The Internet May Be as Segregated as a City – The Atlantic

When McIlwain looked at how the 3,000 sites he’d chosen were connected to one another, he found that non-racial and racial sites linked to each other in relatively equal measure: Neither type of site had a significant bias toward similar sites.

But divisions began to crop up when it came to how visitors actually navigated between the sites. McIlwain found that people who usually go to non-racial sites tend to visit other non-racial sites; similarly, visitors to racial sites preferred to click on other racial sites.

I asked McIlwain what it means that internet users self-segregate as they browse the web. He rephrased my question in terms of geography: “Why, when there’s a pathway to a different neighborhood, don’t I go there?” The answer, he thinks, has to do with the quiet ways that any space, virtual or physical, signals to visitors about itself.

“One has to look for the subtle, perhaps unintentional ways that sites are projecting a message,” he said. “‘This is an exclusionary place; this is a place that is not really meant for you. Yes, you have access—there’s a highway to get here—but we really don’t want you here, and there’s nothing for you here, anyway.’”

“I, as a person of color, may say, ‘Look, I know what is ‘for me,’ and those are a limited number of sites,’” McIlwain continued. “And that’s where I draw my boundaries.”

Search rankings also play an important role in segregating web traffic, McIlwain says. When I searched “news” on Google, I clicked through the first ten pages of results without seeing a single news site focused on race. Generally, search algorithms appear to favor non-racial sites, which researchers theorize are heavily skewed toward a white perspective.


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