Friday, November 23, 2012

Facebook has boxes?

I thought I'd continue my saga of thinking about Facebook, race and expression of identity that I started long ago. For reference, the other posts/papers:

Some relevant statements, as I think about this now in 2012 and assign these writings as readings to my students:
  1. The identity presentation and information-searching norms on Facebook have changed
  2. Default whiteness is different than 'how things are in person'
Back when the paper was originally written Facebook was interested in having people fill out categorical information on themselves so the search and data-collection systems could work. It was necessary so, say, I could look up 'females in engineering from Glen Ellyn in my stats class' and also so they could observe 'males who are religious and politically conservative like [this] kind of music.' These days Facebook has tried to obscure the personal information about people when you visit their profile. You still get pictures, but the 'about' is relegated to a back page and raised concerns for privacy (and possibly apathy?) have led people to fill it out less. So, consequentially, adding a race/ethnicity/nationality category becomes a less pressing concern. It's still not there, which is a problem, but it's not as much of a denied imperative. Facebook has also intentionally made search less about specific variables applied to people - categories and tags don't appear to drive the system in the same way they did before.

This doesn't change the initial issue, however. Yes, in person people make snap judgments of what race or ethnicity others are based on appearance and this isn't a form of racism or discrimination, it's just observation. What I was taking issue with, both then and now, is that Facebook was conceived as a place where identity expression would happen, and that they built it primarily with white people in mind - those for whom race or ethnicity is likely to be less important (or, see Ethnic Options by Mary Waters, 1990, a fluid association that can even be commoditized and purchased, on, say, St. Patrick's Day).  At the time the builders were mostly male engineers who were white or Asian, and they were creating it for college-age kids, who they assumed (somewhat correctly) were (and are) disproportionately white. By forgetting about or choosing to not include a race/ethnicity/nationality category they implicitly made the statement that these things were not important and denied people the right or ability to self-assert identity in an easily (or systemically) recognizable way - when their SNS depended on it. When we see default-whiteness in person we recognize it as a form of discrimination: normalizing ways of being that are ascribed (not achieved) statuses as being superior or, at very minimum normal, expected and acceptable in this case is bad! Classic examples include band-aids being only available in certain skin tones or peach(ish) colored crayons being labeled 'flesh' color. Facebook should look to support expression of identities of all kinds, certainly ones that are recognized by giant 'non-white' (this reductive dichotomy/phrase also stinks) portions of our population.

So, what if they did add a box these days? Well, few people would notice who were already users, unless the alteration were made known to them. Otherwise probably just those setting up a new account or updating their demographic information might fill it in. A lot of people would probably put in something about their ancestry or country (or countries) of origin. Some people might fill in race, but honestly I bet a lot wouldn't want to. Some might think, "Isn't it obvious what I am?" or others might not want to be identified as the one (token?) ___ person in whatever context they operate in. It would be most employed, likely, by those who wanted to associate pride with that identity.

While it could start some good conversation on the social construction of race, I think it might run the risk or distracting us from some of the bigger power balance questions beneath. Running back to my original assertion: yes, it sucks that the FB engineers didn't give people a race/ethnicity/nationality category. But doesn't it suck more that none of them thought to do that because they initially were probably all white men? Doesn't it suck more that these colleges they were designing their SNS tool for had larger portions of white people? In other words I think some of the power and access issues operating behind all of this are the better items to interrogate - both now and then.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Questions for Collide Magazine

I was invited to give a response for Collide Magazine at Azusa Pacific University in California. Something of an update, I spose-
  • What does digital identity really mean and how does it play a role in our current culture?

I think this one is pretty hard to answer. We've struggled to explain what identity constitutes and means without consideration of the internet - I think it's potentially just as complicated there too. In short I'd say digital identity is constructed, but by a different set of forces than identity in a general regard. Rather than blab about it here, I've copied an old draft of my unpublished masters paper here, check pages 22-49 for a comprehensive answer.

  • How do we positively/negatively use digital identity? What are the dangers?

When identity becomes commodified and sold, codified and transferable and otherwise structured by the architecture of an interface I worry. In other words - we sell identity data to advertisers (or worse, in China it's used to oppress people), we force categorical imperatives on something innately dynamic and subjective, and the structure of systems can promote corrosive hegemonic norms (see my discussion on the missing box here - - there is no category for race/ethnicity/nationality on Facebook and this is a problem!).

That said I think the internet can be a place where new identities can be explored in a positive fashion. A person who identifies as gay may not be able to do so openly to their family, but could admit their sexuality openly to friends or communities on the internet, and this could be quite empowering. It used to be that the internet was a place of anonymous deindividuated people (who were actually mostly of a particular class/education/race) but now I think digital identity is regularly tied to offline identity and the internet is full of more kinds of people; Facebook was the beginning of this wave. With Facebook other people would tag pictures of you and talk to you and this data would help to construct who you were as much as your presentation of information, not unlike face-to-face life. There are exceptions to this, of course, like in fantasy videogames and comments on YouTube videos, but it is the shift.

  • How has digital identity changed over the history of Facebook/your experience? Where do you see it headed?
I think it's certainly changed a lot since I studied the network. Remember I started out with it at a time when researchers, the news media and parents didn't know what it was and didn't take it seriously (2006). At the time it was the domain of college students and college student wannabes. Now I think it's become a much more international network and has been integrated into the lives of people of many ages, educations and backgrounds. I would say that the social norms of the network have become much more diverse, and with them we've seen shifts in the performance of identity.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Questions from a High Schooler

Why did you start writing articles about social networking sites for New York Times?

To the best of my knowledge, I never have. Where did you hear this? I am a PhD student and researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for the extent of my work towards a masters in Sociology I worked on the Facebook Project. I wrote several papers on racism, sexism, identity, privacy, and social interactions on Facebook at the time it was just coming out, around 2006-8.

What are your personal opinions about Facebook?

This is a very broad question. Facebook, in many ways, is a reflection of normal human social life, with some quirks and twists. On the whole I think it has been quite transformative, and has bettered many people's lives. I'm curious to see where the company's policies go in the future, in many ways they've been more progressive. As the site reaches ubiquity (it has in many contexts already) I do wonder if it will start to seem a little banal, if not mundane. Personally I like it well enough to use it consistenty, though lately with the intensification of my dissertation process I've been spending less time there.

Do you think Facebook is a positive or negative contribution to teens today?

Generally most social scientists would answer this question by saying 'potentially both.' I think the more interesting question would be to give examples of positive and negative impacts on the lives of teens and adults alike. I think Facebook could act as facilitator for what Henry Jenkins (2006) calls participatory culture and it does give teens another medium or public to be with friends. The general trend with ICT adoption suggests that eventually the savvy users of internet social media will grow up and become parents themselves, and places like Facebook may cease to be third spaces (outside of school and home) hidden from parents. The internet does pose a lot of risks - with nearly unlimited access to information and little filtering of content comes great power and responsibility, it's hard to teach teens, who are often quite conflicted over their sense of identity and agency in the world, how to deal with this power appropriately. I wouldn't advocate limiting their access to Facebook, but instead suggest that educators and parents learn about what it means to them, and educate them about the kinds of things they ought to be concerned about. Even still, threats like cyberbullying, deindividuation, inadvertent archival/exposure of personal information are quite real. I just don't think the answer is to respond with fear, but to respond with a desire to understand.

How has the increase of Facebook use affected cyber bullying?

This depends on your context. I assume you're talking about American teens, and in this case I just think it provides another context where teens might pick on one another. Facebook has really done a lot to help people deposit aspects of their identity online, and so the stakes for embarrassment and reputation are probably higher, but it's also about what danah boyd calls the invisible audience: you may never know who's looking at your profile, and so you instead anticipate. Conversely people can surf around largely undetected, and my interviews with college students indicated that almost everyone snoops more than they're willing to admit to the general public. As a result of this lack of identity or accountability people might sometimes act in ways they wouldn't ordinarily. This could be good or bad, like a gay person feeling able to come out of the closet online (reconstruction of identity, good) or a person making mean comments anonymously on YouTube videos (the effects of deindividuation, bad).

How can we fix problems Facebook has caused?

I think this depends on the problem. I've given something of an answer to the question of how to shape teen use of Facebook for the better above: education and perspective-sharing. This begins mostly with good digital literacy education, which is something our public school system lacks, for the most part. In fact this is part of the topic of my dissertation.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Filling in the Missing Box

Reposted from a Facebook note/discussion

A while back I wrote a paper on representation of social identity on Facebook. I made the claim that while the SNS give users the ability to assert their gender, education, age, sexuality and a number of other aspects of who they are the website explicitly lacks any kind of category box for race, ethnicity or nationality. What happens when these items are missing is what I think is an example of colorblind racism: it is assumed these identities don’t matter to people, and we are left with only their pictures and the ‘about me’ section to make judgments about their affiliation. In effect we take away some of their ability to assert who they are and give it to others. A person from Jamaica doesn’t say who they are, instead someone sees their picture (because we all know these are what most people examine first) and just implicitly labels them ‘black’ without any opportunity to engage with their real heritage or assemblage of racial, ethnic and national identity. The same kind of thing happens to people of Latin@ or mixed-ethnic decent, who just become ‘brown’ as well as anyone with an Asian heritage (who are often assumed to be fundamentally ‘foreign’ in America). My significant is a superb example, as many people see her and assume she’s Korean or Chinese, and don’t realize she’s from Kazakhstan (and not at all unusual in her appearance given her origins) and has little in common with people from these cultures (that people often assume). She takes the option of belonging to central Asian groups on Facebook to show, in part, who she is, and the importance of this aspect of her identity. That and the Cyrillic writing all over her wall.

So given this problem, I suggested Facebook add a category up top for these kinds of things, labeled, literally, “Race/ethnicity/nationality,” followed by a blank box where they could say whatever they liked, probably with a reasonable character limit for system and data management needs (shall we say Twitter’s favorite 140 characters?). What I never explored in this paper back in 2008, though, is what would happen if Facebook added this category. Three important outcomes come to mind:

1) At the onset I think there would be a lot of talk about the issue, which I like. People would revisit conversations on the ways these social identities shape us and tell us who we are and there would be a lot of rediscovery or negotiation of group membership, which I like. I think this kind of mass-discussion (several million strong) would be powerful, and on the whole, positive.

2) I’m really interested to see how people would end up using the box. Would they conform to institutionally-driven affiliations like the census categories? Would they invent new ones, or would all of the white people (in the US) just side-step it and write ‘American.’ Might people just use it as a vessel to present their family heritage? How would it look in different countries or among different generations, and would most people just avoid it? Would (or should) Facebook need to highlight that it has been added? What would this all look like?

3) This kind of thing could be measured with computational techniques. Facebook blocks crawler research robots, but still the possibility is there. Studies on Facebook, real social networks and race aren’t actually all that new (see Mayer and Puller 2007), but this would introduce a whole new level of opportunity. Beyond this I think we could find countable evidence of identity movements and cultural affiliations, and track them as they emerge and transform!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Personality types and social media

My name is [something] and I am currently writing my masters thesis on the differences in personality of Facebook users and Twitter users to see if they show different characteristics. This research will hopefully be of great interest to businesses, as well as individuals, as it will highlight what type of people use different web services. I would greatly appreciate it if you could publicize my research.I appreciate that you may get many these requests but it would be a great help to me and I believe it will also be an interesting study. If you agree, I can forward the survey link to you.

...I think you may have mistaken my website for a publishing authority! It's just a collection of material from a few researchers, which at this point is somewhat outdated. Regardless I'd be happy to post a link to your survey or put up a copy of your paper online for you to share. I might also be able to provide a little feedback on your research methods - accessing and deciphering something like personality through surveys is often difficult, respondents may have varying self-perceptions and understandings of what it means to be 'introverted' or 'narcissistic.' I do think you could find some commonalities between user groups, however, often people pick communication tools and expression mediums that they feel fit their behaviors and personalities, peer groups and stage in life.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Facebook and young parents, a how to build a conceptual framework

The idea for my research project to look at young parents (those aged 18-25) use of Facebook.

My reasoning for choosing this specific group is simply through the observation of the field of SNS research concentrating mainly on student groups - and I think non-students may have a very different experience of using SNS for socialising and support - especially young parents who I've seen posting status update after status update about their children! I've tried to look for other research about young parents social support and there doesn't seem to be much focus on young parents social support, especially online social support. Consequently I think there may be an under researched area here.

I'd like to do an exploratory qualitative study, but at the moment I'm struggling to see how I can formulate research questions, so if you have any idea of open questions regarding Facebook as a social function or Facebook as a support function that'd be great.

Offhand I can think of people doing research on use of the internet and online communities for health information and social support, mostly with an emphasis on social capital. An example sequence of readings could go like this:

• Strauss, A. L., Fagerhaugh, S., Suczek, B., & Wiener, C. (1997). Social organization of medical work. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. (Originally published in 1985 by University of Chicago Press.) Chapter 8: The Work of Patients (pp. 191-209). (Negotiation of patients and medical personnel with technology; cooperative work; legitimate peripheral participation; power relationships)

• Pettigrew, K. E. (2000). Lay information provision in community settings: How community health nurses disseminate human services information to the elderly. Library Quarterly, 70(1), 47-85. (Information ecology; social networks; information flow)

• Orgad, S. (2005). The transformative potential of online communication: The case of breast cancer patients’ Internet spaces. Feminist Media Studies, 5(2), 141-161. (Online communities; social capital; invisibility; power)

Now I know you’re not necessarily interested in health, but it’s the same kind of idea – find an older and broad set of ideas or theories (social inclusion, strength of ties, what it means to be a parent, communities of practice or maybe imagined communities, etc…) and then maybe connect them to a discipline or area of study (information science, communication, education, psychology) and build up to a specific example or site of research (Facebook, for instance).

As for the differences in FB use by cultural group I’d say there’s a great deal of work to be done – most SNS research has been on privacy and youth, and as the major immersive college student user base moves on to the work and young adult world (what you’re experiencing) and the system broadens its scope to new countries and late adopters join (parents, middle-aged women in particular) we’re likely to see a complicating of context and diversifcation of social norms – and an even more pressing need for study.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

...I am a sophomore attending [omit] High School in [omit], New York. This year in school, I was chosen to participate in an elite program called Advanced Science Research. In this program, students begin to find a topic of interest and take part in meaningful research. I am extremely interested in learning about the effects of social networking on children and teenagers. I would love to become a published scientist prior to high school graduation. In addition, I hope to enter numerous science competitions such as the Intel Science Talent Search.

While studying and looking over literature, I discovered that you work in the field of social networking and are involved in research regarding Facebook and was intrigued by your research. I was wondering if we could meet to discuss your current projects and discuss the possibility of you being my mentor over the next three years. I understand since you live so far away this will be hard, but if we could possibly coordinate something where I can assist in research over the computer. If you are not available, could you please send me any literature that you think would help me as I begin my scientific journey or can you recommend another scientist that could possibly be my mentor. I know that you must get loads of messages in a day so thank you for your time.

I’m impressed that you’re taking on such ambitious projects at such an early stage in school! The topic you’ve chosen is very broad, so you might want to be careful and focus it a little bit, studying the impacts of social networking websites on youth has many potential dimensions ranging from communication to the making of meaning to influence on social relationships and so much more. You might think about one aspect of Facebook that interests you (ideas: how it’s spreading about in different countries around the world, the way it influences how people get to know one another, its differences and similarities with other ‘traditional’ forms of communication technologies, the way the interface has changed over the years and what this has accomplished, etc…) and then investigate that particular topic. The most commonly addressed topics seem to be those dealing with privacy and identity as well as business growth and valuation, I think you might find it more interesting to explore something less well-known. I’m not sure that I can help you publish anything formally but would be happy to host your work on the project site.

These days I’m not actually specifically researching Facebook, most of that research was done as part of my masters work in sociology a couple of years ago. I’ve left the project website up as a resource to help young and aspiring researchers like yourself. I’d be happy to help provide some support and feedback, but you should be aware I’m just a PhD student and am far from being an accomplished expert in the field. I’m not sure what mentorship involves but if you think it can be covered by occasional emails I might be willing to sign on. Alternatively you might have some luck contacting Jenny Ryan ( As for literature give me a little bit of a more refined version of your topic and I’ll help to pass you appropriate readings. For now you might think about some of these:

boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11.

and maybe work by Tufekci:

Good luck and let me know if you refine your topic a bit!