Social Networking == Social Division?

You would think after 20 years of the Web, we would come to a better understanding that it either helps us connect, or helps us segregate. You’d be wrong.

Following is some research and reading. But first…

What do you think? How diverse are the people you associate with as friends on Facebook or Twitter? Big range in class, race, religion, sex, age? Or are you judging diversity in terms of how many of your friends like Star Wars and Star Trek? If you’re a liberal, how many conservatives? If you’re a conservative, how many liberals? Libertarians? DC versus Marvel? Spiderman versus Twilight? Protestant versus Catholic versus Jewish versus Muslim?

I work in a career that smashes many of these distinctions, except four I can think of (more on that in a bit). There is a wide variety to religious practice, sources of entertainment, favorite music, and political leanings (although there is a libertarian streak). Programmers, as a whole are all very diverse in these areas. Our online social networks reflect this.

Now on to the four ares where we are far too much alike – class, age, sex, and race. Programmers tend to come from middle class households, be mid-twenties to mid-thirties, male (and heterosexual-male at that), and white, middle-eastern, or asian. And yes, our online social networks reflect this as well.

Me and many of my contemporaries fool ourselves into thinking we’re diverse – but you have to agree – those four are rather a *big* four. If we live in environments that are half women and half black, how come our online social networks and our workplaces do not reflect that?

In the end, I tend not to believe that social networking leads to social division or helps to bring people who are different together. I think it simply reflects our reality all too well. My hope is it doesn’t reinforce it. That what we are building will lead us towards greater connection with one another, no matter where we come from, no matter who we are.

Now onto the links:

danah boyd: “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online” PDF 2009: we’re seeing a social media landscape where participation “choice” leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions.

Joshua-Michéle Ross: Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age – Part One:
More access to information doesn’t bring people together, often it isolates us.

Joshua-Michéle Ross: Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age – Part Two: Individual perception of increased choice can occur while the overall choice pool is getting smaller

Joshua-Michéle Ross: Three Paradoxes of the Internet Age – Part Three: The myth of personal empowerment takes root amidst a massive loss of personal control.

NYTimes: David Brooks: Cellphones, Texts and Lovers: People are thus thrown back on themselves. They are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners.

Pew Research: Social Isolation and New Technology : People’s use of the mobile phone and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks. And, when we examine people’s full personal network – their strong and weak ties – internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks.

2 responses

  1. Our ages are only constrained by the age of our field — you don’t find many Web folk yet in their 50s or 60s (though some are approaching those ages!) because the Web was largely invented by folks who were younger and grew up with the field. Remember, in the 90s, most stodgy, old Computer Scientists were saying that the Web wasn’t “real” computer science — that’s largely debunked now, but the old folks haven’t converted over. But I think we’ll see greater age diversity in another decade.

    Because we developers/programmers are “knowledge workers” we get paid more and thus fall in to the middle class. But we come from a wide variety of economic backgrounds — so is our field a good equalizer in that sense? Not entirely, because, as you point out, we have a race diversity issue, particularly lacking representation from those races where emphasis on education traditionally lacks (a racist statement, obviously, but I don’t know how to express that sentiment otherwise). In short, once education is equally emphasized to all, we’ll see greater diversity — but this is none too easy to achieve.

    And then, sex. I almost don’t want to go into that subject. It’s something I think about all of the time, something I put personal effort into working on, and something that you and I, Karl, talk about often enough. In short, there’s still no solve, and, sometimes, I don’t think it will be solved until we solve the equality issues pervasive in our society. *sigh*

  2. UPDATE: (I had to edit this)

    Hi Kimberly,

    I suspect you’re right about much here, but I wonder about the economic backgrounds and race.

    There is less spent per pupil in the inner city versus the ‘burbs.

    Educators deal with non supportive systems that work against them.

    And there is the challenge of teaching children from families beset with obstacles.

    Shoot – a counselor told me I had a better chance to survive as a drug dealer or on welfare than to have a career. There was too much riding against me.

    I tend to agree that it does come down to education. Who has access to what, what is taught in school, and to whom.


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