Blog Post

Chapter 6: Inequality - Can social media resolve social divisions? (review by Alex Fink)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd


Review of Chapter 6 - Inequality: Can Social Media Resolve Social Divisions?

by Alex Fink

Much of danah boyd’s chapter on inequality centered around her striking observation that “race and class operated in [teens’] communities” through the “acceptance of norms they understood to be deeply problematic” (p. 155). Throughout the chapter, she traces young people’s interactions with social media as reproducing and amplifying already existing race and class divisions, as if Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace were virtual replicas of interactions in physical space. However, as boyd elucidates through telling and evocative stories of interactions with young people, the complexity of youth’s negotiations of race and class gain new texture when online worlds are layered on already tense divisions. These narratives weave through failures of new technologies and social platforms to be inclusive in their construction (using the example of the Microsoft Kinect, which does not recognize darker-skinned people), racism playing itself out online (in all-out aggression, in addition to more typical in-person microaggressions), segregation in online networks and through social technology algorithms, and the privilege established and available through networks that is unevenly accessible. Her analysis of each of these elements throughout offers new and nuanced perspective. Perhaps most salient are the ways teens understand their (inter)actions as (possibly) racist, but say/do them anyway. This dynamic is epitomized in the oft overheard and spoken, “I’m not racist, but…,” a statement which simultaneously recognizes race as a factor, and racism as a possibility, but seems to the user to mitigate the risk of sounding racist. Statements like these show the complexity of the ways young people understand race and racism, while simultaneously struggle for language to discuss their experiences In sum, if some were hopeful that social media would solve social divisions, boyd’s chapter convincingly argues that it’s going to be a little more complicated than that.

In holding true to her theme, I wonder whether boyd heard, saw, or recognized the multiple, also complex, and powerful ways that young people also shirk, resist, and fight racist and classist social divisions on and using social media. While she highlights public shaming tactics that respond to racism online, these too, as she points out, only serve one strategic vector in anti-racist work. Where are young social media activists, such as those that are part of Youth Radio, Where is My Public Servant?, and the Black Youth Project, who act in solidarity against racism and classism using social media as a primary strategy? My guess is that--in variable and complex ways--many young people also explore, come to terms with, and understand racism and classism through their experiences and conversations online. Rather than upsetting or contradicting boyd’s views, these add additional complexity. Perhaps more importantly, they help to construct young people as competent, interested, political actors who care about, and work toward, constructive change in their online, offline, and hybrid communities (VeLure Roholt & Baizerman, 2013). Such an addition might helpfully accent boyd’s bleak picture of race and social media with the seeds of possibility of a different future.


VeLure Roholt, R., & Baizerman, M. (2013). Civic youth work: Primer. New York, NY: Peter Lang.


1 comment

One of the things that I've struggled with most is how to resolve what I see when I engage general samples of youth with what I see when I start looking for exceptional youth (or when my colleagues recruit based on practices). There is no doubt that there are amazing youth doing truly innovative practices, particularly in the realm of what we'd talk about as "civic engagement."  I address some of this in the final chapter.  But this doesn't necessarily wear off on all youth.  And most of the youth that I see doing anti-racist work online are in social contexts in which anti-racist work is part of a broader network of people engaged in anti-racist work, either through school programming or afterschool activties.  I see very little that is born and bred online. There are exceptions, but it's dangerous to generalize from them. This is part of the stark reminder that people reproduce their networks and social contexts into social media rather than engage there separately.