Deanna Zandt has always loved computers. Her fascination with technology started early and has never faded.
But when she fell in love with the Internet in 1994, the medium was still graphically challenged. She couldn’t find a good way to connect with people online. That changed when social media began to take off a decade later.
"That’s when I started to get really excited,” she said.
Zandt translated her enthusiasm to online activism, which is the use of social media for social change. She is the author of "Share this: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking," a book that helps readers use their online presence to make a difference.
Zandt is emblematic of a trend: women now use social media more than men. Several recent nationwide surveys on social media, including two by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, find that women outrank men in social media savvy.
Women are more ‘social’
“Women are more likely than men to be social media users,” said Maeve Duggan, a research assistant at Pew, the premier organization conducting surveys of the impact of high-speed broadband services on people’s lives.
A Pew report from September found that from 2008 to 2013, the average gap between the percentage of women and the percentage of men using social media was 8 percent. In annual polling data conducted by Pew between 2009 and 2012, the proportion of women using social media was 10 percentage points higher than men.
“Women share online, and photos and videos are a natural extension of that (because they) add texture, play and drama to people’s interactions in social networks,” said Duggan.
The results from a separate Pew report released Monday — on the photo and video sharing facilitated by social media services like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter — were even more stark. Among female Internet users surveyed, 59 percent of women shared photos they had taken themselves, versus only 50 percent for men. Among those who “curate” images and video by sharing content created by others, 53 percent of female Internet users had done so compared to 42 percent of males.
The public relations firm Weber Shandwick conducted a similar study about whether women were the key to understanding social media.
“We found that the women of social media enjoy their social networks more than dating or spending time with a partner,” said Elizabeth Rizzo, senior vice president of reputation research at the company.
Rizzo said that the social media giants have finally tapped into the potential of keeping women engaged.
“They're making the connections with like-minded women,” Rizzo said. “They're creating content far beyond hosting contests and conducting online polls. They're using original content to keep these women engaged.”
Zandt says that social media are creating a place for women online for the first time. When the Internet was in its infancy, it was more of a man's game, she said.
“It wasn't easy to be a woman identified online,” said Zandt. “You had to kind of fight for it and really want to be in these conversations," Zandt said. Social media “has helped ease women into a much safer, more comfortable space to be able to participate in ways they just haven't been before."
Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, said the tendency of women to use online social networking is not surprising.
“Women tend to be more social and more talkative than men. Social media is another forum for building and maintaining relationships,” she said.
Becoming ambiently aware
For Zandt, connecting with more people in different ways has opened doors and windows into the lives of friends and acquaintances.
“We're able to stay in touch with one another and become ambiently aware,” she said. “All those little bits of postings we share with one another. Each one of those individually is not that important but when you take a step back they're like points in a pointillist painting," Zandt said.
"It's a kind of passive intimacy now where we're aware of each other's lives in ways we haven't been before,” she said. "I think we're getting much more interesting, much clearer pictures of what women's lives are really like.”
“There are as many motives for using social media as there are motives to communicate,” Rutledge said. “There are some things that social media can do that reality can't: connecting people across distances who might not otherwise meet.”
Being authentic on Facebook
In the world of online socializing, it is easy to be tempted to curate a perfect life, with beautiful images and an always-sunny attitude. Zandt says she tells participants in her workshops to be as real as possible online.
“I think people probably feel more pressure than they should, and I always encourage being authentic and being who you are,” Zandt said.
Rutledge, by contrast, cites sociologist Erving Goffman’s comparison of social interactions to a theater performance, calling public identities “onstage,” with private ones “backstage.”
“We all have different aspects of ourselves we put forward based on what's appropriate for a specific situation," Rutledge said. “We dress differently for a job interview than for a tailgate party. These aren't fraudulent, they are just parts of a whole. Humans are social animals. More than half our brain is dedicated to social processing, contributing to our awareness of all social environments and the norms for presentation. It makes as much sense to put ‘your best food forward’ on Facebook as it does in person.”
Learning social discipline
The Weber Shandwick study found that 24 percent of women prefer socializing through social media over doing it in person, using sites like Google plus, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Blogger.
“The social media gives them control over who they talk to and when," Rizzo said. "So we think women kind of start to see their own personal return on investment on using their social networks.”
Rizzo is convinced that the number of women who prefer online interaction will grow.
“I understand where people feel this way,” Zandt said. “And these thoughts will especially tend to occur when the person you're having dinner with is checking their phone and it's really annoying.”
But Zandt does not believe that our online interaction will diminish face-to-face interaction.
“People are kind of wising up to this,” Zandt said. “This is a brand-new tool that has kind of freed up our own crazy little ID to do whatever we want, so we have to learn some discipline.”
Rutledge said that people will use whatever method is best in the moment to connect with friends and family.
“Sometimes social media is used as the glue to fill in the gaps between face-to-face meetings,” Rutledge said. “The ability to be in contact frequently contributes to a sense of closeness and intimacy.”
“The real power of social media isn't in a single activity,” Rutledge said. “It's in the cumulative action that changes peoples' beliefs about what they can do and the opportunities available to them.”
The Weber Shandwick study polled women over 18 and discovered that social media’s female users tended to be younger, between 18 and 34 years old. Many of these women have been using the Internet their entire lives, much like Zandt.
“I'm addicted,” Zandt said. She has started taking digital vacations to help her detox. Now she takes a break once or twice a year, letting all of her friends know she won’t be available online and taking the plunge into a social-media-less universe.
“What that showed me was that the world didn't fall apart if I didn't check Twitter and that life goes on and that people will wait to get in touch with you no matter how urgent they say things are," Zandt said. "That helps manage my own balance. I highly recommend it to everyone who participates on a fairly regular basis in digital media.”