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Facebook, MySpace and Class Divisions

Danah Boyd has posted a provocative essay on the class divisions she sees in the users of MySpace vs. Facebook. This is actually a phenomenon I've noticed myself in the past several months as I watch my 15 year old move from MySpace to Facebook and get her perspective on who in her high school is making the shift to Facebook and who is staying on MySpace.

Danah's premise, in a nutshell:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

Danah calls the first group "hegemonic teens" and the second "subaltern teens." And within the subaltern group, she notes a further class division, with the "alternative kids, art fags, emos, goths" and similar groups being aware of Facebook, but rejecting its values, while Latinos, immigrants and more disenfranchised groups are often unaware of Facebook.

In comments on the essay, Danah makes clear that she is looking at high school students only and that she's not drawing inferences about college students or adult use of the two sites, although she does note that signing up for Facebook seems to be a rite of passage for those entering 4-year institutions, while MySpace is the social network of choice at community colleges.  She's also clear that this is an essay, not research, although it's raising questions she intends to look at more closely.

Danah's observations interest me for a few reasons. From a purely practical standpoint, it underscores the need for organizations that look to operate in social networks to think clearly about the audiences on those networks and what they hope to achieve by operating there. But on a deeper level, there are disturbing implications that concern me for the future.

I've talked previously about the digital divide.  I'm afraid that this is another form of it at work.

The beauty of the web is that it makes previously inaccessible networks available to us. People I would not connect to in the physical world because of geography or other differences are often more "reachable" online. But for me to enter those networks, I must 1) know that they exist and 2) know how to navigate them. Furthermore, every social community has specific values, conventions and codes of behavior. Being proficient in these codes marks you as a member of the community, while violations of these conventions mark you as an outsider.

If what Danah says is true, young people who are not headed to college (and who may, therefore, already be at a disadvantage), will be unaware of a digital space that could do much to support their future success. Further, they will not learn the conventions and values of that other space and so if they do enter it, may have difficulties finding their way.

Why should this matter? Because many businesses are increasingly reporting that they are using Facebook as a recruiting tool. If you're not there, then you won't have access to these connections and opportunities. Further, Facebook's move to an open API has developers making a mad dash to create applications and plug-ins to the Facebook platform that will increase it's value as a networking and life-long learning tool. Again, if you're not there, then you won't have access.

Another concern--Danah notes that the military has recently banned use of MySpace (the online home of most enlisted personnel) but not Facebook, where officers tend to congregate. Again, one of the beauties of the web is its ability to allow for a collective voice and collective action. Yet, just as we find that the disenfranchised are silenced in physical space, it seems that its happening in the digital world.

Maybe I'm worrying needlessly about all this. Maybe we're just at a particular point in time between what appears to be a divide on our way to a more inclusive environment. But even so, I think the issues Danah raises deserve attention and discussion as we consider ways to both support people in developing the skills to navigate online social networks, as well as when we look at our own organizational uses of the tools.


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My first reaction to her paper was -- hmm... how real is this? It's all qualititative so we have to take it with a grain of salt but I've noticed a similar class divide. "Myspace is ghetto" is a phrase I've definitely heard before. Just like having an and e-mail can brand you as clueless so can a Myspace page. Oh well... human beings always seek status. We're such chimps.

"MySpace is ghetto" is exactly what I've heard, which is what first got my attention.

I think I'd be less bothered by all of this if MySpace and Facebook were strictly social networks. But I'm increasingly seeing movement toward having them serve as platforms for professional networks, and that has me nervous. We already have a bunch of disenfranchised people who have no opportunity to socialize in real-life with people who can help them move forward in their careers. Now it will just get perpetuated online. Not that I should be surprised--we're still human even in the digital world.

Insightful piece Michele, and yes, I read that in Danah's blog too nodding with 'yup that's what I'm seeing too' in the schools where we've been beta testing our counter-marketing messages.

It's as if kids are 'sociologically self-sorting' into caste systems & peer clumpings online akin to the ethnic dynamics we see at the lunch tables at even elem & middle school levels...

This also applies to the junk food mind/body media correlation w/most of the 'at risk' youth chowing down packaged/processed crud...our log data showed these kids were on MySpace, MTV, YouTube, and playing "M level" video games WAY out of their age losing the opps via Facebook recruiters/collegiate goals could be disheartening, if self-image is already typecasting in 'ghetto' phraseology & social media differentiation.

When we did a media literacy exercise 'branding beverages' (H2O/water) w/tween Hispanic 4th/5th graders they came up with names like 'hyphy H20, pimp juice, low rider liquid & Gangsta Fuel'---Not surprisingly, about 6% of these 10 year olds already had "MySpace accounts" posing as age 15+ students...

Hey Michele,

This is so fascinating - thanks for the heads up. At a conference recently, I was talking with someone who does MySpace consulting with nonprofits - and the tenor of our conversation (she didn't think Facebook as something that nonprofits that she worked with were going to care about much,) made me wonder a lot about the division between the two. I also find it fascinating that although many nptech web2.0 folks have MySpace pages, it seems that LinkedIn and Facebook dominate the field right now, which also is kinda interesting, too.

Class is something that is hard to talk about, for sure, and I'm more and more interested in the digital divide that's not just about access to computers or the net.

Great article, do you mind if I use it in my class?

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