The Common Good

Self-Segregation In Social Networks

Every day across America we see self-segregation in lunchrooms, in classrooms, and in church pews on Sunday morning. But how about online?

Recently I began looking around the online spaces I frequent, Twitter and Facebook. I wondered if people, particularly those who were just online for social reasons, mix and mingle any differently than they do face-to-face. To find out I did what any respecting social media junkie would do: I tweeted it. That is, I sent a Twitter.com microblog post polling my followers. And thanks to the Twitter/Facebook link app (aka "application"), all my Facebook friends got the same poll question: Has social media changed U? Do U now connect w/ a broader range of people? How? Offline too?

My new Twitter follower Bill Snyder responded quickly. "My friends certainly span a wide age range. Not totally sure I can attribute that to social media." Bill, a fellow writer, whose blog is called A Life Beyond Traditional Media, added: "By default, I am more likely to meet people similar in age and skin color [offline]. Digitally speaking, though, it's a different game. Through social blogging and Twitter, I put out ideas and read other people's ideas. I find myself engaging in an exchange of thoughts and feelings before exchanging knowledge of skin color, gender, or age."

Ramiro Medrano, a Facebook friend, indicated that social media had not changed him at all, having been raised in an ethnically diverse environment. Ramiro says, "I have added economically diverse friends to the list, which would apply [on and offline]."

It's not surprising that the trend in our online relationships would follow that of our offline connections. Yet the Internet's power to transcend the old boundaries of geography, race, and class also gives us the opportunity to encounter people, for better or worse, whom we formerly would never have had the chance to know otherwise.

Social networks are changing the way we receive our news and how we think about faith, politics, and a myriad of issues. The first amazing images of the "Miracle on the Hudson" plane crash last January were from a private citizen's cell phone photos posted to his Twitter page. And much of the current protest raging in Iran over the dubious re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is notably taking place through the Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter dispatches of young Iranians.

Social networks also have become the new marketplace, particularly for startups and entrepreneurs. So, consequently, seeing a patchwork of multi-colored faces smiling back at you on a Twitter profile doesn't necessarily say that racism is dead or that we've made great strides in racial reconciliation. It could also be confirming that money is green, no matter if it rests in a black hand or a white hand.

While many social media are used to bringing people together around socially positive or neutral themes, sadly many pockets of the Internet thrive on hatred and bigotry. Racism does live in the digital world.

Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.com can attest to that. This spring, Latoya led a panel discussion entitled "Can Social Media End Racism" at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, an annual cutting-edge media conference/festival. Ms. Peterson pointed out that she sees online racism every day on her blog in the comment box. Whether its on blogs, social networks, or news and opinion sites, comment areas are typically filled with racial slurs and off-color sexual references to people of color. Just look at the recent comment by Republican activist Rusty DePass. On his Facebook page, DePass apparently suggested that First Lady Michelle Obama is a gorilla.

The four-person SXSW panel, consisting of Latoya Peterson, Phil Yu (AngryAsianMan.com), Jay Smooth (IllDoctrine.com), and Kety Esquivel (CrossLeft.org), came up with three constructive ways to address the pervasive problem of digital racism.

They proposed that we resolve to use social media to:

1. Spread knowledge about racism through podcasting and videos.

2. Create refuge or sanctuary for those who are striving to defeat racism.

3. Mobilize for social justice and anti-racism grassroots efforts like those surrounding the Jena 6.

Some of the conversation around the SXSW event was held on Twitter, which according to Pew Research studies, tends to have a younger, more racially-diverse crowd. One Twitter attendant observed, "There's no 'end racism' app or we would've pushed that button a long time ago."

If I just do a click-through of social media profiles, it's easy to see the racial mixing and matching, the crossing over to the other side of the proverbial tracks. But I know racism (and classism) still exists. In fact, the anonymity and exclusivity of some networks can foster racist behavior. Statistics from Websense Security Labs confirm this. According to a recent Websense report, racist content has shown a marked increase on Facebook and YouTube during the first quarter of 2009. It's human nature to hide our faces when we lash out in hate.

All things considered, I find it encouraging to see open dialogue about racism, taking the online world offline. Making the social media world really social. I particularly like it when it happens in Christian circles. For the faithful, being in a social network presents an excellent opportunity to come against the darkness of overt and covert racism. It's a chance to create a new social climate, one that is inclusive, sensitive, honest, and interdependent.

Those of us who are Christ followers and social media junkies need to reach out across the digital boundaries that divide us with intentionality and fervor. Go looking for those in your niche that don't look like you. Connect with those individuals and strive to interact with them regularly on a substantive level. As they follow our tweets and status updates, hopefully our online (and offline) behavior will reveal that we are following Christ.

portrait-linda-leigh-hargroveLinda Leigh Hargrove is the author of two novels from Moody Publishers, The Making of Isaac Hunt and Loving Cee Cee Johnson. A former environmental engineer, she currently resides in North Carolina with her husband and three sons. Visit her online at LLHargrove.com. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com

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