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?
DB: My methodology is primarily ethnographic. Over different periods of time, I examined 10,000 MySpace profiles—a content analysis. I spent time in 17 different sites in the United States, had official interviews with 94 teens from very diverse backgrounds and unofficial interviews with another 300.
TR: So is it really ‘white flight,’ or is that just a handy term?
DB: I use the term to deal with the level of complexity that constitutes ‘white flight.’ White flight is, in many ways, messy. It’s not cleanly about race; it obviously signals race but deals with the whole question of the ways we construct race and class in the United States as a messy combination of things.
What people call white flight varies—it’s connected with families and with other factors. You move around not with yourself but with a cohort of people that you know. I’m trying to more deeply theorize the elements around white flight, but part of it is dealing with that social messiness. And while that term certainly has racial connotations, there is much more to what is happening around “white flight” than that.
TR: White flight in real life was motivated by suburbanization, the spread of cars, 1960s and 1970s fear of crime, ‘law and order’ politics and deadly riots in places like Washington, D.C. But what accounts for the same patterns online?
DB: We’re talking teenagers and we’re talking teenagers for whom, for the longest time until the beginning of 2006, the biggest question was: Are you on MySpace or not? By the end of the year, it was: Are you on MySpace, or are you on Facebook? So you have a structure of choice: What were people choosing, and how were they framing it?
At the end of the day, their choice ultimately comes down to: Where are my friends? They’ll marry it across other lines—I like the aesthetics of this more, or the bands that I listen to are on this one, or this is the ‘cool hip’ one, this is the ‘new one’—but if their friends weren’t there, they wouldn’t be there.
TR: What are the macroscopic implications of your research for news, information and niche media? Does the Internet reduce all of our differences or amplify them?
DB: There’s a reasonable expectation that people will self-segment by identity and values and different styles of life and all that. It’s a whole other thing when decisions made by people of power are used to select only certain people or address certain people when they think they’re speaking to everybody.
I’ve heard from far too many politicos that say, ‘Well, everybody’s on Facebook, so we’re going to do all of our outreach on Facebook.’ And look, no, not everybody is on Facebook—this is not a good approach. Dealing with the education community, all of these college admissions officers were doing all of their recruiting exclusively on Facebook. What values are you imputing in doing that? How do we deal with the fact that you may be biasing who you’re doing your work with? And it’s not just MySpace or Facebook. Part of this is to remind everyone that not everyone is on any one place; the Internet is not this uniform public space.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.