Presider: Jessie Daniels

The panel I organized for the Theorizing the Web conference was called, “Cyber Racism, Race & Social Media.”  A key theme of all the papers in this session was that race, racism and caste, are enduring features of media across geographic and temporal boundaries, and across cultures.

In the late 1990s, a popular television commercial advertisement captured the zeitgeist of thinking about the web at that time.

This notion that the Internet is a place where “there is no race,” is also one that’s permeated Internet studies.  Early on scholars theorized that the emergence of virtual environments and a culture of fantasy would mean an escape the boundaries of race and the experience of racism.  A few imagined a rise in identity tourism, that is, people using the playful possibilities of gaming to visit different racial and gender identities online (Nakamura, 2002; Turkle, 1997).

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For example, Henry Jenkins in a 2002 piece for Technology Review, published by MIT,  suggested that:

Like many white liberals, I had viewed the absence of explicit racial markers in cyberspace with some optimism-seeing the emerging “virtual communities” as perhaps our best hope ever of achieving a truly color-blind society.

More recently, scholars such as Mark Hansen (Bodies in Code, 2006, 141) have basically agreed with the notion that race is disappears online when he writes:

the suspension of the social category of visibility in online environments transforms the experience of race in what is, potentially a fundamental way:  by suspending the automatic ascription of racial signifiers according to visible traits, online environments can, in a certain sense, be said to subject everyone to what I shall call a ‘zero degree’ of racial difference.

Yet, the reality that has emerged is quite different.  These “social categories of visibility,” to use Hansen’s phrase, persist online in ways that are both new and unique to the Internet, alongside vestiges of centuries-old forms that reverberate significantly both offline and on. As we mark fifteen years into the field of Internet studies, we have to revisit these old notions and see what’s actually happening on the web and the multiple, contradictory ways that social categories of race, caste and racism play out.   The papers presented at this panel are an excellent first step in re-thinking our received notions about race, racism and the Internet.

Stephanie Greenlea, “Blogging for Justice: Black Technophilia and the Vitality of Black Activism in the Jena Six Case”

Responding to the criminal prosecution of Louisiana teenagers dubbed the “Jena Six” during 2007, black bloggers provoked the Chicago Tribune to announce the inception of a fundamentally “new civil rights wave.”  To a broader American public engulfed in colorblind discourses these protests were unexpected in their size, their geographic reach, and their messaging.  But to an emergent network of racial justice activists, black Internet users, and everyday folk, the events in Jena occasioned a timely, large-scale mobilization on long-standing injustices.  This essay examines the significance and use of new communications tools to this activism by privileging black technophilia and racialized politics of network formation online. Black bloggers who responded to the Jena Six possessed a progressive imaginary of the racial future inextricable from their technological affinities.  This embrace of technology led them to form new networks through the Internet and put blogging to innovative collective use in advancing an agenda to “Free the Jena Six.”  At the same time, extant properties of network formation and racialized assumptions of black (dis)ingenuity conditioned the character of the resultant protest such that it emerged without the participation of the predominately white progressive blogosphere.

Jillet Sam, “Caste Endogamy on the Internet: Spatial Considerations”

Initial expectations from the Internet were often articulated in terms of an opportunity to transcend physical space as well as the body as a site of identity based limitations. This paper problematizes such articulations through an examination of one of the manifestations of caste on the Internet – matrimonial websites based on caste endogamy. The implications for both caste as a form of stratification; as well as the Internet as a spatial realm are considered.

Systems of stratification are often articulated in terms of a struggle over physical social space. Caste as a system of stratification has had a distinct spatial element – the significance of local ties and geographic limits were a defining feature of caste (as jati). Further, the creation of physical (and bodily) distance among different castes has also been an important aspect of the system.  Consequently the “solution” offered by scholars of caste was also expressed in spatial terms – urbanization and the accompanying anonymity were expected to end the caste system.

However, this paper demonstrates that even in a space replete with the potential for anonymity such as the Internet, caste identities are asserted, articulated and negotiated. Particularly, within the framework of the matrimonial websites, it becomes possible to create exclusive spatial enclaves, wherein interaction is limited to people of the same caste. Is it correct to state then, that caste has been ‘disembedded’ from its local links? Interview data indicates that local (and physical) links are still drawn upon in the process of online matrimonial searches, as far as caste endogamy is concerned.

This analysis also challenges the construction of the Internet as a distinct spatial sphere which is separate from physical space. Rather, the data points to the intertwined nature of the physical and the digital worlds. Further, the analysis also highlights that in constructing the Internet as a social space, particularly outside the West, it is important to not limit participation to individual users, but to also take into account familial participation.

Daniel Greene, “Among ‘Friends': Comparing Social Networking Functions in the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Afro-American in 1904 and 1933”

This study explores how two newspaper-reading communities in Baltimore used their respective newspapers, the Sun and the Afro-American, as social networking technologies in two different historical periods: the month immediately following Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904, and the height of the African-American ‘Buy Where You Can Work’ protest campaign in 1933. I focus on the more “bottom-up” sections of these newspapers (e.g., advertisements, obituaries, and letters to the editor) to investigate how readers articulated, navigated, and strengthened social connections and public profiles in pre-Internet media.  This technological and cultural history compares the social networking functions of these newspapers to those of contemporary social network sites like Facebook in order to better inform current debates on the needs these technologies fulfill, the roles they play in the representation and negotiation of identity, and the ways they reflect or inflect power relations.  Media have always, to varying degrees, been social phenomena. Therefore, careful historical study of the appearance and transformation of social connections in different media and different communities, situated in different relations of power, can give insight into the role modern social media play in supporting or suppressing social action, facilitating self-representation outside traditional media channels, and connecting majority and minority groups to political and economic resources.

Striking differences emerge in the social networking functions of the Sun and Afro. Much as they are today, obituaries in both papers are a place to recognize connection to religious and community institutions, as well as secret societies, but no overlap exists between the papers. Where mainstream 1900s papers like the Sun used their letters to the editor section as a forum for the investigation and articulation of links to colonial and aristocratic ancestry, a notable silence exists in the minority press; but by the Great Depression, the Afro replaced this silence with a message board for political advocacy and statements of solidarity with community members and community causes. Advertising similarly serves as a reminder that the representation of a social network in any period is based in material connection to powerful economic and political institutions. Beyond a better historical grounding of ‘new’ media studies, this study draws several preliminary theoretical conclusions:

  • Drawing on Marshall McLuhan and Jonathan Zittrain, older media like newspapers are likely colder or more generative than we may have assumed and, given the imposition of interface and platform into user expression, social network sites may be hotter or less generative than some evangelists would have us believe
  • Racial formation theorists like Omi and Winant usually locate African-Americans’ rearticulation of shared racial subjectivity within Southern religious and political groups in the 50s and 60s. This was likely happening earlier and, importantly, within media forms consciously opposing the hegemonic norm
  • Drawing on Foucauldian power relations and N. Katherine Hayle’s critique of informatics, its clear that social network sites are not pure engines of democracy—material power relations remain immanent to social media and anyone saying otherwise has an agenda in that denial.
  • The real Web 2.0 shift in social media appears not to have been making media social—they always were—but allowing for mass individuation and the persistence of public, visual, and textual profiles across space and time

Jessie Daniels, “Theorizing Race & Racism in Internet Studies”

In this paper, I provide an analysis of the literature on race and racism in Internet studies in the broad areas of 1) race and the structure of the Internet, 2) race and racism matters in what we do online, and 3) race, social control and Internet law.  I argue that a key concept which connects through these three domains is power.   I go on to offer a critique of Omi & Winant “racial formation theory,” and its use in studies of race and the Internet.   The over reliance on and facile reading of racial formation theory, creates an overemphasis on “identity” and ignores the important ways that power and racism operate online.  Drawing on a range of theoretical perspectives including Hall’s spectacle of the Other and DuBois’s view of white culture, I conclude by arguing for the need for a critical understanding of whiteness in Internet studies.

This post was originally published March 2, 2011 by Racism Review and is reproduced with permission. This work is part or an ongoing series by Jessie Daniels on race and social media.

(CC photo credit: ERNESTO LAGO)

I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet.    The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230).    According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month.  Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month.  These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites.    But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?


(Source: Complete Pulse, 02/09/09)


White Flight? Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook.  Researcher danah boyd’s  ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace.  There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research.    This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).   From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97).  Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).  Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).

There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).

Race, Identity & Community.  The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines.  In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is   Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).

African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community.  For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.  In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos.   Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.

Here again, like with, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity.   In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).   Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).

Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall.  They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identification with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the profiles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identification or racial themes, reflecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’

Racism & Social Networking Sites. Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community.  These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears.   Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes.  Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond.  They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness.  Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.   White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers.  Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).

Future Research. There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS.   One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter.  Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.   Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems.   To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.

For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.