class, inequality, social media, and the public sphere – mammoth // building nothing out of something

class, inequality, social media, and the public sphere

A fascinating talk by Danah Boyd, transcribed at alternet, first presenting the evidence of class divisions in social media, and then addressing what the implications of that presence are:

How many of you currently use Facebook? [90 percent-plus of the audience raises their hands.] How many of you currently use MySpace? [A few lone figures raise their hands.] Look around.

Two weeks ago, comScore released numbers showing that Facebook and MySpace were neck-and-neck in terms of unique user visits in the U.S. The meta-narrative was that Facebook was winning in the States, and that MySpace was dying.

I would argue that the numbers can be read differently. The numbers show that MySpace has neither grown nor faded in the last year, while Facebook has expanded rapidly and has finally reached the same size.

Of course, this is not to say that Facebook isn’t doing tremendously. In a business environment where monetization is shaky, the only definition of success is “growth.” Given that, it’s reasonable to see Facebook as more successful than MySpace this year.

But we still need to account for the fact that as many people visit MySpace as Facebook and that, as exemplified by the people in this room, that’s not because there’s a complete overlap of users. Even if you think that Facebook is winning the game, we need to account for the fact that 70 million people in the U.S. visited MySpace. That’s not small potatoes.

So why am I telling you that Facebook and MySpace are divided by race, class, education and other factors? Because it matters. And we need to talk about and address the implications of this divides.

First off, when people are structurally divided, they do not share space with one another, and they do not communicate with one another. This can and does breed intolerance.

Sociologists are obsessed with homophily because of the social and economic implications for such divisions. If you don’t know people who are different than you, you don’t trust them…

All this said, people are already divided, and we accept that people from different backgrounds inhabit different environments. We cannot expect technology to automatically integrate people and generate cultural harmony…

But here’s the main issue with social divisions. We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged? [emphasis mine]

When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we’re trying to address.

Given the increasing currency of the notion that social media (or, more expansively, “various mobile, embedded, networked, and distributed forms of media, information and communication systems”) are restructuring the city, this is an issue that urbanists ought to be paying close attention to, even while looking to encourage (rightly) the growth of informational systems that augment our experience of the city, as the obvious threat here is that an informational infrastructure might augment the city in harmful as well as helpful ways while, through its ubiquity and presumed neutrality, never revealing that it does so.

(If you only read the portion of the Boyd’s talk that I’ve quoted, you’re missing a lot.)

[via The League of Ordinary Gentlemen]

2 Responses to “class, inequality, social media, and the public sphere”

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