Monday, December 28, 2009

Draft Post Take 2: Facebook Diversity Debate

By: Harry Waisbren

Note: this is the second draft (first draft here) of a post to be published on the Qworky blog. Feedback would be much appreciated!

Facebook's Data Team has released a study entitled How Diverse is Facebook? that has begot much analysis and criticism, coalescing on the #FBDiversity tag.

The purpose of this study is described by Facebook as part of their effort to be as open and connected as possible while also working to understand how different populations of users join and use the social network. The original question that has made way for such vehement criticism, first poised by @digitalsista, @kanter , and @womenwhotech, relates to problems with the study's methodology. Furthermore, the question (first asked by @myrnatheminx) of whether the conclusions "seem self-fulfilling prophecy ish" is being assessed in light of this as well.

The methodology aspect of this study is quite tricky, as Facebook does not request information on race as they do for gender. Cheri Mullins analyzed this in some detail in her post Facebook "Diversity" Study Fact or Fiction, and asserts that there is a "highly self-referential" nature to the study through its skewed results. This is why Shireen Mitchell (aka @digitalsista) partially agrees with the self-fulfilling prophecy argument from Tracy Viselli (aka @myrnatheminx), as the data answers a question "that has already been asked or assumed."

The issues with the study are particularly important to assess given the broad conclusions that Facebook has apparently drawn from it, including:

  • They have always been diverse yet diversity has increased significantly over the past year to the point where users nearly mirror the diversity of the overall U.S. population
  • Hispanics are 80% as likely to be on Facebook as White users
  • Black users are as likely to be on as Whites
  • Asian/Pacific Islanders are much more likely to be on Facebook than White users.

These broad conclusions are all further questionable in light of danah boyd's speech during the Personal Democracy Forum entitled The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online. Her research has achieved vastly different results, and her charges are damning to the supposedly diverse and inclusive nature of Facebook:

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 or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave 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.


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.

The fact that digital migration is revealing the same social patterns as urban white flight should send warning signals to everyone out there. And if we think back to the language used by teens who use Facebook when talking about MySpace, we should be truly alarmed.

In this context, it is no wonder that Mitchell thinks that the Facebook Data Team's study has everything to do with boyd's Myspace to Facebook white flight theory. The question at hand is how we can work to constructively fix these problems as the revolution of communication that Facebook is part and parcel of continues.

1 comment:

jon said...

Much improved, Harry! One thing I'm not sure about is whether you want to feature FB's conclusions so prominently; on a quick scan of the article it's very easy to think that these are the key take-aways (as opposed to something you find questinable).

I'd probably cut down the quote by danah substantially. You could drop the second half of the first paragraph (everything starting with "The educated ...") and the entire third paragraph. That would free up some space for some discussion about the differences in results and the implications. One thing to highlight is that danah's work concentrates on teens; it could be that these differences are less stark as adults. The data in Eszter Hargittai's Whose Space? is a couple of years old, but worth checking out. How does this jibe with the Facebook survey's results?

I'm not sure how much the quote from Shireen adds to the last paragraph. I'd rather see you get more specific about how you see the FB study relating to danah's theory.

Hope this helps!