The Myth of Equal Opportunity on the Internet
Many have heralded the Internet as an equalizing network—a place where typically marginalized voices are finally able to speak and be heard. In some ways, this optimistic ideal holds true. Twitter has been a remarkable platform for social movements to gain traction and accumulate support. While major media platforms like television and newspapers are strictly hierarchical in deciding what stories are told, the Internet gives the public a chance to decide what they want to see and hear. Anyone with an internet connection can engage in a previously one-sided dialogue and speak his or her mind. #BlackLivesMatter is a household term about which only the most unconnected and uninformed individuals can claim ignorance. But is it really so simple? Can we really claim that the Internet is an equal opportunity platform that has ended the systematic oppression of marginalized voices?
Despite the victories of the Internet, any depiction of the medium as an equal playing field that is structured to facilitate diversity is both naive and wholly inaccurate. According to Astra Taylor in her book The People’s Platform (2014), the unfortunate reality is that the “openness of the Web reflects and even amplifies real-world inequalities as often as it ameliorates them” (10). All the sexism and racism built into our society entangles itself into the structure and function of the Internet. There is a stark absence of diversity and representation at the top of the Internet hierarchy, whether those positions are seen or unseen. The algorithms and codes that shape the online world are not nearly as objective as we assume, and in fact can be more prone to biases than their subjective programmer. In spite of this, the Internet has still been used to usher in a new age of diversity and representation with mixed results. However, for the most part, the same voices are being heard or ignored online.
YouTube has been lauded as the epitome of equal opportunity on the Internet. Anyone can make a video, upload it, and potentially reach millions of screens around the world. YouTube stars in particular are often placed on an imaginary pedestal with a plaque literally claiming: “This Could Be You!” A nobody playing video games or making funny vlogs could see themselves become the next PewDiePie, A YouTuber with over 40 million subscribers and a net worth of $12 million. However, the demographics of these YouTube celebrities seem to be far less diverse than that of real celebrities, with no African American present in the top 20 for most subscribed YouTubers (Jacobs).
Online journals, newspapers, and blogs have also seen a lack of diversity. Digital publications frequently replicate the skewed prominence of white men seen in their print counterparts. According to Amanda Hess, this result actually makes quite a lot of sense considering “these online platforms represent the merging of journalism (which is a traditionally white and male-dominated field) with technology (which is even more so!). If anything, their marriage should only produce more powerful white men.” Most prominent online journals continue to have diversity issues. VIDA, a non-profit dedicated to supporting women writers, annually tallies contributions to leading publications, in print and online, by gender. A recent VIDA Count demonstrated that The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker, all possess a staff of 75% men or more (King). According to Shani O. Hilton, a contributor at Buzzfeed: “Just as women and journalists of color are beginning to have a major presence in more traditional newsrooms, the disruptive white boys are jumping ship and starting their own ventures — only to replicate the same diversity problems newspapers and magazines have struggled with for decades. (Problems, one could argue, that helped drive them into irrelevance.)” At the top of the Internet chain, those who have held the most power to be heard continue to have that power online as well. Blogging has also seen similar diversity issues. Matthew Hindman, a professor at George Washington University conducted a survey of top ten blogs. According to his findings, only one blog belonged to a female writer, and of the top thirty bloggers there were no “identifiable African Americans” and only “one Asian blogger, and one of mixed Latin heritage” (Hindman in Taylor 113). Astra Taylor writes: “When accounting for audience share, it turns out the blogosphere is less diverse than the notoriously whitewashed op-ed pages of old-school newspapers” (114).
In order to properly address the issue of diversity on the Internet, we must first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Women are raised in a society that values them for their looks and disposition, subsequently devaluing their talent and skills. Eszter Hargittai, a professor at Northwestern University conducted a study in which she interviewed 100 Internet users who showed no significant variation in their online competency. The sexes were equal in terms of their actual ability, however the real difference was in their self-assessment: “Not a single woman called herself an expert user, meanwhile not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or not at all skilled.” (Taylor 111). It is no surprise therefore that so few women are able to rise to prominence on online platforms or even bother trying to pursue it, especially when their own self-doubt is paired with the doubt and discrimination of others. Women on the internet are often kept silent and discouraged from participating due to the violent and malicious backlash they often receive. While men might receive comments calling them “stupid” or “retard,” the comments that women receive are much more threatening and sexual in nature (Taylor 112). As a result, the Internet is a much less friendly or welcoming environment to participate in.
The belief that everyone can have a public voice thanks to the Internet assumes that everyone has access to the Internet. In fact, globally, most of the population does not. Even in the United States, one-third of households do not possess an Internet connection, and such households are primarily concentrated in minorities in low socioeconomic classes (Taylor 109). With more and more print publications switching exclusively to online publications, those without Internet are at risk of being left out of the public sphere entirely. If we do not have equal access to resources, then we do not have equal access to opportunities.
One ramification of unequal access to the Internet is further lack of diversity in tech companies. In 2010, not even one percent of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black (Taylor 115). The fact that there is such a drastic lack of representation and diversity among the minds that construct and control the Internet is essential to understanding the disparities that exist within it. The Silicon Valley founders, executives, and programmers, literally shape the Internet we use and inhabit. In our modern, online society, programmers are the new urban planners (Taylor 116). These are the people who design and program the algorithms that determine who and what gets to be heard. There can be serious problems when programmers don’t take into consideration the effects their algorithms might have on other users. Kate Losse, one of the first and only female workers at Facebook during the company’s early years, wrote about how the mostly male, upper-level employees were ignorant of the ways their products could be unwanted or even dangerous for women. For example, Facebook’s “Places” location product allowed users and their location to be tagged without consent by friends, “which could create a specific vulnerability for female users, who might be subject to predators searching for their locations” (Losse). This is what happens when something is designed by men who are not thinking about this female-specific vulnerability. Losse also mentions Twitter’s decision to remove users’ ability to block their tweets from particular users, a decision which many speculated “would have been different if Twitter’s leadership, currently very white and male, included people whose marginalized identities make them routine targets of online harassment.”
Algorithms are used to make decisions that drastically affect vital aspects of online, and even real, life. The NSA has an exorbitant amount of data and metadata to sift and search through, making their stated intents, say finding the one terrorist out of millions of innocent civilians, nearly impossible. As a result, they are aided largely by algorithms designed to help them find the needle in the haystack (Ball). However, how does an algorithm know what to look for in a terrorist? The algorithm doesn’t know until its inherently biased programmer tells it what makes a person more likely to be a terrorist. For example, being Muslim. The programmer holds prejudices which he or she might not even be aware of holding; however, these dormant stereotypes become systematic once they are programmed into the algorithms that obey them without hesitation.
According to Astra Taylor, “the algorithms being created are likely to reflect the dominant social norms of our day and, perhaps, be even more discriminatory than the people who devised them.” (132) Companies such as Google and Facebook want to know categorizable information (sex, race, etc.) about their users in order to create data sets which they can use to their advantage. However, with the use of these big-data sets, the programs and algorithms are enabled to draw correlations and conclusions that have discriminatory effects (Taylor 116). For example, Latanya Sweeney uncovered racial bias based on Google searches: black-identifying names yielded a higher incidence of ads associated with “arrest” than white-identifying names. This type of discrimination is not conscious or done directly by a human being with prejudices, but rather by computer programs with human bias and prejudice inadvertently built into them.
Although it seems the equal opportunity network we were promised was nothing but an optimistic lie, there is a silver lining: there are still many ways that these issues of discrimination and lack of diversity are beginning to change. The Internet is still trying to prove itself as a compelling platform for marginalized voices to finally be heard. For example, despite the lack of representation in leading periodicals, within tech companies, and across the most visible users of user-generated content platforms, there is something different to be said about the reach and support marginalized voices have been able to achieve on the Internet. A black teen growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood is no longer is limited by geography when it comes to finding like-minded peers. DeRay Mckesson spoke of this, saying: “Despite constantly feeling like I was a token, or that I had to tiptoe around white sensitivities, I couldn’t have told you what ailed me. I wasn’t politically conscious. I didn’t have the language to speak about microaggressions, aggression-aggressions, or structural prejudice. I just endured a thing I wasn’t totally sure I was enduring.” With the presence of the Internet and social media he says: “All of a sudden, you see that there’s a community of people who share the same symptoms.” With the Internet you can gather hoards of people, who would have never connected otherwise, and build solidarity virtually.
You cannot talk about the topic of gate-keeping on the Internet without talking about Twitter, and the cultural phenomenon of #HashtagActivism. Jay Caspian Kang wrote on the subject:
“There is no denying the viral power of hashtag activists who capitalize on the speed at which a single tweet can multiply into something that resembles a protest rally. A new Twitter outrage seems to detonate every week, and, in many cases, the voices raised in these social-media movements belong to groups that do not have equal representation within the mainstream media.”
While many would argue the ineffectiveness of Twitter activism compared to traditional forms of activism, the spectacle of a hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter or #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen often is enough to have real-life impacts on diversity outside of the original context. When a hashtag centered on a marginalized group trends such that it dominates social media discussions, online news platforms will inevitably need to report on it in order to join the conversation and remain relevant. However, imagine the glaring display of inadequacy if a white, male journalist were to write an article on #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen because his employer had no women of color on the staff. These online journals are losing their credibility and becoming irrelevant as their lack of diversity is embarrassingly coming to light. As a result, many of these journals are making greater attempts to bring diversity to their staff in order to be better equipped in reporting on the issues that matter to their readers.
However, ‘diversity’ doesn’t stop at hiring one person who represents each so-called different viewpoint, be it race or gender or sexual orientation or political leaning” (Hilton). According to Shani O. Hilton, “any newsroom in which the black staffer is expected to speak up for blackness while the white staffers only have to speak for themselves is a newsroom that’s failing.” Thus, while these results are important, they are still just the first of many steps for actualized diversity.
The issue of diversity in new media is a complicated one, with far too many layers, aspects, and viewpoints to be properly addressed in a single book, let alone in a single essay. However, the evidence overwhelmingly debunks the depiction of new media as an all-inclusive frontier. While it may be true that a far greater percentage of the population has a voice thanks to the Internet and social media, in the words of Astra Taylor, “What matters is not just who speaks but who is heard” (136). And thanks to the hiring practices, societal hierarchies, and algorithms that shape the online conversation, the same voices are being heard while the others are left screaming in the abyss.
Ball, James. “Are you at risk from the anti-terrorism algorithms?” The Guardian. December 2, 2014. Web. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/dec/02/youre-the-bomb-are-you-at-risk-from-anti-terrorism-algorithms-automated-tracking-innocent-people
Hess, Amanda. “The Online Journalism “Revolution” Will Produce More Powerful White Men.” Slate. March 13, 2013. Web.
Hilton, Shani O. “Building A Diverse Newsroom Is Work.” Medium. March 14, 2014. Web. https://medium.com/@shani_o/building-a-diverse-newsroom-is-work-e4843d6d014b#.qmd8v1d5l
Jacobs, Harrison. “The 20 Most Popular YouTubers In The World.” Business Insider. November 10, 2015. Web. http://www.businessinsider.com/top-20-most-popular-youtube-stars-2014-11
Kang, Jay Caspian. “The Campaign to ‘Cancel’ Colbert.” The New Yorker. March 30, 2014. Web. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-campaign-to-cancel-colbert
King, Amy. “The VIDA Count 2013.” VIDA Web. February 24, 2014. Web.
Losse, Kate. “The Male Gazed.” Model View Culture. January 14, 2013. Web. https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/the-male-gazed
Stephen, Bijan. “Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power.” Wired. November 2015. http://www.wired.com/2015/10/how-black-lives-matter-uses-social-media-to-fight-the-power/
Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age. New York: Metropolitan, 2014. Print.