Archive for July, 2009

Online segregation

Posted: July 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

danah boyd is an academic who studies online teen culture and writes some interesting stuff. I was especially intrigued by her essay “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.” She recently posted more thoughts on the same topic.

Boyd’s thesis is that different types of people use the two popular online networking sites and these different types of people represent different American classes. Here is how she characterized who uses the two services:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids 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.

Currently the two sites are about equal in the number of unique visitors in the US.

A few reflections on this. It is a good reminder that on the internet “everybody” is not necessarily every body. We may think everybody is on Facebook, for example, but it may simply be everybody who is like us is on FB. Online it is hard to notice the people who aren’t there. It is easy to think of the net as a great public space where every voice can be heard but in reality it can become a very segregated place where we can find space with people who exclusively share our values. In the meat world of physical spaces the stranger has a way of intruding or at least the walls we build to keep them out remind us that we need such walls. Perhaps we are (I am) most vulnerable to thinking this when there is active debate on a topic online. We may think the different opinions represent all the reasonable options but actually there may be entirely other perspectives not included. We can be so impressed with all the differences revealed on Facebook that we forget that despite the differences perhaps the similarities between all Facebookers is what is truly telling.

But a second, perhaps more important thing to think about is the implications of this for having a church or ministry presence online. What does it mean to welcome the widows, orphans, and “kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm” to our website? Does the type of website or networking service we use send the message that some are more welcome than others? Since the digital world gives us the ability to package the same material in lots of ways should we literally try to be all things to all surfers? Or is it important to bring people virtually together. I realize these are the same questions we ask (or should) about our physical church building and services but that doesn’t make it less important to ask of our online activities.

This summer I’ve been reading Sidewalks in the Kingdom (thanks Friar Tuck) and in that book Eric Jacobsen asks Christians to stop thinking about ways to save the city and start thinking about how the city can save us from the individualism and isolation of suburban living. Boyd compares the move of many from Myspace to FB to the “white flight” out of cities. In both cases the defacto segregation is not just damaging to those who left behind but a dereliction of our Christian duty and ultimately damaging to those who flee to a virtual reality.

(Thanks Avery)