For my summer-session library science course, LIS488: Technology for Information Professionals we are required to contribute weekly "current awareness" posts to the course website sharing a news story in the technology world we feel has bearing on our in-class discussions, assignments, and the library and information science profession. I thought I would cross-post my entries here, just for kicks, so ya'll can get a sense what this grad school thing is all about.
Week 1 - Insider/outsider dynamics in web 2.0 networking
This week, Latoya Peterson, at the blog Racialicious, posted her conference notes from a presentation about the Japanese social networking site mixi. The presentation explored the way the user interface on mixi reinforces concepts of racial and ethnic boundaries in Japan. Like Facebook, mixi's user interface provides individuals with the opportunity to identify themselves through various tools. However, rather than free-form text boxes, the site provides a series of drop-down menus that limit user options to pre-determined identity categories. As Peterson writes:
Komaki’s conclusion is that mixi, through use of drop downs and choices, reinforces the ideas and boundaries of Japan, and shows a preference to those born within Japan proper. Many people who live in Japan and have done so for their entire lives have their “otherness” reinforced by mixi. In his paper (currently unpublished) Komaki explains how through the choices provided to users, mixi encourages assimilation and rewards users that “fit in” with the established idea of what Japan should be.
Komaki's presentation reminds us that, while the social networking potential of internet technology -- particularly "web 2.0" technology -- contains the potential for greater democratization of knowledge creation and information sharing, the human beings who create and share this content bring with them all of the same prejudices of their non-virtual lives.
As a blogger, I have seen first-hand the way in which online social spaces simultaneously open up and constrain interactions and conversations around issues of identity, of belonging and exclusion, of who is an insider, who is an outsider, and how insiders/outsiders are identified and treated in virtual space.
On the one hand, anonymity can be a powerful resource online, where individuals are able to write posts and comment on political issues (for example) without the constraint of being judged by superficial identity markers such as skin color, age, or accent. They are able to connect with individuals who share their experiences or interests, try out new ideas, and speak up about their experiences in ways that could, previously, have jeopardized them socially and materially. Various platforms for researching and discussing human sexuality, for example, can be found online where teenagers can access it without the embarrassment of requesting assistance from an adult or being told their curiosity is inappropriate.
At the same time, there can be enormous pressure to self-identify in virtual communities by the usual social indicators; individual participants in online communities or online discussions are often challenged in their right to speak on certain topics or be vocal in certain online forums based on what is known (or, often, assumed) about their real-world identities. We are socialized to categorize people based on certain characteristics and when this information is lacking (such as on blog post comment threads in which people otherwise unknown to each other are interacting) folks often scramble to fill in the missing pieces of information either through making assumptions about the writer's personal identity and history or through demanding that the writer's identity be clarified before they are respected (if an insider) or dismissed (as an outsider) in the context of a given debate.
Those of us in the field of library and information science need to be wary of narratives that paint technology, particularly “web 2.0” social networking technology, as a panacea for fully-participatory, democratic knowledge-sharing. We must pay close attention to the ways in which new technologies re-inscribe existing inequalities and exclusionary patterns of social behavior into the very tools used to migrate human interaction from face-to-face encounters into virtual spaces.