Speeches, like plays, are sometimes more interesting to read rather than see live.
So I have spent some time staring at the words of a speech recently given by Danah Boyd, from the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, titled "The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online."
In the speech, given to the Personal Democracy Forum, Boyd picked up utopian views of technology, pinned them against a wall and asked them for a little more than their name and rank.
"For decades," she said, "we've assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with 'access' and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine."
She then used the example of Facebook and MySpace to suggest that perhaps people's behavior online absolutely mirrors enduring social divides.
Many Americans use Facebook and MySpace, she said. But which Americans?
Using teens as the indicators of where the world is heading, Boyd described some of her research among them and took the words of one 14-year-old, Kat from Massachusetts, to describe her central thesis:
"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 its supposed to be like oh we're more mature...MySpace is just old."
For Boyd, the sites we go to reflect our idea of what "people like us" do. Another teen, 17-year-old Craig from California, put it extremely baldly (especially for a Californian):
"The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious."
Boyd, who is also a researcher at Microsoft Research New England (Microsoft being a prominent investor in Facebook), described the migration from MySpace to Facebook as being akin to white folks setting up their own communities. Yes, the places that spawned the allegedly desperate housewife. This wasn't that Facebook was newer or cooler. This was "modern day 'white flight.'"
The wealthier, the whiter, the more suburban left MySpace and, if they went anywhere, they went to Facebook for a "more peaceful, quiet, less-public space."
In an observation that might echo the private views of quite a few who might be watering their lawns on a summer's evening, Boyd noted far greater condescension by Facebook users toward MySpace users than vice versa.
Here's the fear as Boyd sees it: governments, commercial organizations, and others will see the likes of Facebook as being the whole community, whereas in reality they are representing the status quo, traditionally occupied by "educated, wealthy, white, straight men." (Although, some would say that both political parties have certainly shown that at least one of those descriptors is a myth.)
Speaking to a mainly white, liberal audience, some of whom are involved in politics through their work, Boyd challenged them to go to MySpace, try to log in, and see if they could make any sense of it. She then asked her audience to imagine how some outsiders might feel when confronted with Facebook or Twitter.
The issue of race and class defining certain social-networking spaces online is not limited to the U.S. In India, Boyd noted, Orkut and Facebook users represent very distinct professional and caste memberships.
Two years ago, Boyd began developing these themes in her work, describing MySpace members as "'burnouts', punks, or alternative-scene teenagers whose parents likely didn't go beyond a high school education."
But the more important point that she makes is surely that when we go online we are propelled by assumptions about the world, ones we don't bother articulating. Our behavior is automatic. It was learned in a few instants, sometimes from others in our immediate social world.
We somehow fool ourselves that we're looking and participating in one big, happy world family. We're not.
When we go to Digg, for example, to see what's worth reading today, do we stop to think "worth reading by whom"? Do we wonder who actually are the 250 people who thought an article was worth Digging? Do we notice, for example, just how male Digg's front page seems to be? Do we care?
And that's what Boyd is ultimately getting at. While we talk of the Web being the great equalizer, the uncontrollable stage upon which democracy happens before our very eyes, whose version of democracy are we really looking at?