Sunday, October 11, 2009

Racism and Social Media: It’s Worth Asking

Are social networks inherently racist? How about sexist? Anti-Semitic?

Before you discard these questions as merely inflammatory, take a few moments to study your own collection of friends and contacts on Facebook, LinkedIn and the other online communities you participate in.

I’m going to bet a fair number of the faces gazing back at you from the screen mirror your own. The same can most likely be said about their backgrounds, interests, and professional and personal affiliations.

It is understandable. Social media is merely the online extension of the age-old human attribute to align oneself with others who share a similar background and belief system. The problem that arises in a homogeneous community is those who fall outside the accepted norm tend to be shunned and, in extreme cases, even ridiculed.

Let’s not pretend this doesn’t happen – regardless of who resides in the White House.

I consider my views on race, religion and gender relations to be rather contemporary. Yet, I have also found myself at times in somewhat questionable situations.

For instance, in college I was a member of a predominantly Jewish fraternity. It was not uncommon to hear a derogatory put-down about those who chose a different religious path.

More recently, I stood with a group of male executives at an industry event who found amusement in inappropriate comments about a female attendee.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of bias in social networks since coming across an article about a new online community created by American Airlines for African-Americans. Branded “Black Atlas,” the content of this social network caters to the supposedly unique interests these travelers have in destinations and accommodations.

While in no way do I mean to imply that American Airlines is a racist organization. However, I do question the viability of a marketing initiative that is so ethnically centered.

Ultimately, I do not believe racism, sexism or religious intolerance permeates most social networks. Online communities reflect the natural bias and preferences that come with a gathering of individuals who share so much in common.

Social media is about people and, after all, we are only human.


Cynthia said...

Personally, your post did not say anything people did not already. The title clearly was to provoke. However, you offered no way around why these things may be the way they are and what can be done to improve them. When people make inappropriate remarks do you say anything? Did you look at the travel site to determine if it had a raison d'etre, which could be useful to marketers and advertisers. Your conclusion: we are only human after all. Well, duh!

Marc Hausman said...

@Cynthia -- thanks for comment and I'm sorry you did not find greater value in the post.

I actually haven't seen much in the way of discussion in the blogosphere on this issue. As such, the purpose of my post wasn't to offer up any solutions to the natural bias we all have.

Rather, it was to merely point out that this perception that social media is all empowering may be a bit off the mark.

Michele Adamo said...

Marc, I think the original premise has to be questioned...who are social networkers?

While it's true that computers and internet access are ubiquitous, they're certainly not truly accessible to everyone. If you're on a social network, the assumption is that you probably have a computer and can pay for the access. (Or that your employer doesn't mind supporting your social networking habit.)

If that's the case, social networkers can't really be considered a representative cross-section of the world. That group has already been culled due to the inequalities that are discussed every day in other arenas: social and economic stratification, access to a quality education, discrimination in pay and advancement opportunities.

And yet--though I don't expect that social media can change the planet in one fell swoop--I do think it's possible that each of us who is on the network...who lets his/her voice be heard...who takes action rather than simply watching others' thoughts drift by...each of us can offer something significant and can promote tolerance within our sphere. Because tolerance begets tolerance, and I believe that THAT really can change the planet!

justcommonsense said...

Hey, it's not all bad, I looked up prejudice and was reminded that there's "judgement" and "opinion" in there as well. Most of the time we hear the word in the media when someone or a group has put their prejudices to work in a bad way, yet a big part of what we all do in our chosen professions is to judge, quantify, qualify that which stands out from the perfect product or end result that is our goal. American Airlines is using a specific approach to market to a particular group. This is marketing today and this is our culture-- the melting pot has melted. Is marketing becoming more "segregated" as society further integrates? Hmmm... Am I being foolish in thinking that the advertising I respond favorably to is not race specific, when I'm white and upper middle class and most of the ads are written by white, upper middle class people? Of course I am. It's the arrogance, or at least the myopia, of the (rapidly-changing) majority. I also happen to be one of many white people who would respond favorably to an ad offering a deal on airfare to Memphis to check out a great Blues Club on Beale St.

Thanks for reminding us of our humanness and the prejudices (good and bad) that come with our life experiences. Much food for thought in your comments. In our culture, racism seems to have the staying power of rust. "Social Media" is just another sub-category for the gamut of human expression. I don't know if Social Media can create positive change in our society, but could Barack Obama have gotten elected without it? In our culture, racism seems to have the staying power of rust. Of course AG Holder was right about racism-- it's still with us and we need to keep talking about it and working to eradicate it.

Margy Rydzynski said...

Very interesting observation. I agree that people do form friendships with those who are most like them. This should transcend racial barriers, though.

Good food for thought. Thanks for posting.

Davina K. Brewer said...

It is worth asking, but I think the question is more a matter of Community and Diversity rather than Racism.

Your point about looking at our networks and seeing mirror images is true in a sense: I find I follow lots of Social Media, Marketing and Public Relations professionals because those are the subjects that interest me.

I probably should look to make connections outside my comfort zone, expand my horizons a bit. As you say, it's worth taking a look.

Zulfiqar Deo said...

Just quickly read through your blog. I can understand the logical inference you have made. That the problems of society as whole should be reflected in the social networks that are subsets of them. However, this experience is limited by how international they can be, especially online ones and how the tech savy subset within these international networks. The tech savy lot tend to be better educated and therefore express their views in more appropriate ways, for instance, they tend to have a better understanding how the Jewish community does not own the banking industry world wide and therefore not responsible for the credit crunch. In the same way not all Muslims are terrorist. The notion of gene supremacy died with Hitler. And ofcourse decent behaviour begets decent behaviour.

Hope this helps and look forward to your comments.

Andy said...

Mark: it's great that you would ask this. I think racism (substitute any prefix before "-ism") is possible in social interactions. What makes social networking different is the role that technology plays. Software can now troll facebook profiles and make determinations about sexual orientation, political preferences, religion, and other demographic information.

Whether this capability will be used ethically presents a great risk, and one that people should understand as more personal minutia is shared online.

A related article I wrote on this topic, "Race and Gender Impact Employee Customer Service Bonuses" describes more:

Mark said...

Hi, I am writing this from South Africa where you will be aware, we have dealt with racism in all its forms. Sadly, we are very well conditioned to see racism and any other ism wherever it appears,and in whatever form.

Some context: I run a small sustainability strategy and communications business. I am struggling to get a local debate going around a central question: can we in this country continue to talk about sustainability in the same way it is spoken about in the US or EU, given we have unemployment of 30%, therefore mass poverty and about 35% experiencing food insecurity and so forth? In other words, can we continue to ignore the realities around us and focus on the same challenges faced by our overseas brothers and sisters?

I feel that doing so is itself a form of racism.

The question I pose is asked against this background: an upcoming conference on branding for good that features an all-white cast of speakers (forget that being a good company requires you to do something about social challenges that mostly feature black folks, lets go ahead and host a conference ignoring their contributions that may make us better understand); a recent judgement by the Constitution Court that is creating waves here, allows the Johannesburg city bosses to charge the poor and indigent the same for water (why, in a country as challenged as this, isn't water a basic human right?).

Take the conversations around sustainability among South Africans on social networking sites: they resemble the conference I mentioned. Racist? Is ignoring the needs and contributions of black people racist? I think so, if it means throwing away their contribution just because you want to, and because you can, and when the net effect is that you keep the upper hand.

So, to get to the point I am making long windedly: what happens on the social networks is a reflection of what happens in society, no question. It is, sadly, yet another thing that seems to have be co-opted by a small group when it could have been used to change the world.

Imagine if your Tweet was that you had just made a contribution to fight world hunger, anger?