Gender differences in sharing creative content online

by Eszter Hargittai on June 25, 2008

This ArsTechnica write-up of some recent research of mine has received numerous votes on the recommendation site Digg in the last few hours. I wonder if it will make the front page of Digg, although as a Twitter contact of mine noted, since it’s not a top-10 list (nor, if I might add, does it cover Google or Apple), that may be unlikely.

The post reports on a study in which we found that male college students are more likely than their female counterparts to share creative content online even though both men and women in the sample are equally likely to create such content. However, when controlling for online skill, the gender differences in posting go away.

Gina Walejko and I published the paper “The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age” this Spring in the journal Information, Communication and Society. We examine the extent to which college students share creative content online and whether we can identify any systematic differences by user background. In particular, we looked at whether students create and share the following types of material: poetry/fiction, artistic photography, music, and video (both completely own and remixed in the case of the latter two), including both private and public sharing.

Administering a paper-pencil survey on a diverse group of over a thousand first-year college students at the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2007, we found that men are significantly more likely to share their creative output online than women. This was especially true for video (with 40% of men sharing such content compared to 15% of women), but holds for the other types of material as well.

Curious to see what explains these differences in sharing, we looked at whether various measures of Internet experience account for the divergences. We controlled for years of Internet use, frequency of Internet use, number of Internet access locations, and online skill. Of these four, skill was a significant predictor of sharing activity. In fact, once skill is in the model, gender is no longer a significant predictor of posting one’s material.

There may be additional issues going on for which, I’m afraid, we have no data. For example, women may be more concerned about privacy issues or the critiques their content may receive. I’m working with another student on doing some qualitative follow-up work on this aspect of the question.

There are some more details in a press release Northwestern put out about the study or feel free to send me a note for a copy of the full paper.



Kieran Healy 06.25.08 at 6:54 pm

However, when controlling for online skill, the gender differences in posting go away.

I am going to guess, without even looking at the Ars Technica piece or the NW press copy, that the paper is being reported as “Women less likely to share than Men” and is already spawning some discussion about how, back on the Savannah, the male hunters would share their killing with all the ladies at the post-hunt barbecue, for obvious reasons of reproductive fitness. Meanwhile the women would hold tenaciously on to their pineapple dip.


Eszter 06.25.08 at 7:03 pm

I don’t think I’ve seen that one yet, but as you can imagine, there have been some intriguing reactions anything from “oh, women playing victim again” to “this is bogus, I see women sharing content online all the time”.

UPDATE: Wait, I forgot the title given to the Chronicle blog post, which I – and some commenters – thought was an intersting twist: Men More Willing to Share Than Women … Online, at Least


Kieran Healy 06.25.08 at 7:13 pm

to “this is bogus, I see women sharing content online all the time”.



abb1 06.25.08 at 7:22 pm



rickm 06.25.08 at 7:31 pm

I submitted it to Reddit, which is like Digg without Youtube comments.


Stephen 06.25.08 at 9:58 pm

So can we infer that you have also identified an “online skill” gender gap?

Also, what does “online skill” actually mean?


Sara Anderson 06.25.08 at 11:42 pm

I know I’m not the only woman who’s tried to stick with gender-neutral usernames/ etc. so as to avoid the harassment that can come with clearly identifying oneself as a woman online. But given the methods used by the researchers here, that’s not confounding the results here.


joe perez 06.25.08 at 11:45 pm

That’s a good question.

How do they measure skill? Especially at something like sharing photographs online! That factor seems inevitably subjective.


Aulus Gellius 06.26.08 at 12:52 am

In fact, once skill is in the model, gender is no longer a significant predictor of posting one’s material.

Does this apply even for video? I would expect a part of the difference to be due to the kind of nasty responses women tend to get when they make pictures of themselves available online, and I wouldn’t think online skill would change that (unless there’s some effect of knowing where to post things or something. As someone really low on the “online skill” scale, I imagine there are some aspects here that I don’t understand.).


Winston Smith 06.26.08 at 2:10 am

No no no no no.

Look, after several years of teaching, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that (well, at least among college-age individuals), males are a lot more willing to blurt out the first thing that comes into their pretty little heads, whereas females–even those who regularly have exceptionally good points to make–tend to hold back for some reason, seemingly until they are more sure about their points. Females tend to be more…(roughly) circumspect. Guys are more likely to just blurt it out, for better or worse.

Anyway, a big part of blogging is blurting out whatever BS happens to be flitting through your head at that moment. Maybe “online skill” has something to do with it, but I’ll bet you a big wad o’ cash that that’s not the most important factor. I mean, cripes, how hard is it to use Blogger?


jliedl 06.26.08 at 2:27 am

You know, when you share stuff on the internet, no one needs to know you’re female unless it involves video or audio of the real you. Then you’re busted and sometimes that’s really annoying.

I’m glad to hear that you’re following up on the gender-specific possibilities of privacy concerns: certainly my experience in working with a woman-oriented dotcom taught me that women were far more worried than men about posting their images online. Can’t wait to see that follow-up study!


vivian 06.26.08 at 2:29 am

whereas females—even those who regularly have exceptionally good points to make—tend to hold back for some reason As usual, XKCD describes this really well.


abb1 06.26.08 at 10:34 am

Silly. If (for the sake of argument) the women on average are more introvert than men, why should it be framed as “less willing to share”; why not, say, “not as obnoxious”.


Doug 06.26.08 at 12:47 pm

re 8, 6, etc: Having read some of Eszter’s work before, I’m going to guess that online skill is a reasonably clear metric based on how the survey participants answered questions abuot their online activities. Things like have you ever commented on a blog, have you ever posted to a blog, have you ever set up a blog, if so was it from scratch or with a template, have you written a custom add-on to MT or WP. That would set up a continuum of technical blogging skills. Similar sets of questions for other related areas; add ’em up and you’ve got a measurement of online skill.


Eszter 06.26.08 at 1:18 pm

The questions about skill are right on. Stephen (#6), I have written about gender and skill before. It’s complicated, but basically, women tend to rate their skills lower than men regardless of actual skill. This is why I emphasize in the discussion that we are either talking perceived or actual skill with respect to what may influencing sharing patterns.

Others of you ask about how we measure skill. Doug (#14), thanks for trying to explain. The examples you list could work, although some of them are, again, more about actual participation than skill per se. It’s complicated, they overlap quite a bit (as the paper itself shows).

I have been studying how to measure skill for years and have published several papers on the topic (here‘s one example, an update of which is coming out soon – accessing the latter requires subscription). It’s going to be hard to summarize all that in a short comment.

Basically, people are asked to rate their level of understanding of various Internet-related items on a five-point scale. These items range from widely-known terms such as bookmark and reload to much less understood items such as widget and malware. I then create an index of the sum of these terms constituting a skill measure. While this still relies on self-perception of abilities, it is more highly correlated with actual skill than asking people to rate their own skill and it also gives us a bit more nuanced understanding of people’s familiarity with the various aspects of using the Web.

RickM, thanks for posting to Reddit. I know the site well and use it often.


h. 06.26.08 at 2:40 pm

“Sharing” and “willing to share” are already loaded terms. Is “sharing” really the main thing about putting stuff online, with all its positive connotations of community-mindedness, giving and receiving, dialogue? Or is this kind of online behaviour more akin to strutting your stuff, peacock style?


Dan4th 06.27.08 at 2:54 pm

It seems relevant whether the content is created *for* the internet, or created for some other purpose and then also posted to the internet. Are people posting their photography class homework? I have seen several “made for a class” videos on Youtube, but the vast majority of consumer-generated-video seems to be created specifically for the internet, whereas I don’t think that’s true for as much of photography and creative writing.

I’d also be curious about the volume of content generated, and whether there’s any difference. Are we talking about “have you *ever* posted a video” or “have you posted a video in the past month”/”how many videos have you posted in the past month?”


Ugluks Flea 06.28.08 at 1:11 am

…a study in which we found that male college students are more likely than their female counterparts to share creative content online even though both men and women in the sample are equally likely to create such content. However, when controlling for online skill, the gender differences in posting go away.

So… there are more nerdy technophile males than nerdy technophile females, but when normalized for this sad state of affairs the other differences trend away?

Clearly, we are facing a nerdy girl gap – you could write something up for DARPA, maybe get a grant.


anonymous 07.01.08 at 6:33 am

I don’t know if this is a relevant data point or not, but rare is the movie on with more ratings from females than males. Usually, there are more votes from male users by at least two to one, even for “chick flicks” (and the ratio is often higher for “guy” movies).

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