultural differences in how that significance is ascribed are proof that “our way of doing things” is arbitrary. For example, cross-cultural research has found that boys and girls in most cultures show both aggressive and nurturing tendencies, but cultures vary in terms of how they encourage these characteristics between genders. In a group in Africa, young boys are responsible for taking care of babies and are encouraged to be nurturing.[iii]

Challenges to Gender Norms

There have been challenges to the construction of gender in recent decades. Since the 1960s, scholars and activists have challenged established notions of what it means to be a man or a woman.

The women’s rights movement in the United States dates back to the 1800s, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Although most women’s rights movements have been led by white, middle-class women, there was overlap between those involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery and the beginnings of the women’s rights movement.

Although some of the leaders of the early women’s rights movement had class and education privilege, they were still taking a risk by organizing and protesting. Black women were even more at risk, and Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave, faced those risks often and gave a much noted extemporaneous speech at a women’s rights gathering in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, which came to be called “A’int I a Woman?” Her speech highlighted the multiple layers of oppression faced by black women. You can watch actress Alfre Woodard deliver an interpretation of the speech here:


Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression do not match the gender they were assigned by birth. Transgender people may or may not seek medical intervention like surgery or hormone treatments to help match their physiology with their gender identity.

The term transgender includes other labels such as transsexualtransvestitecross-dresser, and intersex, among others. Terms like hermaphrodite and she-male are not considered appropriate.

As with other groups, it is best to allow someone to self-identify first and then honor their preferred label. If you are unsure of which pronouns to use when addressing someone, you can use gender-neutral language or you can use the pronoun that matches with how they are presenting. If someone has long hair, make-up, and a dress on, but you think their biological sex is male due to other cues, it would be polite to address them with female pronouns, since that is the gender identity they are expressing.

Facebook's move to allow users to express their gender identities outside the typical binary is commendable and will hopefully help us all be more competent communicators when it comes to gender. 

[i] Linsey Davis and Susan Donaldson James, “Canadian Mother Raising Her ‘Genderless’ Baby, Storm, Defends Her Family’s Decision,” ABC News, May 30, 2011, accessed October 12, 2011,

[ii] Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005), 19.

[iii] Julia T. Wood, Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005), 51.


NSA Leaks, Facebook Graph App, And More: Privacy and Surveillance In A New Media World

Well, Edward Snowden's NSA leaks are now old news, but the implications for communicators in the real world are just now starting to become clear. Needless to say, the public discourse about online privacy and government and corporate surveillance has increased dramatically since Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s PRISM and other spying programs.

In the wake of these revelations, you may be asking: What kinds of surveillance do governments and corporations engage in? What can I do to protect my privacy online?

Weighing Convenience and Privacy - Or, Why We Let Them Do It

We’re all familiar with names like Google and Apple. Those are companies that are cited as turning information over to the NSA as part of their broad surveillance programs.

Every time we “accept” our terms of service or user agreements, we are essentially giving up the rights to the information that we transmit while using these largely free services. In short, the underlying argument is that we give up some of those rights for the pleasure and convenience of these free services and that the information that is vacuumed up is needed to help track user engagement to improve service and to target advertising, which helps make those companies profitable.

This shouldn’t be too surprising – after all, there is no such thing as a free lunch (or Tweet, status update, pin, like, or email). This becomes potentially problematic since companies based in the U.S., like Google and Apple, are then compelled to turn over information requested by the NSA because of the power of FISA court decisions and subpoenas.

There are other names that are less familiar - names like: Abine, DuckDuckGo, and FoxyProxy (and more I will discuss below). These are names of much less profitable (often because they operate under an open source model) entities that exist so that users can exercise more control over what information of theirs is tracked and logged. Since many of these services do not ever log user information or instead they encrypt it before it gets uploaded to their server, even if the NSA came a knockin’ they wouldn’t have any useful information to turn over. 

As is often noted on pro-privacy resources, there is no single solution to managing your privacy online. In short, it comes down to how much effort you are willing to put into it. And, it seems that aside from hardcore privacy advocates, super paranoid people, and hackers and computer geeks who just get intrinsic pleasure out of reliving scenes from 90s hacker-thriller-action movies, people weigh more favorably the pleasure and convenience of free and user-friendly services like Facebook and Gmail than they weigh the tech-skills, patience, and time needed to put their online life on lockdown and cover up if not erase their digital trail.

From Online Surveillance to Content Blocking

When we take a look at countries most known for blocking and filtering internet content, we see names like: China, Iran, and Syria. But, a recent announcement from Britain’s prime minister David Cameron stated that within the UK, access to pornographic materials will be blocked unless individuals “opt out” of the filters that will automatically go into effect in about a year. If users do not opt out, the filters will automatically be applied to their internet service, including all devices on a home wifi network. Additionally, certain search terms will be blocked on search engines like Google and Bing.

Although technology already exists and is often used to limit access to such materials at the computer or network level (by parents or school administrators for example) there are concerns that these types of blanket restrictions can have negative implications for free speech

In a previous blog entry I wrote about internet access and free speech regarding uprisings in countries and how governments block content. The most blocked categories of content are things deemed politically or religiously offensive and pornographic materials. It’s just unusual that a country like the U.K. takes such measures. 

What Can You Do To Protect Your Privacy Online?

So, how much power do you have to protect your privacy?  You can, surprisingly, do a lot if you’re willing to put the effort into it. But, it’s not as easy as some Facebook posts make it seem. The increased awareness of online privacy has also led to some misleading messaging. For example, memes regarding Facebook’s unveiling of its new Graph Search have gone viral. Perhaps you’ve seen or even posted statements like:


At best, those messages are misleading and lead people to waste some time by reposting them. At worst, they may lead people to click on links that are contaminated with viruses or lead you to unrelated services or apps that make false promises to protect your privacy. 

If you want to take more action to ensure your privacy, I highly recommend listening to or reading the transcript from a NPR Science Friday episode

Here are just some of the options discussed in the story by Jon Xavier, digital producer at the Silicon Valley Business Journal:

  • Web Browsing: Tor is "one of the most private ways you can browse the internet." It essentially bounces your connection and IP address through a bunch of servers so you can't be traced. 
  • Search Engines: Startpage is "one of a few sort of private search engines that have sprung up." DuckDuckGo is another private search engine. "They don't track any information about you. They don't save your searches. They don't install any cookies." 
  • Email: Enigmail is a plug-in for Thunderbird that encrypts all of your emails before they leave your computer. (you have to first set up your own email server to make this work)
  • Phone Calls And Texts: RedPhone is an app that can encrypt anything you send through a phone. TextSecure is a similar app. (you have to be calling or texting someone who also has the app for this to work)

How Do Different Generations Use Facebook?: Intergenerational Communication and Social Media

This is the third article in a week-long special series about "Social Media and Communication."

One of my graduate students recently completed her thesis project on how parents and their young adult children communicate on Facebook. The project was both timely and relevant given the rapid change in age demographics taking place on social media sites, Facebook in particular.

The following quote from a Time Magazine article served as the inspiration for the project: “There’s no buzz kill quite like getting a friend request on Facebook from [your parents].” Basically, we wanted to interview parents and their young adult (18-22 years old) children to see how they communicate on Facebook.  

Intergenerational Communication

Intergenerational communication, which is communication between people of different age groups, is a growing subfield of communication studies. For the first time since industrialization began, it is common to have three generations of people (and sometimes four) working side by side in an organizational setting. While this is a new development, the family unit has always been a primary place for intergenerational communication, and the parent-child relationship is probably the most studied intergenerational relationship. 

Changing Demographics on Facebook

More generations are now using Facebook, which has been referred to as the "graying of Facebook." A few years ago, it was noted that sixteen-and-a-half million adults ages 55 and older engage in social networking, and that number is sure to be larger now. In fact, it has been stated the fastest-growing Facebook user group is women fifty-five and older, which is up more than 175 percent since fall 2008. The number of men, in that same age group, using Facebook has increased 138%. 

Why Parents Join Facebook

While parents likely have multiple reasons for joining Facebook, some researchers have suggested that joining social networking sites (SNSs) is a good way for parents to stay connected, and even spy on their children. Parents may use Facebook as part of their parental monitoring, which would be a part of a helicopter parent's repertoire of monitoring strategies. 

From a less sinister viewpoint, we can see that parents can discover information they may not otherwise have known about their children, and use it to spark discussions, either in person or through social media. Parents can also use Facebook to keep in contact with their children who have gone away for work or school. 

The Effects of Intergenerational Communication on Facebook

I'm sure we've all heard or read about funny interactions between parents and their kids on Facebook. Although they are at times horrifying for the kids, the posts on sites like and others, and the stories told on those sites aren't very different from what parents and kids conveyed during their interviews with my graduate student. 

For example, Molly, a 19 year old college student wasn't too excited about being friends with her mom on Facebook. And, after she accepted her mom's friend request, she stated: "my mom started blowing up my Facebook." Basically, Molly's mom was continually writing on Molly’s wall, commenting on statuses, and “liking” her pictures. Molly eventually de-friended her mother, stating: “I don’t see a point of parents getting on Facebook just to creep on their kids.” 

While Molly's initial interactions with her mom on Facebook were negative, another daughter had a more positive experience. Callie believes that Facebook is a prime place to see her mother’s true personality. Callie states: “It lets me see her personality more…I can see how she interacts with her friends, something I wouldn’t necessarily see in person.” In this sense, Facebook can help forge a stronger parent child bond.

There were many other interesting findings that came out of this study, but I will summarize a few below:

  • Although most of the young adults were not initially excited about being friends with a parent on Facebook, they eventually saw the benefits of it, especially around the age of 21 or 22. 
  • Parents learned how to "read" their child's Facebook page and when to post and when to leave some distance, eventually getting better at balancing the tension between autonomy and connection.
  • Photo sharing was listed as a key benefit of Facebook for both parents and their children. But many of the young adults interviewed are selective about what photos they post because their parents are on Facebook or they use privacy settings to limit what their parents can see. 
  • Facebook helps the parent and child experiment with boundary management which is a key part of this developmental period. The lessons learned through boundary management on Facebook can translate into offline life as well. 

Other References: 

Brandtzaeg, P.B., Luders, M., & Havard Skjetne, J. (2010). Too many facebook “friends”? Content sharing and socialability versus the need for privacy in social network sites. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 26(11-12), 1006 – 1030.

Jackson, J. (2011). The graying of Facebook: Emerging adults and their parents as Facebook friends. Master's Thesis, Eastern Illinois University. 


How Does Social Media Affect Our Relationships?: Interpersonal Communication in the Digital Age

This is the second article in a week long special series about social media. Check out yesterday's article about Social Media, Digital Trails, and Your Reputation. Click "Share this Article" below to quickly and easily post to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.  

How does social media affect our interpersonal relationships, if at all? This is a question that has been addressed by scholars, commentators, and people in general. Social/New media have been the primary communication change of the past few generations, which likely accounts for the attention they receive. Some scholars in sociology have decried the negative effects of new technology on society and relationships in particular, saying that the quality of relationships is deteriorating and the strength of connections is weakening.[i]

Social Media Affects How We Use The Word "Friend"

Facebook greatly influenced our use of the word friend, although people’s conceptions of the word may not have changed as much. When someone “friends you” on Facebook, it doesn’t automatically mean that you now have the closeness and intimacy that you have with some offline friends. And research shows that people don’t regularly accept friend requests from or send them to people they haven’t met, preferring instead to have met a person at least once.[ii]

Some users, though, especially adolescents, engage in what is called “friend-collecting behavior,” which entails users friending people they don’t know personally or that they wouldn’t talk to in person in order to increase the size of their online network.[iii] This could be an impression management strategy, as the user may assume that a large number of Facebook friends will make him or her appear more popular to others.

Social Media Affects How We Think About Our Offiline Social Networks

Although many have critiqued the watering down of the term friend when applied to SNSs (social networking sites), specifically Facebook, some scholars have explored how the creation of these networks affects our interpersonal relationships and may even restructure how we think about our relationships.

Even though a person may have hundreds of Facebook friends that he or she doesn’t regularly interact with on- or offline, just knowing that the network exists in a somewhat tangible form (catalogued on Facebook) can be comforting. Even the people who are distant acquaintances but are “friends” on Facebook can serve important functions.

Rather than Facebook users seeing these connections as pointless, frivolous, or stressful, they are often comforting background presences. A dormant network is a network of people with whom users may not feel obligated to explicitly interact but may find comfort in knowing the connections exist. Such networks can be beneficial, because when needed, a person may be able to more easily tap into that dormant network than they would an offline extended network. It’s almost like being friends on Facebook keeps the communication line open, because both people can view the other’s profile and keep up with their lives even without directly communicating. This can help sustain tenuous friendships or past friendships and prevent them from fading away, which is a common occurrence as we go through various life changes.

Social Media Affects How We Present Ourselves

A key part of interpersonal communication is impression management, and some forms of new media allow us more tools for presenting ourselves than others. Social networking sites (SNSs) in many ways are platforms for self-presentation. Even more than blogs, web pages, and smartphones, the environment on a SNS like Facebook and Twitter facilitates self-disclosure in a directed way and allows others who have access to our profile to see our other “friends.” This convergence of different groups of people (close friends, family, acquaintances, friends of friends, colleagues, and strangers) can present challenges for self-presentation.

Now we likely have people from personal, professional, and academic contexts in our Facebook network and the growing diversity of our social media networks creates new challenges as we try to engage in impression management.

Social Media Affects How Others Perceive Us

We should be aware that people form impressions of us based not just on what we post on our profiles but also on our friends and the content that they post on our profiles. In short, as in our offline lives, we are judged online by the company we keep.[vi] The difference is, though, that via Facebook a person (unless blocked or limited by privacy settings) can see our entire online social network and friends, which doesn’t happen offline.

Recent research found that a person’s perception of a profile owner’s attractiveness is influenced by the attractiveness of the friends shown on the profile. In short, a profile owner is judged more physically attractive when his or her friends are judged as physically attractive, and vice versa. The profile owner is also judged as more socially attractive (likeable, friendly) when his or her friends are judged as physically attractive.[vii]

Social Media Affects Our "Support Networks"

Aside from influencing how we are perceived by others, SNSs provide opportunities for social support. Research has found that Facebook communication behaviors such as “friending” someone or responding to a request posted on someone’s wall lead people to feel a sense of attachment and perceive that others are reliable and helpful.[viii]

Social Media Affects Relationship Maintenance Behaviors

Much of the research on Facebook, though, has focused on the less intimate alliances that we maintain through social media. Since most people maintain offline contact with their close friends and family, Facebook is more of a supplement to interpersonal communication. Since most people’s Facebook “friend” networks are composed primarily of people with whom they have less face-to-face contact in their daily lives, Facebook provides an alternative space for interaction that can more easily fit into a person’s busy schedule or interest area. For example, to stay connected, both people don’t have to look at each other’s profiles simultaneously. I often catch up on a friend by scrolling through a couple weeks of timeline posts rather than checking in daily.

The space provided by SNSs can also help reduce some of the stress we feel in regards to relational maintenance or staying in touch by allowing for more convenient contact. The expectations for regular contact with our Facebook friends who are in our extended network are minimal. An occasional comment on a photo or status update or an even easier click on the “like” button can help maintain those relationships. 

Social Media Can Expand Our Perspective

These extended networks serve important purposes, one of which is to provide access to new information and different perspectives than those we may get from close friends and family. For example, since we tend to have significant others that are more similar to than different from us, the people that we are closest to are likely to share many or most of our beliefs, attitudes, and values.

Extended contacts, however, may expose us to different political views or new sources of information, which can help broaden our perspectives. The content in this posting hopefully captures what I’m sure you have already experienced in your own engagement with social/new media—that they have important implications for our interpersonal relationships.

[i] Kathleen Richardson and Sue Hessey, “Archiving the Self?: Facebook as Biography of Social and Relational Memory,” Journal of Information, Communication, and Ethics in Society 7, no. 1 (2009): 29.

[ii] Kathleen Richardson and Sue Hessey, “Archiving the Self?: Facebook as Biography of Social and Relational Memory,” Journal of Information, Communication, and Ethics in Society 7, no. 1 (2009): 32.

[iii] Emily Christofides, Amy Muise, and Serge Desmarais, “Hey Mom, What’s on Your Facebook? Comparing Facebook Disclosure and Privacy in Adolescents and Adults,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 3, no. 1 (2012): 51.

[vi] Joseph B. Walther, Brandon Van Der Heide, Sang-Yeon Kim, David Westerman, and Stephanie Tom Tong, “The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep?” Human Communication Research 34 (2008): 29.

[vii] Joseph B. Walther, Brandon Van Der Heide, Sang-Yeon Kim, David Westerman, and Stephanie Tom Tong, “The Role of Friends’ Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep?” Human Communication Research 34 (2008): 41–45.

[viii] Jessica Vitak and Nicole B. Ellison, “‘There’s a Network Out There You Might as Well Tap’: Exploring the Benefits of and Barriers to Exchanging Informational and Support-Based Resources on Facebook,” New Media and Society (2013).

[ix] Jessica Vitak and Nicole B. Ellison, “‘There’s a Network Out There You Might as Well Tap’: Exploring the Benefits of and Barriers to Exchanging Informational and Support-Based Resources on Facebook,” New Media and Society (2013).


Self-Disclosure, Impression Management, and Social Media in a Post Manti T'eo Scandal World

Kareem Copeland's recent post on a NFL blog starts with the line: "Be careful what you post on the Internet. You never know who's watching."

That's good advice that applies to all social media users whether you are a student, an employer, a potential employee, or a professional athlete. We use social media to engage in several key types of communication. For example, we use social media as a channel for self-disclosure - meaning that we share things about our lives on these public or semi-public forums. We also engage in impression management, meaning we try to strategically present aspects of ourselves in order to make particular impressions; for example, to be seen as competent, smart, cool, edgy, aloof, or attractive. We also use social media to initiate and maintain interpersonal relationships

Since most of use use social media for personal and professional reasons, we have to figure out how to engage in self-disclosure and impression management in appropriate and effective ways. 

Copeland's blog post, titled "Manti Te'o Case Spurs NFL Teams to Watch Social Media," notes that NFL recruiters are more closely looking at the social media of potential recruits. This type of social media data mining is not new, but it's happening more often.

You're probably all familiar with the Te'o hoax. Although all of the facts are not yet known, he was at the center of an internet hoax, in which he led a long term and long distance relationship with a woman who didn't actually exist.  During this same time period, a few players for the Washington Redskins found out that they had been tricked into communicating with a person who had created a fake online identity. The team went so far as to post messages in the locker room stating: "Stay away from @RedRidnH00d. Avoid her on Twitter. Avoid her on Instagram. Do not converse with this person on any social media platform. She is not who she claims to be."

Of course, some people aren't tricked into self-disclosing personal information or potentially harmful or embarrassing information online - instead, they do it on their own, perhaps without thinking about the consequences. 

Facebook and Twitter are undoubtedly dominating the world of online social networking, and the willingness of many users to self-disclose personal information ranging from moods to religious affiliation, relationship status, and personal contact information has led to an increase in privacy concerns. Facebook and Twitter offer convenient opportunities to stay in touch with friends, family, and coworkers, but are people using these social media responsibly?

Some argue that there are fundamental differences between today’s digital natives, whose private and public selves are intertwined through these technologies, and older generations (sometimes called digital immigrants). Even though some colleges are offering seminars on managing privacy online, we still hear stories of self-disclosure gone wrong, such as the football player from the University of Texas who was kicked off the team for posting racist comments about President Obama or the student who was kicked out of his private, Christian college after a picture of him dressed in drag surfaced on Facebook.

However, social media experts say these cases are rare and that most students are aware of who can see what they’re posting and the potential consequences. 

Questions to Consider: 

1. How do you manage your privacy and self-disclosures online?

2. Do you think it’s ethical for school officials or potential employers to make admission or hiring decisions based on what they can learn about you online? Why or why not?

3. How do you decide who to "friend" and who to ignore? 



Is "Facebookistan" a democracy or a dictatorship?

"Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you..."

"Sometimes I feel like, somebody's watching me..."

There are several different song lyrics that are pretty applicable to many of Facebook's practices, and WNYC and NPR's awesome weekly podcast/radio show On the Media recently did a whole episode on Facebook, which was both enlightening and unsettling.

Rebecca MacKinnon, an accomplished reporter turned advocate for internet transparency, coined the term Facebookistan to capture the near totalitarian rule that Facebook exercises in creating policies and generally governing what happens within its social media borders. And, in terms of the number of users, Facebook has enough people within its "borders" to make it the third largest country in the world.

Here are a couple interesting facts from the episode:

It used to be impossible to delete your Facebook profile once created, but after user complaints it is now just really difficult. Click here to read Steve Coll's article "Leaving Facebookistan" from the New Yorker Online about his experiences deleting his Facebook profile.

Facebook has the largest user base in the history of the internet.

The "tag smart" facial recognition software that helps suggest who might be in photos is no longer used in Europe because of privacy concerns.

A Facebook user successfully petitioned Facebook to give him the data they had on him. It was over 1000 printed pages, and that didn't include everything.

Question to think about:

How do you feel about being a citizen of Facebookistan?