Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Final Draft: Facebook Diversity Debate

By: Harry Waisbren

Note: this final draft (first draft here, second draft here) is being actively edited, and when completed will be published on the Qworky blog. Feedback is always appreciated!

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

The study's purpose is described by Facebook as part of their effort to be as open and connected as possible while working to understand how different populations of users join and use their service. Despite such lofty goals, the original question that brought about the criticism, first poised by Shireen Mitchell (@digitalsista), Beth Kanter (@kanter), and Allyson Kapin (@womenwhotech), is about flaws in their methodology. However, the charge, first made by Tracy Viselli (@myrnatheminx), that the conclusions "seem self-fulfilling prophecy ish" would hold more serious implications.

The methodology aspect is quite tricky, as Facebook does not request information on race as they do for gender. Cheri Mullins (@cherimullins) analyzed this in some detail within her post Facebook "Diversity" Study Fact or Fiction, explaining how "the Facebook Data team has skewed the results to be highly self-referential." The questions regarding the motivation of the study ask whether the data specifically answers a question "that has already been asked or assumed", which is Shireen Mitchell's rationale when referring to Tracy Viselli's self-fulfilling prophecy description as semi-correct.

The methodological issues are important, especially considering the broad conclusion drawn that Facebook's user demographics nearly mirror that of the U.S. population. Moreover, the criticism and skepticism has everything to do with the potentially alarming research from danah boyd (@zephoria), which paints a very different picture of diversity within Facebook. In her speech on The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online, she explained:

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.


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.

boyd's warning about this "digital migration" is a stark contrast to the more techno-utopian depiction from Facebook. The draft of her forthcoming article, White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook, further compares the social media landscape to the historical dynamics of segregation.

Within her response to the Facebook Data Team's study, boyd discussed how although the data does correlate with what she has seen in the field, the focus on access misses the divergence in how different groups are using and experiencing the service. The Facebook depiction does not address the impact racial and ethnic backgrounds have on social media usage, and the resulting limitation on the extent to which users will interact with a diverse set of other users because of it.

However, boyd also professed disappointment that academics began critiquing the Facebook study while not first "appreciating the glimpse that we get into the data they get to see." Indeed, the open study did also spark public dialogue on the issue, and their treatment of this uncomfortable subject does show a willingness to further address it.

Yet if boyd is right that racist and classist attitudes are shaping digital media, action must be taken to shift the debate. If the internet will ever reach its democratizing potential, industry leaders and the social media community at large need to accept and address these serious issues.

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