Segregation & Inequality on the Web
We in Learning Design & Technology (LDT) can often be implicitly accused of promoting technological innovation as a be-all, end-all solution to problems in education. And while none of us fully believe that myth, we do take technology seriously. Web technologies can open up possibilities that were not present in the past. Social media can bring a diversity of voices and experiences to the table that may not have been previously heard. These are beliefs we hold dear.
But what happens when we look more closely at these assumptions? Does technology inherently â€œlevel the playing fieldâ€?
I was intrigued when I ran across Danah Boydâ€™s fascinating speech (read it here). Itâ€™s well worth the read. Boyd criticizes, not technology per se, but our assumptions that technology (in general, and social networking in particular) is the great equalizer.
She compares the meteoric rise of Facebook to the older (and equally ubiquitous) MySpace, and shows the cultural, racial, and class assumptions that have led to segregation between the two: Teens - and adults - use social categories and labels to identify people with values, tastes, and social positions. As teens chose between MySpace and Facebook, these sites took on the frames of those social categories. Nowhere is this more visible than in the language that those who explicitly chose Facebook over MySpace. Craig (17, California): The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious â€¦ like Macs are more cultured than PCâ€™s, Facebook is of a cooler caliber than MySpace. Herein lies the reality that makes all of this quite messy to deal with. It wasn't just anyone who left MySpace to go to Facebookâ€¦ What happened was modern day "white flight." Whites were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those who deserted MySpace did so by "choice" but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.
Boyd goes on to discuss the political and cultural implications of web technologies that cannot be overlooked: One thing to keep in mind about social media: the internet mirrors and magnifies pre-existing dynamics. And it makes many different realities much more visible than ever before. Racial divisions in American society should not shock anyone in this room, but the explicit-ness of them online can be quite startling.
Technology, whether social networking or online courses, allows many great things to happen. But if we donâ€™t pay attention to the social stratification that can arise through these technologies we are no better off than any previous generation. Our missional drive at Luther Seminary to "educate leaders for Christian communitiesâ€ can be as divided along sociological & demographic lines as it always has been if we donâ€™t pay attention to Boydâ€™s words. It is something we in LDT grapple with often. There's a terrible tendency in this countryâ€¦ to interpret an advancement as a solution. We have not eradicated racism. We have not eradicated sexism. We have not eradicated inequality. While we've made tremendous strides in certain battles, the war is not over. The worst thing we can do is to walk away and congratulate ourselves for all of the good things that have happened. Such attitudes create new breeding grounds for increased stratification.