First, let me talk about how I just tried to publish this and poof it was gone, so I am having to rewrite it. But it’s also giving me more time to think about whether social diversity exists online in social networks. My gut reaction is that online social networks are direct reflections of the offline world and thus we run with our own pack and very seldom do we like to step out of the bubble. Heres a quick test: Try doing a search on social diversity in social networks, there are no results or better yet, nothing with any substance.
Although in doing an initial search, I did come across an interesting site called Mixyourworlds. The title should say it all but Mixyourworlds goal is to “put the fun back in racial profiling”. I say that tongue in cheek but they are dead serious. Mixyourworlds wants to help its members create diverse friend groups while helping them realize and change their racial biases. In fact it’s tagline is “Can racial profiling be fun?”
A noble if not challenging task to say the least. Especially when there are many many other larger, more well known social networks out there. Yes but are they diverse? That’s tough to say. But interestingly enough, when searching for friends on Facebook for example, you cannot search based on race. And why should you? or should you? I understand the premise. We want you to search on people not race, creed, or color. Which means that you can search on people, just people… People with like minded interests but who may have a different skin color or ethnic background. You won’t know until you see their picture. Then you’ll make your snap or accelerated decision.
But if we like to hang with people who are like us, another question arises, Do mixed race, mixed ethnicity relationships work better in social networks? Do they have a better chance of making it?
They do if the social network is niche based. They might have a better chance to flourish. Businessweek broaches the subject in the Rise of Niche Social Networks But really what we are talking about are 2 types of social networks here. We’re talking about the pasty white networks that are Facebook and MySpace and then all of the “other” social networks. Mixyourworlds’s “racial profiling” for instance, comes from tracking the make-up of users’ friends on the site and pointing out racial attraction preferences and biases. So if your looking to expand your social base beyond what MySpace and Facebook offer, then the thinking is that “yes there are plenty of other niche sites out there to meet exactly what you are looking for”. I know that is a direct conflict in trying to create a harmonious online social networking experience, but that may be more of a reflection of 21st century society than we care to admit.
After thinking about this long and hard, I decided to throw the question out to my Linkedin colleagues a few weeks ago. The question wasn’t geared towards diversity in social networks per se, but you will understand the context as you read further. Here was the question:
Can social networking help the poor and the disadvantaged?
On the surface social networking seems to be reaching the far corners of the universe. But are the poor, the disadvantaged and even minorities, operating on an even playing field? Do class distinctions hold steady even in social networks?
One of the better answers came from Jason Breed from Neighborhood America:
Good question. I will answer in a couple of ways.
1. I’m making a couple of assumptions – it seems the spirit of your question is genuine and I do not believe you are trying to insight any prejudice or tensions by grouping anything together, you simply want to know if and where social nets are leveling the playing field and are there still inequities. the other assumption is that by “social networking” you are referring to digital social networking. In both of these cases, I”ll give you some examples where it has worked.
2. Case Studies (and a couple of different ways to think about it) – MOBILE – adidas has a campaign running “Basketball is a Brotherhood” targeted to basketball players at the street level or street-ballers. there is a mobile component to this campaign that lets you interact with any of the 5 sponsored players like T-Mac, KG, Chauncey Billups, etc. They have received over 100k people who have opted in via mobile that is a series of ongoing interactions. Consider Mobile as a way to engage populations who are less likely to be online or who want to connect whenever, however they want to.
The second example is the Government (believe it or not). Specifically working in the Miami area, the transportation department is mandated to reach out to citizens and provide fair access to information on any project and specifically on a road project that spanned 7 different neighborhoods of varying socio-economic and demographic residents. Using the web, the department was able to create dialogue with residents who were comfortable using the web in this way. The benefit is they were able to focus their limited amount of employees to meet face-to-face with more of the people who did not want to communicate via the web. This is in-direct however very effective use of social media in the gov sector. Who would have thought, right? I have dozens of other examples too. Hope this helps.
A great response that touches on a few points there. The most important being that social diversity can exist on may levels in online social networks, and is and can be accessible by more than just the privledged, affluent, white middle and upper class. Tom Ford, CEO of Town Connect puts it more succintly:
Interesting question. The public Internet and sites like MySpace remove economic, class and social barriers. Since anyone with internet access can interact with anyone else with Internet access. People are communicating online with others that they would never interact with offline.
In the U.S, class distinctions are determined by wealth, income, education, and type of occupation.
Although Linked In enables greater interaction between classes (CEOs connecting with entry level workers) it still remains a social network for educated, higher income, knowledge workers.
Facebook began as a network for class distinction based on education – each university was their own network. The students at Harvard weren’t friending the kids at Podunk State in rural U.S. Today, networks are still established based on class distinctions – corporate, geographic, etc.
Our research and experience with TownConnect indicates people feel safest in social networks in their local community and with those they know. The class distinction in our network is based on where you live- which implies a level of income. Online social networks are mirrors of offline social networks, just accelerated.
Accelerated relationships. Couldn’t have said it any better than that. So do accelerated relationships promote the possibility of social diversity? No, if anything they imply that you make a quicker decision based on quick touch points, like ASL. People cut to the chase online and probablly as much do the same when reading profiles. You read a profile, you look for certain things. If you do not have access to a profile then what do you do, you look at a picture. Then you are going to make a decision based on that picture and nothing else. Looks like an accelerated decision is at hand.
Bottom line, social diversity in social networks probably has a better chance of succeeding online than it does offline since you can go out of the hood without the usual fear and backlash that accompanies someone who does the same in the offline world. Bottom line: We choose to run with our own pack even in the online world.