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MySpace, Facebook, and the Politics of Class Online

July 5, 2009

It’s being called “digital white flight.” And according to danah boyd, it should scare us all.

Last week at Personal Democracy Forum 2009, Dr. danah boyd’s talk on the hidden — or not-so-hidden — politics of class online was one of the hits of the conference. boyd’s talk explored the differences between usage of MySpace and Facebook and what it means for society.

How many times have we heard, said, or read that MySpace is dead? Hmm, well, I can think a of a few good examples. And really, who uses MySpace? boyd asked that question of the audience and no one raised their hands. She asked if we used Facebook and naturally, we all raised our hands. Do you use MySpace? Probably not. Probably because it’s ugly and garish, with flashy colorful layouts and too many which-victoria’s-secret-angel-are-you quizzes; the poor aesthetics and lack of features make Facebook the more popular choice for most of us.

But, MySpace still gets 70 million unique hits a month, according to boyd’s data. But if all of us, and everyone we know, is lamenting how ugly and useless MySpace is, and none of us actually use it (save for the occasional search for cool new indie bands), then who are these 70 million visitors a month? If MySpace is still getting 70 million visitors, it is clearly NOT dead. 70 million is significant; it’s not something to brush off. And yet most of us don’t use MySpace or know many people who do.

So who are they?

boyd interviewed hundreds of American teenagers to find out. Her results might be surprising–although they probably shouldn’t be.

Kat (14, Mass.): I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever, and Facebook is all… not all the people that have Facebook are mature, but its supposed to be like oh we’re more mature. … MySpace is just old.

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.

Anastasia (17, New York): My school is divided into the ‘honors kids,’ (I think that is self-explanatory), the ‘good not-so-honors kids,’ ‘wangstas,’ (they pretend to be tough and black but when you live in a suburb in Westchester you can’t claim much hood), the ‘latinos/hispanics,’ (they tend to band together even though they could fit into any other groups) and the ’emo kids’ (whose lives are allllllways filled with woe). We were all in MySpace with our own little social networks but when Facebook opened its doors to high schoolers, guess who moved and guess who stayed behind… The first two groups were the first to go and then the ‘wangstas’ split with half of them on Facebook and the rest on MySpace… I shifted with the rest of my school to Facebook and it became the place where the ‘honors kids’ got together and discussed how they were procrastinating over their next AP English essay.

Another thing boyd also pointed out was that these sites, although we new media types like to call them social networking sites, aren’t really used for networking other than by a small minority. Most people go on Facebook and MySpace and Twitter not to meet new people but to reinforce their existing relationships; and thus, a wall of separation that already exists is further reinforced. Different types of people are on MySpace and Facebook; and by limiting ourselves only to using one site, where all our friends are, we are maintaining that division since we will never interact with users on the other site.

During the talk, people at the conference were tweeting up a storm (myself included) but many of them seemed to react as if this was revolutionary to them. I don’t think the fact that there is a class division between MySpace and Facebook users should be revolutionary news, unless one is seriously out of touch with young people.

But I do think what boyd has done, in collecting actual data, evidence, and interviews from young people which supports an idea that we all knew was true all along but never had any actual proof of, is revolutionary. Did we all know this in the back of our minds? Yes, probably (I hope). But would anyone ever admit such a thing out loud or talk about it or acknowledge that it’s true? No. So naturally, there’s been plenty of critics arguing that it’s not true and that boyd’s argument is overblown.

One of the biggest criticisms I have heard of boyd’s argument so far is “It’s not that we like Facebook better because we’re racist or elitist; we just like the better design and better features. It’s not about race or class. We’re not racist!” (defensive much?)

But I think boyd already refuted that when she said: “All of this would be fine and dandy if friendships and aesthetics and values weren’t inherently intertwined with issues of race, socio-economic status, education, and other factors that usually make up our understanding of “class.” But they are.”

I have to agree with her. Your socioeconomic standing inevitably causes you to gravitate towards Facebook or MySpace more. Because all your friends are on one or the other. And because perhaps, if you’re used to nicer things in life, you’re going to want nicer things in your social networking site of choice.

danah boyd’s full talk is posted here. What are your thoughts? Do you use MySpace? Do you believe there’s a class division in social networking sites? And if so: how did we get there? And what do we do about it?

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16 comments

  1. I’m not sure what to think of this. I guess this challenges the original purpose of the internet and social networking sites. If the web is supposed to be the great equalizer, are we (as a society) insisting on divisions – or are they there no matter what (digitally/physically)? Even in something as spread out as Facebook and MySpace?

    I think Boyd’s work addresses a larger issue of the social divide. How likely were Facebook kids going to connect with the Myspacers in “real life”?
    Most likely, these groups were separated out long before they created their digital identities and networks. So, naturally, people will gravitate towards what they already know (and are comfortable with).


    • I think you’re right– these groups were already separated out before digital social networks came around. But our usage of digital social networks is perpetuating that divide and not helping it.


  2. Nisha,

    This is a thought-provoking article and could be considered (at least in some ways) as a permutation of the “digital divide.” Except that in this case we’re talking about groups that both have access to the internet, and the divide occurs based on user selection of different sites–based (in part) on socio-economic differences.

    Perhaps it’s worth considering the origin of the two sites. Facebook was initial conceived by students at Harvard and was immediately embraced by other Boston-area colleges, while MySpace began when employees of eUniverse thought they could improve on Friendster. So the immediate markets for the service were geographically distinct (Northeast vs. California?) with Facebook being tied to college students than MySpace ever was. Naturally, the teens follow suit.

    My $0.02.


    • Thanks for the comment Jessica! I think you are right on about the origins of the sites. The fact that one started with harvard students and one started with urban 20-somethings probably does play a large role in who their core users are today.


  3. I think we do gravitate toward one or the other because our friends are there, but the reason our friends get there in the first place is because of socioeconomic standing. It makes sense because Facebook was originally created with college students in mind as its target demographic, so those who went to four-year universities got Facebooks; those who didn’t stuck around on MySpace and continue to do so. I even find that within my own graduating class, the vast majority of those who stayed around my hometown and went to community college ended up sticking with MySpace.

    Since Facebook has opened up I think we will continue to see a gradual shift, albeit a small and slow one — once it’s entirely mainstream, the younger teens will pick it up too.


    • That’s a fair point, but Facebook opened up almost 3 years ago and we still see a big divide between MySpace and Facebook today, even though everyone now has access to Facebook. I think access was part of the issue before, but now it’s more about what people are choosing as individuals…


  4. I remember when Danah first wrote about this in one of her essays a couple years ago. I think it’s one of the pieces that adds to the idea that social media will not change the world in this way we all imagine. Social media and social networks are simply tools and they don’t redefine how we interact on a basic level. There are still weak ties and strong ties as there have always been, and you will still most likely hang out with people that are most similar to you. People like people like themselves. Social media can be powerful, but only if we allow it to be.


    • Yeah, I definitely agree on some level. Social media can change a lot of things, but in some cases, like this one, it’s still perpetuating the status quo and not changing a whole lot.


  5. Nisha- Thanks for putting together this post! I’ve been looking forward to reading about boyd’s research and your thoughts.

    boyd’s conclusion makes complete sense. Our online life is reflective of who we are in real life. I’ve never had a MySpace profile, but I do have friends who use it- but only for music. It will be interesting to see the demographics of Twitter in the next year as the site grows.I have a feeling it stays on a similar path as Facebook.

    I think Teresa brings up a good point about FB starting at Harvard and the college elitism the first couple of years. On a different note, I would be interested in seeing the differences in socioeconomic status and email provider. With gmail being “invite only” for several months, it made the service more elite compared to others. I wonder if there is a class divide with email providers.


  6. To quote a couple of college freshmen talking about social networking, “Myspace is kind of… ghetto.”

    I think there is a definite divide between who uses which social networking sites and for which purposes. It sucks, to be blunt. I evangelize Twitter all day, every day to everyone that asks about it, regardless of color, creed, income level and background. If you want a job, you can find it on there better than anywhere else. It’s simple. The personal connections are amazing too!

    Being knowledgeable with why the social networking sites are useful is what makes cutting edge folks “gurus.” There are no more Myspace gurus. Myspace is left behind. I use it to keep up with independent hip hop acts that I like that only update their tours and blogs up there. That’s the ONLY reason I’d ever use it. Otherwise, I am positive that Twitter and maybe facebook are the only social networking sites I’ll need regularly. Maybe some Linkedin too.

    The divide will eventually narrow until the next big social networking phenomenon rears its head, then the margin will expand once more.


  7. […] like the college application process. MySpace is dead unless you are looking for music (really? ok) and Twitter is for parents (though I think that’s changing). And blogs? “Facebook is […]


  8. Thanks for this post, I’m intrigued by the divide. Thinking about my own experiences with both MySpace and Facebook, I had more “friends” on MySpace (people I didn’t know and only met through MySpace) but my Facebook is nearly entirely people I know in real life, and a good portion of those people are through networking from conferences, meetups, camps, etc. So it’s been beneficial for me to either continue relationships when time/space prohibit contact, or to nurture relationships that began with a brief meeting and now continue online. I never had that with MySpace, and it seems that most of my MySpace use was to keep up with business or bands that I liked. Facebook doesn’t really allow for that.


  9. This is very interesting, and not at all surprising. If I stop to think about who I know on MySpace (who still uses it) and who I know on Facebook, there’s definitely a clear difference. I knew this was the case, but just never thought about it. The feedback that boyd got from teenagers was very telling. Their answers could be analyzed on so many sociological levels, but I’m not sure we’d want to see the findings.

    At first I was surprised by the claim that social networking sites aren’t actually used for networking, but in terms of Facebook and MySpace, I guess that’s true. Sites like Twitter are where we meet new people, and the blogosphere is where we form new communities. Thanks for sharing this!


  10. Nisha-

    Great Post. Sorry I am late to the party. Boyd makes an interesting assertion and I actually agree with the comment Jessica Carter made concerning the websites origins. Reading your article I had sudden flashbacks to seeing high schoolers from inner-city schools using the computers at our university and going on Myspace. I remember thinking , who gets on myspace anymore? Myspace may not be as visually appealing as Facebook, but I feel like you can still create your own aesthetics and virtual identity through it more so than Facebook. You can create a background and also have background music, which gives some people a sense of identity and proving something to someone else. The Facebook folk don’t care as much about the outward appearance of the profiles as they do the actual functionality..could be the origins as well.


  11. This has definitely been at the back of my mind lately.

    So I’m a bit slow and late in adapting to social media-and?! I was hesistant to use myspace when it was “still alive,” and the same attitude followed with twitter and facebook. Once I did get on myspace and upon hearing about facebook, I think it’s natural to ask, “what’s the difference?”

    It was like an unspoken message: I’m not on myspace any more, it’s too ghetto too >enter your choice of word<. It was separated into classes in my eyes. Myspace being the lowest class, facebook on another level and linkedin being the highest level of professionalism(assuming that they're used for the same purpose of professional networking. I would have never gotten on to facebook were it not for most of the members of my group only having facebook profiles. Call me lame, but yeah, I still use my myspace from time to time


  12. […] like the college application process. MySpace is dead unless you are looking for music (really? ok) and Twitter is for parents (though I think that’s changing). And blogs? “Facebook is […]



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