Social Networks and Inequality
How Facebook contributes to economic (and other) inequality.
Posted Mar 07, 2012
Americans are discovering that despite their ideology of opportunity for all, our society is becoming more and more unequal. "We are the 99," the Occupy Wall Street movement's slogan, is based on this realization. In a recent talk on inequality, Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, observed that while the median income in the United States has declined since 1999, the income of the top 1% has increased by 13.5 percentage points since 1979. Further, a recent report by a team of international scholars shows Americans enjoy less economic and occupational mobility than Canadians and most Western Europeans. According to a Pew Charitable Trusts poll, the public at large is more likely today than two years ago to believe that there are conflicts between the rich and poor in America.
There are many systemic reasons for this growing inequality, but one factor may have been overlooked. Social networking, which claims to make connections and bring people together, paradoxically exacerbates social divisions and inequalities. Social networks are inherently unfair and exclusionary. They operate on the principle of homophily—a Greek derived word that means "love of same," or, more colloquially, "birds of a feather flock together." Three things characterize friendship networks: the same kinds of people come together, they influence one another to think alike, and, once they are in the same place, that very location influences them to become more alike. If people have lower prestige, socio-economic status, or are the targets of discrimination, then their networks will be composed of people with lower prestige, lower socio-economic status, and who are otherwise disadvantaged.
Social networks can encourage people to adopt practices that help them to get ahead, even if they all start from the same place. Students whose friends take Advanced Placement classes are themselves more likely to take AP classes that help them get into good colleges. Conversely, social networks can discourage people from engaging in practices such as smoking or eating unhealthy foods that harm them physically or delinquent and criminal behaviors that harm them socially. But networks that help to gain an advantage are most often found amongst people with higher socio-economic status to begin with. "To he who hath shall be given" is a social network truism: the effects of social networks are amplified for those who are already socially advantaged.
Friendship can be thought of as "social capital" which is unequally distributed. Study after study has affirmed that if your friends have financial or educational resources or have connections to people who could put in a good word for you, then you are much more likely to rise to the top. We have long known that wealth and connections are inherited; we forget that friendship networks, whether naturally occurring as a result of one's position, or consciously cultivated as part of a "networking" strategy, enhance the advantages of inheritance and add to the 1 percent's insularity. The converse is true. When one's friends lack resources, it is more difficult to join the middle class. It is not a "culture of poverty" that is the problem, it is the social network of poverty.
Social networking, a concept added to the Oxford English Dictionary only in 1993, has been vastly amplified by such internet based sites as Facebook, founded in 2004 but now used by more than 150 million Americans. According to Facebook, the average user has 130 "friends." Social network research suggests that one's friends reflect one's own class, status and interests. Even access to the internet itself is increased by having friends of higher income and education. Making friends and keeping up with them is a pleasurable activity, even an obsessive one among some young people. An unanticipated consequence of networking, however, is an increase in social and economic inequality. The rise of social networking is hardly the only factor contributing to increased inequality, but in the warm circle of individual friendship, others can be left out in the cold.