I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet. The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.
Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230). According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month. Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month. These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites. But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?
Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook. Researcher danah boyd’s ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace. There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research. This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).
From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97). Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).
Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).
There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).
Race, Identity & Community
The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines. In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is BlackPlanet.com. Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at Blackplanet.com (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on BlackPlanet.com.” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).
African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community. For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.
In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos. Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.
Here again, like with BlackPlanet.com, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity. In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991). Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).
Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall. They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identiﬁcation with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the proﬁles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identiﬁcation or racial themes, reﬂecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’
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