A Failed Experiment


For the month of March, I had this fantastic idea: I was going to test gender biases in commenting sections on Christian blogs. I developed a gender neutral name and identity, emailed the blog owners to let them know, and started posting. The idea was that, by using a gender neutral identity instead of my clearly female “Dianna” username, I might be perceived differently and not get “tone” arguments like I normally do. I chose the blogs of two friends where I know the commenting sections and would be able to use my own previous comments as a control – Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner. They were both informed of the project and I had their full backing going into it.

It was mildly successful, but I’ve had to give it up nearly at the end, mainly because commenting systems decided to undermine my experiment. Several of the people who were in the know on the project can tell you I was extremely annoyed at Disqus for the way it screwed things up.

This post is going to be in two parts: this part is explaining the experiment, and the second part is what went right.

First: what went wrong.

Short answer: Disqus is a terrible commenting system.

Long answer: Disqus didn’t like that I was trying to change my username, and insisted on posting things in one of two ways. First, it would post under my normal name, despite me changing the settings, which of course ruins any data. And second, it would post under my gender neutral name – Eliot – but link to my blog. It would do this even if I logged in with the email address created specifically for this experiment.

Needless to say, this created a great number of annoyances for me, because every time I checked back on my comments, there would be a different name or a different link. At one point, I even tried to assuage this by saying “Hm, I don’t know why Disqus is doing this and posting a link to that blog there.”

It would do this all the time on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, but, luckily, MPT’s blog uses a different system, so it worked fine. But, for anyone paying close attention, it was probably fairly obvious.

I doubt anyone bought it. So, my apologies to those who were confused.

Second: what went right.

In many respects, the experiment was still a success, in that I was able to draw some basic conclusions. They are as follows:

1. With a gender-neutral moniker, I was less controversial. There was one “fight” out of about 20 comments that I made, and it was a fight that defused rather quickly. Most of the time, on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, even if I posted something ordinarily very controversial, it would just get “likes,” and zero responses, which is weird for me. I’m very used to bracing myself for impact when I post something controversial, but as Eliot, none of that happened.

2. People who didn't like “Eliot” were quick to say it. I’ve been commenting on MPT’s blog since 2009. It took me probably over a year before someone insulted me personally there. With Eliot, it took three comments before someone called me an idiot.

 3. I felt neutered without the ability to refer to my gender. I realized what an important debating tactic it is to be able to refer to the various woman-centric struggles as something personal to my life, rather than making attempts to stay gender neutral in my thoughts. This helped in many ways because it focused my writing more, but it also kept the argument on this weird, dehumanized platform.

4. The default is definitely male. People assumed and referred to me as “him,” despite “Eliot” being a gender neutral name and I could have very easily claimed to be female. But, when people did respond and quote me or say something about what I said, I was always a “he.” It was amazing how quickly people assumed that the writer was male, despite the name not actually giving an indication of that.

So, despite the ultimate failure of the experiment, I found it extremely interesting to see how my gender-neutral moniker not only affected the behavior of those around me (especially in point four), but affected my own writing in having to keep things gender neutral.

If you noticed and caught on to the experiment, good for you! If this is a surprise to you, then, hey, surprise! I do hope that your takeaway from the experiment is not to make assumptions about the people that you are replying to – especially if they you don’t know whether they are a man or a woman.

Update: According to several of you in the comments, "Eliot" isn't "gender neutral" - I know girls named Eliot, and Scrubs, a hugely popular TV show, has a female character named Dr. Elliot Reid. But, people, complaining about the name not being "gender neutral" (because your experience doesn't support it as such) is missing the point, in that no one bothered to even ASK if I happen to be a woman. The assumption was that one's experience in the name Eliot being male was universal, and that the default response for something that could be gender neutral is to assume maleness.