The fact that students select into the use of different services based on their racial and ethnic background, as well as their parents’ level of education, suggests that there is less intermingling of users from varying backgrounds than discourse about the supposed freedom of online interactions may suggest. At first glance, it may seem that on the Internet nobody knows who you are (Steiner, 1993). In reality, however, the membership of certain online communities mirrors people’s social networks in their everyday lives; thus online actions and interactions cannot be seen as tabula rasa activities, independent of existing offline identities. Rather, constraints on one’s everyday life are reflected in online behavior, thereby limiting—for some more than others—the extent to which students from different backgrounds may interact with students not like themselves.
Eszter Hargittai, Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication
Hargittai’s piece is not an easy read– disaggregate is a favorite word– but her work here effectively deflates an important American myth about class, race, and gender. The Internet was in many ways the quintessential U.S. invention, as William Gibson called it in a another context, a collective hallucination in which all of the limits and contingencies of life disappeared.
As the infamous New Yorker cartoon famously put it (and noted by Hargittai) “On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Dog.” If you do a little of that disaggregate magic, Hargittai shows, in fact they do. As it turns out the Internet, at least as reflected in the Social Networking sites, turn out to more lunchroom than digital utopia.
Generally speaking, we might mix it up at work or in the classroom, where we have little choice, but when we sit down to eat, or pick Facebook over Myspace, we want to hang out with our own. “Hispanic students are significantly more likely to use MySpace than are Whites in the sample,” Hargittai writes, “while Asian and Asian American students are significantly less likely to use MySpace.”
Asian and Asian Americans also favor Xanga and Friendster, Hargittai notes, perhaps becuase they are popluar in the “Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia.” What’s more, “students whose parents have lower levels of schooling are more likely to be MySpace users, whereas students whose parents have higher levels of education are more likely to be Facebook users.”
The study has a lot more to say, too, particularly about the suggestive idea that FaceBook increasingly plays an important role in the accumulation of social capital at certain schools. Now, of course, I want to know if there are emerging class and ethnicity differences among the virtual worlds too, or within them. Perhaps activists need to start trying to make links among the disparate communities.