I had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Rosanna Guadango, a professor of Social Psychology who is currently conducting research at the Peace Innovation Lab at Stanford University. Dr. Guadango’s research interests focus on three main areas: Social Influence and Persuasion, Social Behavior and Mediated-Communication, and Gender Roles.

Tell Me About Your Research

My background is in social psychology studying human social behavior, in terms of what’s typical for interpersonal interactions, such as our thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs.

My particular area of expertise is in social influence and persuasion which looks at how people change their attitudes and how they get others to change their attitudes and behaviors. So, what processes and tactics might work.

I grew up in the Bay Area of San Francisco and I grew up around the same time the personal computer industry started emerging in the 80s and 90s. When I got into grad school to study social influence with my advisor, I told him I wanted to study email. Email was a fairly new concept at the time and my advisor agreed to let me take it on.

I’m so glad he did because everyone else I told about my study of social influence and persuasion, their reactions was “Why would you want to study that? Email is a passing fad!” Well, turns out, it’s not. But it took time to demonstrate that.

After living all over the country thanks to my career, I’ve found that when it comes to technology, the Bay Area very much lives in the future. All the new incoming technologies get developed and tested there. I was forward looking in a way I didn’t realize at the time.

So that’s how I ended up studying social influence and technology. Over the years that has broadened a bit … eventually different technologies morphed and evolved until we ended up in today’s world of social media and the app economy.

As technology has changed, I’ve continued to study these processes. I’ve broadened a bit to study individual differences such as personality and gender and how that affects the way we use technology, sometimes in concert with social influence and persuasion, sometimes separate. I’ve built my career studying how human psychology and social interaction desires and motives affect the way we use and consume and interact over technology.

What Did You Study to Get Here?

All of my educational background is in psychology. I have bachelor’s and master’s in psychology.

Because I grew up in the Bay Area before I went to grad school, I actual ended up working in the software industry in the mid-90s at 2 different corporations: Silicon Graphics (which is now defunct) and then later at Oracle. I also worked at a few startups as well, which is how I learned about technology.

When I was going to college we didn’t have classes on social media or classes that looked at the intersection between psychology and technology. It’s cool to see now that we’re finally getting those classes and students interested in looking at that intersection.

Is Social Media Gendered?

Social Media is gendered, and there are so many different ways you can layer that.

I’ll give you an illustration of that. If you look at the type of social media and break it down by gender, it becomes quite clear how gendered it is. Social media platforms like Reddit are majority male users. When you look at social media that is more image focused, like Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram … it is very heavily female.

There are now so many different social media options now we find that men and women engage in different types of social media they also use and consume different types of social media as a function of gender.

Is There a Reason Why Those Platforms are Geared Towards Certain Genders?

I don’t know the exact answer to that, but I can certainly speculate why that is.

My early research looked at gender and persuasion over email. What I started looking at was gender differences in linguistic style and how that plays out online. Unfortunately, how it plays out online is when it comes to text based social media (Reddit, Twitter) where everyone can see what you say and react instantly to what you say, it seems to be male dominated. Early researchers speculated that it might be something about the technology and the affordances of technology that were consistent with masculine socialization.

I think part of it is that men are more willing to argue online with people, and argue to the point that it drives women away. I’m not the only one who has expressed that opinion, other scholars have as well. I think part of it is when a platform is more text based and argumentative, it’s almost a turn off for women because women aren’t socialized to argue in that manner.

It reminds me of a statistic that I saw on Twitter. Among academic Twitter, if you look at who talks and participates, the majority are men. Even if the specific subfield in academia is more female dominated.

On the more image-focused side of things, I think it’s based on the fact that women get evaluated more on their appearance. If you think about who’s taking selfies and trying to perfect their online image, it tends to be more female-dominated because, in part, that’s how we’re socialized. We’re socialized to consider how our appearance matters in ways men just aren’t.

It also has a negative downside. The women who use these image-based forms of social media – it hurts them. They compare themselves to other women, even though they don’t realize those other women are spending an exorbitant amount of time taking these pictures. Some of them get funded by different manufacturers of cosmetics and clothing to basically advertise these services.

What it does is create a comparison that is so unrealistic that no real person can meet these expectations that is set. But young women don’t realize this which affects their body image and self esteem.

How Do You See Communication Changing Due to Social Media?

When you take a step back and look at social media, it doesn’t matter what the platform is. We need to look at who’s developing these platforms, and it is largely men. In fact, one of the shifting trends from the mid 90s to today: there are actually fewer women in technicals roles today. I can’t speak as to why that is, but the technologies that are being made today are being made based on the ideas of men and the expectations of men.

In some respects, the communication processes are more consistent towards male gender roles. But also I think one solution to this is creating a space for more diversity in technology. That includes more people of color and more women in technical roles. That’s something that needs to change so that we can level out these issues.

I’ve done a little research looking at how men and women use social media. Something that is consistent with these socialized gender roles is that men are socialized to be more independent and focused on specific tasks.

So when you look at how people spend time online, my research, as well as others, has shown that men are more interested in making new connections online, finding people to date, finding new job opportunities, consume news and information. Most of what they do is very independent and focused on their intellectual needs.

When you look at women using social media, they tend to use social media and the internet more broadly for relational aspects. They use communication technologies to maintain existing relationships rather than create new ones. Their social networks look different than mens social networks do but also what they spend time doing is more communicative and less information-seeking than men.

Where Do You See The Psychology of Social Media Going in the Future?

I’m very concerned about our dependence on social media. I think the way technology is being developed now is oriented towards using people not as the customer but as the data point. We are the data. We are what brings in the advertising revenue for social media companies. So when they develop their products, they focus heavily on keeping us on their sites and keeping us engaged. But we’re not questioning whether it’s good for our well-being.

My biggest concern is that if this model continues, that the customer is the advertising agency and not the individual. What kind of affect does that have on us? It’s turning us into social media addicts, which is unhealthy.

My hope is that at some point enough people will tune out of social media that it might actually convince the people who are creating the technology and making money off their ad revenue, to consider a different kind of business model where maybe we, the people, get to be the consumers.

I would pay Facebook to not have to worry about advertising or worry about them using my data in ways that I would be uncomfortable with. I don’t have a Facebook anymore, but I liked communicating with my friends and family through the service. But I became very concerned after seeing scandal after scandal that showed a total lack of regard of people.

What I worry is going to happen is very different than what I hope is going to happen. What I worry is going to happen is this trend is going to continue. It’s not healthy for individuals or healthy for society.

One of the things I’m doing at Stanford right now is studying information warfare. Information warfare is effective in part because these different hacking groups have figured out how to leverage our networks through social media to spread information that causes discord and disagreements about what we accept to be real and factual as a culture. It’s already becoming destructive and it’s going to get worse unless we stop it.

What Do You Hope to See for the Future of Social Media?

My hope is that this technology morphs and changes.

What I would like to see is a shift of social media towards being more interactive with people. Technology is a great bridge for that, if done right. Examples of this could be more video chats, higher bandwidth, and synchronic interactions. I think a lot of the negatives aspects of social media will go away if we do that.

The other issue is sometimes with social media we intend to say something that is meant to go to only one or two people but it ends up being broadcasted to hundreds. A suggestion for this is having a narrowing or a stratification of our networks so that we have more control over what we say and who sees it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.