Class and Social Media

Posted by kellie on Jul 5, 2009 in Culture, Facebook, Online Community, Social Media

I have been a big fan of danah boyd for a while. When I think about my own aspirations and what I’m interested in learning more about, her name routinely comes up in my reading. Her work looks beyond the norms in online community research — how to be a better marketer, get more followers, get better ROI. Her research delves into the architecture, the politics, and the culture of communities and social media.

At the end of June, she gave a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum called “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”. In it, she shared her research on exactly who was using MySpace, who was using Facebook, and why. The results were interesting and sometimes surprising.

Before I read her talk, I would have told you that hardly anyone uses MySpace anymore. I would have told you that most people have transferred over to Facebook. After reading her talk, I understand why I thought that, even though I was wrong.

The talk started with danah asking the audience to raise their hands if they used Facebook, and then again for MySpace. 90%(ish) of the people used Facebook, but only a few used MySpace. This reflects my experience (I was never a heavy MySpace user, but I don’t use it at all now. 90% of my friends, business associates, and acquaintances use Facebook and not MySpace, too). However, danah points out that while we’re touting Facebook’s growth, we’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle — that just as many people are now using MySpace as they are using Facebook. While Facebook’s numbers have been growing exponentially, MySpace’s numbers haven’t changed.

Two weeks ago, comScore released numbers showing that Facebook and MySpace were neck-and-neck in terms of unique user visits in the U.S. The meta-narrative was that Facebook was winning in the States and that MySpace was dying. I would argue that the numbers can be read differently. The numbers show that MySpace has neither grown nor faded in the last year while Facebook has expanded rapidly and has finally reached the same size. Of course, this is not to say that Facebook isn’t doing tremendously. In a business environment where monetization is shaky, the only definition of success is “growth.” Given that, it’s reasonable to see Facebook as more successful than MySpace this year. But we still need to account for the fact that as many people visit MySpace as Facebook and that, as exemplified by the people in this room, that’s not because there’s a complete overlap of users. Even if you think that Facebook is winning the game, we need to account for the fact that *70 million* people in the US visited MySpace. That’s not small potatoes.

When danah dug deeper, asking teenagers which site they were using and why, the answers were astounding. Some cited feature differences, but many of the answers were around culture, and by extension, class. One teenager called MySpace “ghetto”, while others said that Facebook was more high-class, more adult.

Craig (17, California): The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious. Like Peet’s is more cultured than Starbucks, and Jazz is more cultured than bubblegum pop, and like Macs are more cultured than PC’s, Facebook is of a cooler caliber than MySpace.

If this language seems harsh, danah says that’s with good reason.

In looking through my data, I found that teens who prefer Facebook are far more likely to be condescending towards those who use MySpace than vice versa. Teens who use MySpace may lament teen Facebook users as “stuck-ups” or “goodie two-shoes” or the “good kids.” But they’re not nearly as harsh in their language as Facebook users are of those who use MySpace.

I agree with danah’s characterization of what happened when people abandoned MySpace for Facebook — it’s a modern-day, internet-based white flight. Whites, the educated, the suburban, the wealthier were all more likely to leave MySpace and go to Facebook. Given this, descriptions of MySpace as “ghetto” and Facebook as “more cultured” take on a whole new light here. To help illustrate this, danah talks about the sociological concept of homophily, which basically means “birds of a feather stick together”. You are most likely to know people like yourself. And how this is one of the driving forces behind why people choose MySpace or Facebook — they are attracted to the spaces where the people they perceive to be like themselves are.

This concept of homophily also shows why I would have told you that nobody is really looking at MySpace anymore. I don’t, and most of the people that I know are like me. Although my group of friends, acquaintances and associates are fairly diverse in terms of race and sexual orientation, they are almost entirely liberal/Democrat, well-educated, and wealthier. Because of who I am, and because of homophily, the people I know are less likely to choose MySpace over Facebook.

The implications of this, as danah rightly points out, are increased social divides.

We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged? When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we’re trying to address.

If you want people to connect around politics and democracy, information and ideas, you need to understand the divisions that exist. Many of us in this room see social network sites as a modern day incarnation of the public sphere. Politicians login to these sites to connect with constituents and hear their voices. Campaign managers and activists try to rally people through these sites. Market researchers try to get a sense of people’s opinions through these sites. Educators try to connect with students and build knowledge sharing communities. This is fantastic. But there isn’t one uniform public sphere. And if the ways in which we construct the digital public sphere reinforce the divisions that we’ve been trying to break down, we’ve got a problem.

I can’t recommend enough that you read the entire text of danah’s talk. It is just this kind of research and critical thinking that we need to understand where we are, why we are where we are, and where we are going. We need to consider a world outside of ourselves and our own experiences. Until we understand it, we can’t compensate for it, let alone work to make it better.

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