Thursday, July 02, 2009

Is Facebook Racist?

Who knew that joining MySpace made you "ghetto" and Facebook made you "Ivy League"? I sure didn't, but that's the gist of this lecture.

Herein lies the reality that makes all of this quite messy to deal with. It wasn't just anyone who left MySpace to go to Facebook. In fact, if we want to get to the crux of what unfolded, we might as well face an uncomfortable reality... What happened was modern day "white flight." Whites were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those who deserted MySpace did so by "choice" but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.

This dynamic was furthered by the press, an institution that stems from privilege and tends to reflect the lives of a more privileged class of people. They narrated MySpace as the dangerous underbelly of the Internet while Facebook was the utopian savior. And here we get back to Kat's point: MySpace has become the "ghetto" of the digital landscape. The people there are more likely to be brown or black and to have a set of values that terrifies white society. And many of us have habitually crossed the street to avoid what is seen as the riff-raff.

The fact that digital migration is revealing the same social patterns as urban white flight should send warning signals to everyone out there. And if we think back to the language used by teens who use Facebook when talking about MySpace, we should be truly alarmed. Those who are from privileged backgrounds tend to be far more condescending towards those who are not than vice versa. Many of us in this room come from privileged worlds where we want to "help" those who are not well-off. Here is where a privilege-check is necessary. How often do our language and mannerisms reflect a problematic level of condescension? Perhaps we should look at our teens. They are certainly speaking in a manner that reveals distrust and condescension.

I'll bet most people choose Facebook or MySpace based on where their friends are. My experience is that teens and college students tend to use MySpace and working adults use Facebook. Sure, that's an imperfect and highly unscientific study, but there it is. And worse, Facebook has old people, like me and my sister, our classmates from high school and people we've known since we were toddlers.

The author talks about homophily, which is a fancy word for the way people tend to associate with people who are similar to themselves. Homophily can be a good thing--strength in numbers--but too much of our society thinks it is a bad thing, that it is exclusionary and racist, sexist, homophobic. I suppose those things can be true, but they don't have to be true. As a mom, I like to talk to other mothers, not because I don't like or don't trust people who don't have kids, but because other mothers better understand my opinions and experiences. As a Christian, I like to talk to other Christians for many of the same reasons.

But as a white person? The privilege of whiteness is that I don't worry about my skin color. So, I don't seek out white friends to discuss our whiteness like I might seek out moms or Christians to discuss common interests. But do black people or Asians or Hispanics? I'm sure they do; because their experiences make them want to sympathize and empathize with similar people.

I suppose this is why I've never been bothered by self-segregation the way many liberals are. I understand that sometimes you want to be with people who are like you. The problem that I see with segregation, whether it's in a neighborhood, a school or MySpace, is when that segregation prevents people from becoming whoever or whatever they want. If advertisers flocked to Facebook because a lot of wealthy, better educated people used it as opposed to MySpace, I can't blame the advertisers; their goal is to attract people to buy their goods and services. What is problematic is if information and discussion becomes less available because of the MySpace vs. Facebook rivalry. The author doesn't really spend time addressing that.

Unfortunately for us, free choices like where you do your social networking online is seen as political every bit as much as who you voted for in November 2008. It is a big difference between your garden variety liberal and conservative (strategists are a different breed altogether). As a conservative, I don't worry about whether being on Facebook to visit with my family overseas makes me racist; I see it simply as a tool to keep in touch with people who are important to me. This is not the same way many liberals see these tools.