A black woman using social media
A black woman using Twitter. © Carlos Santa Maria - Fotolia.com

Legendary Public Enemy frontman, rap artist and activist Chuck D, once told me that the title of the group’s track “Fear of a Black Planet” was a metaphor that addressed whites’ fear of being associated with people of color, and all the cultural and economic issues that integration brings.

It might seem unrelated, but a little thing called App.net that has many buzzing in the tech world might be the latest manifestation of that fear.

People are taking sides on the intent and format of what promises to be a Twitter-like social media feed in which, as the product’s homepage states, “users and developers come first, not advertisers.”  The greatest talking point in the debate over its launch is the fact App.net will require an annual $50 membership fee. This cost might create a space segregated by class and color on the web, prompting richer (usually white) people to flee social media outlets like Twitter, on which people of color overindex, for more exclusive environs.

It would not be the first time. White flight from MySpace as illustrated by Harvard fellow Danah Boyd was an instance of what many of us at the water cooler of color had sensed when Facebook launched. The more “upscale” social media site seemed to provide a haven for the wealthy through a decreased visibility of working class people of color in near proximity.

What happened next extended beyond Facebook. Indeed, everything from the recent U.S. Census stats to Nielsen mobile research shows that middle class whites are increasingly becoming the minority.

There have long been uncomfortable murmurs by many in the tech world about people of color over-indexing on Twitter ever since the Edison Research/Arbitron Internet study establishing this fact was released. Other research also demonstrates the over-consumption of social media by this group, such as a study by Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication.

Just as there are white housing enclaves created for these segments to avoid the encroachment of non-whites, App.net could be the perfect place online for integration-reluctant whites to go next as this trend surely continues.

Could the $50 fee for App.net be a way to more ensure that poor people and people of color are barred?

App.net is the spawn of Dalton Caldwell, a young, Caucasian male who gained attention through his open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, written after declining Zuckerberg’s overtures for collaboration. Caldwell allegedly ended up on the receiving end of Zuck’s wrath as a result, so with an “I’ll show ‘em” approach, Caldwell started a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to launch his own social media site.

He ended up obtaining darn near $800,000 to start App.net. Caldwell’s dreams are close to becoming reality with cash-in-hand, which is making some people very uncomfortable.

It’s not just jealously over a young white man having typically easier access to tech capital; it’s also the spirit in which Caldwell has spoken about his reasons for creating App.net that has people wondering. He has alluded, for instance, to the fact that he is not interested in seeing — horror, of horrors — Kmart ads in his timelines when he is active on social platforms.

Professor Andre Brock, who teaches at the University of Iowa’s School of Library and Information Science, writes about race, the Internet, and new media. He examined Caldwell’s attitude as it relates to how cultural ideologies effect Internet technology use and design.

From Brock’s perspective, “Dalton Caldwell’s brief mention of ‘K-Mart ads in my timeline,’ while a problematic reference to lower socio-economic commerce opportunities, is much more emblematic of the geek’s desire to retain the instrumental ‘purity’ of a social network ‘For Geeks By Geeks,'” he said in an interview with theGrio.

But Brock doesn’t let Caldwell off the hook for possible race and class-baiting. “Deploying racial and class-based ideology to attract attention to a fledgling enterprise (think ‘Manifest Destiny’ or Reagan’s ‘Welfare Queen’ rhetoric) is a long-standing tactic of American corporate and civic society,” the professor said. “It’s disappointing to see, but not surprising to find.”

In fact, the social media expert said this pattern of racism and classism is promoted by ‘geek’ culture under the guise of an empty rhetoric of universal acceptance.

“I’ve found in my last couple of research projects, such as research on the Resident Evil 5 video game, on a black-designed web browser, and most recently on Black Twitter, that there is definitely an undercurrent in online discourse that whites – particularly the male/geek/middle class strata – feel as if there is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to do ‘Internet.’  The ‘right’ way is invoked through beliefs in color-blind ideology (‘we shouldn’t recognize difference’), instrumental uses of tech (‘x product should be used THIS way’), and when prompted, the belief that non-whites and women don’t use tech ‘appropriately.’”