Facebook and MySpace Users Are Clearly Divided Along Class Lines
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First off, when people are structurally divided, they do not share space with one another, and they do not communicate with one another. This can and does breed intolerance.
Sociologists are obsessed with homophily because of the social and economic implications for such divisions. If you don't know people who are different than you, you don't trust them. Think about this in the context of the politics around gay rights. The No. 1 predictor for how someone will side in issues of gay rights is whether or not they know someone who is gay.
Social-network sites complicate this even further. Social-network sites are not like e-mail, where it doesn't matter if you're on Hotmail or Yahoo.
When you choose MySpace or Facebook, you can't send messages to people on the other site. You can't Friend people on the other site. There's a cultural wall between users. And if there's no way for people to communicate across the divide, you can never expect them to do so.
All this said, people are already divided, and we accept that people from different backgrounds inhabit different environments. We cannot expect technology to automatically integrate people and generate cultural harmony.
Although most of you call these sites "social-networking sites," there's almost no networking going on. People use these sites to connect to the people they know.
In other words, even if they could talk across the divide, they might not anyhow. And even when people talk across differences, it doesn't automatically solve underlying tensions. Racial integration of schools was valuable for many reasons, but it didn't solve racism in this country.
But here's the main issue with social divisions. We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged?
When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we're trying to address.
If you want people to connect around politics and democracy, information and ideas, you need to understand the divisions that exist.
Many of us in this room see social-network sites as a modern-day incarnation of the public sphere. Politicians log in to these sites to connect with constituents and hear their voices. Campaign managers and activists try to rally people through these sites. Market researchers try to get a sense of people's opinions through these sites. Educators try to connect with students and build knowledge-sharing communities. This is fantastic. But there isn't one uniform public sphere. There are numerous publics (and counterpublics).
In many ways, the Internet is providing a next-generation public sphere. Unfortunately, it's also bringing with it next-generation divides.
The public sphere was never accessible to everyone. There's a reason that the scholar Habermas talked about it as the bourgeois public sphere.
The public sphere was historically the domain of educated, wealthy, white, straight men. The digital public sphere may make certain aspects of public life more accessible to some, but this is not a given.
And if the ways in which we construct the digital public sphere reinforce the divisions that we've been trying to break down, we've got a problem.
Not everyone has the skills or understanding to engage with the public sphere in a meaningful manner.
If you think that civics education is in bad shape in this country, take a look at media literacy. Digital publics combine the worst of both of these.