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Chapter 6: Inequality - Can Social Media Resolve Social Divisions? (review by Marion Selfridge )

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 Marion Selfridge

Throughout chapter 6, Inequality, can social media resolve social divisions? danah boyd demonstrates clearly and thoughtfully how “American teens use [of] social media reflects existing problems in society and reinforces deep-seated beliefs” (p.159). boyd uses youth’s own voices to expose their discomfort and uncertainty, anger and keen insight into how racial tensions and inequalities are replicated through social media. Several examples dramatically show how cultural prejudice “bub­bles up through the digital inscription of hateful epithets in com­ments sections and hatemongering websites” (p.158) such as racist responses to black icons trending on Twitter or the fallout of videos such as “Asians in the Library” where the creator “pretends to speak in a speech pattern that she believes sounds Asian. Given boyd’s four affordances of networked publics: persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability, both the original racist and bigoted comments and the outrage and public shaming that follows are volatile and magnified. “By increasing the visibility of individuals and their actions, social media doesn’t simply shine a spotlight on the problem­atic action; it enables people to identify and harass others in a very public way” (p.163). Social media is supporting the creation and continuation of polarizing racial tensions played out in the US and beyond.

 

The introduction of algorithms that “observe people’s practices and interests in order to model who they are within a broader system” (p.161) can have devastating implications when they are used to reinforce racist values. boyd’s coherent argument of the impact of this growing technological shift reminded me of a disturbing example of this in action. Dreaming of No Judgement, a participatory action research project of youth researchers from the most diverse area of Salt Lake City, UT explored the emotional and economic impacts of stereotyping on immigrant communities. They created a Myspace page to report their findings of the struggles of young immigrants within and against “the material conditions of structural racism and poverty” (Cahill et al., 2010, p.411) as well as a docudrama to inspire “critical hope” and inspire action. They noticed a specific racist and xenophobic advertisement ‘‘Immigrants and Disease,’’ followed by ‘‘8 diseases that are being brought in the U.S. by illegal immigrants,’’ that popped up each time their page was accessed, linked by Myspace algorhythms that automatically placed ‘‘targeted’’ advertisements about immigration on their research profile.  The youth decided to address the advertisement directly, letting it load on their profile and then “pointing it out as the very kind of racism and discrimination that young people of color, specifically immigrants, face. Rather than brush under the rug, here we ‘‘speak back’’ and intervene” (Cahill et al., 2010, p.412).

 

Youth continue to live in socially divisive worlds where race and class matter. The Internet becomes yet another place where youth experience both unequal access and messages that even in their fight for change, the pervasiveness of difference and inequality rule. Critical thinking skills and strategic social media literacies are needed more than ever before to change structural inequities and continuing racist practices.

 

References

Cahill, C., Quijada Cerecer, D.A., & Bradley, M. (2010). “Dreaming of…”: Reflections on Participatory Action Research as a feminist praxis of critical hope. Affilia, 24(4), 406-416.

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