Does Social Networking Create Digital Ghettos?
Social networking is dead. Long live social networking!
That’s been the story, anyway, at least since Facebook usurped MySpace, which had itself dethroned Friendster just a few years earlier. With each generation of social networking sites come issues that are as sociological as they are technological. And that’s why the latest faceoff, between reigning champion Facebook and leviathan newcomer Google+, requires a larger conversation about privacy and equity in the digital age.
Race and class tensions in social networking are detailed in a marvelous study(PDF) by social researcher Danah Boyd. Drawing a broad comparison between the exodus of white, privileged youth from MySpace to Facebook and the “white flight” of white families from the city to the suburbs, Boyd’s ethnography is a compelling cautionary tale against self-segregation online. It’s also a reminder that tools to protect consumer rights will do little good to the underprivileged without an accompanying education.
At face value, online communities promote connections, not barriers. On the post-Friendster web, MySpace didn’t so much de-emphasize privacy as render it deeply uncool – or as uncool as something can be in a milieu where “cool” is illegible typeface, strobe-effect animations and dueling pop anthems. So where MySpace was the glitter-on-the floor rager that seemingly took forever to wind down , one social group at a time, Facebook started out as the exclusive dinner party that gradually broke out the sound system and beer pong as the evening went on, at least until things got weird when your eleventh-grade math teacher and your mom showed up.
In fact, whether you’re willing to tolerate Mom and Dad on Facebook probably has a lot to do with how quickly you’ll switch to Google+. But that’s only part of the larger privacy problem in social networking, which I suspect is as race- and class-based as membership: By and large, people worried about controlling and managing their online identities are people who want the skilled jobs with employers who are likely to profile an applicant’s online persona during the hiring process. So as middle-class parents, schools and children get wise to social networking foibles, the victims will be talented individuals from less privileged backgrounds, who grew up without those helpful, nagging resources.
Google+’s shiny, drag-and-drop “Circles” functionality is a particularly transparent response to Facebook’s persistent difficulty in controlling which contacts have access to what posts. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo quipped that the feature is the “online equivalent of arranging wedding seating charts,” but it’s clearly a step in the right direction. The reality is that kids say dumb things (heck, plenty of adults do too) and by providing them with a way to limit their audience, Google is giving them a social firewall between their teenage hormones and their future careers. If Facebook becomes what Boyd calls a “digital ghetto,” youth in that network will be placed at a direct disadvantage.
It would be hasty to assume that Google+ will play out along the same racial and income lines as Facebook has. Boyd’s work is also a helpful primer on the wide differences in strategy that have influenced the divergent demographics of the first few generations of early adopters. And in spite of Circles, there is no consensus yet on Google’s on again, off-again approach to privacy. What we can do is push for widespread consumer education and protection online, and remain mindful of the potential for social networking technology to perpetuate inequality rather than build bridges.
Jon Christian is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Christian.