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Beyond the Valley: Are We There Yet?

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
November 2009 Issue
September 27, 2009

Beyond the Valley: Are We There Yet?

The Virtual Valley was supposed to bring us all together. Our physical location was supposed to matter less than with whom we connected online. Yet, there seem to be limits to our online social networks.

Researchers have studied online communities for almost three decades, often assuming virtual communities were going to liberate us from traditional barriers. This year we saw evidence that barriers persist online.

Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University, calls this the “Whose Space?” phenomenon. Users, however, being less politically correct than academics, have rechristened MySpace as “MyGhetto,”  “GangstaSpace” and “MyHood.”

According to Hargittai’s data, Hispanics are twice as likely to use MySpace as Facebook. There is also a high correlation between educational level and which social sites someone uses. Of those using a social site, 86 percent of college graduates use Facebook while this group continues an exodus from MySpace.

The concern expressed by researchers is that we continue to self-select and segregate online. It’s a natural tendency for people to gather with people like themselves. Despite hopes that differences would be less obvious online, the opposite is true. If anything, we have more ways to segregate ourselves.

When I look at the online profiles of my Facebook friends, they are a rather homogeneous group. Most are college graduates. They tend to share links to news stories, especially science news. None list country music or rap among their favorites. It’s not uncommon for two or three of my friends to post links to the same science news or book reviews.

Facebook was created to allow classmates a way to network. It wasn’t meant to expand our social horizons. If anything, Facebook reinforces our perceptions, and misconceptions, of the world.

I deleted a MySpace profile earlier this year because only one of my friends was using the service. By cancelling my account, I was one more college-educated, middle-class loss to Facebook. It was the virtual equivalent of moving to the “better neighborhood” in the suburbs where most of my online friends had migrated.

MySpace was designed to let you search for new people. It’s been called a free online dating service because you can search by gender, relationship status, and location. Even when we are free to locate new friends, we look for people like ourselves.

I have made new contacts online, but not on social networking sites. I also wouldn’t call these individuals “friends.” They are peers, colleagues, and associates. The site LinkedIn calls them “connections” in my network, demonstrating the utilitarian nature of online communities.

Yahoo Groups ( have been a great way to meet people with hobbies and interests similar to my own. Membership in groups seldom overlap; the computer programmers, creative writers, and university instructors don’t tend to discuss life in general. Again, my worldview is not expanding, but I am able to gain knowledge from various experts.

Someone living in the Central Valley can network with and learn from people all over the globe. I’ve participated in discussions with some of the best writers alive. There is always the chance of forming a genuine friendship, too.

Still, our online interactions are utilitarian. We often seek to accomplish tasks or promote a cause. Social connections are secondary. Studies of online education reveal that students seldom make connections that persist beyond the virtual classroom. That is why universities such as Texas Tech ask their online graduate students to gather in Lubbock for two weeks each year.

The value of a prestigious university education goes well beyond the classroom. You attend an exclusive school for the social connections, the campus organizations, and campus events. That is why many smaller, private universities require students live on campus. There is no way for a virtual education to match the real experience.

Even computer hackers and online activists hold annual conventions. Maybe gatherings are an excuse to visit Las Vegas, but there is also a genuine desire to meet the people behind clever screen names. We wonder who “DarkNaught” and “VmpyrLvr” really are, not what they claim to be online.

Does this mean the Virtual Valley must remain isolated? Or, can we get beyond our physical location — and human nature?

Because the physical connections remain important, what we should do is nurture those connections using social networks and online communities.

Join professional sites, such as LinkedIn, and connect to both current and past coworkers.
Use Facebook to connect to classmates, coworkers, friends and family.
Locate communities, dedicated Web sites, where you will participate, not merely “lurk.”
Introduce your online friends to each other and to your “real” friends online.

Connecting the people we know outside the Valley to those who live here makes the Virtual Valley a richer place with more opportunities for everyone. If we want the Valley to be more, we have to make it more.

The Internet does not connect us simply because we are online. We have to make an effort to understand and embrace each other in real life. We have to do the same online.

One way to do this is to connect small online groups to larger online groups. For example, artists in Visalia can connect to other artists throughout Tulare County. Then, county groups can connect to Valley-wide groups. Online communities will then strengthen connections.

My hope is that as we expand our virtual communities, we find unexpected connections.

Hargittai, E. (2007). Whose space? Differences among users and non-users of social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication


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