Friday, November 6, 2009

Are Online Communities Just As Segregated As Offline Communities?

I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free. Rosa Parks

Check out this interesting piece on NPR's All Things Considered called, Facebook, MySpace Divide Along Social Lines. The interviewer speaks to several young people in San Francisco about how they view social networking sites.

"No one uses MySpace," says 17-year-old Halie Pacheco, a student at The Urban School [an elite school in San Francisco]. She likes Facebook. "It's safer and more high class," she explains.

Sixteen-year-old Nico Kurt lays out his view of the MySpace users this way: "It [MySpace] seems trashy to me. The only people who use it are trashy people."

"I have friends who are white. ... They are mostly on Facebook. That's why I use Facebook. My brown people are on MySpace."

Call me naive but was disturbed by the veiled racism and classicism in the first two comments. More important, I was disturbed by the warning that online communities are just as segregated as offline communities.

According to danah boyd, a researcher for Microsoft, "Young people — and for the most part adults as well — don't really interact online with strangers," she says. "They talk to people they already know. You have environments in which people are divided by race, divided by class, divided by lifestyle. When they go online they are going to interact in the same way."

Segregation anywhere is distressing. But it's particularly distressing online because it invalidates a central promise of the Connected Age.

New technologies finally enable us to build tribes across time and space. This promise can help us to break down the barriers that bind us and build new communities across culture, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender.

What's your experience online? Does your online posse look just like your offline community? Or are you stretching yourself to reach for people who are not like you? And conversely, are you sharing your own unique experiences with lots of different people? Finally, if you are meeting people across lines of race, class and gender how do you do it?

Jocelyn

14 comments:

Geoff_Livingston said...

Great question, Jocelyn. Unfortunately, I have not so great answers for you, which demonstrates we have a lot of societal progress to make.

One of my current projects is for the Connecticut Health Foundation where we are trying to break down the barriers of racial and ethnic health disparities (REHD, campaign launches in 2010). The program seeks to educate CT minorities (black, Asian, Latino and Polish [yes, Polish]) on how they are being taken advantage of by the medical community.

Some of the network uses do verify this rather ignorantly phrased statement, though we find the Facebook/MySpace break -- while somewhat racial -- is predominantly provoked by education. Meaning, HS grads (or less educated than that) are on MySpace, college educated folks are Facebook. They also tend to skew by age per Pew (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/17-Twitter-and-Status-Updating-Fall-2009.aspx).

My experience in social tells me that Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. are kind of like McDonalds. Everyone goes to Mickie Ds at some point, even if its just for coffee. But they probably prefer to eat elsewhere. In the online sense, they will migrate to conversations and people who they most identify with on those networks, and more importantly, in blogs as well as public/private groups and networks.
Online behavior matches offline in that sense.

For example, I almost created a Twitter list called tribe, to list other Jewish descended Tweeters. I decided not to, as I felt it was encouraging barriers rather than tearing them down.

Online is not a panacea for societal issues. In fact, in many cases it just highlights them and makes them uglier. But exposed in print, we can call them out, converse, and hopefully, change.

Best wishes,

Geoff

Ivan Boothe said...

I defer to (and frequently cite) danah boyd on the sociological questions about the divide between the social networks, and I have no doubt that there is one. On the one hand, that's not really that surprising to me -- offline social networks come with social divisions, so of course online social networks will too. But then I've never really bought into the idea of the classless, race-free "connected age" anyway.

The important point for nonprofits, I think, is that your supporters may not be where you are. Facebook was made by and for middle- and upper-class, college-educated folks -- exactly those types of people who often make up nonprofit staffs. So it's not surprising that nonprofit staffers often find Facebook "easier," "more comfortable" or "more professional" -- because it was made for people just like them. But danah boyd's studies have shown that communities of color, working class folks, members of the military and veterans, and queer youth use MySpace to a much larger degree than Facebook. So if your nonprofit is serving any of those communities, even if your staff isn't "comfortable" with MySpace, it would be wise to nonetheless have an engaging presence on there.

The mantra for me is always go where your supporters are, even if it's not where you would normally be.

Amy Sample Ward said...

Hey Joceyln - great post! Definitely in line with these thoughts, would love to hear your ideas about the post I put up yesterday about the fact that the Causes application is leaving MySpace. It raises many of the same issues in that conversation as well!

http://www.amysampleward.org/2009/11/06/new-on-ssir-letting-technology-lead/

ReadWriteWeb picked up the story as well, here:

http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/causes_on_myspace.php

Jocelyn said...

Thanks Geoff, Ivan and Amy for your insightful comments. I realize that "online is not a panacea for societal issues" but man sometimes I wish it was. I also hope we'll all get better (present party included) in recognizing our blind spots and being more inclusive in the way we connect, fundraising, market and campaign.

Warmest regards,
Jocelyn

Julie Anne Reda said...

Honestly – that’s one of the things that concerns me… sometimes online is great for connecting and finding opportunities, but if there are norms of engagement that are along class and race, or if the networks are in accessible…?

Sometimes I wonder if people are connected with others who are ‘like me’ rather than allowing experiences that may make them uncomfortable – or dialogs that reach different conclusions – or just getting insight from different perspectives. Sometimes it may be easier to just unfriend someone than to create a dialog or challenge an assumption…

I do like that online provides easier forums to find dialog, to support individuals and organizations that are more progressive…but how much attention is paid to the digital divide that is occurring with these networks?

Melinda Lewis said...

I'm glad to see this raised in so many forums, but I think you added something particularly useful, that, while the segregation online isn't (or shouldn't be) surprising, given how divided society is, it should be particularly DISTRESSING, b/c, as you state, it's often billed as having the ability to bridge those chasms. The implication, obviously, is that we need a lot more (probably offline) work on those divisions if we expect our online communities to look more, well, "communal".

Heather said...

Just a quick note. I was giving a webinar the other day on "MySpace Schools" to a university. I clicked on about 20 of their alumni members' MySpace profiles. About 60% had not logged in to MySpace in over a year... the other 40% within the last 2-3 days. So, I asked the group why they thought one group no longer logged in and the other still did regularly. No one saw what was right in front of them. The 60% were white folks, the 40% were folks of color.

That said, I really worry about attempting to put MySpace users in neat little box... very diverse community. Young, old, poor, rich, conservative, liberal, urban, rural, black, white, brown, red, yellow, gay, straight, preps, goths, rappers, artists, hippies, yuppies… you name it. They are all on MySpace... and it's three times as large as Twitter in the United States. :)

Ambrose said...

I'm a bit perplexed as to why people are surprised by the divide on Facebook. As others have pointed out, Facebook was originally designed for people to connect with people you already know. If you still remember, they used to tell you to decline friend invites from people you don't know (when you fill in Friend Details). Facebook is now repositioning itself as a tool to meet new people, but that's not it was designed for, and I still feel wrong to use it for this new purpose.

Anonymous said...

People who think alike tend to migrate toward
each other. This is a proven fact. Trying
to force incompatible thinking styles is an
idea that screams 'avoid me'. It is equivalent
to being intolerant. You can't change the
base rules of human nature.

Lucia said...

It's only on their mind and mentality that they want to be different. In the eyes of God, we are all the same, only people make it complicated. With the new phase of communication, it's just all the same. And you are right that on internet everyone is still divided with what class they thought they are belong. Thank God I know I'm not one of them. I have friends from malaysia, india, us, and other country, whom I only meet in the internet and we go along well. I've live in taiwan, and their traditions are different from mine. But I've cope up in a way that I respect what they beliefs are, and I know that's how they are with me. It's just a matter of acceptance and respect, which for many of us is hard to give.

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Lucia said...

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It's only on their mind and mentality that they want to be different. In the eyes of God, we are all the same, only people make it complicated. With the new phase of communication, it's just all the same. And you are right that on internet everyone is still divided with what class they thought they are belong. Thank God I know I'm not one of them. I have friends from malaysia, india, us, and other country, whom I only meet in the internet and we go along well. I've live in taiwan, and their traditions are different from mine. But I've cope up in a way that I respect what they beliefs are, and I know that's how they are with me. It's just a matter of acceptance and respect, which for many of us is hard to give.

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brooks brothers outlet said...

so do you consider that there is an inherent racisim online on sites like facebook and myspace? i would say that online communities do and will emulate offline ones