Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Race and social network sites

A few weeks ago, Facebook's data team released a set of data addressing a simple but complex question: How Diverse is Facebook? Given my own work over the last two years concerning the intersection of race/ethnicity/class and social network sites, I feel the need to respond. And, with pleasure, I'm going to respond by sharing a draft of a new paper.


But first, I want to begin by thanking the Facebook data team for actually making this data available for public dialogue. Far too few companies are willing to share their internal analyses, especially about topics that make people uncomfortable. I was disappointed that so many academics immediately began critiquing Facebook rather than appreciating the glimpse that we get into the data they get to see. So thank you Facebook data team!


There are many different ways to collect quantitative data involving categories like race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, etc. None of them are perfect. Even asking people to self-identify can be fraught, especially when someone is asked to place themselves into a box. Ask a self-identified queer boi to identity into the binaries of "female/male" and "gay/straight" and you'll see nothing short of explosive anger. Race certainly isn't any prettier, let alone ethnicity or class. The salience of these qualities also depends on what we're trying to measure, what we're trying to say. For example, if we're talking about people who experience being targets of racism, should we concern ourselves more with self-identification or external labeling? At the coarsest level, we often assume race to boil down to skin color, meaning that we have to take into account how people read race, how they experience race, how they identify with race. We must always remember that race is a social construct and one's experiences of race are shaped by how one perceives themselves in relation to others and how others perceive them. And the very notion of race differs across the globe.


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