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We recently asked a 21-year-old undocumented Chicana in Los Angeles what she imagined the designers of social media platforms look like. “Definitely white, smart, educated. Young, wearing a tux, driving a nice car. Not using much social media themselves, sharing limited information about themselves.”

[pullquote author=”” description=”” style=”new-pullquote”]”[O]ur findings made clear that users felt a significant gap between themselves and the designers of the platforms they use…”[/pullquote]

Sounds about right, perhaps minus the tuxedo.

Youth of color and young women are the demographic groups that use social media the most. But they are also the least represented among digital technology developers, who are predominantly adult white males.

In view of their high use patterns, these groups may be disproportionately affected by the ethical concerns raised by digital technology design — from privacy concerns to discriminatory advertising tactics and more. Yet the voices of youth of color and young women are almost entirely absent from current conversations about ethical design, which are mostly dictated by adult white males of high social and economic privilege.

To begin correcting this inequity, our research aims to bring underrepresented youth voices into the conversation.

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Our findings show how these young people imagine social media designers, how they perceive design shaping their experiences on these platforms, and what they envision a more ethical and equitable social media platform might look like.

The college-aged youth in our research all correctly imagined social media designers to be predominantly white, male, highly educated and economically privileged. While they felt that designers could more or less relate to their age group (even in terms of wearing youthful attire, like jeans and Converse sneakers), our findings made clear that users felt a significant gap between themselves and the designers of the platforms they use, and they expressed a palpable sense of under- or misrepresentation in the design process.

Why does this matter? On one level, the answer seems obvious: digital technology design is shaping the architecture of our lives, both on- and offline. But as early as 1995, when the current demigods of Silicon Valley were not yet teenagers, William J. Mitchell urged us to consider: “Who shall write the software that increasingly structures our daily lives? What shall that software allow and proscribe? Who shall be privileged by it and who marginalized?” Today, these questions remain woefully unaddressed.

We are beginning to see in our research how these questions affect the well-being of young people today. For instance, low-income youth in our studies have shared the ways in which their feelings of inadequacy, envy and low self-esteem are fueled by algorithms of personalization on social media, exacerbating the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses”; the continued barriers to access, such as costly hardware, memory or data plan requirements; or the social capital costs of opting out. Black, Hispanic and queer youth talked about the heightened social pressure to conform to dominant social norms online, and the ways in which platform design constricts their multifaceted, fluid identities.

Such insights challenge a central assumption of the dominant approaches to software design to date: the association of “universal design” with equity. Since the 1990s, calls for universal design in technology and other sectors have tended to focus on access and usability for users of varied physical and cognitive abilities. In the process, ironically, difference has been mostly sidelined.

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We join an increasing number of researchers who are working to center difference — to acknowledge and attend to it — rather than to universalize it. We believe that future work on “ethical design” should be people-centered and account for the lived experiences of socially, culturally and economically diverse youth. Ideally, this should entail some degree of direct participation by a diverse range of users in the design of social media platforms.

The task of preparing young people to enter into these conversations in informed and effective ways, or to work directly in the technology field itself, falls largely to educators. Educators can start by helping young people de-naturalize the design of the social media platforms that shape their daily lives. Foregrounding questions about how certain features of social media shape their online interactions, for instance, and how they may privilege some users over others, is an important starting place.

Building on this awareness, a discussion of the social, political and economic consequences of social media design, and the brainstorming of potential design choices that may assuage them, are further steps toward a more ethical and equitable technological future.

We are posing such questions to young people as part of our research, in an initial effort to amplify and infuse underrepresented youth voices in academic and industry conversations about the ethical design of commercial social media platforms. The next step is to bring these voices directly to the design table.

This story about diversity in social media was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Melissa Brough is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at California State University, Northridge. Her research focuses on the role of communication technology in the social, cultural and political lives of youth from historically disenfranchised groups. She is co-author of “From Ethical to Equitable Social Media Technologies: Amplifying Underrepresented Youth Voices in Digital Technology Design,” published in the Journal of Media Ethics (July 2019).

Ioana Literat is an assistant professor in the Communication, Media & Learning Technologies Design program at Teachers College, Columbia University. (Note: The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College, Columbia University.) Literat’s research examines youth online participation and political expression. She is co-author of “From Ethical to Equitable Social Media Technologies: Amplifying Underrepresented Youth Voices in Digital Technology Design,” published in the Journal of Media Ethics (July 2019).

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