Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White
Review of Chapter 9, "White Flight in Networked Publics: How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook" by danah boyd
The editors of Race After the Internet open their volume with a crucial historical statement as to how the digital technologies have become pervasive with the inauguration of the first African American president in the US history. The volume offers a diverse set of essays that explore the reconfiguration of race in a digital era where race is rearticulated as “an informatic commodity and as a prize more for its viewers than for its subjects” (p. 3). It is the biotechnical turn and its impact on race that the authors try to understand in the collection. This current moment, as Nakamura and White argue, “privileges the technological and specifically the digital over other forms of knowledge, mediation, and interaction” (p. 4). It is through this turn that talking about race in the American setting becomes easier but this is also problematic, the editors argue, in the sense that it reduces a historical and social phenomenon to the neoliberal fix of knowledge production and science. But what also makes the digital peculiar and different from the analog is that it is code based and therefore “executes race. Users don’t just consume images of race when they play video games, interact with software, and program: instead, they perform them” (p. 8). Ultimately, the intervention of the volume is to rethink race along with code and technology and take it beyond representation.
Against the background of this short note regarding the volume, I undertake to review danah boyd’s chapter in this volume, titled ‘White Flight in Networked Publics: How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook’. Boyd challenges the idea that the digital realm is one of pure freedom. She argues that it is not different from the real in terms of social contestation and struggle over the definition and ownership of space. The digital is a virtual re-articulation of how real cities and neighborhoods are gentrified to displace ‘less desirable’ populations. In this respect, boyd demonstrates how user preferences are navigated through not just technological affordances but rather social logics such as race and class.
One of the points boyd raises is the paradoxical difficulty of talking about race in America, while it is the most definitive social category. Then, race gets to be talked about through categories of taste and aesthetics, when racialized language is blocked. Drawing on extensive ethnographic data (online and offline), boyd shows how racialized language is disguised with linguistic devices such as preference, technological features, safety and thereby naturalization of online social relations. She interlinks digital scholarship with a diverse set of social theorists from Dick Hebdige to Pierre Bourdieu to make a case as to how taste and aesthetics disguise racial logics online. Simplicity and clean are only some of the keywords as to how race and class are articulated with reference to online identities. And as boyd explains from her online exchanges, it is not a matter of personal choice but rather a “networked exodus” (p. 215). This exodus has also been supported by parents, too.
She also points to the ways in which the media coverage of MySpace vis-à-vis Facebook is a political one and in a way racialized by how it covers the story or just ignores MySpace. She concludes by stating that Facebook is the digital suburb, the residents of which look down on the ghetto of MySpace. Ultimately, boyd’s chapter not only presents a historical context and empirical data as to how we can understand the dynamics of social networking sites but also questions the notion of technology as a neutral artifact, devoid of race, class or gender. She underlines the intricate links between colorblind ideology of multiculturalism and the neutral approaches towards technology.