Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Virtual experiences reflect real-world social constructs

By Anna Soldner

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As a member of Generation Y – often referred as the “Millennials,” born roughly between 1980 and 1995 – I have grown rather immune to being typecast.

Collegian File Photo/Collegian

Part pioneer, part by-product of the Information Age, the Millennial demographic is likely one of the most extensively researched in American history, and if the media reports are any gauge of accuracy, today’s teens and 20-somethings are at best tech savvy and at worst pegged as narcissistic, entitled, and a bunch of insincere hipsters.

It should come as no surprise, then, that society and mass media toss headline-ready buzz phrases such as “digital natives” into the already bubbling pot of sweeping generalizations.

Take, for instance, the November 19 issue of the Daily Collegian that includes a column titled, “The Virtualization of Experience”. Author Jan Dichter, in an earnest attempt to explore how networked existence has reconfigured our structures of ‘being,’ begins by revealing that he only recently heard the term “digital native” mentioned in an NPR report.

“Digital natives” is a term most often used to describe youth who, as a result of growing up in a technology-immersed world, are believed to be inherently more digitally literate than the older generation of so-called “digital immigrants.”

But phrases like “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are not only woefully ambiguous, but factually bankrupt.

Contrary to NPR’s generational trend pieces on the matter (there are several), extensive research shows that “digital natives” don’t exist. There is no such thing as “digital natives” because there is no singular, distinct population of people with equal access to and skills with digital media, and to think otherwise would be nothing short of misguided and classist.

What about the myriad of youth who simply lack access to laptops, cell phones and tablets? What about the youth who may desire to become more fluent with technology, but are illiterate or attend schools with little to no technology budget?

Dichter, like so many others, speculates on the implications of a fundamental generational shift, but ends up accepting these pervasive discourses on the basis that they sound plausible. And on the surface, they do.

However, the discussion of technology has grown far more complex since 2001 when the distinction between a digital “native” and “immigrant” was first coined by author Michael Prensky.

The reality is that the term only accurately describes a fraction of our nation’s youth – predominantly those who are upper middle class, white and educated. The rhetoric surrounding “digital natives” not only ignores the nuanced realities of privilege and an incredibly diverse culture of youth, but automatically renders older generations technologically incompetent.

Similarly, people often talk about the Internet as being a true democracy where everyone is granted equal footing. But in the same way that not all millennials are born tech geeks, public digital spheres are not free of division and inequality.

History tells us that advances or innovations in technology are often met with severe apprehension and anxiety. There seems to be a certain fear that the rise of cyber technology and social media is somehow eroding the integrity of social interaction, and that anything outside of face-to-face interaction is dismissed as inconsequential or artificial.

Social media’s “unfettered torrent of trivial gossip, uninformed rants and embarrassing confessions,” which Dichter deems meaningless, is actually crucial in understanding the current social stratifications of the Internet.

When any one of us logs onto Facebook (or any other public social network), we are exposed to a digital reality that reflects and amplifies pre-existing dynamics.

The present virtual environment we take part in on the Internet does not replace human social interaction, but rather replicates and reinforces everyday life it in all its complexities.

Social media scholar danah boyd’s research on teen engagement on Facebook and MySpace is evidence that social networks often carry heavy racial and class tensions.

The 2006-07 movement from MySpace to Facebook showed us what “white flight” looks like on a digital frontier: Wealthier white teens began to abandon what they viewed as a “ghetto” Myspace for the “elite” and “highbrow” feel of Facebook.

The real life racial dynamics that segregates youth in the classroom so too creates social divisions in digital spheres.

For these reasons, it’s important to recognize that not everyone who engages in networked publics comes equipped with the same skill set and knowledge to use social media in conventionally effective ways.

The people who Dichter says are “gossiping”, “ranting” and “confessing” in social networks are embracing and adapting to the digital technology in the way they know best.

So when discussing engagement with technology, before making grandiose generalizations or getting trapped in dystopian trains of thought, we must first address the powerful underlying class politics that shape our experiences.

The Internet, like all technology, is not content neutral. Kranzberg’s First Law stated it best by saying, “Technology is neither good nor bad – nor is it neutral.” In working towards eradicating inequalities, we should avoid speaking about technology in polarized terms – technology is neither the problem nor the solution, but merely a tool.

At the crux of this tool exists a complex, ever-evolving force of gender, race, class and education dynamics that serve as both a critical distinction and united struggle for our world.

If we can understand this, the serious issues of access and inequality will become all the easier to combat.

Anna Soldner is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]


9 Responses to “Virtual experiences reflect real-world social constructs”

  1. Sam on November 28th, 2012 12:18 pm

    This is outrageous. From the anecdotal musings of ONE fourteen year old girl comes the conclusion that “social networks often carry heavy racial and class tensions.” Apparently, the logical explanation for the exodus of people from MySpace to Facebook, that Facebook offers a higher quality service, is erroneous. Rather, it’s simply because most white people are hateful and bigoted racists, and make every attempt to segregate themselves along racial lines. What the author fails to realize is that your contact with other people on social network sites is limited by who you choose to interact with. If I can’t stand the sight of my ex-girlfriend’s status updates on Facebook, do I leave for google plus? Of course not. I simply unfriend or block her. Similarly, if a white supremacist decides he doesn’t want to remain in contact with all of his black friends on MySpace, the block button is a few clicks away. Unfortunately, Anna’s fanciful theories fail to comport with reality and reason. Explaining away all of the implications of statistically manifest racial differences in social network site choice by citing racism and racial tensions is logically flawed, irresponsible, and lazy. The real underlying causes are likely much more nuanced, complex, and innocuous, but I guess calling racism makes for a more exciting column.


  2. Henry on November 28th, 2012 12:45 pm

    Sam… A 14 year old girl? Come on. I completely agree with this article. Learn a little about social media.


  3. Jan Dichter on November 28th, 2012 1:37 pm

    Hi Anna, thanks for your response and I’m glad I provoked such a thoughtful response. I do want to point out right away though that I think you misunderstood my piece and as convenient a foil as your straw-man version of it may be for your own quite interesting argument, I would like to clarify first off that I was writing about the phenomenology of telecommunications, the kind of metaphysical perspective on the world that it encourages. And while it certainly came to my attention because, as I think we can all notice, it is becoming increasingly pervasive in daily life, certainly nowhere in my piece will you find such definitively historicized claims to the effect that ‘this is how everything is now’, that there is *NOTHING* online but gossip and rants, etc. For some who charges me with painting with too broad a brush, you have done just the same with my own points. You are just flat wrong in a few places, including where you say I call online discourse ‘meaningless’ or ‘inconsequential’. It certainly isn’t either; why would I have written a whole piece on it if I thought so? I don’t mean to boast but I don’t think my piece is so badly written that a patient reader couldn’t have gotten the actual point from it.
    My actual point really doesn’t contradict yours. Of course our experiences with telecommunications are embedded in a social and historical context. How the phenomenology of presence, in other words the basic given assumptions of daily experience, is distorted by this form of media, is directly a result of these conditions. And it’s obvious that not everyone is welcome, or in any sense present, in the digital ‘utopia’ (I also pointed out, like you do here, that ‘digital natives’ is a ridiculous phrase). The crisis of presence long predates the current deployments of information networks; that is the very ‘meaning’ of what you claim I called ‘meaningless’, and it is the result of the same long history of accumulated dispossessions which produced as well the gender, race and class divides you touch on somewhat generally. Given that these are social constructs, after all, isn’t it worth asking in a broader way about the very grounds of experience in ‘virtual space’ that apply widely across categories, to human perception and thought and its cultural construction itself? Race, gender and class after all not the only things reflected, distorted, and amplified here; a lot of things, like these separations themselves, are seemingly diminished (diminished in appearance). I’m sorry if you think that’s too abstract and philosophical, too irrelevant to the ‘real-world need for change’ (etc.), but I obviously don’t, and that doesn’t mean we disagree as much as that we are just talking about different things.
    Anyway I hope this is all fairly clear, and I don’t understand why the DC editorial staff removed the friendly reference in my piece to the piece by Karen Podorefsky which inspired it, while allowing such a mischaracterization of my writing to appear here. As I said, it’s a fine piece, I’m just not entirely certain it’s fleshed out enough to where I can see quite where you’re going with it, and as I also said I don’t see why you would think I am so much in opposition to this viewpoint.


  4. Percy on November 28th, 2012 6:29 pm

    To Sam, I would address the question as to what is exactly is “fanciful” in Soldner’s argument? Nothing seems remotely surprising to me about the fact that social networks can exude the symptom of class/racial tensions, and at least in my view, it is a perfectly reasonable and realistic claim the author makes in drawing that virtualized experience can reflect and reinforce the same conflicts as the physical.

    Actually, the point you raise as to the ability of a social media user to avoid certain people or groups of people with the click of a button merely serves to support Soldner’s claim—lingering racism and class stratification only calcifies in an environment where conflict can be avoided, prejudice go unchecked, with the click of a button. I also wonder why a white supremacist would have so many black friends on MySpace to begin with?

    Great article, brought up a lot of angles I’d never considered about the virtualization of experience.


  5. Sam on November 29th, 2012 1:21 pm

    Henry: The cited research backing Solder’s claims, Danah Boyd’s research, involved one 14 year old girl (not “wealtheir white teens”) calling myspace “ghetto.”

    Percy: Of course a white supremacist wouldn’t have black friends. Thats my point: Soldner tries to make the case that white people left Myspace en masse because of racism. In reality, any white person with racist views wouldn’t choose to interact with minorities in the first place, and thus wouldn’t have to flee to Facebook to avoid them. The author’s argument, that the migration of people from Myspace to Facebook indicates massive racial tensions rather than consumer choice following the advent of a superior social networking site, is baseless.

    The real problem here is that the “lingering racism” the author, Percy, and Henry seem to think is endemic to American society simply doesn’t exist. First of all, how can there be “lingering racism” amongst our generation in the first place? Lingering from when? The civil rights movement? Segregation? We missed that one by a few decades. Does racism exist in America today? Of course it does. However it is neither widespread, nor is it normalized in society. The term is thrown around like candy today, used as a catch-all to explain complicated situations because people like to imagine themselves as morally superior civil rights warriors, fighting in a war that doesn’t exist. This hypervigilance ends up diluting and distorting what racism means, and insults people who fought and are still fighting against real racial injustice.

    People chosing Facebook over Myspace is not racism or racial prejudice. There aren’t massive racial tensions driving people to choose a social networking site. White people at large don’t make decisions from day to day based on the seething bigotry and hate they keep hidden from everyone else. Stop it.


  6. Peter on November 29th, 2012 5:04 pm

    Eradicating inequality sounds like everyone would live equally. That sounds terrible.


  7. Chris on November 29th, 2012 6:11 pm

    Sam, what you are talking about is overt individual racism, which is what people who don’t understand basic fundamental concepts of both privilege and institutional/systemic racism automatically think articles like this are talking about. That’s not what Anna is talking about. Go forth and Google the other kinds.


  8. Sam on December 4th, 2012 12:45 am

    Suggesting institutionalized racism or privilege is even more rediculous. There is no hidden force insidiously guiding white people from MySpace and minorities from Facebook. Both are free, so any claim that Facebook requires more privilege than MySpace falls on its face. Finally, under no rational analysis can it be concluded that minorities are somehow barred or deterred from Facebook because of their minority status. Such a claim is categorically false.


  9. mason on December 23rd, 2012 10:33 pm

    I wonder why some are so obsessed with race; racism is an unfortunate part of society but they tend to exaggerate and amplify racism and any correlation that demonstrates disparities in the interactions of race, they automatically presume must indicate racism and often and in this case do not indicate it’s presence by proving causation.

    They’re quick to demonize institutions and the privileged as being racist or exploitative and seem more interested in polarizing racism into simple terms and creating agitation than truly examining the divides caused by race in america and trying to find a meaningful way to bring people together.


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