The economnist on Tribalism online
E-communication and society
Sep 2nd 2010 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition
IN 2007 Danah Boyd heard a white American teenager describe MySpace, the social network, as “like ghetto or whatever”. At the time, Facebook was stealing members from MySpace, but most people thought it was just a fad: teenagers tired of networks, the theory went, just as they tired of shoes.
But after hearing that youngster, Ms Boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England, felt that something more than whimsy might be at work. “Ghetto” in American speech suggests poor, unsophisticated and black. That led to her sad conclusion: in their online life, American teenagers were recreating what they knew from the physical world—separation by class and race.
A generation of digital activists had hoped that the web would connect groups separated in the real world. The internet was supposed to transcend colour, social identity and national borders. But research suggests that the internet is not so radical. People are online what they are offline: divided, and slow to build bridges.
This summer Ms Boyd heard from a scholar in Brazil who, after reading her research, saw a parallel. Almost 80% of internet users in Brazil use Orkut, a social network owned by Google. As internet use rises in Brazil and reaches new social groups, better-off Brazilians are leaving Orkut for Facebook. That is partly because they have more friends abroad (with whom they link via Facebook) and partly snobbishness. Posh Brazilians have a new word: orkutificação, or becoming “orkutised”. A place undergoing orkutificação is full of strangers, open to anyone. Brazilians are now the second biggest users of the micro-blogging site Twitter; but some wonder whether the dreaded o-word awaits that neighbourhood too.
Facebook’s architecture makes it easy for groups to remain closed. For example, it suggests new friends using an algorithm that looks at existing ones. But simpler, more open networks also permit self-segregation. On Twitter, members can choose to “follow” anyone they like, and can form groups by embedding words and shortened phrases known as “hashtags” in their messages. In May Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas, who research the display of social information, looked at the ten most popular hashtags on Twitter and discovered that most were used almost exclusively by either black or white authors. The hashtag “#cookout” was almost entirely black; the hashtag “#oilspill” almost entirely white.
With ideology, the pair’s findings were a bit more hopeful; liberals and conservatives at least communicate—by trading taunts. They do so by appropriating hashtags so as to surface in each others’ searches. By now, only one keyword in American political discourse remains unaffected by such games of tag: #NPR, or National Public Radio, used only by liberals.
All this argues for a cautious response to claims that e-communications abate conflict by bringing mutually suspicious people together. Facebook has a site called “Peace on Facebook,” where it describes how it can “decrease world conflict” by letting people from different backgrounds connect. (The optimism is catching; this spring a founder of Twitter described his service as “a triumph of humanity”.)
Peace on Facebook keeps a ticker of friend connections made each day between people from rival places. Israelis and Palestinians, the site claims, made about 15,000 connections on July 25th, the most recent available day. That is hard to put in context; Facebook does not make public the total number of friendships in any country. But Ethan Zuckerman, a blogger and activist, used independent data to estimate that these links represent roughly 1-2% of the combined total of friendships on Israeli and Palestinian accounts. Using the same method for Greece and Turkey, his estimate was 0.1%. That understates the role of Greek-Turkish friendship groups, or groups dedicated to music or films that both countries like. Among, say, people from either country who are studying outside their homeland (and have a better-than-average chance of becoming decision-makers), the share of trans-Aegean links would be far higher. And their mere existence sends an important moral signal.
But Mr Zuckerman frets that the internet really serves to boost ties within countries, not between them. Using data from Google, he looked at the top 50 news sites in 30 countries. Almost every country reads all but 5% of its news from domestic sources. Mr Zuckerman believes that goods and services still travel much farther than ideas, and that the internet allows us to be “imaginary cosmopolitans”.
Peace on Facebook offers data for India and Pakistan, too. That is even harder to put in context. Pakistan has banned Facebook in the past, and offers too few users to qualify even for independent estimates. John Kelly, founder of Morningside Analytics, a firm that analyses social networks, examined links between blogs and twitter accounts in India and Pakistan and discovered two hubs that link the two countries. South Asian expats in London who self-identify as “Desis”—people from the sub-continent—link freely to each other and to their home countries. And cricket fans in both countries link up spontaneously.
Mr Kelly believes that clusters of internet activity, when they do cross national borders, flow from pre-existing identities. Ethnic Baloch bloggers in three different countries link mainly to each other. Blogs in Afghanistan show some ties to NGOs and American service members, but a far greater number to Iranian news services and poetry blogs. That reflects old reality, not some new discovery. There is also some hope in Morningside’s data. Four websites most consistently account for links between countries: YouTube, Wikipedia, the BBC and, a distant fourth, Global Voices Online. The last of these, launched at Harvard University in 2005 and mainly funded by American foundations, works to create links between bloggers in different countries, and to find what it calls “bridge bloggers”: expats and cultural translators, like London’s Desis, who help explain their countries to each other. (This newspaper has a loose editorial collaboration with the site.)
Onnik Krikorian, Global Voices’ editor in Central Asia, is a British citizen with an Armenian name. He couldn’t go to Azerbaijan and had difficulty establishing any online contact with the country until he went to a conference in Tbilisi in 2008 and met four Azeri bloggers. They gave him their cards, and he found them on Facebook. To his surprise, they agreed to be his friends. Mr Krikorian has since found Facebook to be an ideal platform to build ties. Those first four contacts made it easier for other Azeris to link up with him.
But the internet is not magic; it is a tool. Anyone who wants to use it to bring nations closer together has to show initiative, and be ready to travel physically as well as virtually. As with the telegraph before it—also hailed as a tool of peace—the internet does nothing on its own.