“White flight” from social media sites

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(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Sean Kilpatrick)

Whatever ever happened to MySpace? It used to be such a nice online community—until “they” started logging on with their unruly music embeds, flashy backgrounds, and slang-filled comment posts. Luckily, a little ways down the information highway, was Facebook – a nice, clean site inhabited by up-scale college graduates.

If this viewpoint rings with familiarity, it is because we are accustomed to seeing affluent, white Americans leave environments with a rising population of minority residents. Indeed, the history of many American inner-cities is characterized by just such phenomena of “white flight.” This comparison begs the question: was there a digital “white flight” from MySpace to Facebook?

According to Danah Boyd, a social researcher at Microsoft Research, the answer is yes. Boyd contends that the spaces we operate in online may be segregated along racial and economic lines.

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…

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…”

While Boyd’s conclusions may seem harsh, they should not be ignored. We need only look at the online communities’ inaugurations: Facebook began as an exclusive Ivy League, invitation-only networking site while MySpace focused on youth, music and urban culture—without restrictions to membership. And we need only look at Facebook’s gain on MySpace to infer a connection.

While some former MySpacers may say they turned to Facebook for the cleaner interface and faster loading times, Boyd’s research uncovered another motivation that often goes unspoken. That is, while many MySpace users see switching to Facebook as a personal choice, many Facebook users disparage MySpace with racially coded language and insults about class and intelligence.

Boyds’ interviews are telling. Kat, a 14-year-old from Massachusetts, told Boyd, “I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever, and Facebook is all…not all the people that have Facebook are mature, but it’s supposed to be like ‘oh we’re more mature’…MySpace is just old.” 

An online community is constituted by its inhabitants and, as such, reflects the same biases and prejudices of those who populate it. But the Internet also reflects our divisions in a positive way. 

Since offline mainstream outlets did not want to discuss issues that were pertinent to black readers, we started our own outlets. The same dynamic shows itself in the digital space, from black-focused hair and beauty blogs to online carnivals dedicated to talking about race from our perspective. The Internet has allowed us opportunities to speak and be heard.

However, despite the Internet’s space for issues overlooked by mainstream media, we must remember that online communities reflect and reproduce harmful cultural values just as much as the real world does. The Internet belongs to everyone and, as we work toward racial equality in the real world, we should make sure the same work is being done in the digital world.