My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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digital xenophobia

In checking my email this morning, i was really disturbed by a message on a mailing list that i lurk. The question was simple:

Is anyone worried about the del.icio.us community being diluted with non-geeky type people?

My first reaction was one of insult. There’s nothing like digital xenophobia to get my goat early in the morning.

First, this is the problem of all online communities. What draws people to them is homophily – birds of a feather stick together. Folks are ecstatic when they walk into a community where everyone’s like them.

In theory, people want to espouse the liberal value of tolerance and love of diversity. In reality, most people are anything but that. Ask the anti-Brazilians on Orkut. We have the language to criticize the neo-Nazis on Friendster, but how different are the anti-nongeeks? We really only know how to talk about racism, sexism and homophobia. You can’t really say “we don’t want any girls here” and get away with it now (although you may think it). [Of course, one contemporary approach is to allow a handful of token women in, but maintain the male dominance…]

Unlike the more politicized phobias, xenophobia and classism often go unchecked. It is even more culturally acceptable to want to maintain a community of others like the original community and to reminisce about when the community was closer, had more in common and when there were less problems.

Of course there are more problems in a heterogeneous community. People don’t speak the same (actual/conceptual) language. Diversity brings divergent opinions, values, ideas. Diversity requires us to broader our perspective, appreciate things where we are not superior and realize that not everyone comes about an issue from our perspective.

With community tools popping up daily, everyone’s talking about how this tool can be used by everyone in the world – won’t it be great? Yet, as soon as multiple communities use the tool in different ways, everyone flips. No one actually knows how to manage diverse communities with different values. Why? It’s a really hard SOCIAL problem that doesn’t have a simple technological solution.

[I’ve got lots more to say on this topic, but until next time…]

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13 comments to digital xenophobia

  • I know exactly what you mean. The lifecycle of most online communities includes both the golden age of innovation and harmony and the era of strife and discontent brought about by ‘intruders’. Participation is often humbling — ultimately, that’s a good thing.

  • Hello there, just stumbled upon your (very interesting!) blog.

    Well, the problem is that this is merely a manifestation of meat-space behaviour in the virtual world. For instance, there are a lot of people in the real world you are polite to, but would not be unless you absolutely needed to be – for whatever reason. However, virtual world gives you that feeling of being separate and you can do things that you would not otherwise, without worrying about the consequences.

    A classic example of this is Slashdot – a guy I had serious problems with ended up being a good friend and a classmate, and we found it so strange when we realized that.

    Besides, most of these communities are merely extensions of good ole’ Usenet, or any of the *nix mailing lists – and all it takes is a look at some of the flames there to realize that this is a social problem in meat-space. I suppose geeks always felt a little socially stifled, and the Internet is a medium that helps ease that. That has brought with it an element of possessiveness and an elitist attitude, just trying to not give up the turf.

    Just my two cents.

  • It’s almost a natural phenomenon. “Heterogeneous” implies a force opposed to the implication of “community” i.e. diversity vs. resemblance. There’s probably a rupture point of toleration for each individual who eventually refuses the membership…

  • Mel

    I appreciate seeing someone at your level of technological expertise making this kind of statement. It’s responsible and your’re setting a good example. Decency and goodwill go a long way towards creating space for newcomers and inclusive attitudes.

    … without the beginners we’d never have experts 😉

  • Exactly danah.

    Social networking/community tools aren’t about technology. The technology only facillitates/supports interaction. In the end technology can’t change human nature. People will have the same “getting along” issues in virtual spaces as they do in F2F settings.

    Last year I taught two online sections in a graduate program. Many people think that the VLE is a ‘neutral’ space. You would not believe the drama that went on in the virtual space of newsgroups, IM, and VLEs. Adults reverting to Jr High School behavior. And because they weren’t F2F there were alot of, what i considered, mean spirited attacks between the students. I doubt they would have felt the freedom to make such attacks in a ‘traditional’ classroom. And gender played a role in the dynamic of the community. Sadly, there were several men who used the “safety” of distance to bully women in the class (but that’s a whole other post).

    The promise of online/distributed learning is that everyone is on the same footing because the space is virtual–but human nature, gender roles, and a myriad of other socio-cultural issues need to be factord into the equation. Don’t get me wrong: web-based social networking tools are great, but they are only as good as the members of the group and its ability to allow novices the breathing room to find their ‘niche’ in the community. And their willingness to invest in building human relationships.

    Okay. That’s my two cents–for now. It’s late and i’m gunna keel over…zzzzz

  • Sarah

    Geez, what next? geek born geek space?
    Show us the scar from your wedgie for 3rd grade or your first edition D+D manuals, or some code you’ve written for GNU-Unix, and THEN you can get into the club?

    I think perhaps, since the geek is the new ‘popular’ after having been blocked out of so much main stream culture – and now seeing themselves closer to the top of the heap, they are — taking on the tools of the oppressors! (crap, it’s too early on a sunday to use that statement) I mean… Instead of the battlecry “I’m married!- I’m Beautiful! (aka Muriel’s Wedding) has the same old rules just started screaming “I Code! I play with Ham Radio!” geezus.

  • the cluster stitch

    i meant to post this as a comment where i first found it, but i get errors about ‘questionable content’ alas and alack. here, digital xenophobia 30 sep 04 danah boyd writes about classist delicious users who are worried about…

  • I have to say I don’t understand this. Surely the beauty of del.icio.us is that I only tend to see links that are of interest to me/ members that share similars interests to me. By definition I will hardly come across the people I detest (and they in turn won’t come across people like me they detest in turn). This is very different from usenet.
    What’s the big deal?

  • Some nice thoughts to chew on re: diversity and community – thanks. Have been chewing on this same topic myself quite intensely lately.

    It seems to me that there is an underlying social philosophy that creates the impression that multiplicity is bad, which is that monoculture is good. In almost every major social realm we see the singular held up as the ideal: monogamy, monoculture, monotheism, monopoly (technically illegal because it is the ultimate ideal for the capitalist corporation). People are generally expected to choose one partner, one career path or major skill to flesh out, and so on.

    It’s not really news to anyone that this doesn’t accurately reflect the multiplicity of human nature. But the work required to divest of those social norms is enormous, and that project is not even a blip on the radar screen. Social, spiritual and emotional development seem destined to remain on the back burner until we’ve finished the grand project of sucking out the last remaining fossil fuel reserves from the planet.

  • I don’t know that I totally agree with you here. I mean there are lots of situations in the world where people form social environments or groupings that aren’t totally open – like for example academic cultures or groups of young mothers. Even our lavatories are often gendered. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to say that a group of people should be able to divide off a space or a time for conversation or implementation between themselves. I think this stuff all comes back to this distinction between a platform or environment upon which everyone must interact and there must be some basic forms of freedom for all to participate and the functionality to control membership to smaller, family-based, friend-based interest-based or professional groupings. If del.icio.us is a neutral substrate then people should just get over themselves. If some of the value that the current members find is lost by having hundreds of other people using the system, then perhaps there’s an argument for allowing people to make arbitrary groupings through the system that help to meet their needs.

  • issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

    I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social cons…

  • issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

    I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social cons…

  • issues of culture in ethnoclassification/folksonomy

    I love the conversations that have emerged recently on folksonomy/ethnoclassification/tagging/ontology (see del.icio.us tag folksonomy for a good collection of them). Of course, i’m particularly a fan of skeptical posts that raise the social cons…