Is Facebook a Gated Community?: An Interview With S. Craig Watkins (Part Two)

Today, I am sharing the second part of my interview with sociologist S. Craig Watkins about his recently released book The Young & The Digital.

From the moment I read his manuscript, I knew that his chapter, “Digital Gates: How Race and Class Distinctions Are Shaping the Digital World” would be the one which generated a lot of the heat and the controversy here. Those of us who see the web as key to our vision of a more participatory culture have to be concerned with the obstacles which block many from full involvement. And those of us who celebrate the “virtual community” being achieved through digital media need to be especially concerned with the various forms of exclusion running through our online lives. Indeed, one could argue that for many, going digital involves a kind of “white flight” as they escape the “dangers” of their real world communities by seeking out other like-minded people in cyberspace. Watkins joins a growing number of writers who are asking in what ways our social networks online replicate — for better and for worse — our friendship networks offline, networks we know are shaped by continued segregation.

I was struck by a chart Watkins offers showing the language people use to describe and distinguish between Facebook and MySpace, language with long historical associations to our assumptions about race and class in the American context.

MySpace is described as “crowded, trashy, creepy, uneducated, immature, predators, crazy” while Facebook was praised as “selective, clean, trustworthy, educated, authentic, college, private.” In other words, MySpace takes on values we associate with inner city slums, while Facebook is tied to the values one might associate with a gated community.

In this installment, I ask Watkins to reflect on these findings and how they might add another layer to our understanding of race in America; I also ask him to discuss the relationship between this new project on youth’s digital lives and his earlier work on hip hop culture.

What challenges are educators facing as they try to teach the generation which has come of age in the era of web 2.0?

This is a fascinating question and, I believe, one of many that we are just beginning to reckon with as educators, researchers, and society. Part of my research included spending some time in the classroom and talking with teachers and school administrators.

What I soon discovered is that they are on the front lines of the move to digital. Teachers face a generation of students armed with more personal media than any other generation. Most teachers will tell you that the trend of permitting students to bring mobile phones, iPods, and other devices to school is a big mistake. Just think. The idea that I would have been permitted to bring a personal media device to school would have been out of the question. But it reveals how our values, behavior, and culture are shifting in the digital age.

The main concern among teachers is the degree of distraction these devices encourage in the classroom. It turns out that parents insist that their children carry mobile phones–easier to communicate and coordinate family schedules that are growing more challenging.

In The Young and the Digital I deal with some of the learning and educational challenges/opportunities posed by digital media. There are two kinds of technologies in today’s classroom– technologies that pull students away from the classroom, and technologies that pull students into the classroom. I give some examples of both.

But I am also interested in the social and behavioral challenges educators face in regards to technology. These include issues like citizenship, community, and helping students and educators make smart decisions regarding their engagement with digital media.

Most schools are being forced to deal with student conflicts that occur online and away from school. More and more, administrators are having to contend with issues like cyberbullying or the circulation of photos that reveal some sort of misconduct. These kinds of issues raise questions about privacy and authority (i.e., when is a student’s behavior away from school an administrator’s concern?) Their are no rule books or precedence for what is happening in the digital world and online lives students build.

I was surprised to learn that many principals are struggling not only with the online behaviors of students but of teachers also. A growing number of teachers and practically all recent college grads going into the profession maintain a personal profile. As you can imagine this raises many questions about the conduct of teachers away from school. Some teachers “friend” their students in places like MySpace and Facebook while others vehemently reject the idea. Like the rest of society schools and the people who run them are learning what it means to “be digital.”

Building on work by danah boyd and others, you argue that Facebook has operated not unlike a “gated community” and may directly contribute to racial and class segregation in the online world. How can scholarship on race in the physical world help us to better understand how race operates in the virtual world? What steps should be taken to combat segregation in the online world?

It is easy to get caught up in the wonders of what scholars have variously referred to as “being digital,” ‘life behind the screen,” or the “second self”. But as the Web has become a more common experience it has also become a more local experience. That is, we use the World Wide Web to communicate most frequently with our friends, work colleagues, and acquaintances–that is, people we know, like, and trust. To use Putnam’s language regarding social capital we use the Web to “bond” more than “bridge.” This is certainly true with race.

When danah distributed her blog commentary about the class divisions in MySpace and Facebook, it struck me as a reasonable even predictable outcome, especially if you understand that what happens in our lives online is intimately connected to our lives offline. Some Web enthusiasts, however, were either surprised or annoyed by her claims.

But as your work and that of others show there is still a real “participation divide” that creates varying degrees of Internet engagement. No matter if we are talking about virtual worlds, mobile technologies, or social network sites race matters in the digital world. Most of the movers and shakers in the branding and marketing of the current generation Web show little, if any, interest in the social divisions that still mark the digital world. Mentioning the social divisions that are a part of the social Web is a kind of inconvenient truth. We learned a lot while studying young collegians embrace of Facebook. In reality, most of us use Facebook to connect to people that we know–we “friend” friends not strangers in our computer-mediated social networks. And who our friends are is usually influenced by race, class, education, and geography.

In examining the hundreds of surveys and one-on-one interviews we collected my grad assistant and I noticed a strong preference for Facebook among young white collegians and students more generally with a middle class orientation. It was more than a casual preference; it was also an intense rejection of MySpace. Our research found an interesting “racialization” of MySpace and Facebook among young people.

I began reading some of the research on the rise of gated communities in America and found some interesting parallels in the language used by residents living in physical world gated communities and young white collegians who preferred Facebook (a kind of virtual gated community) over MySpace. They both use words like “safe,” “clean,” “private,” and “neat” to describe attachment to their communities. They both practice what cultural anthropologists call “gating,” that is, the tendency to build physical/virtual, social, and cultural walls that are exclusive.

I also turned to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work. I’ve used his work before to think about the kinds of cultural capital that young people accumulate, especially in the places that they create and inhabit, and how it works as a source of power, pleasure, and mobility. But in this case I was interested in what Bourdieu refers to as the “distinctions”, that is, matters of taste, aesthetics, and values that middle class communities reproduce to maintain social and even physical separation between them and those that they view as below their own social status and class position.

When we began our work it was common to see college students switch from MySpace to Facebook. Among other things, the switch was also a bid for a social status upgrade, a move up the digital ladder. Today, middle class students in middle and high school are moving straight to Facebook. Social class distinctions like everything else in the digital age are trickling down to younger and younger users.

I was also intrigued by Bill Bishop’s “Big Sort” argument. In short, Bishop argues that starting around the 1970s Americans underwent a massive social experiment that changed one of the most basic features of everyday life–where and with whom we live. The change in geography, Bishop maintains, is really a sorting by lifestyle. Racial and class segregation have been a fact of American life since the early 20th century (see Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s work on residential segregation). But Bishop argues that American neighborhoods are now being stratified along ideological and lifestyle lines–not simply “red” and “blue” states but even more carefully sorted and homogenous neighborhoods. There are some interesting parallels in the digital world.

I’m a trained sociologists so I find it quite natural and instructive to look at wider sociological trends to understand what is happening in the online world. I simply can not separate the two.

Finally, social network sites do not cause racial divisions or the desire for homogenous online communities. Insofar as what we do online is intimately connected to the lives we lead offline the fact that a kind of digital sorting is happening is not that terribly surprising. Still, it is striking that among a generation that played a key role in electing America’s first Black president race plays a crucial role in their use of social network sites and who they bond with online.

Tell us about the group you call “Four Pack.” What did they help you to understand about the social dimensions of gaming?

The four pack is a group of young gamers I got to know quite well while working on the book. I first met Derrick. I interviewed him about his use of social network sites. During our conversation it was clear that most of his media time is spent playing games. I asked Derrick to identify a handful of his peers to join a panel of gamers I wanted to put together. The idea was to get to know them and follow them for a period of time to learn more about their experiences with games. Several young men in Derrick’s peer group responded to my inquiry and I eventually settled on four of them.

I affectionately began calling the group the “four-pack.” I visited them in their residential hall and established a rapport with them that lasted about six months. The four-pack provided me with what amounts to a life-history of their engagement with interactive media. Every two weeks I issued them questions via email to address in the media journals that they agreed to keep. One week the diaries, for example, may have been devoted to games, and the next week, to television. The diaries were honest, rich in detail, and provided intimate access to a group of young men who embody the rising generation of gamers. Each of the diary entries were followed up with one-on-one conversations.

I learned a lot from the four-pack–their thoughts about addiction, virtual worlds, and the appeal of games. I witnessed up close what many game scholars and industry insiders refer to as “social gaming.”

Gaming among the four-pack and their peers was mainly a social experience. Rarely, if ever, did they play games alone. Often games were a way to have fun and also spend time with friends. In their own unique way, each member of the four-pack talked a lot about games as both a social lubricant and a social glue. The former refers to how games can make it easier to strike up conversations with new acquaintances, while the latter is a reference to how games give established friends a fun way to grow closer to each other. Games, it turns out, are the common denominator in their strongest and most meaningful social ties.

Some of your earlier work dealt with hip hop culture. What similarities and differences do you see between the technological and social practices of the hip hop culture and that you’ve found in your work on digital youth culture?

I’ve spent all of my academic career studying young people’s relationship to media industries and technologies. The work I’m doing on digital youth culture is greatly informed by my earlier work on hip hop culture.

As you know their has been a substantial change in the way scholars examine the cultural practices and identities young people produce. Hip hop, like digital culture, is participatory and performative. Hip hop, like the social media practices of youth today, has always been about young people expressing themselves, building community, while also finding places of leisure, pleasure, and empowerment.

In my last book, Hip Hop Matters, I wrote a chapter titled “The Digital Underground.” It was really an attempt to understand how the Web has become the new town square in hip hop culture–the place to find relevant and urgent dialogue about a host of issues facing young hip hoppers. To engage a community of young hip hop enthusiasts about a host of important social issues today you don’t turn on corporate radio or read a corporate run magazine. You go online.

The innovative use of technology has been a part of hip hop’s story from the beginning. That’s how everything from graffiti art to mix tapes has been produced bearing a striking resemblance to the DIY culture of social media today.

My work has maintained a steady focus on understanding the world young people create and inhabit. It’s clear that if you want to understand that world today you have to dig deep into the digital practices, identities, and communities young people are building. Writing The Young and the Digital gave me an up-close look at this world. The book and the blog we will be building is an effort to share what we are learning.

S. Craig Watkins teaches in the departments of Radio-Television-Film and Sociology and the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

His new book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future (Beacon) explores young people’s dynamic engagement with social media, online games, and mobile phones. Craig participated in the MacArthur Foundation Series on Youth, Digital Media and Learning. His work on this ground breaking project focuses on race, learning, and the growing culture of gaming. He has been invited to be a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford).

Currently, Craig is launching a new digital media research initiative that focuses on the use and evolution of social media platforms. For updates on these and other projects visit theyoungandthedigital.com.

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