One of the interesting insights that social networks offer is the difference between male and female behaviour.
In the past, behavioural differences have been hard to measure. Experiments could only be done on limited numbers of individuals and even then, the process of measurement often distorted people’s behaviour.
That’s all changed with the advent of massive online participation in gaming, professional and friendship networks. For the first time, it has become possible to quantify exactly how the genders differ in their approach to things like risk and communication.
Gender specific studies are surprisingly rare, however. Nevertheless a growing body if evidence is emerging that social networks reflect many of the social and evolutionary differences that we’ve long suspected.
Earlier this year, for example, we looked at a remarkable study of a mobile phone network that demonstrated the different reproductive strategies that men and women employ throughout their lives, as revealed by how often they call friends, family and potential mates.
Today, Michael Szell and Stefan Thurner at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria say they’ve found significance differences in the way men and women manage their social networks in an online game called Pardus with over 300,000 players.
In this game, players explore various solar systems in a virtual universe. On the way, they can mark other players as friends or enemies, exchange messages, gain wealth by trading or doing battle but can also be killed.
The interesting thing about online games is that almost every action of every player is recorded, mostly without the players being consciously aware of this. That means measurement bias is minimal.
The networks of friends and enemies that are set up also differ in an important way from those on social networking sites such as Facebook. That’s because players can neither see nor influence other players’ networks. This prevents the kind of clustering and herding behaviour that sometimes dominates other social networks.
Szell and Thurner say the data reveals clear and significant differences between men and women in Pardus.
For example, men and women interact with the opposite sex differently. “Males reciprocate friendship requests from females faster than vice versa and hesitate to reciprocate hostile actions of females,” say Szell and Thurner.
Women are also significantly more risk averse than men as measured by the amount of fighting they engage in and their likelihood of dying.
They are also more likely to be friends with each other than men.
These results are more or less as expected. More surprising is the finding that women tend to be more wealthy than men, probably because they engage more in economic than destructive behaviour.
“These results conﬁrm quantitatively that females and males manage their social networks drastically different,” say Szell and Thurner.
Of course, there are important questions over the extent these findings reflect gender differences in the real world.
One obvious problem is that of gender swapping: men who play as women and vice versa. Szell and Thurner say that other studies have shown that around ten per cent of online gaming populations engage in gender swapping. They say there’s no reason to think this would be any different in Pardus and that it shouldn’t affect the results.
A more serious problem could be the well known phenomenon that women tend to receive better treatment in male-dominated online gaming communities. Indeed, Szell and Thurner say they can see evidence of this in their data. That’s something they’ll need to look into in more detail.
There s one group for whom this kind of study will be invaluable: advertisers and marketeers. That makes it potentially valuable form a commercial point of view.
But the more interesting scientific question is whether this kind of work can tease apart gender differences with a resolution that reveals new and surprising patterns.
We’ll need to wait a little longer to get a better answer to that.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1205.4683: How Women Organize Social Networks Different From Men