ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are helping people stay connected, but some observers worry social networks are reinforcing our divisions by letting us hang out online with people who are just like us.
NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL: Dwayne Aikens goes to Facebook to stay in touch with friends and family who, for the most part, share his political views. Aikens lives in Oakland, California, and runs a nonprofit that focuses on health and fitness. He's generally liberal.
Mr. DWAYNE AIKENS: A lot of my friends are Democrats and liberals. I haven't really seen no Tea Parties, and I haven't bumped into no Republicans.
SYDELL: And Facebook's software may be reinforcing his tendency to only see links from people he agrees with. When Facebook shows you your top news, it guesses what you'll like based on how often you click on a particular friend's entries.
Dean Eckles, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford who studies social networks, says most people don't click on posts when they disagree.
Mr. DEAN ECKLES (Doctoral Candidate, Stanford University): Because I'm not sure I want to register my disagreement with somebody. That may just not seem appropriate or like a fun experience. And so, a service like Facebook can't really know that you want to see that there if you never click on the content and you never comment on it.
SYDELL: Facebook keeps you in your own group. In some ways, Twitter does, as well, but it may connect you with people who you don't know but who enjoy, say, the same TV show.
(Soundbite of music)
SYDELL: If you look at trending topics on Tuesday nights, you might see a hashtag for "The Game." It's a show on BET about a group of black football players and their personal lives.
(Soundbite of television program, "The Game")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Finally got himself a woman that knows how to take care of a ball player.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Yes, sir.
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) Yeah, you know what? I thought I had one of those. I thought I had one of those, but she was all take and no care.
SYDELL: Dwayne Aikens watches and Tweets about "The Game." He loves the show because it gets beneath stereotypes of black football players.
Mr. AIKENS: The show gives it the opportunity to be spoken about and to be made real, and some of the issues on the show might start movements or something like that.
SYDELL: A Twitter movement is what has kept "The Game" on the air. In 2009, the CW network canceled it. Angry tweets went out from the black community, says Kyra Gaunt, a professor at City College and a TED fellow who is African American. Gaunt says the Twitter conversation focused on how little good programming there was about black life, even on BET. Gaunt says BET saw the chatter and picked up "The Game."
Ms. KYRA GAUNT (Professor, City College): I think there's a little bit of wishful, hopeful thinking that something might turn a corner with the way that BET mediates images of black people. We don't want a black version of MTV.
SYDELL: Among African-Americans, Twitter is extremely popular. According to a study by Edison Research, 25 percent of Twitter users are black.
Craig Watkins, a communications professor at the University of Texas, says young African Americans use Twitter because so many of them have cell phones and use them to communicate with friends. He says it's also the main entry way to the Internet for many low-income blacks who don't have home computers and broadband.
Mr. CRAIG WATKINS (Communications Professor, University of Texas): And so that mobile device becomes a very sort of reliable way to do the kinds of things that they want to do online, if it's watching video, if it's updating their Facebook status, if it's using Twitter.
SYDELL: But, even though there is a lot of conversation going on among African-Americans on Twitter, Professor Gaunt says it's very different from the closed nature of Facebook because tweets are public.
Ms. GAUNT: It becomes about listening, like, oh my God, I can listen in to what black people are talking about. Oh my God, they talk about that? Oh my God. And you can actually say something if you want.
SYDELL: When Gaunt realized people could talk back on Twitter, she decided to have conversations about race. She says it's been a really freeing experience because people are honest.
Ms. GAUNT: You can really have a conversation and not worry about getting punched in the nose. There's debate. There's engagement. There's learning about black people even if you've never seen one before.
SYDELL: Gaunt says she's made new friends through Twitter.
Ms. GAUNT: I'm meeting strangers. I met with two people I had engaged with through Twitter in the past 10 days who I'd never met in real time, in what we say in IRL, in real life. And I met them, and I felt like this is my tribe.
SYDELL: And Gaunt says they weren't black. But the key word for some observers is tribe. Although there are people like Gaunt who are using social media to reach out, some observers are concerned that she is the exception to the rule, that most of us will be content to stay within our race, class, ethnicity, family or political party.
Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
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