RUSSIA TODAY (Russia), BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, FOREIGN POLICY (USA), GLOBALWEBINDEX, TECH WEEK EUROPE (U.K.), IRISH TIMES (Ireland), DER SPIEGEL (Germany), MAIL AND GUARDIAN (South Africa)
PARIS - Facebook reached one billion users today. Now that one out of seven people on earth log on, the ubiquitous site has changed habits and affected lives worldwide. Here's a quick look at how a dorm-room startup has become a global social and economic force:
Facebook started in the U.S., of course, at Harvard University in February 2004. As word spread, Mark Zuckerberg and the other founders first allowed other Ivy League students, then those at other prestigious universities, to join in. At the beginning, users could register only with an .edu address. But after teeny-boppers began clamoring to join, roll-out to all high schools came in 2005 much to the chagrin of collegian snobs -- and soon after, parents and grandparents were on-board to really start spoiling the fun.
In spite of the Great Firewall of China, which ostensibly allows no Chinese from the People’s Republic to join Facebook, London research firm GlobalWebIndex found that more than 60 million users there have a Facebook account. “The "Great Firewall" is not as solid as many people think.” The GlobalWebIndex's recent report on Chinese users caused a jump in the prices of Facebook shares of 6.6 percent, the biggest rise since Sept. 12. Overall, the price of the stock has plunged 43 percent since its May 17 market debut, reports Bloomberg News.
Unlike other countries, Russia does not have a huge proportion of Facebook fans among its netizens. Several other social networks compete for Russian web users, and the Russian government even announced in June 2012 that it was planning its own public social network. Russia Today reported that Orthodox priests had started a campaign against Facebook after the website listed two new icons for gay and lesbian partnerships. “Facebook should be blocked in the entire country because it openly popularizes homosexuality among minors,” said an Orthodox leader. Mark Zuckerberg visited Russia this week, however, and was warmly received by television talk show hosts, university students, and Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.
Iran is notably concerned about Facebook, to the extent of asking visitors to the country if they have Facebook accounts so police can record who their “friends” are, according to Foreign Policy magazine. After the unrest that followed the contested 2009 elections, Facebook was blocked in Iran, along with several other sites, and Tehran is currently pushing its own “Islamic” version of the internet.
The European Union has been prickly about user privacy on Facebook, more so than the more laissez-faire Americans. Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, so the Irish office of the EU’s data protection commission has been assigned the job of dealing with the American company’s many alleged privacy invasions. According to the Irish Times, Facebook has “agreed to turn off or change some features, such as automatic face detection and tag suggestions, in Europe,” and many of the changes that make it easier for all Facebook users to choose their privacy settings have come from EU nudges, complaints and threats.
Facebook is setting up its first non-US server farm in Swedish Lapland, 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, reported Reuters last year. The data center will be as green as possible, using renewable energy sources as it processes all data from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to the U.K. Guardian. Unofficial Facebook blog AllFacebook reported that Swedish law allows warrantless snooping by the state on any data that crosses its borders. That could be a lot of data. In Sweden alone, a study by Gothenburg University recently found, the average Swede logs on to Facebook six times a day.
The Israeli government has been monitoring Facebook to catch female draft dodgers. Women are allowed to avoid the otherwise mandatory two-year service in the army if they sign a declaration that they are Orthodox, whose women are prohibited from the military. So far more than one thousand women have been betrayed by their Facebook profiles, which show them in un-Orthodox activities like partying on Friday evenings, or holding up a menu from a non-kosher restaurant, reported AllFacebook.
A Facebook user in Israel, in reaction to increasingly aggressive talk about war with Iran, started an “Israel loves Iran” Facebook page in March 2012. The page got a great deal of media exposure and currently has more than 80,000 Likes. In only two days recently, more than two million people visited the page, reports the Times of Malta. In response, an Iranian group started an “Iran Loves Israel” page which has also been popular. The two countries have had almost no communication since the 1979 Iranian revolution.
A 16-year-old Dutch girl in Haren forgot to set her Facebook party invitation to private (shouldn’t invitations be private by default, by the way?) and 30,000 people said they would come. Even after the story appeared in the media, 3000 people showed up, where they were met by hundreds of riot police. When it became clear that there was no party, some of the "friends" pelted police with flower pots, bottles and “even a bicycle,” reported Dutch news agency ANP.
India launched an investigation against Facebook and several other Internet companies, including Google and Twitter, in May 2012, asking the companies to remove material that Indians might find offensive. The affair began in December 2011 when a journalist found material online that “offended Indians’ religious sensibilities,” according to Freedom House, an NGO. A judge in the case has been quoted as saying that the companies needed to “develop a mechanism to check and remove offensive and objectionable material from their web pages” or could face being banned from India. Several people were arrested in 2012 for political posts on their Facebook pages.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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