I’ve been doing a series discussing what academic research on race and racism is revealing about the Internet. The series continues 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 replaced the once popular MySpace as the number 1 social networking site a few years ago. These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in social networking 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.’’
Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community. These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears. Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.
The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology, found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties. In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.
They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes. Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond. They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness. Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.
White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and afﬁrming the party goers. Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).
There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS. One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter. Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems. To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.
For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.