The Internet may be as segregated as a city

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.

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“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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