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08 September 2006

Blogging voices: Defining characteristics

Kate wrote Thursday about distinctive voices of bloggers and how their voices are often instantly identifiable, even in comments on other blogs. (A lesson, perhaps, to not try to post something anonymously unless you're very, very good at disguises?) The first time I recognized a blogger by her voice, without regarding who placed the comment, I was a little surprised. Yet, it makes sense. If you read someone often enough, even in an informal medium like blogging, you're bound to recognize their style after awhile.

This leads me to another issue that I've thought of often. Are characteristics of a blogger noticeable, even if blogging pseudonymously? For example, can you readily identify someone by gender, by nationality or ethnicity, or by age, if those characteristics are not stated specifically?

I first thought about this several months ago when I asked my teen-aged son whether he thought most of the players in World Of Warcraft were teen & young adult males. He was a bit puzzled at first, but then thoughtfully said that he assumed most were, but he really didn't have any idea. He smiled slightly (maybe even blushed?) when I wondered what percentage of female characters in WoW were actually males. He said that he thought that a few women played the game, but said he didn't know if he could tell men playing women, or women playing men. He just knew that he didn't know any girls in real life who would play WoW, or at least admit to it. It does seem like a very male sort of game to me, although I know that not all gamers are male. His comment about not knowing girls who would play made me think about how much our concept of gender is based on what we know. He didn't know any girls that would play so therefore he might not know how to identify them in the role-playing game.

After this discussion, my husband said he re-read my blog to determine if there were gender signals within the writing (apart from the obvious things like 'my husband' etc.). I wasn't surprised that he thought it was definitely female, but I was surprised at what he pointed to as evidence of a female voice, the things that he claimed a man would never write.

I never would have tried to disguise my gender -- I don't know that I'd know how to do so while still retaining any sort of authenticity in my writing. A recent review in the NY Times of the new James Tiptree biography discussed how, in guessing the real identity of Tiptree, some had postulated that Tiptree had to be male. Tiptree was, in fact, a woman named Alice Sheldon. "The Women Men Don't See" is the only Tiptree that I've read. I already knew that Tiptree was a woman, but I found myself thinking as I read the story that there was a certain male quality, beyond the male first-person narration. Until I read the closing paragraphs of the story. Maybe the subtle, final joke of the story is that men can't understand women, but the character Althea -- and Tiptree-- certainly knew men and not in a way that men could recognize.

I don't know if it is as easy to identify age (assuming a mature adult narrative voice), although I have found myself surprised sometimes by things that are clues. For instance, on a blog I read frequently, the blogger recently mentioned something regarding her children which indicated that they were quite young. I thought: she's young enough to have a 5 or 6-year old? I hadn't consciously considered her age previously but I must have made some assumptions to be surprised that she was not the age that I expected.

In a role-playing game, like World of Warcraft, (I am not a player, btw), one could assume an identity that didn't have to share the same demographic characteristics as oneself. But, because it is a fictional world, perhaps it is easier to assume a radically different identity. In writing fiction, the writer has to be able to assume a portion of the identity of his characters in order to fully develop them. Otherwise, men could only write about men, and women about women. Sometimes, though, the gender, and maybe age & ethnicity as well, of the writer can be detected. It is an aspect of the style of writing that goes beyond the characters. Maybe in blogging, because it isn't usually a fictitious undertaking, those characteristics are more easily identified. After all, gender, age, religion, race make us who we are and influence what we choose to write about and how we choose to write it.

8 comments:

BikeProf said...

This is something that interests me a lot. A few months ago, I went on the message boards at the CHE and posed a question about dealing with a colleague. Many of the responses assumed I was a woman and suggested doing things like getting involved in campus women's groups. One response even said something like, "I assume you're a woman based on the way you're writing." Well, I'm not. But I did think it was pretty cool that all of these academics thought I was.

Cam said...

I think it was interesting that the assumption was made because of your writing style, but wonder how different the responses would have been if it was evident that you were a male. Obviously, you wouldn't have been referred to a women's group, but were there other suggestions that were blatantly geared towards females? Was part of the assumption based on the topic, not the writing style.

I wonder if topic/genre wasn't partially the case with guesses as to Tiptree's identity. I'm not well-versed in Sci-Fi, but I think I've had the assumption that historically most were men with only a few women (i.e., LeGuin, Butler). I remember being told once that screenwriter D.C. Fontana, (pen names include J. Michael Bingham, and Michael Richards) who was a key figure in development of the Star Trek series, especially the character of Spock (the stereotype male intellect, vs. Kirk the stereotypical male conqueror of worlds and women) intentionally didn't use her given name so that people wouldn't know she was a woman. Although Roddenberry knew she was female (she was his personal assistant and Star Trek story editor as well), suppossedly he recommended this to add credibility. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but I know that I read this somewhere before.

erin said...

I've always been fascinated by these issues, even before I started playing MMORPGs. Nick Yee's Daedalus Project, by the way, is usually considered the gold standard of MMORPG player research, and offers some fascinating reading.

Dorothy W. said...

Very interesting post! I'm fascinated by the question, too, of how much information our writing gives away, and whether it's possible to make generalizations about how women write or how men write. I've always been suspicious of literary critics who talk about a "woman's voice" -- but perhaps my suspicions are misplaced.

Cam said...

Erin, thanks for the link. A wealth of interesting reading at The Daedalus Project. Just skimming the surface made me realize how much like theatre these MMORPGs really are.

Dorothy, I understand the suspicion over stereotyping a particular voice as a 'woman's voice'. Yet, I think of Deborah Tannen's research on differences between how men and women speak. Surely those differences must exist in writing as well, at least in non-fiction writing. I'm not sure how much those differences are in fiction writing, although I'm sure that any critical reader has read a work(s) where the characters of one gender are more narrowly drawn, reflecting perhaps the writer's own gender biases. Or, such one-dimensional portrayals could be an intentional ploy by the writer to shape the narrator (and manipulate the reader), as in the Tiptree story I mentioned above.

chiefbiscuit without a logo said...

Hi I have finally worked out how to comment from Beta Blogger - which really isn't better :( I have to tick 'Other' or 'Anonymous' which means i can't leave my logo ...
I think that's an interesting idea about blogger's having distinctive voices and the whole female / male voice idea ... I'm not wonderful at picking out voices ... without being able to see mannerisms or hear the accents, if you know what I mean.

Library Lady said...

We have this discussion when new books come on the market without author photos. For the longest, one of my patrons swore James Paterson was a black man until his photo finally appeared on a book jacket.

Another instance is the book She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb. He makes for a convincing woman writer.

For me, I used to be an Air Traffic Controller. Submerged in male voices all day long, 300 employees, 30 of which were women controllers, we all sounded alike. On frequency, everyone assumes a male unless a distinct high voice speaks. To be considered serious my voice was rather deep on freq. :-)

litlove said...

My son plays WoW and several of his friends have accounts on his account. The friends are all boys, but I was astonished to see that one of them had chosen to be a tall, very large-breasted woman called Chardonnay. Being 11 year-old boys I will never be able to put the questions to them that I am longing to ask...