Why do my Facebook Friends look just like me?

a writing assignment for #SelfieClass

Facebook. All those smiling friends staring back at you like a bag of skittles. Such diversity. Everyone’s so different, except they’re not. Why?

Racial and ethnic groups segregate themselves even in living spaces, such as colleges, that have been designed to promote integration. Following a tendency toward ‘homophily,’ this self-segregation seems to be a fairly resilient tendency. Yet shouldn’t you be more likely to form an integrated network online than to seek out diversity in your living environment? Compare choosing Facebook friends to choosing your roommates? Shouldn’t we feel more free to seek out diverse groups online than we would in face-to-face settings where we may feel racial and ethnic difference most strongly?

Curiously, online networks tend to follow the pattern of our in-person networks, even though they are presumably free of the constraints of location and opportunity and seem to require such low levels of risk or commitment.

In fact, it is surprising that our online networks aren’t all radically more diverse. But Facebook is not independent of our face-to-face lives and is hardly a race-free zone.

Since we receive so much information through social networks, such as Facebook, the make-up of our “friends” determines the information we receive, albeit filtered through Facebook in obvious and hidden ways. How might the makeup of your friend network be shaping what you see?

Prompt: What’s the impact of the racial or ethnic makeup of your network on your experience of Facebook?

Writing Task: Write a thesis-driven essay that analyzes the racial and ethnic makeup of your network and the ways that demographic and its relative diversity affect the kinds of information you see on your feed.

Rather than analyzing your entire group of friends, we will use Wolfram Alpha to analyze your friendship networks.
http://www.wolframalpha.com/facebook

Consider the following factors:

Top Commenters:
Top Post Sharers:
Friends with the most mutual friends
Top Mutual Friend Clusters
Top Social Insiders: Shares large # of friends with you
Top Social Outsiders: Shares at most 1 friend
Top Social Connectors: Connects groups of disconnected friends
Top Social Neighbors: Has very friends you don’t have
Top Social Gateways: Has high number of friends you don’t.

Compare these numbers to a control. Recommended sources:

https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-02.pdf
or USC’s statistics:
http://about.usc.edu/facts/

Questions:

How homogenous or heterogeneous is your Facebook network?
What might cause this homogeneity?
Is there something about Facebook that reinforces this homogeneity?
If your network is heterogeneous, why do you think that is?
How do your friend networks determine what shows up in your feed?
How do your numbers compare to the national distribution of the US and/or the country where you have citizenship? How do your number compare to USC’s population?

Remember, there are two crucial aspects to this assignment: 1) analyzing the makeup of your network and then 2) analyzing the impact of those friendship demographics on the kind of information you get through the network. “Information” here includes news information, as in stories shared; event information, as in parties and concerts; cultural information, as in music, books, and films; and personal information, information about your various friends. You might be best off, in a paper this short, to focus on one aspect of information.

Readings:

Integrate ideas from these readings into your essay.
Ethno-Racial Displays on Facebook,” Gasmuck, Martin, Zhao
“‘You have one identity’: performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn,” van Djick
“White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook,” boyd
“Core Networks, Social Isolation, and New Media,” Hampton, Sessions, and Her.

Previous assignment: Know Thy Selfie

Mark C. Marino teaches Writing at the University of Southern California