Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Digital White Flight: On Twitter and Race


Twitter and Race

Two major events have happened in the last few days involving Twitter
and race. On Sunday night, during The BET awards, the trending topics were:
The BET Awards, Beyonce, Ne-Yo, BBD, Mary Mary, Keith Sweat, Tiny
and Toya.

Yesterday afternoon, the trending topic became "fakeassnigga"
many, presumably Black, folks were retweeting @lilduval
who tweeted about "fakeassniggas."

Then all of a sudden the trending topic, "fakeassnigga" was gone.

The Twitter administrators apparently deleted it.

This action reminded me that as much as we think that the tweets
are ours, there is in fact a firewall, and
by using the website we have
consented to Twitters written and unwritten rules of usage.

In response to the deletion, I tweeted, "Wassup with the digital race scrubbing"
and "Why should we expect people to be any less racist online than they
are offline?"

I then received a direct message from @allaboutgeorge for a link
to danah boyd's essay, "Viewing Class Divisions through Facebook
and Myspace

boyd's essay provides an accessible theoretical framework
for understanding race, class and social stratification on the internet.

The essay was exactly what I needed to read at the moment.

Digital White Flight
boyd's general thesis is that some teens are flocking to Facebook
and others are going to Myspace and their reasons for doing so have
to do with class.

She observed that the issue wasn't that Facebook wasn't becoming larger
than Myspace. The issue is socio-economic class. She writes,

Until recently, American teenagers were flocking to MySpace. The picture
is now being blurred. Some teens are flocking to MySpace. And some
teens are flocking to Facebook. Who goes where gets kinda sticky...
probably because it seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class.
Which brings me to her general thesis which is that "what we do in society is
mirrored in our
behavior online."

She has four notable points.
The first is that,
As a society, we have strong class divisions and we project these values onto our kids. MySpace and Facebook seem to be showcasing this division quite well. My hope in writing this out is to point out that many of our assumptions are problematic and the internet often reinforces our views instead of challenging them.
The second is that Facebook appeals to teens who,
tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to
college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are
primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking
forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens,
"burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths,
gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant
high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't
go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.
These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after
schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace.
MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school
because they are geeks, freaks, or queers..
The third is that what we do in society is mirrored in our behavior online.
She writes,

The division around MySpace and Facebook is just another way in which technology is mirroring societal values. Embedded in that is a challenge to a lot of our assumptions about who does what. The "good" kids are doing more "bad" things than we are willing to acknowledge (because they're the pride and joy of upwardly mobile parents). And, guess what? They're doing those same bad things online and offline. At the same time, the language and style of the "bad" kids offends most upwardly mobile adults. We see this offline as well. I've always been fascinated watching adults walk to the other side of the street when a group of black kids sporting hip-hop style approach. The aesthetics alone offend and most privileged folks project the worst ideas onto any who don that style.
Lastly, and I was surprised to learn this, but there is apparently a
class division in the military that is reflected in social network usage.
boyd writes,
A month ago, the military banned MySpace but not Facebook. This
was a very interesting move because the division in the military
reflects the division in high schools. Soldiers are on MySpace;
officers are on Facebook. Facebook is extremely popular in the
military, but it's not the SNS of choice for 18-year old soldiers,
a group that is primarily from poorer, less educated
communities. They are using MySpace.
In light of boyd's Facebook & Class doctrine, I began to see Twitter's
move to erase "fakeass nigga" from the trending topics
as a move to protect its brand, and prevent it from looking
too young, urban, working class and ghetto. In some ways,
it can be seen as an effort to remain on the hegemonic,
Facebook side of the equation instead of the moving closer to
the subalternative Myspace side.

Lets take a look at some of the comments made
about the "fakeassnigga" trend by some of the
presumably white, users,
@zacharyskinner Why do retarded subjects like "Fake Ass Nigga" keep
becoming trending topics? Is twitter being overrun by the idiot crowd

@moohalaa I don't have a "Fake Ass Nigga" clue why its a trending topic, I
must admit

@sandy7172cat OMG! This "Fake Ass Nigga" is horrible. Twitter you should be

@Kashaseptember Why are all these black people on trending topics. Neyo, Beyonce,
Tyra, Jamie Fox. Is it black history month
again? LOL.
During The BET Awards some of the tweets were saved as screen shots
and posted on Tumblr, on the site titled, "OMG! Black People"
Tumblr, took the site down. In true internet fashion the , OMG! Black People
sprung up on Wordpress. Here are some of the tweets,
@peggyrossmanith The current trending topics make me sad for America.

@Jennibenn1 screw these stupid trending topics, I am going to bed

@brighteyesjulie did anyone see the trendning topics. I don't think this is
a very good neighborhood. Lock the doors kids.

@sweethayle So many black people!

@rolololodan Why are all the trending topics about the BET awards.
Fuck that channel.
In many ways, what we are seeing on Twitter are the racial
comments that folks would normally keep to themselves,
or only mention to their peers with whom they feel safe.

These tweets run counter to the mainstream press's notion
of a post racial America. Keep in mind that I write this with
the understanding that noticing and understanding our contradictions
is the only way we can reconcile them and have real change
and progress.

The added dimension of the internet means that off handed
comments that where once private and racial are now public,
racial, screen saved and posted on blogs.

In many ways, Iwe as a nation are so afraid of dealing
with race and class that we hope a technology will come along
and serve as some sort of microwave social justice tool that will
and deal with it for us. The consequences of four hundred years of
chattel slavery will not be erased with the internet.

The truth is that technology will only further magnify the stereotypes,
class distinctions and our general efforts to avoid dealing with each other.

boyd's research, Twitter's censorship and the comments made during
The BET awards evidence this.

Who we are in our daily lives is who we are online, a key board,
some plastic a hard drive will never change that.

What do you think of the removal of the trending topics?

What do you think of danah boyd's theory about Facebook, Myspace
and digital class distinctions?

Have you noticed anyhing else racial that has been censored recently


Anonymous said...

Let's also throw in the #thatsafrican hashtag into the mix. Twitter scrubbed that in a matter of hours. Also @PurpleZoe's #maafa tweets were scrubbed (or was it a twitter glitch?) and there have been claims of some folks not showing up in twitter search. Suspicious all around.

I think it's important to see who's at the head of technology on these major sites: Twitter: 3 white men. Tumblr: 7 white men. Wordpress 3. White. Men.

Presumably, most of them have never had to deal with "racial situations", so their reactions to the race entering their spot on the information highway is understandable.

As for danah boyd's theories: I've seen this manifest once I moved from "urban" Los Angeles to "hippie" Santa Cruz. When Facebook hit in 05, most of my friends who didn't go the 4yr route dropped off the face of the earth. Until I signed back onto MySpace. Class difference? Hells yeah.

Brown folks. We got work to do.

Nexgrl said...

I believe that the internet has allowed some to have a voice and act in a manner that is the opposite of real life. Remember that most of the social networks and the internet in general was developed by those who were considered nerds in school(high school and college.)

Model Minority said...

This one brought you out hunh?

I think it's important to see who's at the head of technology on these major sites: Twitter: 3 white men. Tumblr: 7 white men. Wordpress 3. White. Men.
Their skin skin or gender is irrelvent.
Their personal politics and how that is reflected on this site matters more.
This is not to dismiss gender/race, but to emphasis the importance of politics.

When Facebook hit in 05, most of my friends who didn't go the 4yr route dropped off the face of the earth. Until I signed back onto MySpace. Class difference? Hells yeah
boyd mentions in the essay that FB requires a college email to participate. So there you go...

I believe that the internet has allowed some to have a voice and act in a manner that is the opposite of real life
Sure it has. It has also allowed them to act exactly LIKE real life.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

I think ppl need to wake up. All of these forums are controlled by someone else - usually a white man - along with gov't involvement. We're all being monitored. With all the money blacks have collectively and even other non-whites there's NO REASON why we shouldn't have our own social media networks or other means of using technology. If "whitey" swooped in the take it away what would we do and where would we go?

Amir Said said...

Great piece.

The change in Myspace and Twitter has been noticed by those who've held accounts with both. Facebook sort of came out of the box as the SNS for the elite. Twitter is now caught in somewhat of an identity crisis. They certainly do not want to be seen as Myspace offshoot; on the other hand, they'd like to clearly distinguish themselves from Facebook. What happens to Twitter within in the next year or so will prove interesting. Either way, the excessive level of moronic, non-engaging tweets--many by black Myspace spill-overs--have in some ways calmed my Tweeting activity.

-Amir Said,;

Jeremy R. Levine said...

The only thing missing from these discussions of the digital divide in social networking sites is the changing structure of the sites themselves. Like afrolicious, the majority of kids from my high school never went to a 4-year college or university, thus were effectively banned from Facebook, given the site's college email address requirement.

Yet, in '07, Facebook relaxed these requirements, and you can now join with a regional network. I think I doubled my "Friend" count within 2 months of this change. Now everyone I graduated with that didn't go to college are on various regional networks and are fully participating in all the wonder Facebook has to offer (slight sarcasm intended).

The race/class divide was, at least in part, a structure of the sites that has since been alleviated. I will say that the general point is still wholly relevant, and definitely spot on. Still, this change in Facebook policy is worth noting, even if it hasn't altered the digital divide dramatically.

the prisoner's wife said...

i can say i never gave it much thought.

i didn't get on the MySpace bandwaggon, not because i was an elitist (although, i am at times LOL), but because it was just....for kids (or so i thought). i saw it as more of a teen thing, rather than someplace i needed to be. i didn't really see it as a place for "social outcasts" because many of my college-educated, professional friends had MySpace pages, it just wasn't for me. enter FB. it wasn't gaudy, it was more guarded, and a little bit more my style. but...haven't been on in a while. Twitter has taken their shine. i don't need to post hundreds of pics (anymore lol), i just like seeing/interacting with people. Twitter allows access to people you wouldn't normally have access to. and i dig that.

Ms. CC said...

Good for Twitter. Why would I want to see "nigga" as a trending topic? This is not an issue of class or race, but really an issue of ignorance and bad taste. Ignorance comes in all colors and from all backgrounds.

If Twitter becomes Myspace, mature people will abandon it. Period. I am talking black, white, red, whatever.

Let Myspace hold the title for ignorance. I don't want to see "nigga" as a trending topic on Twitter. I wouldn't want to see it if a white person started the trend. I don't want to see it if a black person starts it. I don't care who starts the trend.

Besides, voice of color offer more to any public forum than "nigga". Now if Twitter suppresses something worthwhile regarding race, or African-American heritage, THEN ring the alarms.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I am in agreement with Ms. CC. I don't want to see "nigga" as trending topic, either.

I like Twitter precisely because it has the sort of laid but albeit professional atmosphere where I can share and network with others n my profession (I am a teacher). In fact, the vast majority of the people in my Twitter network are teachers/educators. I do my socializing via Facebook.

With respect to those running Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Wordpress, etc., White male privilege impacts one's politics in direct and indirect ways. Therefore, race and gender is most relevant to how one acts and behaves.

DocZeus said...

Or it COULD be as simple as a major internet portal not wanting to have offensive language displayed prominently on their homepage because know... offends people. Occam's Razor, folks.

alligatorlegs said...

I was surprised to see so many black trending topics too; frankly, didn't think bet was that popular, I certainly never watch it. Fb no longer reqs a college email to register, has now courted businesses and unaffiliated "normal" people in an attempt to be more like MySpace. If you notice now on fb you can also pick a screen name different from your real name, just like MySpace. I think there is definitely a "race to the bottom" if you will, trying to pick up the most subscribers, and if MySpace's model works fb is gonna try to emulate it. But the management will never be able to remove their biases toward clientele who are more educated, enlightened, and mainstream. Also note that many of these various sites' designers are one and the same...the guy who started Twitter, Biz Stone, also started Xanga. And I highly doubt that a black Biz Stone would want trending topics on his site like "fakeassniggas" anyways.

Anna said...

This essay is a great job! I will sure read it

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