A Cyber-House Divided

A CYBER-HOUSE DIVIDED

The Economist

Sept 2 2010

Online as much as in the real world, people bunch together in mutually
suspicious groups-and in both realms, peacemaking is an uphill struggle

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: orkutificacão, or
becoming “orkutised”. A place undergoing orkutificacão 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 Viegas, 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.

From: A. Papazian

http://www.economist.com/node/16943885?story_id=16943885&fsrc=rss

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