Very large numbers of people habitually spend time interacting in online social spaces based on the software developed by Pavel Curtis for Lambda MOO. Although chatting is part of the functionality of these spaces, it is much richer than the functionality given by basic chat rooms. In particular, members of these spaces explicitly declare a gender within the space (I will call it their 'presenting gender'), which may or may not correspond with their offline gender. As well as the traditional options of "male" and "female", it is possible to choose presenting genders such as "neutral", "royal", or "witch". Around 35% of the members of Media MOO and 22% of Lambda MOO have a presenting gender that is neither "male" nor "female" (Danet).
I surveyed active citizens of another such space, Little Italy, by examining 400 characters that had accessed the space during the preceding month. Of these, 72 (18%) had a presenting gender other than "male", "female", and the default, "neutral" (assigned to Little Italians who haven't yet chosen a presenting gender). 11% had default presenting gender. I found that those who had a presenting gender 'other' than "male", "female", or the default were more likely to still be active in Little Italy a year later. This result holds at the 80% significance level -- in other words, there is a less than 1 in 5 probability that the difference observed could have arisen by chance if the distributions were in reality identical. In fact, 'other'-gendered active citizens were 23% more likely than "male" and 32% more likely than "female" active citizens to be still active a year later. This suggests that 'other'-gendered chat may be more a pleasant (or addictive) activity than male- or female-gendered chat. Amazingly, 49% of the 'other'-gendered citizens sampled were still active a year later.
This intrigued me, so I sent a message to currently active Little Italians with presenting genders other than male or female, asking them why they had chosen such a presenting gender. I had 28 responses. Quotations from the responses below are by permission, and translated from the Italian.
A popular idea amongst gender theorists (e.g. Stone) is that choosing a presenting gender other than "male" and "female" is a strategy for people who don't feel they fit precisely into gender stereotypes. This may include most of us to some degree. As the Kinks sang, "girls will be boys and boys will be girls, it's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world, except for Lola" -- where Lola has ambiguous presenting gender, and thus is the only non-mixed-up one. This is indeed the reason given by one respondent for choosing a presenting gender other than male or female: "despite being a man, I feel very feminine (since I was small I've always wanted to be a woman)". However, no other respondents gave this as their reason.
Another idea from the literature is that of "gender masking" (Jaffe et al. 11-2, and table 1). According to this theory, people, especially women, hide their gender online in order to avoid discrimination and harassment, or gender-related assumptions. Indeed, one respondent described his/her 'masked' character as "a mind without sex or body, an entity without appearance, as insubstantial as a cloud of smoke". On the other hand, the majority of other-gendered Little Italians give some clue that they are either male or female in their character descriptions, and most give some clue when speaking socially within Little Italy. Italian is an inflected language, and has many constructions that reveal whether the speaker is male or female -- it is rare (although not unknown) for a Little Italian to avoid these constructions or to use them ambiguously, as might be expected by someone masking their gender.
To consider another idea, Bruckman (also Reid ch. 3 iii) suggests that the online world can be an "identity workshop" (1), where people can emphasise particular aspects of their personality, or try out new personae, or experience what it is like to be someone completely different. Some Little Italians emphasise part of their real identity through their presenting gender, choosing for example to have a gender such as "rebel", "dutch", or "angel". One respondent suggested, "I chose 'angel' because I help everyone who asks me -- and some who don't ask -- let's say I like being a guardian angel ;) and because my name is Michelangelo". Other Little Italians choose 'other' presenting genders precisely because these genders do not have an offline equivalent. Their choice is a form of creativity or escapism. One such respondent asked, "if everything is just like reality, what's the point of logging on?" This creative aspect becomes clear in the more outré genders invented by Little Italians, such as "\V/amp!" for a vampire character, which includes a visual reference to Dracula's high collar, and "...nothing like the sun" (the ellipsis is part of the gender).
One surprise was that several citizens became 'other'-gendered by accident! Offline it is difficult to have a sex-change without realising, but online a badly-designed interface can have this effect. 3% of the sample had gender "me", which is a side-effect of a particular mistake in the use of the space.
Another surprise was the joke gender. If you ask the system for information about a Little Italy character, one line of the answer is of the form "Sex: <the character's presenting gender>". Around 2% of the sample had presenting genders such as "If only!", "Too much!!", and "Go ahead!!". Several other citizens told me their genders were references to in-jokes amongst their online friends.
Some characters had an 'other' gender because the character portrayed was not a human being -- such as a duck with presenting gender "duck", and a character called Harley with presenting gender "H-D". Looking at the 'other' genders in the sample, I was struck by the diversity both of the genders themselves, and of the reasons for which they are chosen. There is no single motive valid for most 'other'-gendered citizens.
I was also struck by their lightheartedness. Gender studies texts tend to treat the choice of presenting gender as something highly serious and important. Several writers deal with gender as performance (Butler interviewed by Osborne and Segal, 109-26) or masquerade (Danet) with playful and ironic characteristics (Haraway 149-81). These writers, however, tend to emphasise a serious purpose underlying the performance. Haraway talks of "serious play" (149) and Butler is interested in performing gender as a subversive practice that aims to undermine the dominant forms of gender. Little Italy shows that in online spaces this need not be the case. The Little Italian with presenting gender "duck" does not think of herself as a duck, she is not critiquing female stereotypes, she is not questioning the idea of femaleness, she is not hiding her offline gender to avoid harassment, she is not asserting her inner duckiness; she's just having a bit of fun. Little Italy is more of an identity playground than an identity workshop.
The creation of 'other' presenting genders in Little Italy is an example of the unexpectedly creative use of public space by members (in this case the space after Sex: in the character information) that was not originally designed with this use in mind. It is perhaps even more fascinating than other examples of folk art in unexpected places, such as graffiti, crop circles, bumper stickers or carved spoon handles, because of the clarity of its relationship with the artists' (lighthearted) construction of their identities.
'Stickiness' -- the likelihood of visitors to continue visiting a Website over an extended period of time -- is a quality much sought after by e-companies. Little Italy is very 'sticky' for all its citizens, but exceptionally so for other-gendered ones. In my opinion, it is the personal creative investment of the other-gendered citizens in Little Italy that makes them especially likely to remain active citizens. 'Other' presenting genders are possible in Little Italy because Pavel Curtis's software does not limit the options to male and female. This research suggests that designers and administrators of commercial Websites who want stickiness should avoid making assumptions about how their visitors may wish to present and express themselves. Rather, they should try to leave spaces open for their visitors' creativity. Many commercial Websites try to control and limit visitors' interaction, using forms and limited-choice menus. But if I am right about the stickiness of personal creative investment, then this may be a mistake. Creative empowerment of visitors may be better for the bottom line.