MySpace to Facebook = White Flight?

Or is a new study a reminder that the Internet is not a uniform public space?

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MySpace is no longer cool. As a matter of fact, its number of users is now one-half the size of rival Facebook. Is this because MySpace is too black for the rest of America? Teenage Internet users may hold the answer. High-schoolers report their use of the social-networking giants along racial lines—MySpace is seen as “black,” while Facebook is “white.” And even within the networks, black kids befriend other black kids, Latinos mix with Latinos, and the self-segregation often practiced in real life is rampant online. Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, compares this dash from MySpace to Facebook to “white flight” from inner cities.

The Root caught up with Boyd after she presented her “white flight” thesis to hundreds at the Personal Democracy Forum, a June conference on technology and politics at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

The Root: Your research is controversial. Are social networks truly segregated? Does teenage behavior really mimic real-life divisions?

Danah Boyd: We’re seeing a reproduction of all kinds of all types of social segregation that we like to pretend has gone away.

Even before Facebook came into play, I was working with a group of kids in a school in Los Angeles. And there was a big difference between the teachers’ language about race, and the students’ language about race. The teachers’ language was: ‘It’s a highly diverse school and all of the classes are deeply integrated, and there are no problems with race.’ That was the meta narrative. When you talk to the students, they say, ‘Well, this area is called Disneyland and that’s where the white kids hang out, and that’s the Ghetto, where the black kids hang out.’ They have all of this language for marking out the schoolyard in this super “diverse” school.

I went and looked at these kids’ MySpace profiles—this is before Facebook. Sixty to 70 percent of them had MySpace profiles that I could find. There were deep segregations in the friending patterns. Latinos friended Latino kids, black kids friended black kids, and white kids friended other white kids. There was very little overlap.

So here are the adults going, ‘We don’t have a race problem because we’re integrated.’ And the [verbal] language of the teens is deeply racist, deeply segregationist, marked by gangs, marked by narratives that were about race in particular. And they were reproducing this online. We’re deluding ourselves that just because we put kids of different racial backgrounds together, they’re going to be friends.

TR: How did you perform this research?