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Tale of two cities: Is social media re-segregating Detroit?

By Phreddy Wischusen
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Who needs a TV? Recently for fun, a group of friends and I sat in a circle, all looking at our phones and took turns reading aloud from the Twitter feed of @StaxxxDaily. And laughing. Hard.

Contrary to the popular belief that social media discourages real-life social interaction and encourages hermetic narcissistic participation in a voyeurtual world, here we were engaging with each other, conversing about issues of the day and working together to think up clever, yet succinct responses. Like it or not, social media is a big part of life these days and will continue to be such for the next few decades at the least.

Recently a friend said to me, “I recently started following —— on Instagram. Do you know him? In all his pictures he’s in crowded restaurants, at packed sweaty parties, with friends at stores, on bustling streets and all the people pictured are white. I thought, surely this must be a suburb, but everything is geo-tagged Detroit. How is it possible to take photos in a city where 83 percent of the residents are African Americans and see no Black faces?”

The implications are staggering. I thought of my own social media feeds; she might as well have been talking about me.

I moved to the city to escape commercialized bourgeois mono-culture and narrow-mindedness. I moved to the city to experience something more cosmopolitan, more diverse. I moved to the city to be exposed to things I didn’t know existed: to hear new sounds, see new sights, taste new flavors, learn new things and meet new people.

But listening to my friend, I recognized that I hang out with people that grew up in places just like I did, whose parents listen to the same music my parents do. The establishments I patronize wouldn’t seem out of place at Nine Mile and Woodward or at 11 and Main. Nor would the patrons.

So how did that happen? How did I wind up living in the Little Suburbia neighborhood of Detroit?

My first thought was to blame social media. If a friend posts a pic of really delicious food on Instagram, I eat where that food is. On weekends, if I want to go out, I don’t check the newspaper, I check my Facebook invites to see if there’s something going on. I don’t often listen to the radio; I hear new music when my friends send me songs on Spotify.

Hence, I wind up in places where I know everyone and everyone knows what to expect. And as a result, I enjoy most of the events I attend, the food I eat and the music I hear, right away. But I don’t get surprised. I don’t get excited or inspired. I don’t change. My street address and my IP address probably seem like they are in vastly different places.

I don’t think I’m exceptional. Marketing is no longer “mass,” it’s “direct” or “personalized.” Most likely, if the way my lifestyle engages social media isn’t the norm in America now, it soon will be. I’m not actively trying to narrow my experience; I’m being “targeted.” My social media universe is narrowing me, right? And is this a problem anyway? Don’t we search our whole lives for other people that have similar tastes and interests and lifestyles?

This is definitely a problem, however.

There is a lot of server space devoted to blogs and articles touting the “resurgence of Detroit” right now. But it seems to me that the city isn’t changing. Rather, a new city is being built on top of Detroit. The most successful grocery chain in America, Whole Foods Market “needed” 4.2 million of our dollars to build their corporate profit pipeline out of our city. There are other new businesses popping up to serve new residents downtown, Midtown and Corktown.

Whereas it’s great that there is new growth in Detroit, call me pessimistic, but I don’t think it will improve life for the majority of people in the city. Take a look on Twitter and Instagram, at the blogs and the news — most of these new businesses are owned and operated by white people, most of their employees are white, as are most of their patrons/clients.

And most of their marketing/advertising will be done online and will find its way into the computer of this white guy. And that money doesn’t necessarily trickle down, especially in a city where public assets and school systems are rapidly being privatized, in a state with a rabid Republican majority legislature that keeps reducing social services.

What we risk is creating two cities: one a media-darling city full of young white entrepreneurs dining in trendy restaurants and craft cocktail bars, the other city bankrupt, bereft of basic services and any opportunities.

You’ve heard it a million times — those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Are we at the beginning of another cycle of de facto segregation, proscription, conflicts and riots?

The more I thought about it, the more I had to realize that social media is not responsible.  I am. We are. Social media is a tool. It can narrow us, or it can expand us. We can bring the spirit of the Arab Spring to Detroit. We can use social media to question, to learn, to debate and to inform.

The Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce (MBCC) is dedicated to helping African American owned businesses and entrepreneurs build their companies and increase their access to capital. The MBCC is currently revamping its Web site (michiganblackchamber.com) to include a directory of Black-owned businesses statewide. You can follow the MBCC on Twitter (@miblackchamber).

That way, you can use online resources to find out about the businesses that have been in your community for decades that don’t show up in your newsfeed or new businesses created by long-time city residents who don’t have access to $4.2 million in tax incentives.

Go try some new stuff! Tag yourself! Take pictures! Share articles and different opinions! You can be a bridge between the two cities. Then your newsfeed, your Twitter feed, your Yelp reviews and your Instagram can all help to make one diverse, rich, exciting city together. A city that we can all live in, not just read about. A city that goes beyond our expectations, understandings and cliches. A #Detroit that looks like all of us.

Hint, hint: You can also follow the Michigan Citizen on Twitter (@MichiganCitizen). 

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