Twitter: the racial equalizer of social media

28 Sep

Facebook, a popular social media site and the bane of most people’s productivity, reached 300 million members this week, giving it more members than there are citizens of the United States. The site has seen meteoric growth since it was created by Harvard students in 2004, and its influence has reached far and wide from enabling stalking to even deciding an election.

Facebook, for all the good and bad it brings into our lives, became the new social media frontier. If that statement sounds familiar, it’s because just a few years ago, people were saying the same thing about the now practically defunct, social media graveyard MySpace. With its flashy backgrounds and annoying music embeds, it was the way of online networking for the old and the young alike.

What precipitated its downfall? One only has to compare the landscapes of the two social media sites and the reason becomes clear. MySpace quickly became the “ghetto” of the social media world with its users increasingly becoming African-Americans and Latinos. The all-caps statuses, the hip-hop videos, the blingy backgrounds scared middle and upper class whites from the site who couldn’t bear to be associated with anything so uncouth even if it was only over a digital landscape.

“White flight” is no longer just an inner city phenomenon, it has changed and masked itself to adapt to the digital age. Race and class has always snaked itself into the most basic of human interactions, and social media sites are no exception.

However, as our society struggles to become more equalized, the ways in which we communicate evolve to reflect that. The harbinger of this trend is Twitter.twitterobama

In the new era of race and class catalyzed by President Obama, Twitter is quickly becoming the great equalizer. From celebrities to multinational corporations to twenty-somethings and high school students, everyone is tweeting regardless of racial or socioeconomic standing. The mere question of “what are you doing?” is the raceless epithet that has begun to transcend differences.  From Obama’s health care proposal to Kanye West’s outburst at the VMAs, tweeters from all walks of life tweet about current events and their daily routines.

“What are you doing?” is a question that surpasses ethnic and social strata. Our lives, as variegated and contrasting as they may be, are compressed into a brief micro blog that in its conciseness squeezes out the boundaries that normally separate us. Unlike Facebook and MySpace where identity is more blatant through pictures, wall posts and personal info, Twitter is social media simplified. Users aren’t defined by their networks, their colleges, their party photos or their choice in music.

One only needs to check out the trending topics to see the diversity of issues being discussed on Twitter. Everything from G20 to Iran to Kanye West to Oprah is bound to pop up, reflecting the multifaceted myriad of people who use Twitter, a site that’s set to break 12 million unique visitors this year.

Twitter is bridging the racial divide of the digital landscape, 140 characters at a time.


7 Responses to “Twitter: the racial equalizer of social media”

  1. theurbanbriefcase September 26, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Hey! great post! I really liked your analysis between myspace and facebook. I would also say that there’s an intersection between race and socio-economic status. As you mention, facebook started in the ivy leagues. Dana Boyd, in her study on the difference in socioeconomic status between myspace and facebook, note that “the teenagers who initially wanted access to this site were primarily those who were intending to go to a certain type of college, those who were already connected to older youth in those colleges”. Because facebook especially builds upon social capital and the networks one has in place, it’s no wonder that the peers who use these media may also be part of similar socio-economic statuses.

    Of course, this picture isn’t so stark. Though I haven’t seen a comprehensive study yet, there are definitely those from lower socio-economic statuses who also use facebook. Nevertheless, these general trends importantly point to the way online economic and racial segregation can happen in digital spaces, especially if these spaces are solely reliant on social capital and are filtered by cultural symbols. The difference, of course, is that the physical, time barriers to encounter different communities is drastically reduced, and so the chance of interaction is (and has been) much greater.

    What concerns me is the way the digital divide plays into our society. Perhaps an important equalizer is a facet of generational differences. Being a generation of ‘millennials’, many of us had the privilege of growing up with technology in school or in our homes (of course, this also depends on your socio-economic status). Being younger means that you’ll more likely to have used social media and internet technology. Another facet of this is socio-economic. Technology has been expensive. Though it is getting cheaper, a great part of our global society still cannot access the web. And it’s not only even of access. Literacy and computer use skills play an important roles too.

    Regardless, I’m curious to see how twitter pans out.

    Dana Boyd’s study:

  2. Devone Barone September 27, 2009 at 11:36 pm #

    You have provided a creative and intelligent analysis of Facebook and Myspace, but I am not sure you can label twitter a racial equalizer until a similar online communication site emerges. Before the advent of Facebook, MySpace could have been called a racial equalizer, its members ranging from the yuppies of Cambridge to the break dancers of LA. It took a similar site with near identical functions to cause white flight from MySpace; however, twitter has different features and a unique purpose in contrast to Myspace and Facebook. These social network sites emphasize establishing peer networks while twitter primarily disseminates ideas to anyone. Communication within Myspace and Facebook is usually confined to peer networks: both websites allow users to set their profiles to private and only people within a peer network can read another’s wall on facebook.

  3. Jocelyn Torres September 28, 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    The internet has become such a huge part of our every day lives in college and the business world, but I feel that we often forget that there are many people in the U.S. who don’t have access. Every time I go back home and talk to people back home, I am surprised by the amount of people who don’t even know what Facebook or Twitter are. This social revolution has left a lot of lower income people in the dark. Unfortunately, it is Latinos and African Americans who are barely discovering Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. Latinos and African Americans are more predominate on Myspace because they are trying to catch up, and by the time they get on facebook or twitter something else will exist.

  4. akumar223 September 29, 2009 at 8:51 am #

    An interesting opinion on a very interesting subject. I wonder though if perhaps the exodus from myspace you labeled as “white flight” might have less to do with the gaudy nature of some people’s pages and more to do with slow user interface or the desire to be on the next big social networking site. I do remember friendster being overtaken by both myspace and facebook before myspace fell off. Social networking via the internet is a very interesting subject to me in so far as what it says about us and our society. I look forward to reading some more posts by you regarding this subject.

  5. The Cart September 29, 2009 at 8:51 am #

    I would say that Twitter is not a socio-economic equaliser. Just by definition, the question of “what are you doing” is dependant on your economic status. While many tweets from celebs consist of things like “at the new terminator premiere!!”, and tweets from well off youngsters are “had no self control at the store today.”, what do people in the inner city have to tweet about doing?
    Tweeting about what you are doing, and what you are able to do, lets everyone see who and where you are in society. In only 140 characters.

  6. sperlmutter September 29, 2009 at 10:59 pm #

    Until reading your post, I never considered the racial/socio-economic issues that abound in online networking forums. Companies have taken advantage of being able to tailor online advertisements to the specific networks, groups, and interests that people post on their pages. It would be interesting to me if this type of advertising is able to identify people by race, and tailor advertising to those specific demographics.

  7. Craigslist Proven System October 16, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    I agree.Fantastic article.

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