Lisa Nakamura Workshop/”Exploring Race and Community in the Digital World”

Lisa Nakamura (Professor, Departments of American Cultures and Screen Arts and Cultures, University of Michigan ) skyped in to an audience gathered for the “Exploring Race and Community in the Digital World” workshop series sponsored by the African American Studies at Harvard University. Using The Social Network (the 2010 film directed by David Fincher and staring Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg )as an informal and unofficial history, Nakamura explored the ways in which the design of Facebook replicates the class lines and distinctions of the Liberal Arts University. “If you want to understand how FB works,” Nakamura explained, you have to understand the history of higher education” in the United States. Noting that the principle algorithm organizing FB is the educational institution with which one is affiliated, the social networking service excludes and sorts identities according to this class-inflected principle. Thus, though a user never identifies his or her racial identity or affiliation, school attended, gender and relationship status are used to develop “strong identities” that can be linked—and mined—by various commercial organizations. She contrasted this social network formation with the now outdated MySpace—a format that operated according to the user’s imagined and self-created identities outside the external signifiers like the ones that Facebook requires. She argued that this format enabled a kind of radical democracy that has been lost with the advent of Facebook and other social networking services such as LinkedIn. She also noted how the slow rollout of the service—beginning at Harvard and then making its way across the Ivies and then beyond—is also clear evidence of the way FB encoded social exclusion by design. Unlike other forms of social exclusion—such as racism—using educational institutions as a primary principle of organization presents as less problematic because attending college is a way of manifesting social aspirations. As a tribute to the positive good that this organizing principle can enable, Nakamura noted the fact that at least two newborn Egyptian girls were named “Facebook” after the events of 25 January 2011 known as the “Arab Spring.” (See By the end of the talk both Nakamura and her audience were in agreement that social media are becoming like states, legislating identity through their archivability.

Augusta Rohrbach
Washington State University