Re-examining the “Great Equalizer”

Once the World Wide Web was first made publicly available to all in 1993, the Internet was heralded as “the Great Equalizer” because of its theoretical ability to neutralize social disparities through democratized communication and informational resources.

20 years later, and with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight vision, these high expectations unfortunately appear overly optimistic, which says something about how much progress has yet to be made when it comes to equality. The readings for this week zero in on some of the ways that certain social inequalities continue to be reproduced in and translated to the digital world. Based on my own varied experiences with each set of texts, I’ve divided the readings into three groups: “the Fascinating”, “the Frustrating”, and “the Somewhat-Confusing.”

The Fascinating

“White Flight in Networked Publics: How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook” – Danah Boyd 

I thought this article was really interesting, and well researched. Some of her main arguments/findings/conclusions are:

  • MySpace, in comparison to Facebook, can be considered analytically as a “digital ghetto” both in the sense that it can be seen as a separate online space defined by race and class, and by a set of particular tastes.
  • The historical beginnings of Facebook and MySpace impacted their public perception and the populations that would adopt them (Facebook as an exclusive “elite” college-centered site vs. MySpace as an open-to-all, “urban,” artistic/musical space that “alienated parents” and seemed unsafe later on (p. 207; p. 206; p. 211))
  • The shift of some teens from MySpace to Facebook can be seen as analogous to “White Flight” from urban areas to the suburbs.
  • The respective features of each site correspond to sets of tastes and values that have overtones of race and class; the ability to personalize and be creative is one feature in particular that sets MySpace and Facebook apart: “conscientious restraint has been one marker of bourgeois fashion…the flashy style that is popular on MySpace is often marked in relation to “bling-bling,” a style of conspicuous consumption that is associated with urban black culture and hip-hop” (p. 214).
  • “Neither social media nor its users are colorblind simply because technology is present” (p. 220)

The article by Eszter Hargittai–“Open Doors, Closed Spaces?: Differentiated Adoption of Social Network Sites by User Background” — ultimately uncovered findings similar to those of Boyd. Some places where the article differed were in the ways it took non-users of Social Networking Sites into account, looked at 6 different SNSs rather than just Facebook and MySpace, and examined a population taken entirely from the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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The Frustrating

“New Voices on the Net?: The Digital Journalism Divide and the Costs of Network Exclusion” – Ernest J. Wilson III & Sasha Costanza-Chock

To start off, I do agree with the main argument of this article, which is that until the media accurately reflect the demographic composition of the U.S., the media will “perpetuate inequality via a lack of representation” (p. 247) because public discourse will continue to be dominated by the opinions and perspectives of the white majority. I also thought that the last section on the Wilson-Tongia formulation (p. 257) made a compelling argument for why the costs of being excluded from the Internet are rising dramatically.

But otherwise, this article really frustrated me. It relied too much the rhetoric of the “digital divide,” which aside from being potentially problematic on its own (see rant below), also often goes hand-in-hand with using only numbers to prove a point. While numbers can describe a situation, they can leave out the “Why” and “How” (more interesting) parts of the question.

  • Example: The authors extensively detail how people of color are proportionately underrepresented in various media arenas; they go on to say that people of color are being “systematically excluded” from said arenas. This is likely true, but I wanted the article to prove it. “Systematically excluded” is a phrase that places the responsibility on the media centers. Where is the evidence of racism (intentional or implicit)? Also, we can’t immediately discount the agency of people of color; for example, couldn’t there be a reason why people of color aren’t choosing to be involved with media? You just have to ask what thoughts and behaviors lead to the statistics.
  • Exhibit A: look at the reasons current non-users of the internet supplied for why they do not go online (from a Pew Internet and American Life Project paper): contrary to many “digital divide” narratives, only 10% of current non-users (2.2% of the total survey population) felt it was too expensive, only 6% of current non-users (1.3% of total population) pointed to lack of access. Conversely,  48% of non-users said that “they don’t think the Internet is relevant to them” and that “they don’t need it to get the information or communication that they want” (Zichkuhr & Smith, pp. 6-7).
Let's ask why Original on Will Bryant's Flickr Page

Let’s ask whyOriginal on Will Bryant’s Flickr Page

Now for the Digital Divide mini-rant:

This article’s focus on the “digital journalism divide” also had me frustrated from the beginning, because the concept of the “Digital Divide” has been repurposed again and again and again. There’s always someone coming up with the next “Second-Level Digital Divide” or the “Digital Divide 2.0”. Sometimes its between those with high-speed Internet vs. those without, and sometimes its between those who “can benefit from digital technology” and those who can’t. Sometimes people try to disguise the concept as  the “time wasting gap” or “the participation gap” (p. 256).

Every time, the rhetoric of the Digital Divide reduces complex ideas to two-dimensional concepts, cleaving a fairly arbitrary line between those who are deemed (by who?) “capable of success” in a society mediated by the Internet, and those who aren’t. It’s important to remain aware that anyone who claims how the Internet is “supposed” to be used is doing so in light of their own values, beliefs, and ideas of success. Each new digital divide idea is really just another way of pointing out that the same races and classes in U.S. society aren’t meeting some arbitrary standard or expectation, usually set up by technological “haves.” I feel like we should stop asking “whether or not” a group is using the Internet a certain way, but instead look at how individuals from various classes and groups use and make sense of the Internet, and why.  It is reasonable to expect that the same online strategies, skills, or behaviors may not serve all groups equally, because people have different goals and different backgrounds that they are coming from.

Image

If I see one more of these…
Find original here

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The Somewhat-Confusing (almost done!)

“New Sciences: Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of the Oppressed” – Chela Sandoval

I know this has been a lot, so I’ll try to be brief on this one. The article was interesting, but fairly dense and a bit confusing, and I’m looking forward to hearing what others thought.

To the best of my knowledge, the article was critiquing Donna Harraway’s Cyborg Feminism for attempting to align the U.S. (white) feminist movement with the U.S. third-world feminism, and was giving voice to the “cyborg skills” and methodology of the oppressed/subaltern that have developed out of necessity over the last 300 years and have continued into the technological age. This methodology has 5 parts:

  1. “Semiotic reading” (help! Not sure what this one meant)
  2. “De-construction” (challenging dominant meanings)
  3. “meta-ideologizing” (changing and re-appropriating dominant ideological forms into new, revolutionary concepts)
  4. “democratics” (using numbers 1,2, and 3 to realize egalitarian values and social relations)
  5. “differential movement” (also confusing – but related to #s 1,2,3 and 4. Perhaps a way of looking at the world from the perspective of “the other?”)

Questions for Class

1) Building off of the Boyd reading, what were your experiences with MySpace and/or Facebook? Did her observations map onto your experiences, and if not, how did they differ? Can you think of any other examples of “digital ghettos” or segregation in the online world?

2) What are your thoughts on the Digital Divide as a rhetorical device? When can the concept be useful? When is it not useful? If you had to select one type of Digital Divide that you thought was the most crucial right now, what would it be, and why?

3) The “Digital Journalism Divide” article briefly discussed the “explosion of popular participation in the production and circulation of online news.” When it comes to people of color participating in civic discourse, what role do you think these news sources are playing? How do they compare to official media sources, and how do you think the relationship between the two will play out looking forward?

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