Reflections of RL in The Virtual WorldAndra Siibak
The aim of the paper is to analyse how young people present themselves on the photographs of dating and communication website Rate. Rate is known as a site where people can post a short description of themselves and photos, so that other users could give their points and comments. The purpose of my study was to analyse how the youngsters on the website formulate their gender identities in order to appeal to potential partners.
Content analysis involving elements of visual analysis methods developed by Goffman (1979), Kress and van Leeuwen (1996), Kang (1997), and Bell (2001), was carried out to analyse the photos of youngsters who appeared in the TOP 100 of the most remarkable people in Rate in a period of six months. Altogether 139 women and 144 men from Rate were analysed to find out how the gender identity is reflected on the photographs.
The results suggest that the photos of the most remarkable girls play with the stereotypical codes of sexuality presented by the media with the hope of meeting the social expectations of ideal female beauty. In case of boys, two contradictory types of masculinity tend to be most popular – the age-old Macho man and 21 century Metrosexual.
Key words: adolescents and the Internet, identity in virtual environment
1. In search of role models
Theorists (cf. Goffman 1979, Gauntlett 2002, etc) have argued that the mass media plays an important role in the socialisation process as it can act as one of the tools for people who are trying to model their own identities. The role of the media can be strongly felt especially in the socialisation into gender roles because the representations of gender in the media help to reinforce how ideal women and men should look and behave.
According to Festinger' s (1954) social comparison theory people who are uncertain about their abilities and opinions tend to compare and evaluate themselves by making comparisons with similar others. Young people in particular are the ones who most often feel the need to meet the societal expectations and may therefore unconsciously engage in social comparisons. According to Lucker-Harrington (2001), in case of teens the opinions of friends are especially valuable as „the collective consciousness of peer codes is often the determinant of self-esteem” (Merskin 2006: 54). Therefore, in order to maintain one` s positive self-image and confirm to the societal norms, „an individual must be constantly aware of the environmental feedback that they are receiving and adjust accordingly” (Boyd 2001: 110)
In the following paragraph it will be explained briefly why the virtual worlds have become ideal places for testing the social norms and expectations as well as the peer codes.
1.1. Impressing others in the virtual worlds
Research has proven that in the new media environments people „may easily switch from the „real” to the chosen „ought” identity” (Petkova 2005: 6). Furthermore, in the virtual world people often play with and test different types of identities in the hope of creating favourable impressions of themselves.
According to Goffman (1959) impressions are formed through interpreting two kinds of “sign activity”: the expression given and the expression given off. The former of which is expressed during verbal communication, the latter is expressed through one’s looks in general. In order to find out what kind of qualities and features are thought to be sought by potential partners a person may have to “perform” several acts before receiving the approval they were looking for. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that one is allowed to adopt whatever identity one chooses in virtual environments, studies have shown that men and women still tend to offer attributes thought to be sought by the opposite sex (Albright, 2001; Schmidt & Buss 1996). According to Shayla Marie Thiel “females and males `perform` what they interpret their gender to be based upon, what culture has taught them is the correct (heterosexual) interpretation of gender” (Thiel 2006: 182).
The different popularity charts in a popular communication and dating website Rate give us a perfect example to see how the youngsters interpret gender in Estonian society.
2. The case of Rate
The dating and communication website Rate was opened 1. May 2002. Rate is a website where people can post their photos and other personal data in order to receive comments and points from other website users. Every active user of the site is able to view photos of others and rate and comment them according to their preference. Only users who have photos on the site are able to comment and rate others, the ones with no photo do not have that chance.
Although Rate is most popular among teenagers, it is not just a site for young people looking for social feedback and an ego boost; in fact the site has become immensely popular among the whole population. The figures found on the statistics page of Rate show that there are more than 350 000 people registered as active users of the site, which gives us a reason to believe that every third Estonian is actually a user of Rate. Even though the abovementioned number is taken from the statistics page of Rate and therefore, should be handled with some suspicion, Rate is definitely one of the most actively used websites in Estonia. According to the TNS Metrix weekly site ranking database, Rate was the most popular entertainment and communication oriented website in Estonia having 309 425 – 345 285 visitors per week (tnsmetrix.emor.ee).
Most of the users of Rate are driven by „a need to communicate, a need to be exposed (social feedback), also to make new acquaintances and to actualize themselves and to have the clear picture of the surrounding“(www.rate.ee). All of these reasons were also brought up by the young Rate users in the survey “Pupils and the Media 2005” made by the Department of Journalism and Communication of Tartu University. This survey confirmed that 49% of the youngsters use Rate in order to find new friends and acquaintances and 41% of the youngsters had decided to create a profile in Rate because their friends already had one. Furthermore, 32% of the teenagers agreed that they created a profile in order get social feedback and 31% had created a profile because they just wanted to take a look at the people who were the users of the website.
Rate has become part of a lifestyle for thousands of Estonian youngsters who are spending a lot of time surfing in Rate. In fact, it could be argued that in a way Rate has turned into a network of identities as it provides both visual as well as textual ways for showing the young in search of the right clues what kind of trends, habits and looks are presently needed in order to get accepted.
3. Method and data
This study is focused on the TOP 100 of the most remarkable men and women in Rate that is formed of people who other Rate users believe to be the most exciting and most interesting, not to mention handsome, people of the site (Siibak 2006). In order to become part of the TOP 100 one has to be included in the so-called “attention list” by other website users. Every Rate user can form one’s own “attention list”, i.e. one can mark the names one wants to keep track of constantly in order to look at their new photos and receive all the other new information about their personality.
Belonging to the TOP however, is a question of honour for Rate users as people who have made it to the TOP are called the “Elite of Site” by other users. In order to be able to reach for this highest level, many teenagers are willing to sit hours on end in front of the computer for self-promotion, i.e. supplying extra information about themselves or renewing photos (Saulus, 03.09.2005; Roonemaa 03.11.2003).
My study is based on the photos of the people who appeared in the TOP 100 of the most remarkable men and women of Rate from August 2005 – February 2006. Although there were 137 women and 144 men who belonged to this elite group of the site, not all of their photos could be analyzed as 16 women and 19 men had closed their profile on the site, and 16 women and 8 men had taken down all of their photos. Content analysis involving elements of visual analysis methods developed by Goffman (1979), Kress and van Leeuwen (1996), Kang (1997), and Bell (2001), was carried out to analyse the most recent photo of 117 boys and 105 girls who appeared in the TOP 100 in a period of six months.
The aim of my analysis was to find out what ways the youngsters use in order to construct their gender identity on the photos of Rate, and what methods the youngsters use in the hope of gaining popularity among the other users of the website.
The main coding categories, which will be discussed in the paper, were conceptually defined as follows:
- Social Distance. A distance from where the photo is taken (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996).
- Intimate Distance - we see face or head only
- Close Personal Distance- we take in the head and the shoulders
- Far Personal Distance – we see the other person from the waist up
- Close Social Distance - we see the whole figure
- Far Social Distance - we see the whole figure „with space around it”.
- Public Distance - we can see the torso of at least four or five people
- Behaviour. Facial expressions and the way the person depicted on the photo looks at the camera (Bell 2001).
- Demand/Affiliation – model looks at the viewer directly, smiling
- Demand/Seduction - model looks down at the viewer, not smiling
- Demand/Submission – model looks up at the viewer, head canted, smiling or „pouting“
- Offer/Ideal - the model depicted offers herself as an idealised exemplar of a class or attribute, looking away from the viewer (statuesque pose of a female model)
- Facial Expressions - Expression on the face while posing (smiling, serious, lips parted, covering face/mouth, making faces, other).
- Personal Characteristics. Visible physical features in the looks of a person – body art, body display and hairstyle, -colour. The latter of which were considered important in the overall physical attractiveness of a person as it is “a body part that can be readily manipulated by changing its length, colour or style” (Rich & Cash 1993). Furthermore, the selection of hair colour can also speak about the societal beauty norms and expectations of a nation (Rich & Cash 1993). As body has become one of the central means of identity construction for individuals in the late-modern society (Giddens 1991), I decided to analyse if the persons content with their looks are also more willing to demonstrate considerably more body display.
In the following paragraphs some of the main findings of the study will be introduced.
4. Results of coding
4.1 Gender-specific ways of posing
The results of the study show that the biggest differences in the ways of posing between the most remarkable boys and girls appeared in the categories of Behaviour, Facial Expressions and Social Distance.
The biggest differences in between the genders have to do with the behaviour expressed on the photos. The majority of the most remarkable women posed on the photos so that the viewer was placed in a position of superiority. In fact, there were 42 (41%) photos of women that could be classified under the category demand/seduction. On these photos women looked up at the viewers with their head canted and a smile on their face, simultaneously inviting and teasing the viewer with their looks. Men used the abovementioned strategy rarely as only 11 (9%) photos of men of this kind could be found. Compared to women, the most often used behaviour for men could be classified as “offer”. There were 24 (21%) photos of men that belonged to the „offer” category, and 25 photos (21%) that could be defined as offer/ideal.
The analysis of the photos of the most remarkable boys and girls of Rate showed that in comparison to men women tend to smile more on posed photographs. There were 67 (65%) photos were women posed with a smile on their face, however there were only 28 (24%) photos with smiling men. The favourite facial expressions for posing to men was with a serious look as there were 54 men (46%) compared to 17 (16%) of women with the same expression.
In case of Rate the most popular distance for posing on the photos for both girls and boys was the far personal distance i.e. there were 31(30%) photos of women and 35 (30%) photos of men posing from the waist up. The biggest differences in the distances of posing in Rate appeared in terms of the close social distance, which is the distance of where impersonal distance occurs. Photos taken from the close social distance were more often found in case of women. There were 27 (28%) photos of women compared to 17 (15%) photos of men taken from that range. The public distance is however more often used by men. 13 (11%) photos taken from the public distance were found in case of boys and only 3 (3%) photos in case of girls.
The following paragraphs will give an overview of the gender specific personal characteristics of the people who belonged to the TOP 100 of the most remarkable people in Rate.
4.2. “Be sexy like me b***h!”
A number of provocative sayings like “Be sexy like me b***h!” could be found under the photos of “the most remarkable women” in Rate. The need to stand out among the others and to emphasise their looks could also be the reason why some girls had decided to wear clothing that would emphasise their sexualised body parts. For example, 16 (15%) girls wore a tight T-shirt or a top that was revealing their bare stomach, bare back was shown in 4 (4%) cases and there were 11 (10%) girls who were wearing miniskirts. 6% of the girls were posing in bikinis, 4% was found in underwear and 3% with only a bra on. All in all there were only 22% of the girls who were fully dressed so that no sexualised body parts were revealed.
The saying that “gentlemen prefer blondes” also seems to be true in case of Rate. There were 51 (50%) girls among the most remarkable women on Rate who had blonde hair, whereas there were only 18 (17%) women with black hair, 14 (13%) with light brown hair and 11 (11%) with dark brown hair among the TOP 100. Furthermore, there was another traditionally feminine feature that 86 (83%) of the most remarkable girls shared in their looks, i.e they all had long hair. However, there were only five (5%) women with shoulder-length hair and just one (1%) who had a short haircut.
4.3. “Babe, if you’ll give it to me, I’ll give it to you”
In case of the most remarkable men in Rate, two central images of masculinity could be found.
The photos of the most remarkable men in Rate give a reason to believe that some boys are willing to show their softer side as they can be found posing near the lake when the sun is setting, or in the wilderness gazing dreamily into the horizon. The photos of this new type of a guy are therefore taken so as to show him as sensitive and romantic the qualities of which make him irresistible to the opposite sex. In some cases the “Mr. Nice Guy” image is also visible in the headings of the photos, e.g. „Excuse Me, But I Believe You Are Holding My Heart“, “For my Kitten”, “Mister Feeling”, etc.
Nevertheless, not all of the remarkable men in Rate have given up their tougher image. There are still some men in the TOP 100 who are holding on to the age-old image of a Macho Man and can either be found posing near a car or a motorbike, in order to show their strength and manliness, or exposing their bare athletic body to the „female gaze”. Compared to Mr. Nice Guy, these type of guys seem to be more „individualistic, hedonistic, and sexually predatory” (Gill et al. 2005: 23) as some of these men had underlined their photos with questions like “Does someone want to have sex?” or “Sex on the beach, come move your body”.
Furthermore, the results of the coding show a growing trend of objectification of men’s bodies as quite a number of images of sexualized men could be found. For example, there were 17 (15%) men who were posing without their shirt on and 19 (16%) guys had unbuttoned their shirt to expose their muscles. Still, the trend of body piercing or tattoos, which can be regarded as one way of individual expression, was not very popular among the men in the TOP 100. There were only 6 (5%) men who had a visible tattoo, 3 (3%) men with pierced ears and 10 (9%) guys who had some other piercing on their body.
Dating and communication website Rate has become a daily meeting place for thousands of Estonian youngsters in search of a kindred spirit or a possible date. The TOP 100 of the most remarkable women and men in Rate form the elite of the site, who are selected to represent the “ideal” by other website users. The results of the study show that these youngsters in the TOP 100 still prefer to use socially approved and more familiar ways for appealing to the opposite sex. Therefore, it could be argued that cyberspace “is not so much a parallel to the real world as an increasingly significant dimension within it” (McRae 1997: 73).
Vigorito & Curry (1998) found in their study of popular magazines that the sex of the target audience influences the gender portrayals and creates contrary expectations among the readers. They found that while men readers are hoping the portrayals of men to confirm the traditional identities of hegemonic masculinity, women, on the contrary, have “more nurturing visions of men in their minds” (Vigorito & Curry 1998: 26). Contradicting views on masculinity can also be seen while looking the photos of “the most remarkable men” on Rate. Although Christian-Smith (1990) found in her study of romance novels that readers “were repelled by teenage versions of the `macho man` in books and everyday experience” (Christian-Smith 1990: 108 cited by Mazarella 2006: 154), a number of boys have stayed true to their traditional understandings of masculinity. Besides posing with their cars and motorbikes, the images of macho-men also have an aura of physical strength and power around them. The images of these muscular men, who can be found posing without their shirt on, confirm the idea of Gill et al (2005) that for the 21st century men „body has become a source of symbolic capital, less because of what the body is able to do then how it looks” (Gill et al 2005: 5).
The findings of Urbanik and Kilman (2003) suggest that women are beginning to turn their back on “bad boys” and are more and more focused on finding “Mr. Nice Guy”: someone who is kind, considerate and sensitive all at the same time. “Mr. Nice Guy” is the other central masculinity type that can be found among the most remarkable men in Rate. These metrosexual men stress both their personality and looks in order to appeal to the opposite sex.
In order to appeal to men, however, women in the on-line communities need to be physically attractive (Albright, 2001). The results of my study show that the majority of “the most remarkable women” in Rate correspond to the societal expectations of ideal female beauty. First of all, most of the girls in Rate seem to share this “strikingly clear norm of `proper slenderness`” that is in the minds of thousands of young people (Lähde 2006: 11). Secondly, a number of these beauties are ready to expose their perfect bodies while wearing clothes that stress their ideal body shape. The latter method could also be regarded as a wise way of posing on a dating website, as researchers have found that emphasizing sexualized appearance is also one of the most effective ways a woman can attract short-term partners (Schmitt & Buss 1996). Thirdly, the majority of girls in the TOP 100 had long blond hair, the trait in the looks of a woman which according to the studies of Rich & Cash (1993) is associated in the society with sexuality and beauty.
Furthermore, many women used the behaviour categorised as demand/seduction on the photos which also could be seen as a more “useful” way of posing on a dating website. According to the theory by Kress and van Leeuwen the seductive pouting at the viewer suggests that the viewer is asked to desire the person on the photo (Kress and van Leeuwen 1996: 122). Furthermore, both of the genders prefer similar social distances for posing the analysis confirmed the findings of previous studies (cf. Dodd et al 1999) that in comparison to men women tend to smile more on posed photographs. While women were mostly posing from the position of inferiority “the most remarkable men” preferred to “offer” themselves to the viewer. The photos of this kind „offer” the represented participants to the viewer “as items of information, object of contemplation, impersonally, as though they were specimens in a display case” (Kress and van Leeuwen 1996: 124). The latter type of posing was formerly especially frequent in case of female models appearing on the front covers of fashion and women` s magazines (Bell 2001).
Brian McNair has argued that the climate of “porno-chic” that “spread across the range of popular and avant-garde popular norms” in the 1990s (McNair 2002: 61) has now emerged into “striptease culture” (McNair 2002: 88). According to McNair striptease culture “frequently involves ordinary people talking about sex and their own sexualities, revealing intimate details of their feelings and their bodies in the public sphere”(McNair 2002: 88). Besides talk shows, reality television, print media and advertising, which are the most widely used mediated genres of striptease culture, the Internet has also become a space which “involves forms of exposure and self-exposure” of ordinary people (McNair 2002: 88).
I believe that the dating and communication website Rate is a perfect example of “striptease culture” as it provides youngsters with a virtual space for “stripping off, emotionally or physically” (McNair 2002: 89). Although Brian McNair has suggested that the revelations of these ordinary people are “certainly more representative of humanity in general than the idealized stereotypes which populate large tracts of our sexual culture” (2002: 108) it could be claimed that the stereotypes of the porno-chic have still remained the main source for making social comparisons for the ordinary people engaged in the striptease culture. The TOP 100 of the most remarkable men and women in Rate is to a big extent built upon the stereotypes that were created by porno-chic and are still carried forward by the present-day media. Still, Zygmunt Bauman claims that constructing an identity cannot be compared to solving a jigsaw puzzle, as “you do not start from the final image, but from the number of bits which you have already obtained or which seem to be worthy of having, and then try to find out how you can order and reorder them to get some pleasing pictures” (Bauman 2006: 48-9). Websites like Rate give the ordinary people a chance to exhibit the “bits” they have considered to be worthy of having and expose them to all the others willing to take a look.
The representations of girls and boys in the dating and communication website Rate play with the age old gender stereotypes as well as with the images distributed by the “porno-chic” in the present day media. Furthermore, websites like Rate give the ordinary youngsters an opportunity to play with their gender identities and test the boundaries of a “striptease culture.”
The preparation of this article was supported by the research grant No.ETF6968, financed by the Estonian Science Foundation.
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