Thanks to Jodie Evans, I’ve just received a copy of ethnologist danah boyd’s talk from the Public Democracy Forum (PDF09) in New York City this week. Many colleagues attended and tweeted the conference, the most prolific being Ruth Ann Harnisch, who gets new media from her vantage point as a former journalist and current philanthropist.
I am particularly interested in danah’s take on social media networks, especially the trends she sees in young people’s participation. A media researcher for Microsoft, and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, she makes the case that the growth of Facebook is a case of “white flight” from what at least one high school student called “the ghetto” of MySpace. She posited a challenge to the PDF participants (mostly white) to take note of the class, race and gender divides that are being replicated in the digital world, eradicating the notion of a “public sphere” where all come together to gather information. The speakers and 1,000 attendees at the conference would indeed seem to confirm that the divide between the classes, races, and genders is getting wider.
It’s a subject I have much interest in, this vanishing of what I refer to as the Public Square. Where we once seemed to be moving toward full participation in the media (known as “mainstream”) and thus society, the internet, for all its promise of equalizing us, is fracturing us, the new technology and social networks allowing us to close in on our special interests and talk mostly to those we agree with—and in most cases, look like. As a result, the Public Square is sparsely populated, indeed.
Much of this is due to the failure of old media to fully integrate, to fully incorporate coverage of women, people of color, gay and lesbian, immigrants. It’s at the bottom of the success of what’s called “ethnic media,” women’s sites, and millions of websites and blogs.
For me, this is a family history as well as societal commentary. I was a second generation journalist—both my father and stepfather worked for the Black Press in the 40’s and 50’s: my father as a reporter for papers like the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier; my stepfather as publisher of the first African American pictorial magazine in the country, NewsPic. It preceded Ebony and was created for the black soldiers fighting in World War II. Both of these reporters were prohibited from working for major publications because of their race in a time of segregation and discrimination.
When I became a television reporter in 1970, we believed we were on track to full participation—but as we know now, that never happened, and gains by women and people of color are slipping fast in the economic turmoil.
The question before us is: what can we do to save the Public Square? Where do we meet (or tweet up) as a nation un-divided?