Category Archives: yasns

Race and Social Network Sites: Putting Facebook’s Data in Context

A few weeks ago, Facebook’s data team released a set of data addressing a simple but complex question: How Diverse is Facebook? Given my own work over the last two years concerning the intersection of race/ethnicity/class and social network sites, I feel the need to respond. And, with pleasure, I’m going to respond by sharing a draft of a new paper.

But first, I want to begin by thanking the Facebook data team for actually making this data available for public dialogue. Far too few companies are willing to share their internal analyses, especially about topics that make people uncomfortable. I was disappointed that so many academics immediately began critiquing Facebook rather than appreciating the glimpse that we get into the data they get to see. So thank you Facebook data team!

There are many different ways to collect quantitative data involving categories like race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, etc. None of them are perfect. Even asking people to self-identify can be fraught, especially when someone is asked to place themselves into a box. Ask a self-identified queer boi to identity into the binaries of “female/male” and “gay/straight” and you’ll see nothing short of explosive anger. Race certainly isn’t any prettier, let alone ethnicity or class. The salience of these qualities also depends on what we’re trying to measure, what we’re trying to say. For example, if we’re talking about people who experience being targets of racism, should we concern ourselves more with self-identification or external labeling? At the coarsest level, we often assume race to boil down to skin color, meaning that we have to take into account how people read race, how they experience race, how they identify with race. We must always remember that race is a social construct and one’s experiences of race are shaped by how one perceives themselves in relation to others and how others perceive them. And the very notion of race differs across the globe.

Of course, this is bloody messy. And ethnicity and class are even harder to locate because self-identification isn’t always the best measure. Heck, while Americans have learned to self-identify with race (thanks to countless forms), we aren’t typically asked to self-identify with ethnicity or class. So these are pretty murky territories. As a result, scholars and demographers and marketers and many others have different ways of trying to measure these categories. None are perfect. We can debate endlessly about which is better but, personally, I think that does the conversation a disservice.

In trying to measure race (and, partially, ethnicity) of its users without having self-identification, Facebook decided to use a statistical technique known as mixture-modeling to make a best guess as to the racial makeup of its user base. They go to great lengths explaining what they did, but it is this graph that we should be attentive to:

This graph highlights that those American users most likely to be white were overrepresented on Facebook until last year while those most likely to be Asian have been overrepresented as far back as they are measuring. Yet, the two lines that should pique our interest are the blue and red lines, highlighting that those most likely to be black and Hispanic have been underrepresented until very recently. In other words, 2009 is the year in which Facebook went “mainstream” among all measured racial/ethnic groups in the U.S.

Folks keep asking me if this surprises me. It does not. This very much matches what I’m seeing in the field. (It also confirms what I was seeing in 2006-2007.) But it also doesn’t tell the whole story. Numbers never do. MySpace has definitely declined among young users in the U.S., especially in the last 12 months, but race – and ethnicity and socio-economic status – still inflect people’s experiences with these technologies. Just because Facebook has become broadly adopted does not mean that what everyone experiences on Facebook is the same. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see Facebook data that broke down app usage by demographic data (age, location, gender, and their measure of race). Given what I’m seeing in the field, I’d expect you’d see variation. I’d also expect to see variation in terms of how the service is accessed – via mobile, web, 3rd party APIs, etc. As young people tour me through their Facebook experience, I’m regularly reminded that different groups have wholly different experiences with the same service. As Facebook has become a platform, it is no longer reasonable to simply think about access. There’s also a different issue at play… perception. People perceive certain practices to be universal because “everyone they know” is doing it that way. One of the hardest parts of my job is to explain to people that what they are seeing, what they are experiencing, is not the same as what others are. Even if they’re using the same tools.

When the “digital divide” conversations started up, folks boiled down the discussion to being one of access. If only everyone had access, everything would be hunky dory. We’re closer to universal access today than ever before, but access is not bringing us the magical utopian panacea that we all dreamed of. Henry Jenkins has rightly pointed out that we see the emergence of a “participation gap” in that people’s participation is of different quantity and quality depending on many other factors. Social media takes all of this to a new level. It’s not just a question of what you get to experience with your access, but what you get to experience with your friend group with access. In other words, if you’re friends with 24/7 always-on geeks, what you’re experiencing with social media is very different than if you’re experiencing social media in a community where your friends all spend 12+ hours a day doing a form of labor that doesn’t allow access to internet technologies. Facebook’s data provides a glimpse into how Facebook access has become mainstream. It is the modern day portal. But I would argue that what people experience with this tool – and with the other social media assets they use – looks very different based on their experience.

Many folks think that I care about access. Don’t get me wrong – access is important. But I’m much more concerned about how racist and classist attitudes are shaping digital media, how technology reinforces inequality, and how our habit of assuming that everyone uses social media just like we do reinforces social divisions that we prefer to ignore. This issue became apparent to me when doing fieldwork because of the language that young people were using to differentiate MySpace and Facebook. Adoption differences alone were never the whole story. Ever since I released my controversial blog essay 2.5 years ago, I have been working to write up my data and analysis in a meaningful way. Doing so has not been easy. I’ve been very uncomfortable handling my own data, trying to treat it in a manner that is respectful of the teens that I interviewed and the dynamics that I witnessed. Thankfully, Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White gave me the space to work out these issues. The fruit of my labor will be published in an upcoming Routledge anthology edited by them called Digital Race Anthology. With their permission, I am sharing with you a working draft of the article that I have struggled to produce:

“White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook”

In this article, I explore the themes I’ve been discussing for years but focus specifically on the language that young people used to differentiate MySpace and Facebook and how that language can be understood through the historical dynamics of segregation in the U.S. My decision to use the “white flight” frame is meant to be provocative, to encourage the reader to think about the rhetoric that we’re currently using and its parallels to earlier times. For example, how we employ “safety” as a way of marking turf and segmenting populations.

Given the conversations prompted by Facebook’s data, I felt the need to share this work-in-progress. Please feel free to comment or share your thoughts in whatever format makes sense to you.

PDF Talk: “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”

Two years ago this week, I wrote a controversial essay in an attempt to locate divisions that I was seeing play out between MySpace and Facebook. This week, at the Personal Democracy Forum, I revisited these ideas in a new talk:

The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online

Needless to say, this talk provoked some discussion which is why I thought it might be helpful to share it. What you have here is the crib from the talk. Comments are VERY much welcome!

let’s define our terms: what is a “social networking technology”?

In writing Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship, Nicole Ellison and I wrote many iterations of the definition of the term “social network sites” and why we chose to use this instead of “social networking sites.” For a good 20 versions, we had included this statement:

“Because the term ‘networking’ emphasizes relationship initiation, often with strangers, it can and has been expanded to refer to any site that allows people to communicate with people that they do not know, including dating sites, chatrooms, community sites, and bulletin boards.

This statement got edited out during the review phase because we were told that no one actually believed that “social networking sites” included all of these other things. The current debate surrounding the Economist’s debate on “social networking technologies” and education (my discussion of it is here) has shown otherwise. If you read the comments on my post and follow the blogs of others discussing the debate, you will find that there is unbelievable confusion about what constitutes “social networking.” [e.g., 1, 2, 3]

For their part, neither The Economist nor the respondents did little to define their terms. The Economist’s question concerns “social networking technologies” and their explanation opens up with “Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous…” and then goes on. From my POV, they implicitly equate “social networking technologies” with “MySpace and Facebook.” Yet, clearly, there’s all sorts of fuzziness about whether we’re talking about social network sites, social software, social media, collaborative software, or anything that enables any interaction with another human being.

Unfortunately, it makes the “debate” really confusing. When I posted my response, I focused on “social network sites” since that is what I took The Economist to mean by their equation. Not surprisingly given the confusion, I’ve been critiqued as being too narrow and not including wikis, blogs, social bookmarking, Google documents, Blackboard, etc.

I want to make something clear: I think that a lot of social technology is extremely valuable in the classroom, but that is not the question that I thought that The Economist was asking. Furthermore, I think that our failure to define our terms makes it damn near impossible to have a functional conversation about the actual issues. This is extremely frustrating. This is also why Nicole and I put so much effort into creating a workable definition of “social network sites.” We know that there’s confusion and we strongly believe that without a definition, we cannot actually have a meaningful conversation about actual substance. The ongoing use of “social networking” has been damaging to any productive conversation, both in the academy and in startup circles (who all want to be the next “social networking” app, even if there are no “Friends” involved).

So, here’s my question for all of you who use the term “social networking technologies” — what do you mean by that?

The Economist Debate on Social “Networking”

The Economist is doing an “Oxford-style debate” on the following proposition:

“Social networking technologies will bring large [positive] changes to
educational methods, in and out of the classroom”

Given that MySpace and Facebook are ubiquitous, can social networking be defined as the “collective power of community to help inform perspectives that would not be unilaterally formed” or is it simply a distraction for students? Can these tools could be used in the classroom?

While I think that the Economist’s question is quite intriguing (albeit a bit problematically defined), I was sorely disappointed with the two responses.

On the Pro side is Ewan McIntosh. He argues that SNSs are about “helping learners become more world-aware, more communicative, learning from each other, understanding first hand what makes the world go around.” He talks about the use of mini-social networks for media sharing, but his description sounds more like blogs than SNSs to me. He (rightly) critiques the archaic educational styles, talking vaguely about web and SNSs without really explaining how the latter can help reform the former.

On the Con side is Michael Bugeja. He talks about interfaces, how students might misuse technology, and about how Facebook and MySpace are all simply about revenue generation for their respective companies. He then makes an odd techno-determinist claim and then talks about how pedagogy changes to fit interfaces. He then asks a bunch of (problematic) questions.

Sadly, I think that both completely missed the point. I’m frustrated with Ewan for collapsing all social technologies into “social networking” and I’m frustrated with Michael for being so afraid of technology that he lets technology dictate his reality. Given my irritation with both of them, I figured I should try to make a stab at what my response to this question would be.

danah’s response to said proposition

In their current incarnation, social network sites (SNSs) like Facebook and MySpace should not be integrated directly into the classroom. That said, they provide youth with a valuable networked public space to gather with their peers. Depending on the role of school in their lives, youth leverage these structures for educational purposes – asking questions about homework, sharing links and resources, and even in some cases asking their teachers for information outside of the classroom. SNSs do not make youth engage educationally; they allow educationally-motivated youth with a structure to engage educationally.

Social network sites do not help most youth see beyond their social walls. Because most youth do not engage in “networking,” they do not meet new people or see the world from a different perspective. Social network sites reinforce everyday networks, providing a gathering space when none previously existed.

Educational pedagogy has swung over the years between focusing on individual-centered learning, group learning, and peer-to-peer learning. If you take a peer-to-peer learning approach, you are inherently valuing the social networks that youth have and maintain, or else you are encouraging them to build one. These networks are mediated and reinforced through SNSs. If there is pedagogical value to encouraging peers to have strong social networks, then there is pedagogical value in supporting their sociable practices on SNSs.

When it comes to socializing with friends, youth prefer in-person (unregulated) encounters. They turn to SNSs when they can’t get together with their friends en masse or when they can’t get together without surveilling adults. By and large, there are few free spaces where youth can gather with their friends en masse and, even then, inevitably a chunk of parents refuse to let them, thereby destroying cluster effects. So, of course, they turn to SNSs. School is one of the few times when they can get together with their friends and they use every unscheduled moment to socialize – passing time, when the teacher’s back is turned, lunch, bathroom breaks, etc. They are desperately craving an opportunity to connect with their friends; not surprisingly, their use of anything that enables socialization while at school is deeply desired. This is why they text during classes. They go onto SNSs during the day to write to friends who have different schedules or to write to the whole group if a portion of them are on a different lunch. Given how regulated youth are, any open space where socializing is possible will be taken up by socializing; it’s often the only place they can see their friends. This isn’t something that the schools can fix, but they also shouldn’t be surprised when group time turns into gossip time.

I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why social network sites (or networking ones) should be used in the classroom. Those tools are primarily about socializing, with media and information sharing there to prop up the socialization process (much status is gained from knowing about the cool new thing). I haven’t even heard of a good reason why social network site features should be used in the classroom. What is the value of knowing who is friends with who or creating a profile when you already know all of your classmates?

This not to say that technology doesn’t belong in the classroom. Information access tools like Wikipedia and Google are tremendously valuable for getting access to content and should be strongly encouraged and taught through the lens of media literacy. Email, IM, or other communication tools can be super useful for distributing content to the group or between individuals or even providing a channel for group discussion (in-class or out). Blogging tools and group sharing tools are also quite valuable. Having to produce for the group instead of the teacher can work as a powerful incentive; most youth don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their peers and pressure to perform can be leveraged to the teacher’s advantage. But why social network sites? To the degree that they support blogging and group sharing, sure… but that’s not the key point of them at all. They key features that make them unique are: profiles plus visible, articulated and surfable friends’ lists. I simply don’t get why these are of value in the classroom.

I’m not saying that social network sites have no value. Quite the contrary. But their value is about the kinds of informal social learning that is required for maturation – understanding your community, learning the communicate with others, working through status games, building and maintaining friendships, working through personal values, etc. All too often we underestimate these processes because, traditionally, they have happened so naturally. Yet, what’s odd about today’s youth culture is that we’ve systematically taken away the opportunities for socialization. And yet we wonder why our kids are so immature compared to kids from other cultures. Social network sites are popular because youth are trying to take back the right to be social, even if it has to happen in interstitial ways. We need to recognize that not all learning is about book learning – brains mature through experience, including social experiences.

Yes, there are problems with technology and with technology in the classroom. Anyone critical of capitalism has a right to be critical of commercial social network sites and the economic processes that got us here. But don’t blame the SNSs – they didn’t create the obscenities of the market, but they are bound by them. Also, don’t forget that the current educational system was structured to meet the needs of the market, to create good consumers and good laborers. It ain’t pretty, and the privatization of education and educational testing is downright scary, but it’s a systems problem, not a technology problems.

There are innumerable inequalities in terms of educational technology access, just as there are huge inequalities in nearly every aspect of education. How many schools lack pencils, textbooks, teachers? Again, it’s terrible, but it’s not the technology’s fault. We all have a responsibility to rethink education and figure out how to equip all classrooms with the tools needed for giving students the best education possible, including teachers and technology. Don’t devalue technology simply because there are currently inequalities; no one would go around devaluing teachers using the same logic.

Finally, please adult world, I beg you… stop fearing and/or fetishizing technology. Neither approach does us any good. Technology is not the devil, nor is it the panacea you’ve been waiting for. It’s a tool. Just like a pencil. Figure out what it’s good for and leverage that to your advantage. Realize that there are interface problems and figure out how to work around them to meet your goals. Tools do not define pedagogy, but pedagogy can leverage tools. The first step is understanding what the technology is about, when and where it is useful, and how it can and will be manipulated by users for their own desires.

Update: I added a related post that is relevant to this discussion: let’s define our terms: what is a “social networking technology”?

boyd’s law of social network sites

::giggle:: While I was off the grid, Cory Doctorow created a law of social network sites and named it after me:

boyd’s law: “Adding more users to a social network [site] increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.”

This comes from a brilliant column that he wrote for InformationWeek about how the Facebook communication technology (combined with their not-so-open platform strategy) resemble AOL’s old segregation/segmentation approach to users. (Remember the days when AOL users couldn’t email anyone who didn’t have an AOL account?) Embedded in this discussion is a concern for how social network sites are extremely socially awkward. My favorite quote: “It’s socially awkward to refuse to add someone to your friends list — but removing someone from your friend-list is practically a declaration of war. The least-awkward way to get back to a friends list with nothing but friends on it is to reboot: create a new identity on a new system.”

Anyhow, I super appreciate the creation of “boyd’s law,” especially because I think that it applies to both social networks and social network sites. (I have to imagine that many folks are having a field day thinking about who all should and shouldn’t be invited to holiday parties right about now.)

It’s Live! New JCMC on Social Network Sites

It gives me unquantifiable amounts of joy to announce that the JCMC special theme issue on “Social Network Sites” is now completely birthed. It was a long and intense labor, but all eight newborn articles are doing just fine and the new mommies are as proud as could be. So please, join us in our celebration by heading on over to the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication and snuggling up to an article or two. The more you love them, the more they’ll prosper!

JCMC Special Theme Issue on “Social Network Sites”
Guest Editors: danah boyd and Nicole Ellison

Please feel free to pass this announcement on to anyone you think might find value from this special issue.

Race/ethnicity and parent education differences in usage of Facebook and MySpace

In June, I wrote a controversial blog essay about how U.S. teens appeared to be self-dividing by class on MySpace and Facebook during the 2006-2007 school year. This piece got me into loads of trouble for all sorts of reasons, forcing me to respond to some of the most intense critiques.

While what I was observing went beyond what could be quantitatively measured, certain aspects of it could be measured. To my absolute delight, Eszter Hargittai (professor at Northwestern) had collected data to measure certain aspects of the divide that I was trying to articulate. Not surprising (to me at least), what she was seeing lined up completely with what I was seeing on the ground.

Her latest article “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites” (published as a part of Nicole Ellison and my JCMC special issue on social network sites) suggests that Facebook and MySpace usage are divided by race/ethnicity and parent education (two common measures of “class” in the U.S.). Her findings are based on a survey of 1060 first year students at the diverse University of Illinois-Chicago campus during February and March of 2007. For more details on her methodology, see her methods section.

While over 99% of the students had heard of both Facebook and MySpace, 79% use Facebook and 55% use MySpace. The story looks a bit different when you break it down by race/ethnicity and parent education:

While Eszter is not able to measure the other aspects of lifestyle that I was trying to describe that differentiate usage, she is able to show that Facebook and MySpace usage differs by race/ethnicity and parent education. These substitutes for “class” can be contested, but what is important here is that there is genuinely differences in usage patterns, even with consistent familiarity. People are segmenting themselves in networked publics and this links to the ways in which they are segmented in everyday life. Hopefully Eszter’s article helps those who can’t read qualitative data understand that what I was observing is real and measurable.

(We are still waiting for all of the JCMC articles from our special issue to be live on the site. Fore more information on this special issue, please see the Introduction that Nicole and I wrote: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.)

Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship

For over a year now, Nicole Ellison and I have been working on putting together a special issue of JCMC on “Social Network Sites.” Not all of the pieces are live yet, so I’m going to wait until they are before highlighting them and encouraging you to go there. (But! If you want to get a taste, their abstracts are all up on the site as temporary holders.)

In the meantime, I wanted to announce that our introduction is live. So, go check out: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison. Many of you helped us put together the history section (thank you!) so now you can see the completed version. This piece contains four key sections:

  • a usable definition of “social network sites”
  • a history of some of the major shifts in the development of SNSs
  • a literature review of work done in this space
  • a description of the articles included in the special issue

Given all of the emergent work in this space, we hope that this article will help scholars, businessfolk, and curious individuals get a coherent picture of what’s happening in the space. Of course, as with all definitions, histories, and literature reviews, much is open to debate. We of course welcome your critique and look forward to the conversations that this piece might spark.

More soon on the rest of the special issue. Much appreciation goes out to JCMC and Susan Herring for letting us do this and helping us along the way. Likewise, I can’t say enough nice things about the AMAZING Nicole Ellison. She was the most rocking co-editor/co-author ever and I can’t believe how fortunate I was to get to work with her.

history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)

As many of you know, Nicole Ellison and I are guest editing a special issue of JCMC. As a part of this issue, we are writing an introduction that will include a description of social network sites, a brief history of them, a literature review, a description of the works in this issue, and a discussion of future research. We have decided to put a draft of our history section up to solicit feedback from those of you who know this space well. It is a work-in-progress so please bear with us. But if you have suggestions, shout out.

history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)

In particular, we want to know: 1) Are we reporting anything inaccurately? 2) What are we missing?

Research on Social Network Sites (Take 2)

A while back, I blogged a list of known research on social network sites. I’ve since moved that list to its own page:

Research on Social Network Sites

I’m in the middle of doing a literature review and I’m worried that I might be missing new research in this area. If you have recently published a paper on SNS-related topics or know of new research in this area that’s not on my list, could you send me a link or add a citation in the comments? I’m particularly concerned that I know of very little research outside of the US and I have to imagine that there’s a lot taking place there that I simply don’t know about.