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Chapter 6: Inequality - Can social media resolve social divisions? (review by Koen Leurs)

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 Koen Leurs 

In chapter 6 Inequality, can social media resolve social divisions? danah boyd explores the roles social media use play in (learning) to live together with difference. Thus far, the ways in which diverse identities digitally encounter one another across digital spaces has remained understudied. However, boyd’s study demonstrates it is urgent to achieve greater insights in whether teenagers’ networked interactions corroborate sentiments of failed multiculturalism and racial segregation or whether their experiences rather showcase cross-cultural exchange and cultural hybridization.

            Although social media are sometimes heralded as a “tool for tolerance because technology enables people to see and participate in worlds beyond their own”, boyd warns against such technological deterministic reasoning, arguing that “technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems”. Fundamental in her work is the grounded awareness for the medium-specific affordances social media provide its users, and the ways in which users put these to use in ways that are meaningful to them. Thus, although the technological “side-by-sideness” infrastructure (Barbrook & Cameron, cited in Rogers, 2013, p. 50) of for example Facebook or Twitter enables people of a variety of background to be co-present in the same digital space, it ultimately depends on the users themselves if and how they interact across difference.  
            In her analysis of inequality, boyd especially isolates race as an analytical category, as she “consistently found that race mattered” (p. 165). In large schools, Facebook friendships teens made illustrate how birds of a feather flock together as teens linked up with peers from their own racial group, while in smaller schools, where teens befriended everyone, profile activity primarily was shown to be oriented towards friends of a similar racial background. Eloquently and convincingly she then documents how offline segregation occurs online resulting in the reproduction of information inequities (social and cultural capital). She posits that the constellation of internet practices thus does not reverse societal inequalities “but it does have the potential to make them visible in new and perhaps productive ways” (p. 160).
            I would like to flag two ways for how to locate the potential for progressive (or repressive) politics. First, I take inspiration from the literature on media use among migrants, Diminescu’s notion of a “connected presence” that implies internet applications are used among migrants to maintain “remote relations typical of relations of proximity and to activate them on a daily basis” as well as relations with contacts living close by (2008, p. 67). The idea of connected presence can be taken to refer to various geographical locations that collapse in communicative practice, but also various digital spaces that one can simultaneously be active in. As youth most often use various outlets to express themselves and connect with friends, what forms of cross-racial networking and/or racisms can we observe if we compare youth presences on various social media sites simultaneously and outside social media altogether? Second, inspired by intersectional feminist theory, I wonder what dynamics can be laid bare when analysing not only racial dynamics of digital identities and friendships but assessing how various axes of difference (gender, religion, youth culture, generation, ability) intersect (Leurs & Ponzanesi, 2014)? This layered view may reveal young people communicate or network across difference in unexpected ways as they connect to local peers of various backgrounds who not necessarily share a racial background but a fascination for particular forms of metal music, extreme sports or graphic design.


Diminescu, D. (2008). The connected migrant: an epistemological manifesto. Social Science
, 47(4), 565-579.
Leurs, K. & Ponzanesi, S. (2014). Intersectionality, digital identities, and migrant youths: Moroccan Dutch youths as digital space invaders. In C. Carter, L. Steiner & 
  L. McLaughlin (Eds.), Routledge Companion of Media and Gender, pp. 632-642. London: Routledge.
Rogers, R. (2013). Digital Methods. Cambridge: MIT Press.



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