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).
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.
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.
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.