I’ve written quite a bit in my professional life (outside of JJP) about the closing digital divide, including a recent guest blog spot on Fast Company. I regularly ask folks to question their bias and assumptions about how African-Americans are using the internet these days. The fact is that African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics tend to use advanced internet services at much higher rates than whites. For example, a Pew Internet report recently showed

…nearly half of all African-Americans and English-speaking Hispanics (the study did not include a Spanish-language option) were using mobile phones or other hand-held devices to surf the Web and send e-mail messages. By comparison, just 28 percent of white Americans reported ever going online using a mobile device.

This has had a direct impact on the changing power structure in America. Another Pew Internet study in June 2008 on the Internet and the election showed that, when you look at the percentage of all adults (Internet users and non-users) who look online for news and information about politics or the campaigns, Latinos (43%) actually exceed whites and blacks (even at 40%), with all groups experiencing big jumps in only 4 years. On the national stage, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign took advantage of the new online playing field to mobilize a multi-racial, multi-platform and very plugged-in group of supporters who went on to motivate one of the largest voter turnouts in history.

But — not so fast. Y’all had to know it wouldn’t be that simple, right? Dig…From Latoya Peterson at theGrio.com:

Is there really a racial divide on the Internet? Much of Danah Boyd’s research explores that dynamic. Since 1999, Boyd, social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has been studying how people use the Internet and has unearthed some fascinating facts about how people – teenagers in particular – move through the online space.

However, none of her work has received as much response as a recent talk she gave, explaining what she calls the Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online.

Her research is timely, given the erroneous assumption that minorities are absent from online spaces. Even though BlackPlanet.com is the fourth largest social networking site on the internet and Twitter shows a disproportionate number of black users, the mindset that most people on the internet are white and male still exists.

This is why Boyd’s research is so explosive. She proposes that, instead of accepting the generally held belief that users of the Internet were mostly white and male, people start acknowledging that the spaces we operate in online may also be segregated.

Talking about racial and class-orientated movements from one social media site – specifically MySpace – to another – Facebook – she explains:

“…It wasn’t just anyone who left MySpace to go to Facebook. In fact, if we want to get to the crux of what unfolded, we might as well face an uncomfortable reality… What happened was modern day ‘white flight’.” Whites were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave MySpace or choose Facebook. Those who deserted MySpace did so by “choice” but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.

This dynamic was furthered by the press, an institution that stems from privilege and tends to reflect the lives of a more privileged class of people. MySpace was narrated as the dangerous underbelly of the Internet while Facebook was the utopian savior… MySpace has become the “ghetto” of the digital landscape. The people there are more likely to be brown or black and to have a set of values that terrifies white society. And many of us have habitually crossed the street to avoid what is seen as the riff-raff.”

Note that Danah Boyd is white (and super smart — we’ve met a couple of times). She gets it and is sounding the alarm. Latoya says at the end of her piece: “the online space is built by human hands, and as such, it reflects the same types of biases and prejudices that we hold in our minds…” Word. But I don’t know about you but I want to help create a digital future that empowers everyone to be free in this borderless, timeless space we call cyberspace rather than re-creating a separate but equal existence online.

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