You have logged onto Facebook and Twitter and you are reading through your feed. People have linked to posts of all different kinds: breaking news, silly quizzes, articles they have written. Which of these posts do you like or share or retweet? Some? None? How do you decide?
I started thinking about this issue recently, when a series of national tragedies in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston prompted protest actions and national conversations about racism and economic inequality in America. They also kept many historians quite busy writing pieces for newspapers and magazines, compiling reading lists like #CharlestonSyllabus, and situating these events in historical context.
Because I am Facebook friends with so many historians and because so many historians were publishing articles during this time, my Facebook feed was dominated by friends sharing their own work and the work of others. I was interested in reading these pieces, of course. But I also became increasingly interested in whose pieces got read: which posts were shared again and again? Who was sharing – and therefore promoting – whose work?
A pattern began to emerge: groups of 5-6 historians often shared the same posts; and those groups tended to be predominantly women, or predominantly men.
I had not noticed the gender bias of Facebook sharing before, perhaps because there had not been such a profusion of posts in my feed before. So I started thinking: do I share more posts written by my female colleagues than my male colleagues?
It is quite likely that the Powers That Be at Facebook know the answer to these questions. And they have probably built some sort of advertising algorithm to take advantage of it. But to my knowledge they have not produced a data set regarding gender and sharing that interested parties like myself can analyze.
So I did a very rudimentary and not-so-scientific survey of my own Facebook shares in the previous month – articles or images I linked to or posted on my feed.
And this is what I found.
I shared 17 links from mid-June to mid-July on Facebook:
- 8 were news articles or images related to breaking news or cultural issues: gay marriage, the Confederate flag coming down, etc.
- 1 was a job ad posted by a friend
- 4 were self-promotions: book reviews, a Historista post, a link to the SCWH webpage
- 4 were essays or links to sites by fellow historians: 3 of them written or created by women, one co-authored by a woman and a man. In each of the article shares, I name-checked the historian who wrote it.
Interesting. Clearly, I take the time to share a piece by a historian — usually a historian I know — on Facebook, if that historian is a woman.
This led me to wonder if I do the same thing on Twitter. This is a different social media platform, of course. The Twitter community (made up of people I follow, and who follow me) is much larger and more heterogeneous than Facebook, and most feeds are available to a massive, online reading public.
I couldn’t figure out how I was going to sift through so much data, though. I produce more than five times the content on Twitter than I do on Facebook, and almost everything I tweet or retweet is a link to an article or a blog post.
Luckily, a simple Google search brought me to Twee-Q, a handy assessment tool that measures equality on Twitter. Enter a Twitter handle, and the program scans the person’s 100 previous tweets to determine how often that Twitter user retweets women and men.
My Twee-Q analysis revealed that I am also a sexist on Twitter. But instead of being biased toward women on this social media site, I am biased toward men.
72% of my retweets originated in accounts that the Twee-Q program has determined to be male. This is higher than the average on Twitter overall, in which 2/3 of retweeted material is originally produced by men — although there are slightly more women on Twitter than men. These results mean that while I am busy retweeting way more men than women (not cool), they are not retweeting me (also not cool).
We should probably not trust these exact percentages, of course. The Twee-Q site does not explain how the program categorizes tweets from organizations like the Society of Civil War Historians, or the Journal of Southern History. Are they male or female? Or does the program discount these because they are of indeterminate gender? And what about Twitter users who identify as a gender other than male or female?
Twee-Q also does not account for tweets that link to a piece directly, or comments about reading someone else’s book. Can the program determine gender bias in these kinds of tweets? Because that would be useful to know.
In any case, even if these numbers are a little skewed, they are startling. I encourage everyone who is active on Twitter to check out their own percentages, and the percentages of institutions that are powerful voices in shaping academia.
Why does this matter? Because it suggests a pervasive sexism in social media that historians are contributing to, even if they are not aware of it. And in the academic context, social media sexism creates structures of power that directly impact community building and networking. As the media researcher Bonnie Stewart has argued in her study of scholars who use Twitter, sharing on social media is vital to creating “extensive cross-disciplinary, public ties and rewarding connection, collaboration, and curation between individuals.”
More equitable sharing on Facebook and retweeting on Twitter will create more equitable scholarly communities that work to promote all historians’ work, regardless of gender. Let’s get on it, people.