The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online

I read a story in Library Journal  that cited an online news article, Facebook 'sparked white flight from MySpace' .  It seemed overly sensational to me, and it earned the usual snarky back-and-forth comments one sees on news sites, but it made me curious enough to look for the research it claimed backed it up, a lecture by sociologist Danah Boyd to the Personal Democracy Forum in New York this past June, The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online .

Ms. Boyd observes that social relations reproduce themselves online, a fact that is obvious when stated, but which we don't usually think about.

In many ways, the Internet is providing a next generation public sphere. Unfortunately, it's also bringing with it next generation divides. The public sphere was never accessible to everyone. There's a reason that the scholar Habermas talked about it as the bourgeois public sphere. The public sphere was historically the domain of educated, wealthy, white, straight men. The digital public sphere may make certain aspects of public life more accessible to some, but this is not a given. And if the ways in which we construct the digital public sphere reinforce the divisions that we've been trying to break down, we've got a problem.
Not everyone has the skills or understanding to engage with the public sphere in a meaningful manner. If you think that civics education is in bad shape in this country, take a look at media literacy. Digital publics combine the worst of both of these. Most of you in this room learned to use Twitter and Facebook through your friends. Collectively, you set the norms for what is appropriate among your network. If you aren't part of these networks, these technologies may feel very foreign. I recommend each and every one of you to login to MySpace and try to make sense of it today. It will feel foreign to you because it's not your community, it's not your friends. Now imagine how people who aren't like you feel when they walk into Facebook or Twitter.
 She is talking about an issue that has been a concern of "netizens" for a long time.  Andy Oram worried about it back in 1999, when the original "social networking" site, Usenet , was already ancient, in his Dickens pastiche, The Ghosts of Internet Time .

“The Internet is gone,” said my companion, stooped and hoary.
“How could that be—what could replace its bounty?”
“The international financial institutions have a proprietary satellite-based network, imposing and impenetrable. The entertainment companies put out 6500 programs a week, all strictly metered by kilobyte and filtered to isolate controversial content. The electric companies—which always controlled the ultimate pipe, and therefore ended up controlling the medium—run the network that activates devices in the home. Everything the vendors want is built into powerful circuits costing a thousandth of a penny, making software and the culture that accompanied it obsolete. So there are many separate networks, each specialized and tightly controlled.”
“But what about democracy? What about a public space? Is there no forum for the average citizen?”
The old Ghost’s wrinkled face cracked in a sputtering, hollow laugh. “Forum? You want a forum? I’ll give you a million of ’em. Every time Consolidated Services, Inc. or Skanditek puts up a new item on their media outlets, they leave a space for viewers to post reactions. And they post, and post, and post. Nobody can track the debates…”
 More recently, Doc Searls and others have criticized Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking sites for being "social siloes", (proprietary user interfaces), that are walled off from public access.  This is why I post anything serious that I have to say to this web log, rather than Facebook.  Anyone can find it here.  If I think my FB friends would be interested, I post a link to my FB page.

Nevertheless, I understand people's need, whatever their social standing, to have an online space in which they feel safe to express themselves to others of like mind.  Usenet forums, when unmoderated, could be pretty intimidating.  Trolls commonly baited new posters for fun.  I used to contribute to a flight sim forum for the WWI game, Red Baron, and it saddened me when someone would open his question with, "Please don't flame me".

At the library, as you might guess, we librarians are Facebook users, while our public-access users are MySpace folks.  I will never forget the summer of 2006, when MySpace splashed here among the black teens.  MySpace now gets our attention mainly when someone's MySpace page crashes their browser.


frogola said...

Apparently Myspace is rather famous for deleting the accounts of atheists.

Brett said...

Now that's something I hadn't heard! Guess Hitchens had better go with Facebook.