My summer internship: On finding gender
I showed up at NERD with a set of questions about the relationship between making physical things, producing information, and being part of a community of peers that I thought I could answer by looking at food blogs. I knew only a little about food bloggers so I decided I had better start with macro-level questions about the size and network structure of the food blogosphere, mid-range questions about the demographics of food blogs and food bloggers, and then arrive at the juicier questions about how and why food bloggers do what they do.
Methodologically those questions translated to:
- a network crawler
- a survey
- semi-structured interviews
- hanging out on the blogs and twitter
In terms of publications, I was always aiming for a book, a whole stinking book.
Here’s what actually happened.
The crawler never made it in to MSR because it was deemed too risky. An intern in some other group had run a badly behaved crawler last year and Microsoft Research was not ready to go down that road again. Fine. I ran it from home with help from my CS friend.
I got lots of feedback on the survey from the entire SMC group which resulted in a shorter, tighter instrument overall. After disheartening reports that food bloggers had to fish my emailed invitation out of their spam folders, I leaned on twitter and ended up with a response rate better than 30%. As a complete stranger, it was easier to look like a real person on twitter than it was over email. Go figure.
Speaking of meeting strangers, I spent the majority of my summer interviewing 27 food bloggers about why and how they blogged about food. What mattered to them turned out to be writing, photography, and the reliability of the recipe not the taste, smell, or other physical qualities of food. I was so excited to hear about the privileging of food information over the food itself because my initial interest was in the way that the physical process of making and eating food related to the process of producing the information to recreate that experience in one way or another.
What I started to realize (like a dummy who cannot see what it right in front of her) was that the way food blogs are produced has a lot to do with the gendered history of food production. Women have historically been home cooks while professional kitchens are populated mostly by men (and even if they aren’t populated by men, they are some of the most hypermasculine spaces I have ever been in. Thank you, dissertation field work.) Devoting time and energy to the production of *information* about food in the form of writing and photography has a different gender-valence than producing food for friends family, or oneself in home kitchens. Food blogs bring the food out of the home into the public sphere, a step away from the feminine space of the kitchen, into the masculine space of participatory discourse. This move away from the feminine is further emphasized by the way food bloggers dedicate energy to writing, photography, and the technics of blogging.
Male food bloggers are few in number and I was only able to interview three of them (I am aiming to get at least three more men to speak with me). The three I talked to were all fairly ‘advanced’ food bloggers who had either been doing it for a long time or had quit their day jobs to do it or some combination of both. They all identified themselves as food professionals from the beginning of the interviews – one referred to himself as the father of food blogging. The women usually talked about the importance of external recognition in the process of professionalizing; the men I interviewed simply adopted whatever professional title they aspired to have without too much dallying in the ‘becoming’ phase.
I went into this project with the hunch that by situating my gaze at a border crossing – from the physical to the digital – I would be able to have a deeper understanding of the importance of tangibility and the cultural capital of information in relation to the physical. While that may not be exactly what I found, I think I was able to reveal something about the way gender is both structured and structuring. I chalk it up to the decision to sit at that border crossing – watching assumptions that hold up in one context fail to be translated in a different context is a good way to figure out what is holding up those assumptions in the first place.
It’s not all that surprising that by looking at a historically gendered practice – food production – I ended up finding out about the relationship between gender and professionalism. I’m so excited to write this research up – have three articles and a chapter in mind.
Before I head back to Brooklyn, I want to share my gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the intellectual community at Microsoft Research this summer. I recommend this internship without reservation to anyone interested in studying what happens on screens and between screens, especially when those screens are computer screens. The intellectual community is phenomenal, the space is better than any university I have ever seen, and the amount of work that fits into a day here is simply greater than what fits into a day back in my department.