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.