|         *****  Copyright 1994 by Susan Herring *****        | 
|   This document may be freely reproduced and circulated for | 
|       non-commercial purposes *as long as a statement       | 
|      containing the full title, author's name, and this     | 
|              copyright statement is included*               | 
Susan Herring 
Program in Linguistics 
University of Texas 
Arlington, TX  76019 
(Keynote talk at panel entitled "Making the Net*Work*:  Is 
there a Z39.50 in gender communication?", American Library 
Association annual convention, Miami, June 27, 1994.) 
1.  Introduction 
        Although research on computer-mediated communication 
(CMC) dates back to the early days of the technology in the 
1970's, researchers have only recently begun to take the 
gender of users into account.[1]  This is perhaps not 
surprising considering that men have traditionally dominated 
the technology and have comprised the majority of users of 
computer networks since their inception, but the result is 
that most of what has been written on CMC incorporates a very 
one-sided perspective.  However, recent research has been 
uncovering some eye-opening differences in the ways men and 
women interact "online", and it is these differences that I 
will address in my talk today. 
        My basic claim has two parts:  first, that women and 
men have recognizably different styles in posting to the 
Internet, contrary to the claim that CMC neutralizes 
distinctions of gender; and second, that women and men have 
different communicative ethics -- that is, they value 
different kinds of online interactions as appropriate and 
desirable.  I illustrate these differences -- and some of the 
problems that arise because of them -- with specific reference 
to the phenomenon of "flaming". 
2.  Background 
        Since 1991 I've been lurking (or what I prefer to 
call "carrying out ethnographic observation") on various 
computer-mediated discussion lists, downloading electronic 
conversations and analyzing the communicative behaviors of 
participants.  I became interested in gender shortly after 
subscribing to my first discussion list, LINGUIST-L.  Within 
the first month after I began receiving messages, a conflict 
arose (what I would later learn to call a "flame war") in 
which the two major theoretical camps within the field became 
polarized around an issue of central interest.  My curiosity 
was piqued by the fact that very few women were contributing 
to this important professional event; they seemed to be 
sitting on the sidelines while men were airing their opinions 
and getting all the attention.  In an attempt to understand 
the women's silence, I made up an anonymous survey which I 
sent to LINGUIST-L asking subscribers what they thought of 
the discussion and if they hadn't contributed, why not. 
3.  Initial observations 
        The number one reason given by both men and women for 
not contributing to the LINGUIST discussion was "intimidation" 
-- as one respondent commented, participants were trying to 
"rip each other's lungs out".  Interestingly, however, men and 
women reacted differently to feeling intimidated.  Men seemed 
to accept such behavior as a normal feature of academic life, 
making comments to the effect that "Actually, the barbs and 
arrows were entertaining, because of course they weren't aimed 
at me."  In contrast, many women responded with profound 
        That is precisely the kind of human interaction I 
        committedly avoid. (...) I am dismayed that human 
        beings treat each other this way. It makes the world 
        a dangerous place to be.  I dislike such people and I 
        want to give them WIDE berth. 
        When I analyzed the messages in the thread itself, 
another gender difference emerged, this time relating to the 
linguistic structure and rhetoric of the messages.  A 
daunting 68% of the messages posted by men made use of an 
adversarial style in which the poster distanced himself from, 
criticized, and/or ridiculed other participants, often while 
promoting his own importance.  The few women who participated 
in the discussion, in contrast, displayed features of 
attenuation -- hedging, apologizing, asking questions rather 
than making assertions -- and a personal orientation, 
revealing thoughts and feelings and interacting with and 
supporting others. 
        It wasn't long before I was noticing a similar pattern 
in other discussions and on other lists.  Wherever I went on 
mixed-sex lists, men seemed to be doing most of the talking 
and attracting most of the attention to themselves, although 
not all lists were as adversarial as LINGUIST.  I started to 
hear stories about and witness men taking over and dominating 
discussions even of women-centered topics on women-centered 
lists.[2]  In contrast, on the few occasions when I observed 
women attempting to gain an equal hearing on male-dominated 
lists, they were ignored, trivialized, or criticized by men 
for their tone or the inappropriateness of their topic.[3] 
It wasn't until I started looking at lists devoted to women's 
issues, and to traditionally "feminized" disciplines such as 
women's studies, teaching English as a second language, and 
librarianship, that I found women holding forth in an amount 
consistent with their numerical presence on the list.  I also 
found different interactional norms:  little or no flaming, 
and cooperative, polite exchanges. 
4.  Different styles 
        As a result of these findings, I propose that women 
and men have different characteristic online styles.  By 
characteristic styles, I do not mean that all or even the 
majority of users of each sex exhibit the behaviors of each 
style, but rather that the styles are recognizably -- even 
steoretypically -- gendered.  The male style is characterized 
by adversariality:  put-downs, strong, often contentions 
assertions, lengthy and/or frequent postings, self-promotion, 
and sarcasm.  Below are two examples, one from an academic 
list (LINGUIST) and the other from a non-academic list 
1)      [Jean Linguiste's] proposals towards a more transparent 
        morphology in French are exactly what he calls them: 
        a farce.  Nobody could ever take them seriously -- unless 
        we want to look as well at pairs such as *pe`re - me`re*, 
        *coq - poule* and defigure the French language in the 
[strong assertions ('...exactly...', 'nobody...'), put-downs 
('JL's proposals are a farce'; implied: 'JL wants to defigure 
the French language')] 
2)      >yes, they did...This is why we must be allowed to 
        >remain armed...who is going to help us if our government 
        >becomes a tyranny?  no one will. 
        oh yes we *must* remain armed.  anyone see day one last 
        night abt charlestown where everyone/s so scared of 
        informing on murderers the cops have given up ? where 
        the reply to any offense is a public killing ?  knowing 
        you/re not gonna be caught cause everyone/s to afraid to 
        be a witness ? 
        yeah, right, twerp. 
        >       ----[Ron]  "the Wise"---- 
        what a joke. 
[sarcasm, name calling, personal insults] 
The second example would be characterized as a "flame" by most 
readers because of its personally offensive nature. 
        Less exclusively male-gendered but still characteristic 
of male postings is an authoritative, self-confident stance 
whereby men are more likely than women to represent themselves 
as experts, e.g. in answering queries for information.  The 
following example is from NOTIS-L. 
3)      The NUGM Planning meeting was cancelled before all of 
        this came up.  It has nothing to do with it.  The 
        plans were simply proceeding along so well that there 
        was no need to hold the meeting.  That is my 
        understanding from talking to NOTIS staff just last 
[authoritative tone, strong assertions ('...nothing...', 
'...simply...', '...just...')] 
        The female-gendered style, in contrast, has two 
aspects which typically co-occur: supportiveness and 
attentuation.  'Supportiveness' is characterized by 
expressions of appreciation, thanking, and community-building 
activities that make other participants feel accepted and 
welcome.  'Attenuation' includes hedging and expressing doubt, 
apologizing, asking questions, and contributing ideas in the 
form of suggestions.  The following examples, from a non- 
academic list (WOMEN) and an academic list (TESL-L), 
illustrate each type: 
4)      >Aileen, 
        >I just wanted to let you know that I have really 
        >enjoyed all your posts about Women's herstory.  They 
        >have been extremely informative and I've learned alot 
        >about the women's movement.  Thank you! 
        DITTO!!!!  They are wonderful! 
        Did anyone else catch the first part of a Century of 
        Women?  I really enjoyed it. 
        Of course, I didn't agree with everything they said.... 
        but it was really informative. 
[appreciates, thanks, agrees, appeals to group] 
5)      [...] I hope this makes sense.  This is kind of what I 
        had in mind when I realized I couldn't give a real 
        definitive answer.  Of course, maybe I'm just getting 
        into the nuances of the language when it would be easier 
        to just give the simple answer.  Any response? 
[hedges, expresses doubt, appeals to group] 
The female style takes into consideration what the sociologist 
Erving Goffman called the "face" wants of the addressee -- 
specifically, the desire of the addressee to feel ratified and 
liked (e.g. by expressions of appreciation) and her desire not 
to be imposed upon (e.g. by absolute assertions that don't allow 
for alternative views).  The male style, in contrast, confronts 
and threatens the addressee's "face" in the process of engaging 
him in agonistic debate. 
        While these styles represent in some sense the extremes 
of gendered behavior, there is evidence that they have symbolic 
significance above and beyond their frequency of use.  Thus 
other users regularly infer the gender of message posters on 
the basis of features of these styles.  Cases where the self- 
identified gender of the poster is open to question are 
especially revealing in this regard.  Consider the following 
cases, the first involving a male posing as a female, the second 
a suspected female posing as a male: 
(i) A male subscriber on SWIP-L posted a message disagreeing 
with the general consensus that discourse on SWIP should be 
non-agonistic, commenting "there's nothing like a healthy 
denunciation by one's colleagues every once in a while to get 
one's blood flowing, and spur one to greater subtlety and 
exactness of thought."  He signed his message with a female 
pseudonym, however, causing another (female) subscriber to 
comment later, "I must confess to looking for the name of the 
male who wrote the posting that [Suzi] sent originally and 
was surprised to find a female name at the end of it."  The 
female subscriber had (accurately) inferred that anyone 
actively advocating "denunciation by one's colleagues" was 
probably male. 
(ii) At a time when a male subscriber had been posting 
frequent messages to the WOMEN list, another subscriber 
professing to be a man posted a message inquiring what the 
list's policy was towards men participating on the list, 
admitting "I sometimes feel guilty for taking up bandwidth." 
The message, in addition to showing consideration for the 
concerns of others on the list, was very attenuated in style 
and explicitly appreciative of the list:  "I really enjoy 
this list (actually, it's the best one I'm on)".  This 
prompted another (female) subscriber to respond, "now that 
you've posed the question...how's one to know you're not a 
woman posing this question as a man?"  Her suspicion 
indicates that on some level she recognized that anyone 
posting a message expressing appreciation and consideration 
for the desires of others was likely to be female. 
The existence of gendered styles has important implications, 
needless to say, for the claim that CMC is anonymous, 
"gender-blind", and hence inherently democratic.  If our 
online communicative style reveals our gender, then gender 
differences, along with their social consequences, are likely 
to persist on computer-mediated networks.[4] 
        Entire lists can become gendered in their style as 
well.  It is tactily expected that members of the non-dominant 
gender will adapt their posting style in the direction of the 
style of the dominant gender.  Thus men on women's special 
interest lists attenuate their assertions and shorten their 
messages, and women, especially on male-dominated lists such 
as LINGUIST and PAGLIA-L, can be contentious and adversarial. 
Arguably, they must adapt in order to participate 
appropriately in keeping with the norms of the local list 
culture.  Most members of the non-dominant gender on any 
given list however end up style-mixing, that is, taking on 
some attributes of the dominant style while preserving 
features of their native style, e.g. with men often 
preserving a critical stance and women a supportive one at 
the macro-message level.  This suggests that gendered styles 
are deeply rooted -- not surprising, since they are learned 
early in life -- and that some features are more resistant to 
conscious reflection and modification than others. 
5.  Different communication ethics 
        The second part of this talk concerns the value 
systems that underlie and are used to rationalize communicative 
behavior on the net.  In particular, I focus on the phenomenon 
of flaming, variously defined as "the expression of strong 
negative emotion", use of "derogatory, obscene, or 
inappropriate language", and "personal insults".  A popular 
explanation advanced by CMC researchers[5] is that flaming is 
a by-product of the medium itself -- the decontextualized and 
anonymous nature of CMC leads to "disinhibition" in users and 
a tendency to forget that there is an actual human being at 
the receiving end of one's emotional outbursts.  However, CMC 
research until recently has largely overlooked gender as a 
possible influence on behavior, and the simple fact of the 
matter is that it is virtually only men who flame.  If the 
medium makes men more likely to flame, it should have a 
similar effect on women, yet if anything the opposite appears 
to be the case.  An adequate explanation of flaming must 
therefore take gender into account. 
        Why do men flame?  The explanation, I suggest, is that 
women and men have a different communication ethic, and male 
ethical ideals can be evoked to justify flaming.  I stumbled 
upon this realization recently as a result of a survey I 
conducted on politeness on the Internet.  I had originally 
hypothesized that the differences in the extremes of male and 
female behavior online -- in particular, the tendency for 
women to be considerate of the "face" needs of others while 
men threaten others' "face" -- could be explained if it turned 
out that women and men have different notions of what 
constitutes appropriate behavior.  In other words, as a woman 
I might think that adversarial behavior is rude, but men who 
behave adversarially might think otherwise.  Conversely, men 
might not value the supportive and attenuated behaviors of 
        In the survey, I asked subscribers from eight Internet 
discussion lists to rank their like or dislike for 30 
different net behaviors, including "flaming", "expressing 
thanks and appreciation", and "overly tentative messages", on 
a scale of 1 (like) to 5 (dislike).  The survey also asked 
several open-ended questions, including most notably:  What 
behaviors bother you most on the net? 
        My initial hypothesis turned out to be both correct 
and incorrect.  It was incorrect in that I found no support 
whatsoever for the idea that men's and women's value systems 
are somehow reversed.  Both men and women said that they 
liked expressions of appreciation (avg. score of 2), were 
neutral about tentative messages (avg. about 3), and disliked 
flaming (although women expressed a stronger dislike than 
men, giving it a score of 4.3 as compared with 3.9 for men). 
This makes male flaming behavior all the more puzzling; 
should we conclude then that men who flame are deliberately 
trying to be rude? 
        The answers to the open-ended questions suggest 
another explanation.  These answers reveal a gender contrast 
in values that involves politeness but cannot be described in 
terms of politeness alone.  It seems women place a high value 
on consideration for the wants and needs of others, as 
expressed in the following comment: 
        If we take responsibility for developing our own 
        sensitivities to others and controlling our actions to 
        minimize damage -- we will each be doing [good deeds] 
        for the whole world constantly. 
Men, in contrast, assign greater value to freedom from 
censorship, forthright and open expression, and agonistic 
debate as a means to advance the pursuit of knowledge. 
Historically, the value on absolute freedom of speech 
reflects the civil libertarian leanings of the computing 
professionals who originally designed the net and have 
contributed much of the utopian discourse surrounding it; the 
value on agonistic debate is rooted in the western (male) 
philosophical tradition. 
        These ideals are stirringly evoked in the following 
quote from R. Hauben (1993) praising the virtues of the 
Usenet system, on which 95% of the contributors are estimated 
to be male: 
        The achievement of Usenet News demonstrates the 
        importance of facilitating the development of 
        uncensored speech and communication -- there is debate 
        and discussion -- one person influences another -- 
        people build on each other's strengths and interests, 
        differences, etc. 
One might think that uncensored speech if abused could cause 
problems, but M. Hauben (1993) explains that there is a 
democratic way of handling this eventuality: 
        When people feel someone is abusing the nature of 
        Usenet News, they let the offender know through e-mail. 
        In this manner...people fight to keep it a resource 
        that is helpful to society as a whole. 
Consider, however, how the ideal of "people fight[ing] to 
keep [the net] a resource that is helpful to society as a 
whole", translates into violent action in the response of a 
male survey respondent to the question:  "What behaviors 
bother you most on the net?" 
        As much as I am irritated by [incompetent posters], 
        I don't want imposed rules.  I would prefer to "out" 
        such a person and let some public minded citizen fire 
        bomb his house to imposing rules on the net.  Letter 
        bombing a annoying individual's feed is usually 
        preferable to building a formal heirarchy of net cops. 
Another net vigilante responds more graphically as follows: 
        I'd have to say commercial shit.  Whenever someone 
        advertises some damn get-rich-quick scheme and 
        plasters it all over the net by crossposting it to 
        every newsgroup, I reach for my "gatling gun mailer 
        crasher" and fire away at the source address. 
These responses not only evoke an ideal of freedom from 
external authority, they provide an explicit justification 
for flaming:  as a form of self-appointed regulation of the 
social order, a rough and ready form of justice on the 
virtual frontier.  Thus a framework of values is constructed 
within which flaming and other aggressive behaviors can be 
interpreted in a favorable (even prosocial) light.  This is 
not to say that all or even most men who flame have the good 
of net society at heart, but rather that the behavior is in 
principle justifiable for men (and hence tolerable) in ways 
that it is not for most women. 
6.  Netiquette 
        Further evidence that flaming is tolerated and 
justified within a system of male values is the content of 
written rules of network etiquette, or "netiquette", such as 
are available on many public FTP sites and in introductory 
messages to new members of some discussion lists.  I analyzed 
the content of netiquette rules from six lists, along with 
those found in the guidelines for Usenet and in the print 
publication _Towards an Ethic and Etiquette for Electronic 
Mail_ by Shapiro and Anderson (1985).  What do netiquette 
rules say about flaming? 
        The answer is:  remarkably little, given that it is 
one of the most visible and frequently-complained about 
"negatives" cited about the Internet.  One might even say 
there is a striking *lack* of proscription against flaming, 
with the exception of a few women-owned and women-oriented 
lists.  And in the rare instances where flaming is mentioned, 
it is implicitly authorized.  Thus the guidelines for new 
subscribers to the POLITICS list prohibit "flames of a 
personal nature", and Shapiro and Anderson advise "Do not 
insult or criticize third parties without giving them a 
chance to respond".  While on the surface appearing to oppose 
flaming, these statements in fact implicitly authorize 
"flames other than of a personal nature" (for example, of 
someone's ideas or values) and "insulting or criticizing 
third parties" (provided you give them a chance to respond). 
Normative statements such as these are compatible with male 
values and male adversarial style; the intimidating rhetoric 
on LINGUIST and many other lists is not a violation of net 
etiquette according to these rules.[6]  Yet these are 
behaviors that female survey respondents say intimidate them 
and drive them off of lists and newsgroups.  Can the Internet 
community afford to tolerate behaviors that intimidate and 
silence women?  This is a question that urgently needs to be 
raised and discussed net-wide. 
7.  Conclusions 
        To sum up, I have argued that women and men constitute 
different discourse communities in cyberspace -- different 
cultures, if you will -- with differing communicative norms 
and practices.  These cultures are not however "separate but 
equal"; rather, the norms and practices of masculine net 
culture, codified in netiquette rules, conflict with those of 
the female culture in ways that render cyberspace -- or at 
least many "neighborhoods" in cyberspace -- inhospitable to 
        What can be done to address the imbalance?  I'll 
conclude by mentioning three ways in which I believe women 
can promote their concerns and influence the discourse of the 
net.[7]  The first is to support and participate in women- 
centered lists.  Such lists provide comfortable fora for 
women online, and are frequently models of cooperative 
discourse whose norms then become available for wider 
application if subscribers participate in other lists as 
well.  But separatism has its disadvantages, among them the 
risk of ghettoization.  Women must not let themselves be 
driven by flame throwers away from mainstream, mixed-sex 
fora, but rather should actively seek to gain influence 
there, individually and collectively, especially in fora 
where metadiscourse about the net itself takes place. 
        The second way to promote women's interests net-wide 
is to educate online communities about the rhetorical 
strategies used in intimidating others, and call people on 
their behavior and its consequences when they use such 
strategies.  This is already happening on some women-centered 
lists such as WMST-L and SWIP-L -- aware of the tendency for 
a single man or group of men to dominate discussions even on 
women-centered topics, female subscribers call attention to 
the behavior as soon as they realize it is happening, and 
interestingly, it is happening less and less often on these 
lists.  Group awareness is a powerful force for change, and 
can be raised in mixed-sex fora as well. 
        Finally, women need to participate in any way they 
can in the process that leads to the encoding of netiquette 
rules.  Instigate and participate persuasively in discussions 
about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior 
online -- seek to define in concrete terms what constitutes 
"flaming", for instance, since women and men will probably 
have different ideas about this.  Take the initiative and 
write down guidelines for suggested list protocol (or 
modifications to list protocol if guidelines already exist) 
and post them for discussion.  No greater power exists than 
the power to define values, and the structure of the Internet 
-- especially now, while it is still evolving and seeking its 
ultimate definition -- provides a unique opportunity for 
individual users to participate in the normative process. 
        Indeed, it may be vital that we do so if women's 
behavior is to be accorded value, and if we are to insure 
women the right to settle on the virtual frontier on their 
own -- rather than on male-defined -- terms. 
1.  A notable exception to this generalization is the work 
of Sherry Turkle in the 1980's on how women and men relate 
to computers. 
2.  For an interesting example of this phenomenon on the 
soc.feminism Usenet newsgroup, see Sutton (1994). 
3.  Herring, Johnson, and DiBenedetto (1992). 
4.  This problem is discussed in Herring (1993a). 
5.  For example, Kiesler et al. (1984), Kim and Raja (1990), 
and Shapiro and Anderson (1985). 
6.  The discussion of politeness and communication ethics is 
an abbreviated version of that presented in Herring (To 
7.  For other practical suggestions on how to promote gender 
equality in networking, see especially Kramarae and Taylor 
Hauben, Michael.  1993. "The social forces behind the 
development of Usenet News."  Electronic document. 
(FTP weber.ucsd.edu, directory /pub/usenet.hist) 
Hauben, Ronda.  1993.  "The evolution of Usenet News: 
The poor man's ARPANET".  Electronic document.  (FTP 
weber.ucsd.edu, directory /pub/usenet.hist) 
Herring, Susan. 1992.  "Gender and participation in computer- 
mediated linguistic discourse."  ERIC document. 
Herring, Susan. 1993a.  "Gender and democracy in computer- 
mediated communication".  Electronic Journal of Communication 
3(2), special issue on Computer-Mediated Communication, T. 
Benson, ed. 
Herring, Susan.  1993b.  "Macrosegmentation in postings to 
two electronic 'lists'". Paper presented at the Georgetown 
University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics, 
Presession on Discourse Analysis: Written Texts, March 1993. 
Herring, Susan.  1993c.  "Men's language:  A study of the 
discourse of the Linguist list."  In Crochetiere, Boulanger, 
and Ouillet, eds., Proceedings of the XVth International 
Congress of Linguists.  Quebec: Universite' Laval. 
Herring, Susan.  To appear.  "Politeness in computer culture: 
Why women thank and men flame."  In Bucholtz and Sutton, eds., 
Communicating Across Cultures: Proceedings of the Third 
Berkeley Women and Language Conference.  Berkeley Women and 
Language Group. 
Herring, Susan; Deborah Johnson; and Tamra DiBenedetto. 1992. 
"Participation in electronic discourse in a 'feminist' field." 
In Bucholtz, Hall, and Moonwomon, eds., Locating Power: 
Proceedings of the Second Berkeley Women and Language 
Conference. Berkeley Women and Language Group. 
Kiesler, Sara; Jane Seigel; and Timothy W. McGuire.  1984. 
"Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated 
communication".  American Psychologist, 39, 1123-1134. 
Kim, Min-Sun and Narayan S. Raja.  1990.  "Verbal aggression 
and self-disclosure on computer bulletin boards."  ERIC 
document (ED334620). 
Kramarae, Cheris and H. Jeanie Taylor.  1993.  "Women and 
men on electronic networks: A conversation or a monologue?" 
In Taylor, Kramarae and Ebben, eds., Women, Information 
Technology and Scholarship, 52-61.  Urbana, IL: Center for 
Advanced Study. 
Rheingold, Howard.  1993.  The Virtual Community: 
Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.  Reading, MA: 
Seabrook, John.  1994.  "My first flame."  The New Yorker, 
June 6, 1994, 70-79. 
Shapiro, Norman Z. and Robert H. Anderson.  1985.  Toward 
an Ethics and Etiquette for Electronic Mail.  The Rand 
Sutton, Laurel.  1994.  "Gender, power, and silencing in 
electronic discourse on USENET."  Proceedings of the 20th 
Berkeley Linguistics Society.  UC Berkeley. 
Turkle, Sherry.  1984.  The Second Self: Computers and the 
Human Spirit.  London: Granada.