Archive for September, 2010

Digital makeovers for “Aussie mums”

September 1, 2010

The following is based on a paper I gave at this year’s AWGSA conference in Adelaide.

“Mum 2.0”: Gender and generation in the new media landscape

While waiting for a bus not so long ago, I noticed an advertisement with the headline “Mum 2.0”. It featured a large photo of a mobile phone, and underneath the tag-line read “Does your mum need a digital makeover?” Having recently completely a doctorate that, in part, examined the mother-daughter debates within feminism – I’d been thinking and writing a lot around issues of ‘gender’ and ‘generation’. I’d also been thinking that I’d like to do some research in the field of new media. This advertisement caught my attention because of the way it played into gender stereotypes and set up a generation gap. But it also grabbed me because it quite neatly tied together my older research interests with some of my new ones.

On closer inspection of the billboard, I noticed it was a Telstra advertisement for a competition to win a mobile phone. But ‘What is Mum 2.0 supposed to mean?’, I thought to myself. And what the hell is a ‘digital makeover’?

The ad can be read as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek twist on the now banal, almost meaningless phrase “Web 2.0”. It both draws on our communal understanding of Web 2.0 to mean the “next generation of the internet” and throws in new generalisations about generations of women. This ad plays into the sexist idea that women are technologically illiterate, suggesting mothers are often un-cool and that they need help navigating this strange new digital landscape in the form of a “makeover”. And of course, there are the allusions to the traditional meaning of makeover as a physical transformation involving cosmetics and a new hairstyle. Women are never good enough – they need help. This time mothers are to be made-over with the latest consumer gadgets and some lessons in how to be more tech-savvy.

This Telstra billboard and the related Mum 2.0 website raises a number of questions about the way women are positioned within ‘new media’ spaces, particularly the way a particular type of “motherhood” is constructed.

The Telstra bus-stop ad was a competition to win a new phone. It was tied in with a broader advertising campaign called “Digital Mum”. The accompanying website has a section called “Dob in your mum”. It says, “Mum starting to become part of your online social network? Give her a crash course in tech etiquette and dob her in for a digital makeover.” The campaign encourages people to ‘dob in their mum’ for the chance to win a free phone, and at the same time your mum will also be offered free online lessons in how to use social networking sites like Facebook. So it’s not just about selling mobile phones, but about ‘educating mothers’ about proper online etiquette.

The website also includes six short video tutorials, hosted by YouTube, that were designed to teach ‘mum’ how to use Facebook without embarrassing her teenaged children and without making a fool of herself online. These brief tutorials are fascinating and quite funny because they ‘act out’ scenes from Facebook in real life. Each clip is hosted/narrated by Australian comedian Tim Ross (better known as Rosso) and feature a white middle class suburban family: mum, dad and three teenaged children.

As Rosso points out in the introductory clip, “We’ll teach you lessons other people have had to learn the hard way: The etiquette of social networking. We’ve brought an online family into the real world, so getting up to speed won’t take long.”

Introductory video:

There are six video lessons all up, but the following two clips are my favourites:

Lesson 4: Joining a Group

I love this one because it helps to highlight the generational specificity of popular culture (ie. one of my the main themes of my thesis). A mother is seated in her daughter’s bedroom with her daughter’s friends and they’re all wearing “I heart Edward” t-shirts, referring, of course to the vampire heart-throb of the moment.The joke comes from how uncool the Mum is as she tries to get in on the Twilight fandom action. While she attempts to mirror what the young women are saying in the Edward fanclub, it backfires because she doesn’t quite “get it”. She uses the wrong lingo and she embarrasses her daughter. Rosso helpfully suggests: “It’s important to connect with your kids online, but give them some space. And be yourself.” Thanks Rosso!

Lesson 6: Privacy

Lesson number six warns ‘mums’ about privacy online, and that they have to be careful who they add as a friend and who has access to photos. The family are seated around the table having dinner. A strange man is in the house peering inside the fridge and nosing around the framed family photos on the mantelpiece. The father and the kids are confused and ask who he is. The mum replies “Oh, that’s Jacques. I met him years ago when I was backpacking. He asked me to add him. I couldn’t say no”.

The strange man joins them at the table and starts speaking inappropriately in French to the mother. Rosso’s voiceover warns about adding people from your past to Facebook and suggests adjusting your privacy settings so that not everyone has access to your profile and photos. This one is really interesting as it ties into wider concerns about online safety and privacy, especially since Facebook is rather notorious for dubious privacy policies.

According to a media release on their website, Telstra commissioned a nationwide study last year that surveyed 1200 “Aussie mums”. It says:

Despite Aussie mums’ desire to use social networking sites to stay connected with their family, their children don’t see these sites as a way of connecting with their parents. Children over 16 years old are most likely to decline friend requests from their parents to avoid the embarrassment of baby photos and grammar corrections ending up on their homepage.

Telstra Brands and Marketing Communications Executive Director Amanda Johnston-Pell said, Aussie mums are online and using social networking sites, however there are definite fears and insecurities about how to approach their own kids online and what acceptable etiquette in this space is.

“Following on from our ‘Call Mum’ campaign, we have launched a new program to help mothers up-skill in the social networking space to stay in touch with their family online with our new program called Mum 2.0,” Ms Johnston-Pell said.

“Online social networking is quickly becoming the norm for staying in touch with family and friends and the Telstra Mum 2.0 free of charge program is here to help Aussie mums make sure they never lose face online.”

Telstra State of the Nation report revealed nationally:

* 81 per cent of Aussie mums have fears and insecurities about their use of online social networking.
* 61 per cent of Aussie mums use Facebook regularly – 47 per cent of these mums use it daily and 14 per cent use it at least once a week
* 65 per cent of Aussie mums contact their immediate family via online social networking at least once a week.
* More than 47 per cent of mums aged 45-65 used social networking websites to view their children’s pages.

One of the first questions I had was why dads weren’t included in this study? I’d be really keen to do some research on whether mothers are more interested than fathers in learning how to use these technologies. The Telstra ad is successful in setting up (or playing into) the notion of a generation gap. (There’s a long history of the idea of the parents being ‘clueless’ about the latest technology – eg. Not knowing how to program the VCR). But why must it be so gendered as well? If the desire to learn about Facebook is to be able to better stay in touch with offspring, are fathers not interested in this too? Is it assumed that fathers will automatically know how to use Facebook (because they’re men and men can ‘do’ technology). Or is it assumed that they’re not interested in Facebook for its communicating-with-family abilities, because that that is ‘mum’s job’?

This advertising strategy also severely limits what the idea of “mum” can mean. For Telstra, “mum” apparently means: White, middle class, with 2 teenaged kids and a husband. What about younger mums? I know a number of mothers who have been using Facebook since it began! What about single mothers, lesbian mothers, working class, indigenous mothers, etc?

I’m only in the early stages of thinking through some of these issues. I’m contemplating whether or not it could make up part of a larger research project examining the ways in which digital technologies are shaping the way we communicate and exploring how gender relations are being played out in new media spaces.

Perhaps I should at least turn my paper into a journal article. But at least for now I’ve blogged it!