Racial Politics on the 'Open Web': Non-Whites Are Ruining the Internet, Metaphorically

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This weekend's tech-nerd controversy centers around Virginia Heffernan's bold proclamation about "The Death of the Open Web." It is all predicated on one extended metaphor: the Internet as a dilapidated urban area -- "ugly, uncivilized," and filled with viruses -- and yet, there is hope on the horizon. The suburbs, she writes, in the form of "apps from the glittering App Store: neat, cute homes far from the Web city center, out in pristine Applecrest Estates." One is for the Internet's equivalent of white people and one is for the "bullies and hucksters," dark-faced demons. Oh my! "[W]e're witnessing urban decentralization, suburbanization and the online equivalent of white flight," she writes, meaning it all in a literary sense. Only, it is very racial, in a quite literal sense. And also probably an empty idea.

Heffernan writes:

The parallels between what happened to cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York in the 20th century and what's happening on the Internet since the introduction of the App Store are striking.

This is not a new way to put it. The ghettoization of MySpace has been documented, and the site was also said to have experienced a "white flight." But literally, its users are more likely to be "brown or black." The same sort of exodus has been predicted for Twitter, and when the time comes, the subtext will be there, too.

Heffernan argues that "pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access" will keep certain people out. And the implication is clear, even underneath the too obvious metaphor: the iPad user base is probably skewing lighter in skin color and the stratification will only get worse over time. The Times paywall is coming, after all.

But even beyond the loaded racial implications, Heffernan's argument falls flat upon closer inspection. Tim Maly calls it "exaggerated" and teases her overstating of iTunes' state of order:

[To argue] that the energy of the web does not meet "the refined standards" of the App Store is to willfully ignore the apps that are actually available.

Want a sense? Here are some terms to put into the iTunes search bar: "Poop", "pick-up", "sexy", "gun", "hot dog".

The metaphor, meanwhile, is sloppy, too. "Heffernan twists privacy and pay-walls together, and considers the result some sort of exclusionary and immoral policy, like redlining Blacks or Asians out of all-White neighborhoods," went one reaction. "Is she cracked?"

Ultimately, Heffernan isn't saying that though apps "sparkle," they're where we should put our trust; she believes we'll one day wish we never fled the sometimes rough-and-tumble open Web. But built on such a shaky premise -- both rhetorically, in relation to race, and factually -- the whole essay is a bit of a mess.

"I see why people fled cities, and I see why they're fleeing the open Web," she concludes. "But I think we may also, one day, regret it." But isn't that what gentrification's for? Underdeveloped essays to come.

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