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?