Race, Identity and Facebook

Pulled from the first revision of the research proposal.

The Implications of Race and Identity on Facebook

            Identity remains one of the most controversial and contested realms of academic study.  Both individual and collective identity mutually contribute to one another, and the assembly of our notions of self is accomplished via both explicit and implicit meanings (Schöpflin 2001). Reflexive processes (say, introduction to a new socio-technical system) might accelerate our sense of identity or place it in a new state of relativity, but can never eliminate it. Collective activity gives rise to group identity predicated on fundamental understandings of reality: cosmologies (Schöpflin 2001).  Identities are anchored by moral propositions that determine our values and behavior and like the heterogeneous systems they spawn from, are persistently negotiated and incessantly emergent.  The articulation of both individual and group identity and its corresponding values is embedded in interactive discourse.  In terms of sociology, our identities are learned – socialized into us and applied on to us via an endless set of interwoven factors, some more powerful than others.  Instinct and biology dilute the matrix to form our complicated selves.
The role of identity on the web is an entirely novel conundrum unto itself.  Once able to access and manipulate the tools of web interaction individuals and groups can begin to extend and redefine their identity in this sphere – indeed, what makes the internet so attractive to so many is the perception that they are in more control over their self-representation and identity here.  Key to this propensity to control is an inevitable component of social-technological systems – the identities presented on the web are mediated by interface as much as the ramifications of an individual’s motivation, ability, and ensemble of personality.
            The interface of Facebook is both visual and selective; some choices are unavoidable while others are unavailable.  Users are able to give a variable amount of feedback in this regard as well as force alternative interpretations through agency manifested in groups, events, and deviant answers to Facebook’s categorical imperatives. The encoded responsiveness of the system, however, does not bestow equal consideration to all types of users. Facebook allows you to specify your sex, sexuality1, hometown, political and religious views, birthday, and your relationship status.  Assembling these variables one can accurately estimate and gauge gender, sexuality, locale, political orientation, religion, age, and more.  The only primary analytic category missing is race.  Interestingly enough race is an available category on MySpace, though the people who fill it out seem to be more often of minority or mixed identification; white students could be easily deemed as racist if they chose to overtly identify as white, or at the very least, the selection is typified as unnecessary.2
            Much of Facebook’s success has been induced by its visual interface.  Besides being user friendly and aesthetically eloquent, the interconnectivity and interaction between profiles and users is based on pictorial displays.  Users are more likely to check out profiles of others with pictures they find attractive3 and easily jump from one profile to another through clicking on tags of users in pictures.  Indeed, the first thing viewed about a given profile in the return in a search queue is the picture. So in lieu of no technical category for race on Facebook users can make estimations of another’s ethnicity or race based on their picture.
            What happens, then, when you combine these two constraints together?  If the racial project, or White Nationalism, is a way to keep the white majority in the US comfortable and in power (Walters 2003), then Facebook extends this. Members of the white majority can remain comfortable by not talking about race and maintaining their advantage without having to think about it.  This objective makes sense – most people have some measure of shared suffrage and aptitude to care about others and so to think about race might force them to reconcile the disparities.  We see all manner of defensive mechanisms to combat this eventuality – blaming minorities for cultures that cause their ‘own misfortune’, claiming race is only perpetuated by obsessing over it, and pledging personal colorblind outlooks in a system not founded on them.  The implication of Facebook, then, is corollary to White Nationalism.
            By not making a race an available category and recognizing that Facebook is a visually dominated SNS, Facebook serves to perpetuate two racist norms: the colorblind mentality and racialized visual classification of others.
            Though this is not a white cloak, flag burning, immigrant hating form of racism, most modern day forms of institutionalized and covert personal racism are not.  Most progressive race scholars agree that indifference and apathy in regards to race is another tool and form of white prejudice and is engineered and perpetuated on a societal level.  Likely the Facebook engineers are not even contemplating the role of race as part of their value set when fabricating the features and interfaces of the SNS, but this unintentional continuation of ambivalence is harmful.  Pretending that historically established and contemporarily sustained inequalities do not exist, or simply ignoring them in hopes that they will go away, is a preposterous and appallingly inadequate solution to social disproportions.  What’s more is that we know identity to be co-producing, our racial and ethnic identities are some combination of who we feel and think we are, and who others feel and think we are.  Facebook only allows for one side of this coin – the racialised initially visual one.  Though CMC with another person could easily penetrate racial barriers and fashion new alliances participants are seldom ever able to reach this point because their internalized race and racist norms that prevent them from making the initial connection. The effect is an echo of offline-world hierarchies where reciprocation and initiation to counteract racial fragmentation and desolation are definitively stacked against the norm.
            Simply adding a category for race on Facebook isn’t a solution.  It’s a compelling first step, but truly we must change our discourse and understanding of race on a societal level for this change to be truly effective.  As a believer in both personal and institutional agency I suggest the change should be simultaneous – educators, media, and social movements ought to be embodied by individuals who wish to reflect positive social change – adding a race category to Facebook can accompany their mobilization and impact.

[1] Well, almost.  The category is labeled ‘Interested in’ and my findings in 2006 showed that while most users interpret this as sexuality, many do not.  The responses seemed to have a lot to do with age and usage – older and less frequent users were less likely to understand the sexuality connotation behind the category.

[2] Personal observation of MySpace only, as of this time I do not have any data to back this claim.