A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of teaching a summer session class at UVA called Computers & Society, and the subject of race came up. To some folks, this topic might seem out of place in a class about computers, but in fact the eradication of racial difference occupied an important symbolic place at the beginning of the internet’s penetration into U.S. households.
In the early days of “selling the internet” service providers had to sell the idea of the internet to consumers who may have been unfamiliar with the new technology or skeptical of the benefits it could bring to them personally. Companies like MCI produced commercials like the one below in order to place the technology into a system of meanings that would resonate with American consumers:
As Lisa Nakamura (2002) points out, commercials like this one (common in the late 90s) made a spectacle of racial and ethnic differences while simultaneously claiming they would be overcome by the “pure, democratic, cerebral form of communication” that the internet afforded its users. Companies like MCI required images of “others” in order to sell the utopian ideal of internet access to a primarily white middle class corporate consumer. However, commercials are an easy target to point out the ironies in utopian predictions about technologies. Certainly service providers had to market a product that users were unfamiliar with and needed a way to appeal to their hopes (and wallets). What about the users? Once familiar with this potentially transformative space of communication – what did we do with it?
Apparently, the same damn things we always did. We self-segregate into social media “ghettos” and “suburbs” (boyd 2011), and we tweet hateful messages out onto the screens of friends and strangers (see fellow Fifth Floor blogger Sarah Mosseri’s take on a similar issue). Monica Stephens, at Humboldt State University, along with her students read through 150,000 geo-tagged* tweets that contained racially charged language (they looked for other kinds of prejudicial language too) and created a map to show their geographic distribution across the United States. They read to determine whether the keywords they were searching for were used in a positive, negative, or neutral way towards African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. In an interview with NPR – Stephens pointed out that they tried to also search for prejudicial language aimed at white people too, but found that words like “honkey,” “cracker,” and “redneck,” were generally leveraged positively by members self-identifying with the terms. Click on the map to explore their findings.
What projects like Stephens’ points out is the stark reality that the advertising rhetoric of early internet service providers like MCI has clearly fallen flat of its promises. As Stephens writes on the project site, “the virtual spaces of social media are intensely tied to particular socio-spatial contexts in the offline world, and as this work shows, the geography of online hate speech is no different”.
* geo-tagging is a feature that allows users to attach an x-y geographical coordinate to their tweets