Utopia or dystopia: Structural inequalities in cyberspace

Since the early age of cyberspace, the discussion of how structural inequalities and the development of the internet being shaped by each other has already begun.

Cyberspace (Flickr, 2014) Licensed under (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The fantasy of Cyberspace

The development of the internet is deeply influenced by the anti-establishment cultural phenomenon of the 1960s. In an essay Stewart Brand (1995) wrote for Time magazine, he suggests that the hippie communalism and libertarian politics that flourished in the counterculture movement in the 1960s formed the roots of the modern cyber revolution. Social issues raised in the 1960s like the racial and gender discrimination in jobs and housing and the plight of the poor fueled people’s yearning for free speech, a free market, and a place where structural oppression no longer exists.

Mother_Centre_Meeting(Mombas, 2007) Licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.5)

As Kelty (2014) suggests, the idea of freedom is associated with the early internet culture to a great extent and plays an important role in constituting and shaping the internet imaginaries. To summarize this ideology, Turner (2021) puts forward the idea of “new communalism”, which indicates people’s thought of regarding technology as a possible way to overcome bureaucratic oppression and  promoting individual liberation and personal freedom. However, this article will argue that the idea that regards the internet as a free, utopian state without structural inequalities is just a fantasy.


How do structural inequalities shape cyberspace?


White men dominate Silicon Valley

As Noble (2018) suggests, social values around race and gender are directly reflected in technology design. Structural inequality is not erased in cyberspace as the rules and algorithms of the internet are designed and crafted by small teams of people, in which white, middle-class males are dominant.

Aerial view of Silicon Valley (Wikimedia Commons, 2013) Licensed under (CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to the report (2017) published by the Center for Employment Equity in the University of Massachusetts Amherst, around 70% of total employees in large Silicon Valley Tech firms are men. Also, as it is shown in the research, white representation is nearly 60% of all workers.

(Center for Employment Equity, 2017)

Therefore, it can be argued that white male workers dominate Silicon Valley Tech firms among executives, managers, and the core technical workforce, while women, Black or Latinx employees are the minorities (Center for Employment Equity, 2017). Since some internet companies and digital platforms may have users around the world who have different cultural backgrounds, the problem that their operators are hardly a cross-section of their user base is raised. As designers and managers often assume their users share the same worldview and value systems with them (Gillespie, 2018), the issue that the technology design of these digital platforms may overlook minority perspectives emerges. This will possibly lead to the reinforcement of the existing structural inequalities against marginalized groups like females and colored people. White males’ dominant ideology in the social structure will also be propagated.


Identity Tourism in the Virtual Game


Racial Identity Appropriation

The development of the internet being shaped by structural inequality not only reflects in the lack of diversity in the internet companies’ employments but also how the norms of the traditional media influence the new media. As Noble (2018) suggests, old media traditions are directly mapping into new media architecture. For example, the Asian male characters in a multiplayer real-time virtual game called LambdaMOO can fit within familiar discourses of racial stereotyping from popular literary genres and digital media such as science fiction, televisions and films about historical romance.

Samurai, Sword, Silhouette (Public Domain Pictures, 2021) Licensed under (CC0 1.0)

To be more specific, the majority of the Asian male persona in LambdaMOO adopt the samurai warrior fantasy to cyberdiscursive role playing. As Nakamura (1995) suggests, this type of Orientalized theatricality is a form of identity tourism, which she defines as the appropriation of people’s racial identities online. Players, mostly white middle-class males are able to temporarily cross over racial boundaries by performing the stereotyped Asiatic samurai figures without any of the risks of being a racial minority in society.

The stereotypical representation of Asian characters reveals the existing structural inequality in popular media has been brought to cyberspace, which puts the Asian community in a passive position. The demographics of Internet users also partly constitute to constructing a form of suppression against Asians online.


Gender and Sexuality

Moreover, Asian female characters are been portrayed as “submissive, docile, a sexual plaything” in LambdaMOO (Nakamura, 1995, p.5). The appropriation expands across both race and gender since in this case “oriental”  can be seen as a sexual lure. Here is a video that tells a true tale of crime and punishment online in the early internet age, which shows how sexual and gender inequality performs on the internet.

A Rape in Cyberspace (Thee Landstander, 2018)

Platform: a force to increase inequalities


Business model

The platform’s business model perpetuates the problem of structural inequality through algorithms. As Noble (2018) suggests, algorithms are selection machines to decide the information access mode for users in the current Internet environment.

Information monopolies like Google are able to rank the web search results based on the goal of maximizing its own interests regardless of whether that content might be harmful (Gillespie, 2018). For example, digital platforms have the ability to allow their financial partners to be prioritized by algorithmically highlighting some posts over others (Noble, 2018).

Google search angled and zoomed (Flickr, 2018) Licensed under (CC BY 2.0)

However, there is a lack of transparency in how algorithms sort media content. As a report conducted by Pew Internet and American Life Project shows, the majority of people are unaware of the differences between “genuine” results and paid advertisements (Noble, 2018).

Thus, media companies and advertisers are able to completely determine what is displayed and being visible to the internet users. This business model will possibly lead to the perpetuation of the existing structural inequalities as there is an economic incentive to allow media companies to continue spreading harmful content if they can be benefited from them. Also, advertisers may decide their target audience based on the existing social value of gender and race. To be more specific, information associated with executive jobs may be only delivered to white males, which may have some negative impacts on encouraging equal job opportunities for females and non-white people.

How Instagram And Facebook Make Money (CNBC, 2019)


Platformed Racism

In addition, platform being a force to increase the structural inequalities also reflects in the phenomenon of platformed racism. Platformed racism is put forward by Matamoros-Fernández (2017) to describe a new form of racism that emerged in platforms. As Bucher (2012) claims, the platform’s algorithm is designed to cater to the preferences of social media users and maximize user engagement as platforms make money by attracting the audience’s attention.

Racism (Picpedia, 2021) Licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The logic of the platform’s recommendation system allows popular content to be automatically delivered and spread to more audiences based on their sharing and liking metrics. However, platforms do not examine whether these contents involve harmful information or not in this process. Since demeaning or discriminatory content often generates more attention and more views, platforms are very likely to become amplifiers and manufacturers of racist discourse.


The Mode of Governance

Moreover, the governance of platforms also contributes to reproducing structural inequality. The roles and policies against racist content on Facebook and Twitter are very unclear, which may be problematic to receivers of abuse. To be more specific, the hate speech policy of Facebook says that “We allow humor, satire, or social commentary related to these topics” (Facebook, n.d.). However, Facebook does not explain further which is considered as humor. Since humor is often used to cloak racist and discriminatory content, the protection of humor of platforms may foster the generation and transmission of hate speech and other harmful content online.


Looking Ahead

In conclusion, the technology design on the internet is deeply shaped by the existing structural inequality in society and the traditional media. Cyberspace is not a utopia place where cultural differences are erased. Instead, the business model, algorithms, and the mode of governance of media companies online may all increase the risks of cultural contradictions and perpetuate the existing structural oppression in the society. The challenge for platforms is how to moderate the content online while guaranteeing the freedom of expression.



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



Bucher, T. (2012). Want to be on the Top? Algorithmic Power and the Threat of Invisibility on Facebook. New Media & Society 14(7): 1164-1180.

Gillespie, T. (2018). All Platforms Moderate. In Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media. Yale University Press. pp. 1-23.

Is Silicon Valley Tech Diversity Possible Now? | Center for Employment Equity | UMass Amherst. (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2021, from https://www.umass.edu/employmentequity/silicon-valley-tech-diversity-possible-now-0

Kelty, C. M. (2014). ‘The Fog of Freedom’. In Gillespie, T.,  Boczkowski, P. J. & Foot, K. A. (Eds.). Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society. MIT Press. pp 196-220.

Lusoli, A. & Turner, F. (2021). ‘“It’s an Ongoing Bromance”: Counterculture and Cyberculture in Silicon Valley—An Interview with Fred Turner. Journal of Management Inquiry. 30(2), pp. 235-242.

Matamoros-Fernandez, A. (2017). Platformed racism: the mediation and circulation of an Australian race-based controversy on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Information, Communication & Society, 20(6), 930-946.

Nakamura, L. (1995). Race in/for cyberspace: Identity tourism and racial passing on the Internet. Works and Days, 25(26), 13.

Noble, S. U. (2018). A society, searching. In Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University. pp. 15-63.

TIME article. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2021, from http://members.aye.net/~hippie/hippie/special_.htm

Turner, F. (2006). From counterculture to cyberculture : Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. University of Chicago Press.