“White flight” from social media sites

By Guest Columnist Sep 02, 2009

by Latoya Peterson This article originally appeared on TheGrio.com. Is there really a racial divide on the Internet? Much of Danah Boyd’s research explores that dynamic. Since 1999, Boyd, social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has been studying how people use the Internet and has unearthed some fascinating facts about how people – teenagers in particular – move through the online space. However, none of her work has received as much response as a recent talk she gave, explaining what she calls the Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online. Her research is timely, given the erroneous assumption that minorities are absent from online spaces. Even though BlackPlanet.com is the fourth largest social networking site on the internet and Twitter shows a disproportionate number of black users, the mindset that most people on the internet are white and male still exists. This is why Boyd’s research is so explosive. She proposes that, instead of accepting the generally held belief that users of the Internet were mostly white and male, people start acknowledging that the spaces we operate in online may also be segregated. Talking about racial and class-oriented movements from one social media site – specifically MySpace – to another – Facebook – she explains: "…It wasn’t just anyone who left MySpace to go to Facebook. In fact, if we want to get to the crux of what unfolded, we might as well face an uncomfortable reality… What happened was modern day ‘white flight’." Whites were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. Those who deserted MySpace did so by "choice" but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic. "This dynamic was furthered by the press, an institution that stems from privilege and tends to reflect the lives of a more privileged class of people. MySpace was narrated as the dangerous underbelly of the Internet while Facebook was the utopian savior… MySpace has become the "ghetto" of the digital landscape. The people there are more likely to be brown or black and to have a set of values that terrifies white society. And many of us have habitually crossed the street to avoid what is seen as the riff-raff." The facts are clear – the online space is built by human hands, and as such, it reflects the same types of biases and prejudices that we hold in our minds. However, it does not have to be this way. While it is beneficial for marginalized communities to maintain our own spaces online – after all, discussing racism in public space tends to make for a very hostile environment – it is crucial that we are also willing to do more work to bridge these divides and make our presence known on more mainstream sites. The Internet belongs to everyone, and as we continue moving toward racial equality in the real world, we should make sure the same things are happening in the digital world. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)