Gender, Pseudonyms, and CMC: Masking Identities and Baring Souls


J. Michael Jaffe, Young-Eum Lee, Lining Huang, & Hayg Oshagan

Department of Communication
The University of Michigan
2020 Frieze, Ann Arbor, MI 48109
Telephone: (313)764-0420

Paper submitted for presentation to the 45th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, 1995, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA

Inquiries may be directed to J. Michael Jaffe and Young-Eum Lee.

copyright 1995 by J. Michael Jaffe, Young-Eum Lee, LiNing Huang, & Hayg Oshagan

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This study investigates whether the use of pseudonyms mitigates gender-based differences of communication patterns in a computer-mediated communication (CMC) context. Mixed-gender groups participated in an experiment which involved real-name and pseudonymous computer conferences. Consistent with expectations, it was found that i) participation levels were related to prior computer knowledge, ii) overall participation levels were significantly higher in the pseudonymous conference than in the real-name conference, iii) women tended to mask their gender with their pseudonym choice while males did not, iv) women generally tended to exhibit greater patterns of social interdependence than men, v) men showed greater tendency to exhibit communication patterns of social interdependence in the pseudonymous than in the real-name CMC context, and vi) men showed a lesser tendency than women to exhibit social interdependence in the real-name CMC context, though not in the pseudonymous CMC context.

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Conference Preface: Communication, Reality, and Identity

In line with the theme of this year's conference, Communication and Reality, we present a study which explores how participants in the virtual community of a computer conference express themselves when control over gender identity is manipulated. More specifically, we observe how the use of pseudonyms and reduced relational cues change the way men and women adhere to traditional gender-based communication patterns.

The process of socialization provides us with identity-related rules and guidelines which become the social expectations that we have towards others and those that we ourselves act to fulfill. These expectations often place women at a status-related disadvantage in interpersonal communication contexts.

Humans beings realize the importance of perceived identity in relational communication and often seek to maximize reward within relationships by choosing to exhibit certain identifying attributes. The text-based character of computer-mediated communication (CMC) makes it possible for users to carefully limit or select identifying cues they exhibit. In such a virtual social reality, people may try to mitigate gender-related expectations by exhibiting cues that identify them as the members of the opposite sex, i.e., cross-gender, or which are gender-neutral. CMC also opens up the possibility for humans to interact in ever-increasing numbers of virtual communities. The combination of a CMC-based shared virtual reality, which affords its members the ability to design their exhibited identities, may present us with a view of what is possible in a "real world" with different social expectations.

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We address the question of whether pseudonym use in a computer-mediated communication (CMC) context might mitigate gender-based differences in communication patterns, specifically those relating to socioemotional and relational content. This paper presents the results of an experimental study conducted to determine the extent to which these gender-based communication asymmetries, in a CMC context, are affected by the use of pseudonyms.

CMC, the process of one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many discourse using a computer-based channel, is predominantly a text-based medium. Users don't see each other's faces or hear each other's voices. Transmitted information is limited to text content easily controlled by the sender. Nonverbal and paraverbal cues which denote social hierarchies, therefore, are not present in this medium, leading some theorists to assert that CMC has the potential to "democratize" communication (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). This potential can be compounded with the use of pseudonyms, resulting in the ability for CMC participants to either conceal or mask identifying attributes such as gender. By controlling identifying attributes, CMC users might feel less constrained by the gender-based stereotypes and social expectations which dictate communication behavior. This, in turn, might reduce theoretical asymmetries between the sexes regarding both power-related, relational, and socioemotional discourse (Tannen, 1990).

Previous research by Selfe & Meyer (1991) analyzed the relationship of gender-based communication patterns and pseudonym use in a longitudinal, panel study. However, unlike the previous study, the present study reveals changes in gender-based communication style accompanying the use of pseudonyms.

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Computer-Mediated Communication: An Interpersonal Mass Medium

CMC is enjoying steady growth in western society. Dropping costs of requisite hardware and the availability of simplified, intuitively controlled system interfaces have made CMC technology accessible and feasible for popular use. The number of information "hosts" on the internet, or "the Net," grows at a monthly rate of 8% to 10% within the US and 150,000 new users are joining over 20,000,000 existing users each month (New York Times, 1993). This popular trend supports early and contemporary assertions (Rafaeli, 1986) that some CMC formats deserve the title, "mass medium."

CMC is capable of both synchronous communication, requiring the simultaneous presence of communicants, and asynchronous communication, which essentially consists of a progression of non-simultaneous messages. The characteristic of interactivity, however, distinguishes CMC as a potentially "interpersonal mass medium" (Rafaeli, 1986). A definitive gauge of the level of interactivity, according to Rafaeli (1988), is the degree of responsiveness in the discourse, i.e., the depth to which subsequent responses address prior responses. This interpersonal factor gives CMC the capability to serve as the first "many-to-many" mass medium. It is regularly used as a channel for interpersonal communication between individuals or small groups as well as a means of virtually broadcasting to extremely large social collectives. As Harasim (1993) asserts, computer mediation presents new opportunities to augment communication and intellectual skills "and extend our reach and opportunities for human community" (p. 19).

The potential for CMC as a virtual meeting place has been utilized by segments of industry, commerce, government, academia, and the public. The occurrence of distance learning, virtual communities, internet talk radio, internet relay chat (IRC) conferencing, and electronic plebiscites underscore its wide range of application. Fluency in the jargon of the internet is becoming a prerequisite, and its access a recruitment incentive, in academic and business settings.

Who uses CMC, as well why and how it is used by members of different social groups, are especially pertinent questions as this communication technology becomes more widely adopted in our society.

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Interpersonal CMC: Socioemotional and Relational Communication

There has been some debate over the extent to which CMC affords socioemotional and relational discourse. Theories which assert that CMC enables very limited socioemotional and relational communication, compared with face-to face (FTF) communication have collectively been referred to as the "cues-filtered-out" approach (Culnan & Markus, 1987). A framework which argues that text-based CMC can carry such content is Walther's (1992) social information processing theory.

Cues-filtered-out theories (e.g., Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984) characterize CMC as less personal, lacking "social presence" and "social context cues" in comparison with FTF communication. Social presence, a media characteristic, is reflected in the extent to which communicators feel that other actors are jointly involved in communicative interaction (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; cited in Walther, 1992). Social presence theory states that the fewer channels or codes available within a medium, the less attention will be paid by users to the presence of other social participants. Accordingly, Kiesler et al. (1984) describe CMC as a channel which "depersonalizes" communicants since they cannot exchange paraverbal cues, such as facial expression or vocal pitch. The authors assert that there is a resulting social anonymity around which communicators must imagine their audience. Furthermore, nonverbal indicators of vertical hierarchy, status, and power, including seating positions and dress, cannot be transmitted via text. These factors have been theorized to reduce inhibition and constraints of etiquette, reduced socioemotional content, and a "democratizing" effect in which hierarchical differences in status are less apparent than in FTF contexts.

Contrary to the cues-filtered-out approaches, Rafaeli (1986) asserts that electronic bulletin boards can be very intimate or anonymous, depending on the purposes of each individual user. Chesebro (1985) found that 32% of the messages from 14 public computer bulletin boards (CBBs) were interpersonal in nature. Meyers (1985) analyzed two CBBs and found that 39% of messages of the systems were personal information. Foulger (1990) reported that experienced computer users rated several text-based media such as email and computer conferencing "as rich" or "richer" than face-to-face conversation and telephone conversations. Several case studies of CMC conferences have found the development of numerous personal relationships via CMC (e.g., Johansen, DeGrasse, & Wilson, 1978). Gladys We (1993) argues that people become "highly emotionally involved in their on-line interactions." Some people fall in love on-line, while some people exchange angry postings. The research of Rice and Love (1987) led to their conclusion that "CMC systems can support socioemotional communication and the communication reflects the inherent communication traits of the users..." This observation contrasts with the cues-filtered-out perspective. Accounting for this important discrepancy, Walther's (1992) social information processing perspective asserts that users adapt existing communicative cues, within constraints of language and textual display, to serve processes of relational management. This approach is also supported by research (Sherbloom, 1988) suggesting that communicators adapt computer-generated textual signals for specific relational purposes.

A major, axiomatic assumption of social information processing is that actors in CMC are affected by the same internal drive of "affiliation," i.e., interaction with other humans, as actors in other communicative contexts. Affiliative communication use, and its constituent messages, constitute relational communication. A second assumption is that the development of an interpersonal impression of another person is based on the information one gets via nonverbal or verbal-textual channels over the course of several interactions. A third assumption of this perspective is that in CMC, messages take longer to process than do those sent FTF. One conclusion of these assumptions, and of the research which challenged their pertinent hypotheses, is t hat CMC can be just as deeply relational as FTF communication if sufficient time and message exchange is allowed for message volume to generate a relationship. The presumption of a drive for affiliation helps explain why conference participants would express supporting references despite a lack of familiarity with co-participants.

Walther (1992), asserts that social presence theory is not sufficiently defined; rather than being a defining attribute of a medium, social presence is likely a subjective perception of a medium's characteristics and capabilities. Earlier work (Donohue, Diez, Stahle, & Burgoon, 1983) points out that although nonverbal cues have been "implicitly seen as natural or even 'sole' carriers of relational information, subtle verbal variations that also carry relational information have been neglected.& quot; Language choice has been credited with forming attributions about "social and professional status, background and education and even intent of communication" (Burgoon & Miller, 1987). Variation in verbal language has been found to be as potent as nonverbal information in influencing affective processes such as interpersonal attraction (Byrne and Clore, 1966, cited in Walther, 1992).

CMC users have developed an electronic "paralanguage" (Carey, 1980, cited in Walther, 1992), to express affective and socioemotional information. These informal codes, which we call "emotext," may include intentional misspelling, lexical surrogates for vocal segregates, grammatical markers, strategic capitalization, and visual arrangements of text characters into "emoticons." Intentional misspelling often includes the repetition of a vowel or consonant to represent the accentuation of a word or phrase for affect, as in the phrase, "sssoooooo good!" Lexical surrogates function as parenthetical metalinguistic cues, as "hmmm" might represent a paraverbal expression of thoughtfulness or "yuk yuk" ; might express self-deprecating laughter. Grammatical markers include gratuitous capitalization as well as repeated exclamation points and question marks to add affective emphasis. Emoticons refer to short combinations of textual characters which, if turned clockwise, resemble various facial expressions.


emoticon emoticon rotated 90 degrees clockwise

Figure 1: Emoticon (semicolon-hyphen-right parenthesis) for "winking smiler."

Whereas the cues-filtered-out approach provides insight into some of the pragmatic functions of CMC, the social information processing theory explains and predicts the occurrence of socioemotional and relational discourse on that medium (Walther, 1992; Walther & Burgoon, 1992). We, therefore, consider CMC to be a suitable context for examining how pseudonym use affects socioemotional and relational communication across gender.

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Gender, Language, & CMC

Though men and women technically speak the same language, some scholars have concluded that men and women use language and converse differently. There are socialized conceptions of how women and men should speak differently as well as how persons of different cultures express themselves.

According to Lakoff (1975), women and men speak English in several different ways. She suggests that women's language makes more frequent use of emotionally intensive adverbs such as "so," "terribly," "awfully," and "quite." Similarly, Eakins and Eakins (1978) observed that men and women use different vocabularies. They suggest that women's language is more punctuated with adjectives and adverbs that "connote triviality or unimportance" such as "sweet," "dreadful," "precious," and "darling" (p.30). Soskin and John (1963), after observing the talks between a couple over a certain period of time, found that wives produce significantly more expressive statements such as "Ouch!" or "Darn!" (p.270), whereas husbands uses more directive and informative statements.

According to Strodtbeck and Mann's investigation (1956) about male and female communication behavior in mock-jury deliberations, females were found to give significantly more positive reactions than males. Males used more aggressive language than females . Above all, men were found to originate significantly more speech acts than women. Furthermore, men "proact" by directing speeches at solving problem while women "react" to the contributions of others, agreeing, understanding and supporting. In a similar vein, Kaplan and Farrell (1994) observe that women's messages are quite short and their participation is driven by their desire to keep the conversation going than the desire to achieve consensus on some issues. These findings are also supported by the work of Aries (1976) and Leet-Peregrini (1980) as cited in Tannen (1990). Tannen categorizes women's talk as "interdependent" and "cooperative," whereas male conversational patterns express "independence" and assertions of vertically hierarchical power.

Herring (1993), in her discourse analysis of a CMC bulletin board, distinguishes the different characteristics of woman's language and men's language. Features of women's language include "attenuated assertions, apologies, questions, personal orientation and support", whereas some features of men's language are "strong assertions, self-promotion, rhetorical questions, authoritative orientation, challenges and humor." Similar results have been found in other cross-gender studies. Investigators find that females ask more questions (Fishman, 1978, 1983) and make more apologies (Eubanks, 1975).

Based on the scholarship cited above, we would ordinarily expect men to be less inclined than women to engage in socioemotional and relational patterns of communication which might exhibit social interdependence. In CMC contexts, these patterns would include emotext, emoticons, expressions of supporting references, self-references and self-disclosure, and references to others.

Although CMC issues have become increasingly addressed in the research literature, there have been relatively few studies which concern gender and power-relationships in CMC contexts (e.g., Selfe & Meyer, 1991). Nevertheless, it is widely held that the "computer world" has been dominated by males. Despite the availability of this medium for both sexes, measured indicators of participation have consistently revealed a heavily skewed male bias (Selfe & Meyer, 1991; Kramarae & Taylor, 1992; Herring, 1993; Herring, Johnson, & DiBenedetto, 1992; We, 1993). It is possible that practical access to, and patterns of use of, CMC differ across gender and other social strata.

Edwards (1990) observes that computer programming, computer engineering and systems analysis are tasks performed primarily by men. He attributes this phenomenon to the modes of thinking involved in computer-related work. Both hardware and software of computers require precise, abstract, and mathematical thinking, thus making computer scientists "hard masters" (p.103). In a similar vein, Benston (1988) views the technology as a "language" for action. Both theorists view the language of technology as symbols of power and masculinity inappropriate for women's involvement. Although the reduction in social cues has been theorized to "democratize" communication (Kiesler et al., 1984) studies indicate that males participate in CMC more than females by a hefty margin (We, 1994; Herring, 1993; Hellerstein, 1985).

Several gender-CMC studies have extended theorized patterns of face-to-face conversation (Tannen, 1990; Lakoff, 1975; Eakins & Eakins, 1980) to CMC modes. Kaplan and Farrell (1994) observed that women's on-line conversation resembles what Tannen (1 990) calls "rapport" talk, rather than "report" talk, a style men tend to favor. However, some research reveals that gender-based patterns of conversation patterns might change between FTF and CMC contexts. Bellman, Tindimubona and Arias, Jr. (1993) found that Latin American women anonymously contributed "strong assertive remarks" to a CMC bulletin board while "they did not engage in heated debate" or critiques in their face-to-face classes. There is, therefore, a research precedent which indicates that pseudonymous CMC might mitigate gender-based differences in communication styles.

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Pseudonyms and Managing Identity

The use of pseudonyms to hide identity is a common method of managing identity in electronic bulletin boards and other CMC contexts. This practice can protect a CMC user from adverse social reactions to the expression of views which might be considered socially deviant or from being identified as a participant in a CMC forum popularly perceived as socially deviant. For example, USENET's group is a virtual public meeting place where participants share sexually explicit conversation as well as pornographic pictures and video segments. In this forum, pseudonyms are more commonplace than real names as identifying labels.

Role-playing is another very common use of pseudonym-based identity management, especially in recreational CMC forums. In this case, pseudonymity as well as the ephemeral, text-based quality of CMC provide a mask for reduced accountability, "allowing people to be other than 'themselves,' or more of themselves than they normally express" (Danet & Ruedenberg, 1994). Danet & Ruedenberg point out that IRC encounters generate elaborate play with identity. Pseudonyms, or "nicks" (for "nicknames"), are often chosen to hide explicit identity yet simultaneously reveal a personal facet of the author. According to We (1993), CMC enables a person to exhibit different personae in relative anonymity and safety.

Matheson & Zanna (1990) explain that individuals feel less of a personal risk in disclosing personal information when "real" identities are not revealed. Pseudonymous communication makes participants more comfortable, more willing to reveal personal information. Pseudonymous anonymity may foster social interdependence, and perhaps even intimacy, by reducing the constraints of stereotypes that prescribe more socially independent behavior.

The cues-filtered-out and social information processing models concur that CMC, especially with the use of pseudonyms, masks identifying aspects present in FTF communication. Social information processing theory suggests that one might develop conceptually rich socioemotional perceptions in interpreting a conversation partner's use of text, emotext, and managed identity. As Chesebro & Bonsall (1989) explain, "...particular attitudes, ideas, and beliefs of a computer user, rather than the apparent sociological class with which the user would normally be associated, can initially establish a definition of that person for other computer users" (p. 61).

A variant of the cues-filtered-out framework, Media Richness Theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986; Trevino, Daft, & Lengel, 1990; Valacich, Paranka, George, & Nunamaker, 1993), posits that a medium may be characterized according to its "richness, " i.e., its capacity to change mental representations within a specific time interval. This characteristic is based on criteria of feedback, multiple cues, language variety, and personal focus. As Valacich et al. (1993) indicate, some degree of ambiguity may be preferred under some social contexts. Group productivity can be enhanced when the communication media's level of ambiguity decreases evaluation apprehension. CMC can be considered less "media rich" than FTF communication because they have lower levels of feedback and fewer sensory cues and channels. CMC's potential for managed ambiguity may enhance socioemotional communication beyond FTF channels in certain contexts. More specifically, a purposeful manipulation of social information enables a communicant to deliberately manage identity. A person "manages identity" by deliberately exhibiting and withholding pieces of social information, for the purpose of influencing the perceptions of others towards that person. That this is an easier task when cues are limited to verbal text, as they generally are in CMC, than when they include graphic and vocal information, as in FTF communication.

The theories and observations mentioned above indicate that the use of gender-crossing or gender-neutral pseudonyms would reduce inhibitions associated with violating communication norms. It follows that individuals would tend to express themselves more in pseudonymous contexts than in real-name identifying contexts. Pseudonyms allow individuals to break gender-based communication norms without negative repercussion in either the "real" or "virtual" world. It is also arguable that a same-gender pseudonym protects an individual from repercussions of violating gender-based norms in the "real world," though not in the "virtual world" of the conference.

These observations and theories explain why differences between men and women regarding socioemotional and power-related discourse would diminish when pseudonyms, rather than real names, are associated with their statements. They also lend insight into why men and women would prefer to use cross-gender pseudonyms to express themselves in certain ways.

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The following hypotheses address our research question regarding the relationship between gender-based communication and the use of pseudonyms in CMC. We start with a common assertion that prior knowledge and experience constitute powerful determinants of subsequent behavior (Rogers, 1983).

H1: In general, people who are more familiar with CMC concepts will tend to participate in CMC discourse to a greater extent than those less familiar with CMC concepts.

The affiliative drive (Walther, 1992) influences people to (a) display and solicit social support for the sake of establishing relationships and (b) express themselves in the course of participating in dyadic or group communication. Anonymity and the us e of pseudonyms will likely increase participation since individuals can express themselves with less personal risk when they are identified with a pseudonym (We, 1993; Matheson & Zanna, 1990).

H2: Overall participation, across gender, will be greater in pseudonymous CMC contexts than in real-name CMC contexts.

[Real-name CMC contexts refer to discourses in which responses include the real names of their authors. Pseudonymous CMC contexts refer to discourses in which responses are attributed to a pseudonym of the author's choosing.]

Traditionally, gender biases have placed women at a relationally disempowered status compared with men in communication contexts (Tannen, 1990) as reflected in the style of conflict avoidance in FTF or real-name contexts. In seeking to express themselves more independently, women will show a greater tendency, than men, to conceal or disguise their gender in mixed-gender communication contexts which facilitate gender anonymity or pseudonymity.

H3: Women in mixed-gender pseudonymous CMC contexts will show a greater tendency to mask their gender than men (by adopting cross-gender or neutral pseudonyms).

Women have been socialized to display qualities of social interdependence. This socialization results in communication patterns exhibiting socioemotional discourse, conflict avoidance, restrained assertiveness, expressions of support for others, and disclosure of personal information (Tannen, 1990). Conversely, men have been socialized to display qualities of hierarchical, power-based assertion and independence. Men therefore tend to assert opinions, avoid expressing support toward others, and avoid personal self-disclosure in conversation.

H4: In general, women will show a greater tendency to exhibit communication patterns of social interdependence (such as references to others, self-reference, supporting references, and emotional discourse,) than will men.

The removal of social information cues which identify gender serves to weaken gender-based constraints of social expectations in conversation (We, 1993; Matheson & Zanna, 1990). Thus, men may feel less need to project an image of social independence and, therefore, may exhibit communication styles of women, including those of social interdependence, more in pseudonymous CMC contexts than in real-name CMC contexts. Conversely, women may feel less constrained to communicate in a socially expected interdependent manner in pseudonymous CMC contexts than in real-name CMC contexts.

H5: Men will show a greater tendency to exhibit communication patterns of social interdependence (such as references to others, self-reference, supporting references, and emotional discourse) in pseudonymous CMC contexts than in real-name CMC contexts.

H6: Women will show a lesser tendency to exhibit communication patterns of social interdependence (such as references to others, self-reference, social support, and emotional discourse) in pseudonymous CMC contexts than in real-name CMC contexts.

H7: Men will show a lesser tendency than women to exhibit communication patterns of social interdependence in real-name CMC contexts, though not in pseudonymous CMC contexts.

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Subjects (n=114) were students enrolled in a large upper-level lecture class at a midwestern university. The students voluntarily filled out questionnaires that asked about prior computer experience as well as basic background information prior to their participation in the conference. Of the 114 people who completed the questionnaires (53 males and 61 females), approximately seventy-five subjects participated beyond the initial sign-up. Content analysis was conducted only for those people who participated beyond the initial requirement.

The Electronic Conference

Two parallel conferences, one requiring the participants to use their real names and one having the participants use pseudonymous names, were run. The electronic conference that the subjects participated in was devised as an optional part of a regular course in the social sciences. The conference was introduced as a potential source for information concerning the course as well as a venue for discussions about topics of interest for the course participants. The subjects were provided with computer accounts and were required to sign on at least once and electronically register their names, real or pseudonymous, to the conference. Participation beyond that was entirely voluntary. The subjects were randomly assigned to either the real-name conference or the pseudonymous conference. The existence of the two conferences was not announced to the participants initially. The conference ran for approximately two months.

In each conference, participants could respond to "items," or topics of interest that other participants created. Generally, there were more items in the pseudonymous conference than in the real-name conference. Since participants interacted in different conferences, the topics of discussion that participants responded to in one conference did not necessarily appear in the other. Thus, in order to keep the two conferences as similar as possible, conference organizers attempted to introduce similar topics in both conferences. The participant's response always appeared next to the participant's name or pseudonym, making it possible for other participants to recognize the source of each response. The entire transcripts of both conferences were content analyzed for relational characteristics.

Content Analysis

Bales's (1950) interaction process analysis (IPA) has been the most commonly utilized measure in research on the interpersonal aspects of CMC (Walther, 1992; e.g., Rice & Love, 1987; Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986). This method categorizes each response in the interaction as either socioemotional or task-oriented. However, this task-social dichotomy has been criticized for its inability to account for the multidimensional relational qualities and for its rigid categorization of each response in to only one category (McGrath, 1984; Walther, 1992). Attempts at addressing these deficiencies such as Rice & Love's (1987) inclusion of an additional category and Walther & Burgoon's (1992) use of self-report data on multidimensional relational aspects have provided somewhat more robust measures. However, we feel that a more appropriate measure of the multidimensional relational qualities should examine the various aspects of the content of the interaction. Thus, the present study analyzed the entire transcript of two computer-mediated conferences and coded for the presence of the following four relational categories.

(1) References to others' responses, defined and coded as a mention by the subject of pervious responses by other conference participants.

(2) References to self, defined and coded as the subject's use of first-person pronouns such as "I," "me," "my," etc.

(3) Use of supporting statements, defined and coded as the subject's use of supporting references, such as "you're right," or "that's true."

(4) Use of emotional statements, defined as the electronic display of emotion by the subject. Three item were coded to represent emotional statements: (a) use of exclamations; (b) use of "emoticons," or emotional icons that utilize textual symbols to draw a sideways facial expression (c.f. Figure 1); and (c) use of "emotext" or textual symbols which express certain emotions, such as the use of CAPITALS to emphasize or "shout," or the use of %$@*# to display dissatisfaction.

Each response was coded for the occurrences of each of the relational categories and all the responses for each subject was summed. The average intercoder reliability for the four categories was .81 (Holsti, 1969). Although this is not an exhaustive list of possible human relational dimensions, it is inclusive of the central multidimensional aspects of relational computer-mediated communication.

For each participant, volume of response was also measured, by counting the total number of responses, as well the total number of sentences within each response.

The total number of occurrences of the different categories for each subject is influenced by the total volume produced by that subject. That is, the higher the number of responses by a subject, the higher the total count of relational category occurrences. In order to avoid confounding differences in discourse patterns with verboseness, it was necessary to convert the raw count of category occurrences into proportions. The total count in each relational category for each subject was thus summed and divided by the total number of sentences for that subject, producing a measure of the percentage of each relational category per sentence. These proportions provide a measure of the relative use of the different relational categories unaffected by total volume.


The survey, which was introduced separately as a voluntary part of the course, was conducted prior to the onset of the computer-mediated conference. No link between the conference and the survey was made. Questions in the survey included items concerning the course in general as well as those concerning people's prior attitude and knowledge of computers. Specifically, questions assessed people's general usage of computers (an 8 item multiple choice question asking how often subjects use a computers), attitude towards various computer usage (four items: computers helps me make better use of my time; computers are difficult to use; computer conferencing is difficult to use; electronic mail is difficult to use), familiarity with four computer-mediated communication terms (FTP, Compuserve /Prodigy /America-On-line, computer conferencing, electronic mail), and perceived ability to explain three advanced computer technology concepts (computer bulletin boards, multimedia, internet).

Selection of Pseudonyms

Initially, three categories were utilized in assessing the gender of each pseudonym: same gender (i.e., the gender of pseudonym was same as the gender of the participant), neutral gender, and cross (different) gender. Then, the neutral gender and different gender categories were collapsed in order to analyze the extent of same gender choice (same gender) versus choice of gender that did not reveal the gender of the participant (gender masking).

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Hypothesis 1, predicting differences in participation for people depending on their familiarity with computer-mediated communication concepts, was analyzed through the t-test, examining the difference of means between participants and non-participants. Of the people who successfully completed the survey, 41 did not participate in the computer-mediated conference beyond the initial one-time sign-up requirement (non-participants) while 73 signed on more than once (participants). As noted previously, there were several items in the survey that assessed their prior knowledge of computers in general, attitude towards computers, as well as more specific computer-mediated communication terminology. (T-tests between the participants and the non-participants were conducted for each of these items with mixed results.) The t-tests for the difference of means between these two groups for general computer use and the perceived ability to explain the advanced computer terminology were not significant (for general computer usage, participant M = 6.31, n = 74, non-participant M = 6.0, n = 41, t = -1.19, n.s.; for ability to explain terminology, participant M = 7.4, n = 74, non-participant M = 8.1, n = 41, t = -1.02, n.s.). However, significant differences between participants and non-participants were found for attitude towards computer use (participant M = 21.8, n = 73, non-participant M = 20.0, n = 41, t = -1.94, p = .056) and for familiarity with computer-mediated communication terminology (participant M = 6.7, n = 69, non-participant M = 5.6, n = 38, t = -3.17, p < .01). Thus, it seems that while specific familiarity and attitude towards computer-mediated communication affected participation, reported computer use and familiarity with general computer terminology was not related with participation in the conference beyond the initial requirement. Hypothesis 1, then, is supported only for domain-specific prior knowledge.

Hypothesis 2 predicted differences in the volume of participation for the pseudonymous and real-name conferences. The measure of participation for each type of conference (pseudonymous and real-name) consisted of two types: the total number of responses (number of times the participants responded to items) divided by the number of participants and the total number of sentences (number of sentences of all the responses for all the participants) divided by the number of participants. Participation was measured by the average number of responses and the average number of sentences per participant. T-tests for the difference of means between the pseudonymous and the real-name conferences were conducted for these two measures. Overall, volume in the pseudonymous conference was higher than in the real-name conference (for number of responses, pseudonymous M = 6.9, n = 37, real-name M = 4.2, n = 37; for number of sentences, pseudonymous M = 27.0, n = 36, real-name M = 18.4, n = 37), but only the total number of responses measure was significant, and only at the p < .10 level (for number of responses, t = -1.88, df = 62, p = .065; for number of sentences, t = -1.30, df = 66, n.s.). Thus partial support for hypothesis 2 was obtained.

As noted previously, choice of gender was coded into two categories, same gender and choice of gender that did not reveal the gender of the participant (gender masking). In testing hypothesis 3, cross-tabulations of gender by gender choice were conducted. As can be seen in Table 1, we obtain patterns that are consistent with our expectations. Males have a higher tendency to choose pseudonyms that retain the same gender while females have a higher tendency to choose pseudonyms that mask their gender. Pearson chi-square tests are highly significant (chi-square = 14.15, df = 1, p < .001). Thus, hypothesis 3 is strongly supported.

Table 1: Cross Tabulations of Frequencies of Gender Choice for Males and Females

                 Same      Gender      Row
                Gender    Masking     Total
                ------    -------     -----
Males             17          4         21
Females            3         13         16
Column Total      20         17         37

chi-square = 14.15, df=1, p<0.001

In analyzing hypotheses 4 through 7, the four relational categories (reference to others, self-reference, supporting references, and emotional text) were used as various indicators of social interdependence. Thus, four separate corollary tests, utilizing each of the indicators as dependent measures, were conducted for each of the hypotheses 4 through 7.

Women were hypothesized to have a greater tendency to exhibit social interdependence (hypothesis 4). We performed a series of t-tests for the difference in means of each gender for the four relational categories. Table 2 summarizes the mean scores of the testing variables for each gender. Significant differences between gender were observed for references to other responses ( t = -2.15, df = 69, p < .05), self-references ( t = -3.26, df = 70, p < .005), and supporting references ( t = -2.39, df = 71, p < .05), but not for emotional text ( t = -.37, df = 69, n.s.). As noted previously, these measures reflect the percent of their occurrence per sentence. Examination of the means show that the relationships are in the predicted direction, i.e., that there is a higher percentage of each type of response for the females than for males. Thus, we find support for hypothesis 4 in three of the four corollary tests.

Table 2: Comparison of Mean Content Analysis Scores for Each Gender Group (hypothesis 4)

        to Other       Self        Supporting    Emotional
        Responses*   Reference**   References*     Text
        ----------   -----------   -----------   ---------
Male      10.72        72.38          4.78         14.64
           (28)         (28)          (28)          (28)

Female    16.40       106.05          9.80         17.46
           (45)         (45)          (45)          (45)

* Significant at the p<0.05 level.
** Significant at the p<0.005 level.

Hypotheses 5 and 6 predicted different relational patterns for the two types of conferences (pseudonymous and real-name) for each gender. Thus, analyses of hypotheses 5 and 6 consisted of separating the file according to gender and performing a series of t-tests, comparing the means of the two types of conferences for the four relational content measures, for each gender. Tables 3 and 4 display the means and the significance levels of the t-test for males and females respectively. Overall, significant results are obtained for males in two of the relational content measures, self-reference and supporting response. Thus, for males, we obtain significant results for half of the corollaries, providing partial support for hypothesis 5. However, for females (hypothesis 6), none of the corollaries are supported, as we fail to obtain significant difference in means of the relational content measures between the two conferences. Thus, our results show that for males, being pseudonymous in a computer-mediate d communication context led to changes in relational interaction in some instances. However, we find no evidence of a change in relational behavior for females between the pseudonymous and the real-name context.

Table 3: Comparison of Relational Content Scores for Males Between Conference Types (hypothesis 5)

 M          to Other       Self       Supporting   Emotional
(n)         Responses    Reference    Reference      Text
---         ---------    ---------    ---------    ---------
Real-Name     12.49       45.17          0.73         8.60
Conference      (8)         (8)           (8)          (8)

Pseudonymous  10.02       83.26          6.40        17.06
Conference     (20)        (20)          (20)         (20)
t Value        0.49       -3.12*        -3.09*       -0.87
(df)            (9)        (15)          (24)         (19)

* Significant at the p<0.01 level.

Table 4: Comparison of Relational Content Scores for Females Between Conference Types (hypothesis 6)

            to Other       Self       Supporting   Emotional
 M          Responses    Reference    Reference      Text
(n)         (Hyp.11)     (Hyp.12)     (Hyp.13)     (Hyp.14)  
---         ---------    ---------    ---------    ---------
Real-Name     17.42       108.20        10.43        17.61
Conference     (29)         (29)         (29)         (29)
Pseudonymous  14.56       102.15         8.66        17.21
Conference     (16)         (16)         (16)         (16)
t Value        0.72         0.38         0.56         0.04
(df)           (33)         (33)         (40)         (42)

Four separate 2 (gender) x 2 (conference type) analysis of variance (ANOVA) tests using each of the four content analysis variables (reference to other responses, self-reference, supporting reference, and emotional text) as dependent variables were conducted to assess the presence of interaction effects predicted by hypotheses 7. Tables 5a through 5d in the Appendix contain the complete ANOVA results. As can be seen in the four tables, only one measure, self-reference, yielded mildly significant (p& ;lt;0.1) interaction effects. Examination of the means (obtained from Tables 3 and 4) shows that the relationship is in the predicted direction, i.e., more self-reference in the pseudonymous conference than in the real-name conference for males and lower self-reference in the pseudonymous conference than in the real-name conference for females. Thus, we obtain partial support for hypothesis 7, as only one of its corollaries provide us with significant results.

In sum, some support is obtained for all but one of our hypotheses, hypothesis 6. We found evidence of increased participation for subjects who reported greater familiarity with, and more positive attitudes towards, CMC. Subjects in the pseudonymous conference in general participated more than people in the real-name conference. Another interesting finding is that males did not mask their gender while females did, as evidenced by the majority of men choosing pseudonyms that are male, as compared to the huge majority of the women who chose either male or neutral pseudonyms. Also, increasing patterns of social interdependence are found for women compared to men, and men in the pseudonymous conference than in the real-name conference. However, not much difference is observed between women in the two conferences.

Tables 5a-5d: Complete Two-Way ANOVA Results for Relational Content Variables

Table 5a: Reference to Other Responses as the Dependent Variable

                          Mean             Signif.
                  df     Square      F      of F
                  --   --------    ----    -------
Conference Type    1     104.44    0.74     0.39
Gender             1     330.15    2.35     0.13
    x Gender       1       0.58    0.00     0.95
Explained          3     225.39    1.60     0.20
  Residual        69     140.56

Table 5b: Self-Reference as the Dependent Variable

                          Mean             Signif.
                  df     Square      F      of F
                  --   --------    ----    -------
Conference Type    1    3774.44    1.77     0.19
Gender             1   24666.22   11.57     0.00
    x Gender       1    7164.66    3.36     0.07
Explained          3    9410.28    4.41     0.01
  Residual        69    2132.06

Table 5c: Supporting References as the Dependent Variable

                          Mean             Signif.
                  df     Square      F      of F
                  --   --------    ----    -------
Conference Type    1      56.12    0.60     0.44
Gender             1     525.65    5.64     0.02
    x Gender       1     203.91    2.19     0.14
Explained          3     216.95    2.33     0.08
  Residual        69      93.13

Table 5d: Emotional Text as the Dependent Variable

                          Mean             Signif.
                  df     Square      F      of F
                  --   --------    ----    -------
Conference Type    1     238.90    0.20     0.65
Gender             1     308.27    0.26     0.61
    x Gender       1     288.85    0.25     0.62
Explained          3     182.82    0.16     0.93
  Residual        69    1170.88

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Computer-mediated communication provides us with new communication possibilities in dyadic and group contexts. While this medium enables individuals to effortlessly send messages to millions of potential conversation partners, it has simultaneously developed as a highly interpersonal medium capable of socioemotional and relational discourse. CMC also affords the individual with the prerogative to mask aspects of his or her identity, enabling one to work around social expectations and stereotypes (racial and gender-related) that invariably influence discourse in FTF and other modes of communication. Our study focused on the changes in communication patterns which might be predicted when communicants are able to thus manage their projected identities.

Consistent with our expectations, people apparently felt more comfortable participating to a greater extent in CMC when they were able to mask their identities. Whereas women felt the need to project a cross-gender identity, men did not. Our observation that women have an increased tendency to mask their gender concurs with a similar finding of Selfe & Meyer (1991) and underscores the implicit social pressure that women feel when interacting in mixed-gender situations. The tendency for women to mask their gender identity might reflect an effort to maintain a parity of status in the shared activity of conversation, an imperative which men would be less likely to feel in a mixed-gender setting.

[Note: It is important to note that there were important differences between the designs of Selfe & Meyer's (1991) study and our own. First, whereas the Self & Meyer study was a longitudinal, panel study, with all participants spending twenty-day periods in, first, real-name and then pseudonymous bulletin board conferences, ours is experimental in nature, with participants randomly assigned to spending two months in either a real-name or a pseudonymous conference. Second, while participants of the former study are described as filling different strata of professional status, participants of the present study's conferences, with the exception of the instructor, were all university undergraduates. Finally, the sample size of the previous study was 43 while this study included approximately 120 participants. The current study was less likely to suffer from effects of maturation and sample bias.]

While pseudonym use resulted in greater expressions of social interdependence among men, there was no observed change in this variable for women, a finding which ran contrary to our prediction in hypothesis 6. This prediction was based upon the assumption that women feel a socially expected pressure to exhibit attributes of social interdependence. It is quite possible, however, that, despite a social expectation for males to portray social independence, the need for social interdependence is equally strong for males as it is for females. Thus, what we consider to be a "feminine" pattern of exhibiting social interdependence might actually be an essentially human style unconstrained by the expectation of male power assertion. Although we received significant support of several hypotheses, it is possible that a more even distribution, achievable through random assignment stratified for gender, would have produced greater statistical support for a number of our hypotheses. We also recognize that while our coding of emotional text was limited to textual patterns, the addition of more subjective interpretations of socioemotional and relational content might have strengthened or added to our existing insights.

The findings of this study, (a) the greater overall volume of discourse for pseudonymous participants, (b) the greater use by males of self-references in pseudonymous vs. real-name CMC, and (c) the greater similarity of male and female discourse in pseudonymous CMC, support the conclusion that gender differences in communication patterns may be mitigated through the use of pseudonyms in CMC channels. This conclusion presents important theoretical and social ramifications.

We find support for the idea that a person given the opportunity to manage his or her projected identity will do so with sufficient motivation. The limited variety of symbols, along with their absolute control by the user, in text-based communication might reduce inhibitions due to social expectations which otherwise constrict socioemotional and relational discourse. These findings also support the assertion of media richness theory that communication media may be chosen according to some functionally optimal level of ambiguity (Valacich et al., 1993). The CMC context provides a heretofore unique opportunity to observe this in both dyadic and group settings.

From a social perspective, as CMC becomes adopted as a popular mass medium, it is possible that we may see a societal reduction in the power asymmetry characterizing the communication patterns of men and women. It is quite conceivable that the children' s use of CMC, at school and at home, might result in changes in the way boys and girls are socialized. Furthermore, the manner in which identity management in CMC potentially democratizes cross-gender communication might extend to the bridging of other social imbalances in communication, including those of race, age, and ethnicity.

While CMC is still a relatively new mass medium, its rate of growth and demonstrated appeal in home, work, and school settings warrant an effort to better understand how it might affect both real and virtual social interaction. Despite the versatile nature and multiple protocols of developing CMC technology, we are still essentially looking at variants of human communication contexts. This versatility provides an increased capability of combining human symbol sets, e.g., video, text, sound, graphics, in new ways. The continuing study of these new, symbolically rich combinations of expressive styles may reveal explanatory keys to the static and dynamic human processes of social cognition and behavior.

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About the Authors

J. Michael Jaffe recently earned a Ph.D. in mass communication research at the University of Michigan. His research interests include cognitive, social, and political aspects of interactive media. He earned a masters degree in electrical engineering in 1986 from SUNY Binghamton. Dr. Jaffe is an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Haifa's Mount Carmel campus in Haifa, Israel.
The University of Haifa Department of Communication Mt. Carmel, Haifa 31905 ISRAEL E-mail: Telephone: (972) 4 249119

Young-Eum Lee is a Visiting Researcher at the Korean Press Institute. She also lectures at various universities in Korea. Her research interests include the effects the developments in new technology as well as social effects of computer-mediated communication and the cognitive processing of mediated information.

Korean Press Institute
12th floor, The Press Center
25, Chung-Gu, Seoul, Korea
Telephone:(822)398-1617 Fax:(822)737-7170

Li-Ning Huang was born in Taiwan and is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at University of Michigan. She earned a masters degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland at College Park in 1992. After that, she worked as a news reporter in Taiwan. Her research interests include international communication, computer-mediated communication, and attitudinal and behavioral effects of communication.

The University of Michigan, Department of Communication
2020 Frieze Building, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109 USA
Telephone:(313)764-0420 Fax:(313)764-3288

Hayg Oshagan is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication. His interests focus on media coverage as well as social-psychological processes in mass mediated communication. He has published in communication, psychology, and sociology journals.

The University of Michigan, Department of Communication
2020 Frieze Building, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109 USA
Telephone:(313)764-3351 Fax:(313)764-3288

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