A friend who is Asian-American and a moderate user of Facebook mentioned the other day that she didn’t participate in Doppelganger week. Why not? She pointed out that there are barely any mainstream Asian-American female celebrities, let alone one she resembles.
What’s the big deal, you may be wondering. After all, this was simply a fun exercise in the viral, democratic nature of the web. Posting your celebrity doppelganger on FB was only interesting and relevant as long as a critical mass of people found it to be so. In the end, my friend missed out on at most a few days of hardcore activity.
Framed that way, as an isolated event, it probably wasn’t a big deal.
On the other hand, the whole doppelganger exercise could be viewed as just one of many examples of how social networking – unless we’re careful – replicates the inequities that exist in society as a whole. And the reification of these inequities is potentially more insidious in social networks because it’s easy to believe that the opposite is true: that this life online, enmeshed in free platforms, where everyone is able to contribute, is as post-racial as it gets.
In fact, the reality could not be more different. A recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University found that you could reliably predict which social network – Facebook or MySpace – a college student used most often based on that student’s race, ethnicity and parents’ education. The author of the study, Eszter Hargittai, goes on to state:
Everyone points to that wonderful New Yorker cartoon of the dog at the computer telling a canine friend by his side that ‘on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.’ In reality, however, it appears that online actions and interactions should not be viewed as independent of one’s offline identity.”
In researcher danah boyd’s draft of her soon-to-be published article, “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook,” she discusses her work examining the social media practices of teens, and the fact that more affluent white students tended to flock to Facebook while less affluent Latino students tended to prefer MySpace. Race, class and ethnicity were intertwined in students’ motivations in making the social networking choices they did, boyd writes.
Neither social media nor its users are colorblind simply because technology is present. The internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life, making visible many of the issues we hoped would disappear, including race and class-‐based social divisions in American society.
Just to be clear, I myself as an Asian-American, college-educated man, definitely demonstrate my own biases. I joined Facebook, for instance, soon after it was opened to the public. I never even remotely considered having a MySpace account. I should be compelled to examine and re-examine these choices which, I’m sure, were the result of what boyd says is an intermingling of class, race and design preferences. Examine them not for the sake of hand-wringing, but because to be aware is to be able to effect change.
We’re at a critical juncture. As social networking matures and becomes the established norm in our lives, we need to be ever more vigilant – not less – that what we are doing is creating new opportunities to participate for those who have been otherwise marginalized. Rather than simply replicating the offline practices that, consciously or not, ultimately lead our students to segregate along class and racial and ethnic divisions. We need to push ourselves and our students to consider who is part of our social networks, who isn’t, and how we can use the potential of online communities to truly transform our society.