January 30th, 2012
Latino Voices On The Internet Are Being Noticed

How do people on the Internet know I’m Latino, aside from my penchant for picking up on double meanings in posts where they weren’t intended?

The truth is that they don’t — unless I tell them.  And I don’t make it a point to say I’m Latino, unless I’m asked. I can see where that would bother marketers and social scientists or anyone interested in my cultural background who are trying to pitch a targeted product, candidate or survey. I guess I could be a little more cooperative, it would save a step if I just came out and said it.

Apparently, though, there are ways around that. Tom Foremski wrote a thought-provoking piece in which he tells how the government is parsing the ethnicity of Internet users by standing them next to a stack of assumptions. Specifically, the recent White House Community Action Summit, in San Jose, CA, revealed plans to use social media to target Latinos:

The White House Initiative has already power mapped a list of 33 key communities for Latin Americans. By looking at these community IPs, the government could:

1. Find common referring organic search terms (and design content to those terms to increase relevance and usefulness);

2. Find common referring sites and social networks and do outreach through these external tools in order to increase distribution around grant program access etc.;

3. And finally, create culturally appropriate content and serve it.

The first question that comes to mind isn’t about whether this governmental ethnic tracking is ethical or productive; the first thing that comes to mind is why it doesn’t seem to bother me. I’m being watched, but wasn’t that a given? If I change my Facebook profile from a 50-something Latino male to a teenaged African-American female, just to psych-out the Internet spider programs, the ads that I see will be vastly different. So there’s really nothing new here.

Years ago, when I was registering new voters across the Southwest, we didn’t say that we were registering Latino voters, we’d register anyone we encountered that was eligible and wasn’t already registered. We just happened to go where Latinos worked, worshiped and played. It’s no different from what the White House is doing — so maybe that’s why it didn’t bother me. Foremski makes a different point, though, and it’s a good one:

It’s interesting to see US policy initiatives are still race-based when we know there is no such thing as race — a long discredited concept and one that was designed to divide society. But there is a division in economic classes. If the government targeted its educational programs at the poor and lowest earning communities, it would reach a lot of Hispanics, and many others who share in the struggle to succeed.

On the other hand, some might say, isn’t the government seeing us the way we want to be seen?

Hasn’t the U.S. Latino community — for decades and generations — gone to great lengths to gain seats at the American political, economic and educational tables? Isn’t the point that we want equity with all other Americans, and at the same time be valued for our cultural background? So Latino-ness is important. Race is still important, isn’t it? Doesn’t the fact that the government can target Latinos by their online behavior make the case for racial categories?  Or does our insistence on our Latino-ness perpetuate the division?

I think the questions arise from the place where intentions meet. Latinos, by and large, want to be accepted for their Latino-ness – full blooded, participating, country loving Americans, of Latino descent. Marketers, the government included, want to put Americans in tidy containers where they are easy to define and reach. The problem is that the two don’t mix: culture and identity are fuzzy and poetic, while marketing is specific and precise, like science.

It reads like a viral joke: if you live in Albuquerque and read NewsTaco, you might be Latino. And if you are, the Internet spiders have got you tagged. The bright side is that, considered all together, it’s a very big voice.

[Photo By Wordle]

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