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!

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