Blurred Lines

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Danah Boyd refers to social media as a social lifeline in her book, it’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens (20). She dives into this idea of teens using the Internet and online world as they, “relish intimacy and the ability to have control over their social situation,” an aspect that is often lacking in most other parts of their lives (19). She highlights the power the online world has through her four “affordances of the Internet”: persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability (11). The impact that can be made online—positive or negative, politically or socially, whatever it may be—is massive and cannot be ignored.  Check it out yourself: the power of social media in just 60 seconds on the web (and this was from three years ago)!

power-of-60-seconds-in-social-media-tig-global-blog (1)

Danah Boyd talks about how the presence of prejudices and social divisions really are not that different offline than they are online—she says these divisions are in fact often amplified online. She writes, “These old divisions shape how teens experience social media and the information that they encounter. This is because while technology does allow people to connect in new ways, it also reinforces old existing connections. It does enable new types of access to information, but people’s experiences of that access are uneven at best” (159). Teens bring their beliefs and prejudices online with them, as being truly anonymous online and disconnected from one’s offline reality is a rarity.

In Boyd’s chapter, inequality, she states that the same systems of segregation exist both online and offline. What I found particularly interesting was when she states, “What struck me as I talked with teens about how race and class operated in their communities was their acceptance of norms they understood to be deeply problematic” (155). This reminded me of our brief discussion in class around discriminated groups as a category. Categories, including the stigmatized or disabled category and the normal or natural category, are man made and defined. The power they hold comes solely from their acceptance and lack of questioning by society. Boyd gives an example and quotes a student, Traviesa—“If it comes down to it, we have to supposedly stick with our own races… That’s just the unwritten code of high school nowadays” (155). Boyd continues, “Traviesa didn’t want to behave this way, but the idea of fighting expectations was simply too exhausting and costly to consider” (155). I will now draw from two outside readings that speak to this exact point, The New Disability History by Douglas Baynton and The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life by Michael Warner. In Baynton’s piece, he brings up the example of the pregnant women refusing to be granted access to park in the handicapped parking for fear of association with the handicapped/disabled group. Similarly, Warner talks about how some gay people are actually hoping to find a gene to justify their sexual deviations, so as to say they had no choice. Boyd refers to the sports teams in the high school being explicitly one race. A young white boy who loved basketball felt seemingly unwelcome in an African American dominated team. Boyd writes, “Many teens are reticent to challenge the status quo” (164). Warner writes, “Given these legacies of unequal moralism, nearly every civilized aspect of sexual morality has initially looked deviant, decadent, or sinful, including voluntary marriage, divorce, and nonreproductive sex” (6). Although Warner is speaking to sexual normalities, almost every aspect of the normal category in general, in reference to race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and the likes was once seen as deviant. This illustrates that the normal category can be expanded, however, distancing from this category as seen in the examples above keeps the categories in place and allows for no critique. Distancing actually inadvertently gives the category power as something to be avoided or something accepted as “bad.” The power of these categories comes not from their legitimacy as demonstrated by the absurdity of the criteria above, but rather by the acceptance without question by society. The implications of stigmatization are vast, and ultimately stigma as a category is one of the biggest opponent against progress in my opinion as people live often inauthentic lives in hopes of avoiding a certain category or maintaining another.

It is interesting to think about reasons why these categories constantly exist, both offline and online, as they are almost solely detrimental to progress and integration of society.The people who fill the stigmatized category constantly shift, but ultimately some group is always filling it. What causes these shifts in what is considered normal? As an example, following along the case study of gay men and women, a group that was once incredibly stigmatized less than 50 years ago with gay bars being raided by police and the likes, have made implausible strides with same sex marriage being recognized in 19 of 50 states (with a push for all 50 in the near future—see map below).

Marriage Equality Map

Similarly, in the political realm, there is a realization that the country is, in fact, diverse. Formerly stigmatized racial groups like Hispanics are gaining power through numbers and thus, politicians are realizing that these are the people that will make a difference come voting day. Legislative proposals like the DREAM Act, which is directed at alien minors to allow them permanent residency if they show they are in good standing, along with other amends are slowly infiltrating into current day politics. Threats to the “normal” category lead to the ever-shifting boundaries of this category.

The lines defining these categories are blurred. The “normal” or “cool” category is seen to be ever expanding, “adopting” previously stigmatized groups of people. However, as one group is “adopted,” another group is further stigmatized and seen as lesser in order to maintain that hierarchal power. And the cycle continues. With the power Boyd illustrates that lies in the online world, we would be amiss to not direct our attention towards using it as a tool towards relieving the stress that comes in fitting in the “normal” category and avoiding the stigmatized ones instead of as an amplifier of these norms. This leads me to my big questions:

  1. How do you think the Internet and online world can be used to dissolve these categories that are so embedded in our society (both offline and online)?
  2. Boyd suggests that the online life provides teens a sort of freedom and autonomy from, say, parental restrictions or other structural barriers. With this “freedom” (Boyd suggests that we are not truly as disconnected online from our offline realities as we think), teens and others are prompted to say what they are thinking—this shows up in comments on YouTube videos and on Twitter and the likes. These comments often extenuate prejudices. Do you think this space to put thoughts out in the open is a good thing in the sense that there can now be conversation around it and we can have clear insight into the depth of racism that prevails throughout society? Or is this “masked freedom” a bad thing as it gives an outlet for racism and prejudices without direct consequence?
  3. My last question is a bit unrelated, but has to do with the idea that not everyone has access to the Internet/online world, and even some who do, do not have access to the same information. To what extent does this put these people at a disadvantage? And are the people who actively choose to not partake in the online world putting themselves at a disadvantage in this day and age?

References

Baynton, Douglas C. The New Disability History. New York: New York UP, n.d. Print.

Boyd, Danah. It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Print.

Human Rights Campaign. “Marriage Equality and Other Marriage Recognition Rights.” MARRIAGE EQUALITY (n.d.): n. pag. 26 Aug. 2014. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

“Infographic: Every 60 Seconds, There Are More than 98,000 Tweets.” PR Daily News: Public Relations News and Marketing in the Age of Social Media. RAGAN’S, 20 June 2011. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life.    New York: Free, 1999. Print.

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