We probably didn’t need an academic study to tell us this, but the figures are still quite surprising: The University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering has, in a study released today, found that chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames:
Female usernames, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day in the study, conducted by Michel Cukier, assistant professor in the Center for Risk and Reliability in the Clark School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and an affiliate of the university’s Institute for Systems Research, and sophomore computer engineering student Robert Meyer.
First off, I have several questions. What is a School of Engineering doing in a study like this? Isn’t this more of a sociology, or anthropology type research project? Secondly, what were a couple of fellas doing impersonating females in chatrooms? And, more importantly, what names did they use? Thirdly, 163 sounds a lot. How long were they online for?
The study, the press release says, “focused on internet relay chat or IRC chat rooms, which are among the most popular chat services but offer widely varying levels of user security. The researchers logged into various chatrooms under female, male and ambiguous usernames, counted the number of times they were contacted and tracked the contents of those messages. Their results will be published in the proceedings of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers International (IEEE) Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks (DSN ’06) in June.” Now I’m really curious. Ambiguous? Sean? Stacey? Bob?
Seriously, though, this kind of thing is pretty awful. But it’s not new. I did my own bit of sleuthing back in 1997 pretending to be a female in some chatroom or other and was approached by more men, or people claiming to be men, than a nun at a bishops’ convention. I can’t imagine it’s gotten any better. And, as the study points out, this kind of thing is by no means reserved for adults. Their advice: use ambiguous or gender-nonspecific names when you register, and be alert. If you need any good pseudonyms for this kind of thing, I’m collecting fake spam names here.