Nerds get Curves

Stephen DeAngelis

February 29, 2008

The cinematic stars of all those 1980s class B movies about nerds portrayed peculiar, weak, socially outcast, but bright, young males. They defined for a generation what a nerd or geek was supposed to look and to act like. Even more modern offerings, like the TV show Chuck, continue to perpetuate some of these stereotypes. According to Stephanie Rosenbloom, all that is changing [“Sorry, Boys, This Is Our Domain,” New York Times, 21 February 2008].

“The prototypical computer whiz of popular imagination — pasty, geeky, male — has failed to live up to his reputation. Research shows that among the youngest Internet users, the primary creators of Web content (blogs, graphics, photographs, Web sites) are not misfits resembling the Lone Gunmen of ‘The X Files.’ On the contrary, the cyberpioneers of the moment are digitally effusive teenage girls.”

When you think about it, it makes sense. In the Web 2.0 age of social networking, the primary user is unlikely to be an anti-social male happy to be locked alone in his bedroom with his computer. The surprising thing is how very young some of the “young” girls involved are. Take, for example, Nicole Dominguez, who has her own domain on the Web.

“‘Most guys don’t have patience for this kind of thing,’ said Nicole Dominguez, 13, of Miramar, Fla., whose hobbies include designing free icons, layouts and ‘glitters’ (shimmering animations) for the Web and MySpace pages of other teenagers. ‘It’s really hard.’ Nicole posts her graphics, as well as her own HTML and CSS computer coding pointers (she is self-taught), on the pink and violet Sodevious.net, a domain her mother bought for her in October. ‘If you did a poll I think you’d find that boys rarely have sites,’ she said. ‘It’s mostly girls.’ Indeed, a study published in December by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that among Web users ages 12 to 17, significantly more girls than boys blog (35 percent of girls compared with 20 percent of boys) and create or work on their own Web pages (32 percent of girls compared with 22 percent of boys).”

This phenomenon appears to be particularly associated with the social aspects of the World-Wide Web. There is one exception to this, however, and it too comes as no surprise considering the popularity of the Jackass movies among young teenage boys.

“Girls also eclipse boys when it comes to building or working on Web sites for other people and creating profiles on social networking sites (70 percent of girls 15 to 17 have one, versus 57 percent of boys 15 to 17). Video posting was the sole area in which boys outdid girls: boys are almost twice as likely as girls to post video files. Explanations for the gender imbalance are nearly as wide-ranging as cybergirls themselves. The girls include bloggers who pontificate on timeless teenage matters such as ‘evil teachers’ and being ‘grounded for life,’ to would-be Martha Stewarts — entrepreneurs whose online pursuits generate more money than a summer’s worth of baby-sitting.”

Rosenbloom reports that for some girls the Web represents an economic opportunity not just a social one.

“‘I was the first teenage podcaster to receive a major sponsorship,’ said Martina Butler, 17, of San Francisco, who for three years has been recording an indie music show, Emo Girl Talk, from her basement. Her first corporate sponsorship, from Nature’s Cure, an acne medication, was reported in 2005 in Brandweek, the marketing trade magazine. Since then, more than half a dozen companies, including Go Daddy, the Internet domain and hosting provider, have paid to be mentioned in her podcasts, which are posted every Sunday on Emogirltalk.com. ‘It’s really only getting bigger for me,’ said Martina, an aspiring television and radio host who was tickled to learn about the Pew study. ‘I’m not surprised because girls are very creative,’ she said, ‘sometimes more creative than men. We’re spunky. And boys … ‘ Her voice trailed off to laughter.”

While men may still rule the code writing world, content creation on the Web (especially for social networking sites) is being done increasingly by teenage girls.

“The ‘girls rule’ trend in content creation has been percolating for a few years — a Pew study published in 2005 also found that teenage girls were the primary content creators — but the gender gap for blogging, in particular, has widened. As teenage bloggers nearly doubled from 2004 to 2006, almost all the growth was because of ‘the increased activity of girls,’ the Pew report said. The findings have implications beyond blogging, according to Pew, because bloggers are ‘much more likely to engage in other content-creating activities than nonblogging teens.’ But even though girls surpass boys as Web content creators, the imbalance among adults in the computer industry remains. Women hold about 27 percent of jobs in computer and mathematical occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

These skewed employment numbers in the IT industry have their beginnings in high school and the disciplines that teenage girls opt to pursue.

“In American high schools, girls comprised fewer than 15 percent of students who took the AP computer science exam in 2006, and there was a 70 percent decline in the number of incoming undergraduate women choosing to major in computer science from 2000 to 2005, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Scholars who study computer science say there are several reasons for the dearth of women: introductory courses are often uninspiring; it is difficult to shake existing stereotypes about men excelling in the sciences; and there are few female role models. It is possible that the girls who produce glitters today will develop an interest in the rigorous science behind computing, but some scholars are reluctant to draw that conclusion.”

I’m willing to go out on a limb and predict that young girls who create Web content are unlikely to pursue computer science careers. I’m not alone in this assessment.

“Jane Margolis, an author of “Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing” (MIT Press, 2002) [notes that while she is] pleased that girls are mastering programs like Paint Shop Pro [she sees a] profound distinction between using existing software and a desire to invent new technology.”

Neither Margolis nor I am saying that all girls will steer clear of computer science careers. What we are saying is that users of software and creators of software have profoundly different motivations for doing what they do. Both groups are creative, but their creativity expresses itself in very different ways. Rosenbloom writes that there are a few theories about why girls provide more content on the Web. I think the strongest argument Rosenbloom mentions is the fact that girls generally read more and write better than boys.

“Teasing out why girls are prolific Web content creators usually leads to speculation and generalization. Although girls have outperformed boys in reading and writing for years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, this does not automatically translate into a collective yen to blog or sign up for a MySpace page. Rather, some scholars argue, girls are the dominant online content creators because both sexes are influenced by cultural expectations.”

The boys, as noted earlier, do post more videos, but as Rosenbloom reports, this activity is more about demonstrating their manhood than their creativity.

“The one area where boys surpass girls in creating Web content is posting videos. This is not because girls are not proficient users of the technology, Professor [John Palfrey, the executive director of the Berkman Center] said. He suggested, rather, that videos are often less about personal expression and more about impressing others. It’s an ideal way for members of a subculture — skateboarders, snowboarders — to demonstrate their athleticism, he said.”

The article focused on American culture primarily. Whether the trends holding sway in America hold globally is not revealed; but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do in countries where girls are provided education. Nasrin Alavi, author of We are Iran: The Persian Blogs, discusses how important blogs are for Iranian women. She writes:

“Blogs have allowed Iranian women to express themselves freely for the first time in modern history and this small freedom may have a big knock-on effect.”

My partner, Thomas Barnett, noted on his blog that girls around the world are starting to be appreciated more [To go Core is to value daughters]. As father of daughter, this is a trend I’m pleased to see. It is also a concomitant benefit of globalization that rarely gets mentioned. I do think that as more young girls become familiar with technology more of them will eventually get interested in the technical side of IT. These, however, will be the girls who are fascinated with how things are done (i.e., how the programs work) rather than the girls who are fascinated by what’s done with them (i.e., content created for the Web). We are all better off when half of humanity is neither sidelined nor pigeon-holed into stereotyped roles. We need all of the help we can get from all of the best minds available to help solve the challenges headed our way.