Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Web Culture: How Social Networking Sites Illustrate Social Issues

Internet doesn't always me Interconnected
Throughout our history, there has always been social issues revolving around race and ethnicity.  Up until the middle part of the last century, our country, usually considered one of the most modern and affluent nations in the world, recognized and enforced legal racial discrimination and segregation.  That's all changed now right?  After all, the Civil Rights Act officially ended intentional legal discrimination based on race and our nation has become a much better place because of it.  But does unintentional racial segregation still exist within our society today, just in a different form?  Most of us would probably think that racial segregation is a thing of the distant past.  It's easy to think that, because of today's modern and globally connected world where everyone can interact with anyone, in any country simply by typing in a few keystrokes or "friending" people on popular social networking sites, people have moved past  trivial differences like skin color.  This may be true for the most part yet there is some evidence that we are still, however unintentionally, segregating ourselves in the digital world as we once did so frequently in the real world. 

It is clear that in today's society, people are usually "plugged in" in some way or another, for most of the day.  Much of our communication between friends, relatives, classmates, co-workers etc, occurs via the Internet and most likely through one of the popular social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook, most notably.  Social networking sites were designed to create interactions among many different kinds of people of all races, ethnicity's, and nationalities.  But how well are they succeeding in this?  Craig Watkins mentions in Got Facebook? A New Study Examines the World's Biggest Social Network, that "a few years ago, there was  a general belief that Facebook was principally a platform used by whites."  Indeed his study Investigating What's Social About Social Media, notes that 69% of Facebook users were white, followed by 12.9% and 6.9% African American and Latino/Hispanic respectively.  Clearly the racial representation is a bit skewed in one direction. So do all members of these sites network equally?  Danah Boyd doesn't seem to think so and in fact goes on to note that social networking sites might not be living up to their name.

In The Not So Hidden Politics of Class Online, Boyd asks us to think critically of so called social networking sites.  She mentions that "there's almost no networking going on. People use these sites to connect to people they already know."  This includes people of their own racial group.  This unintentional racial segregation of social networking sites is likely a manifestation of underlying real world social issues regarding race that are still prevalent today, albeit much less so than in our history.  Although we would all like to think that technology has connected all of us together equally, I would say people are much less interconnected that they would like to be.  Boyd warns us that "we cannot expect technology to automatically integrate people and generate cultural harmony." As long as social issues regarding race still exist, the web can never truly be fully integrated.

1 comment:

  1. I think there are some key problems with the study done on "what percent of Facebook users are white, black, Latino, etc." Their interpretation of the data was skewed, in my opinion. The major issue I see here is that the internet is a worldwide tool. As such, it would be expected that websites are a worldwide tool. However, countries such as China which account for 1/6 of the world's population can't even access Facebook.

    Also, if we assume they are only talking about U.S. population, according to, 69% of the US population is white, 12% are black or African American, and 12.5% are Latino. In other words, in relation to the US population, one could argue that whites are represented proportionally, blacks are slightly overrepresented, and Latinos are the main group that is underrepresented.