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Chapter 6: Inequality - Can social media resolve social divisions? (review by Qun Wang)

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

 

Qun Wang, Rutgers University School of Communication and Information

In Chapter 6, “Inequality: Can social media resolve social divisions?”, based on her careful observation, in-depth interviews and close analysis, danah boyd develops her argument surrounding two theses: 1). Social media may reinforce existing social, especially racial, segregation. American teens that gather around and segregated by race- and class-based groups can be discovered both on campus and in the cyberspace. 2). Such social segregation that extendedfrom real life to social media may contribute to social inequality since users of social media may have resulting unequal access to information, knowledge, social capital and other types of social resources. As boyd points out, artifacts are not neutral---how teens use social media reflects existing social problems. In “The Biases in Technology” section, the author provides intriguing observations about social implications of artifacts. Do artifacts have politics or do politics have artifacts? boyd wisely answers this question by pointing out that in some cases implications of artifacts may be intentionally embedded into technologies, but more often these implications occur inadvertently as byproducts of technologies when creators fail to fully realize how their design decisions may be affected by their preferred social, political or cultural orientations and commitments. For example, Siri, the intelligent voice assistant system introduced by Apple, has trouble with accents because the system was initially tested by American English speakers. Another example that causes boyd’s attention is how users socially identify themselves by choosing different social media sites. For instance, through interviews with young users, boyd realizes that Facebook attracts more white users while MySpace is more appealing among black people. It would be interesting to learn what particular features/designs of MySpace and Facebook that make users segregate in this case.   

Future studies may be needed to discover the relationship between thesis one and two. Today, it’s quite common for users to have more than one social media account. They may use different social media sites for different purposes and to build/maintain different networks. Are there any cross-platform effects that may diversify users’ accessibility to information, knowledge and social resources? In addition, social media may transform existing inequality by reducing some old forms while producing new forms of inequality. For example, in The Annual Cyberbullying Survey 2013, a 17-year-old male user commented, “… I’m gay. I feel more comfortable on websites where my sexual preference is widely accepted (such as Twitter and Habbo), and where anonymous functions are disabled.” In this case, inequality between gay and non-gay communities, which might be more evident in some areas of the offline world, may be reduced online because of the emergence of social media sites that are more tolerant to gay culture. In other cases, new forms of inequality occur. For example, boyd and Crawford (2012) discover that academia and large data companies may have uneven accessibility to big data. For example, companies who own social media sites may have access to a larger pool of data while researchers who study these sites may not. “Whenever inequalities are explicitly written into the system, they produce class-based structures” (pp. 674).

References:

boyd, d. and Crawford, K. 2012. Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society 15:5, 662-679

The Annual Cyber Bullying Survey 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.ditchthelabel.org/downloads/the-annual-cyberbullying-survey-2013.pdf

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