The Habitus of Tech – Education, Social Media & Misleading Narratives

„The Habitus of Tech“ is an attempt at dissecting different social structures, networks and social status within the broad and only loosely defined field of tech. It’ll combine some sociological concepts – like habitus – with cultural and societal critique. The first part of the series is available here.


The image being spread on social media (click for source).

There has been a study circulating through my Facebook and Twitter timelines, that shows social media uptake according to educational level. It’s been of special interest to the German digital elite, as it shows Germany’s social media apparently being used  far more often by people from a group with no or low formal education, while people from high formal education groups use it less often. People who share the graphic sometimes wrongly label Germany to be the only country in which no/low formal educational groups outrank higher education groups in social media use, but actually Switzerland appears to have the same phenomenon (even though less obvious). I’ve criticized the graphic several times already, for a number of reasons:

I.) The classification of educational levels is unclear. If you dive into the methodology, it’ll show that they group ISCED 1-2 as no/lower formal education, and ISCED 5-6 as higher formal education. No further info is given, but that alone lets me conclude that they actually used an old ISCED classification (the overworked ISCED 2011 classification runs up to 8 classes, higher formal education being ranked in classes 5-8, and is set to replace the former ISCED codes. The old ISCED classification runs only up to level 6.) Why is that important? Because it leaves out two important ISCED classifications, namely 3&4, which in Germany include most vocational trainings. Germany with its unique education system (which is among the socially most exclusive, btw) steers large parts of its population into vocational trainings and educations. Children with the university-access degree „Abitur“ from non-academic families start studying to only 20-22%, while children from academic families begin their university degree to 74-80% – even if they have the same grades. Germany’s educational system being as it is, is thus poorly reflected at best in this classification. Large parts of its population aren’t even included in the graphic.

II.) „Social media uptake“ is not further defined and the graphic is a graphic that was redone based on a completely different graphic in the original report. Furthermore, „Social Media Uptake“ is actually labelled „Share of social media users within population groups“ in the original document. Why is that important? Because being a user of a service means something different than „uptake“. People can count as users if they signed on once and never used it again. They can count as users if they use twitter or any social media service once a month – or once every two minutes. It’s not classified, and more importantly, it doesn’t tell you anything about their social media uptake. Which means: The renaming of the graphic is misleading.

The actual graphic from the report (click for source).

The actual graphic from the report (click for source).

So overall, that graphic 1.) doesn’t really say much about German social media user share, 2.) especially doesn’t seem to say anything at all about social media use, and 3.) is overall misleading and should be used with caution and context only. Yet it has inspired several tweets and even articles from German digital speakers, often with subtle – or blunt – complains about „the stupid“ causing social media to be unbearable; even going so far as to linking online hate speech and xenophobia to educational levels. I’m gonna talk about the relation of education and xenophobia for a bit, since this is another myth that needs to be debunked.

Is xenophobia related to education? Well, as so often with sociological topics: it depends. There are some countries in Europe in which lower education heavily relates to a person being xenophobic. In others, not so much. And for Germany? Compared to neighbor The Netherlands, lower education groups show the same degree of xenophobia. Yet when it comes to higher education groups, Germany’s highly educated population is significantly more xenophobic than their Dutch counterpart. Furthermore, in an extensive study (that I’m quoting here), researchers found five dimensions relating to xenophobia – and education is merely an afterthought. The five dimensions include social contacts, political/cultural deprivation and individual belief sets. Germany ranks amongst the countries with the highest xenophobic levels.

So is the influx of hate speech on social media in Germany caused by large groups of uneducated people using the services? Let’s recap the graphic real quick. What it actually can tell us, is that the share of social media users (unfortunately not further defined, i.e. it could mean anything when it comes to use and does not tell us anything about how often social media is actually used) in low/no formal education is higher than for those with higher formal education. That’s it. That’s literally it. And even that is a stretch, due to the many limitations of that graph. But considering that other countries battle with similar problems when it comes to hate speech online, I wouldn’t dare to link the graphic to current hate speech problems. I’d even go one step further and say that linking the two in so many articles just conveniently sets up a narrative that mainly benefits traditional media representatives, and a conservative digital elite (they overlap quite a bit) in Germany.

Traditional media in Germany has been very slow on embracing the chances that the digital revolution brought. This of course relates also to the low coverage of broatband networks and the high prices for data (40 Euros buy you 2GB per month), which means that data-heavy services like Snapchat or anything that uses a video format haven’t quite broken through yet. But more importantly, many publishers and highly educated Germans share a disturbingly conservative view of the internet, that also includes anti-American propaganda (i.e. „the Americans steal our data“) – this ironically being backed by the few bits of info that we can take from the graphic, i.e. that Germans with high formal education have the lowest share of highly educated social media users in Europe. In return, setting up the narrative that social media is being ruined by „the uneducated“ who are the only ones who have xenophobic views (they’re not), reinforces the conservative outlook on social media and negates the need to finally get on board. It’s also a convenient way to distance oneself from digital innovation, saying the social media is not worth the hazzle.

So, nothing new here, basically.

Yet, it shows very beautifully how people who often emphasize the importance of hard facts and statistics fail us when it comes to dissecting methodology and sociological implications. But that is another topic for anther time. For the time being: please be careful and critical of anything that seems like an explanation that is just too easy. It usually is. And, even worse: it usually is also false.

Come back in a while to see upcoming articles from my Habitus of Tech series – I’m definitely going to dive deeper into all this soon!