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Saturday, March 8, 2008

America: A Class Divided Society? MySpace vs. Facebook

by Danah Boyd

Over the last six months, I've noticed an increasing number of press articles about how high school teens are leaving

MySpace for Facebook. That's only partially true. There is indeed a change taking place, but it's not a shift so much as a fragmentation. Until recently, American teenagers were flocking to MySpace. The picture is now being blurred. Some teens are flocking to MySpace. And some teens are flocking to Facebook. Who goes where gets kinda sticky... probably because it seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class.

When MySpace launched in 2003, it was primarily used by 20/30-somethings (just like Friendster before it). The bands began populating the site by early 2004 and throughout 2004, the average age slowly declined. It wasn't until late 2004 that teens really started appearing en masse on MySpace and 2005 was the year that MySpace became the "in thing" for teens.

Facebook launched in 2004 as a Harvard-only site. It slowly expanded to welcome people with .edu accounts from a variety of different universities. In mid-2005, Facebook opened its doors to high school students, but it wasn't that easy to get an account because you needed to be invited. As a result, those who were in college tended to invite those high school students that they liked. Facebook was strongly framed as the "cool" thing that college students did. So, if you want to go to college (and particularly a top college), you wanted to get on Facebook badly.

When Facebook opened to everyone last September, it became relatively easy for any high school student to join.

In addition to the college framing, the press coverage of MySpace as dangerous and sketchy alienated "good" kids. Facebook seemed to provide an ideal alternative. Parents weren't nearly as terrified of Facebook because it seemed "safe" thanks to the network-driven structure.

Socio-economic divisions

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.

In order to demarcate these two groups, let's call the first group of teens "hegemonic teens" and the second group "subaltern teens."

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and "so middle school." They prefer the "clean" look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is "so lame." What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as "glitzy" or "bling" or "fly" (or what my generation would call "phat") by subaltern teens.

Terms like "bling" come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens.

This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics. I'm sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the "eye of the beholder" - they are culturally narrated and replicated. That "clean" or "modern" look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year.

I should note here that aesthetics do divide MySpace users. The look and feel that is acceptable amongst average Latino users is quite different from what you see the subculturally-identified outcasts using. Amongst the emo teens, there's a push for simple black/white/grey backgrounds and simplistic layouts. While I'm using the term "subaltern teens" to lump together non-hegemonic teens, the lifestyle divisions amongst the subalterns are quite visible on MySpace through the aesthetic choices of the backgrounds. The aesthetics issue is also one of the forces that drives some longer-term users away from MySpace.

While teens on Facebook all know about MySpace, not all MySpace users have heard of Facebook. In particular, subaltern teens who go to school exclusively with other subaltern teens are not likely to have heard of it. Subaltern teens who go to more mixed-class schools see Facebook as "what the good kids do" or "what the preps do." They have various labels for these hegemonic teens but they know the division, even if they don't have words for it. Likewise, in these types of schools, the hegemonic teens see MySpace as "where the bad kids go."

"Good" and "bad" seem to be the dominant language used to divide hegemonic and subaltern teens in mixed-class environments. At the same time, most schools aren't actually that mixed.

To a certain degree, the lack of familiarity amongst certain subaltern kids is not surprising. Teens from poorer backgrounds who are on MySpace are less likely to know people who go to universities. They are more likely to know people who are older than them, but most of their older friends, cousins, and co-workers are on MySpace. It's the cool working class thing and it's the dominant SNS at community colleges. These teens are more likely to be interested in activities like shows and clubs and they find out about them through MySpace.

The subaltern teens who are better identified as "outsiders" in a hegemonic community tend to be very aware of Facebook. Their choice to use MySpace instead of Facebook is a rejection of the hegemonic values (and a lack of desire to hang out with the preps and jocks even online).

Class divisions in military use

A month ago, the military banned MySpace but not Facebook. This was a very interesting move because the division in the military reflects the division in high schools. Soldiers are on MySpace; officers are on Facebook. Facebook is extremely popular in the military, but it's not the SNS of choice for 18-year old soldiers, a group that is primarily from poorer, less educated communities. They are using MySpace.

The officers, many of whom have already received college training, are using Facebook. The military ban appears to replicate the class divisions that exist throughout the military. I can't help but wonder if the reason for this goes beyond the purported concerns that those in the military are leaking information or spending too much time online or soaking up too much bandwidth with their MySpace usage.

MySpace is the primary way that young soldiers communicate with their peers. When I first started tracking soldiers' MySpace profiles, I had to take a long deep breath. Many of them were extremely pro-war, pro-guns, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, pro-killing, and xenophobic as hell.

Over the last year, I've watched more and more profiles emerge from soldiers who aren't quite sure what they are doing in Iraq. I don't have the data to confirm whether or not a significant shift has occurred but it was one of those observations that just made me think.

And then the ban happened. I can't help but wonder if part of the goal is to cut off communication between current soldiers and the group that the military hopes to recruit. Many young soldiers' profiles aren't public so it's not about making a bad public impression. That said, young soldiers tend to have reasonably large networks because they tend to accept friend requests of anyone that they knew back home which means that they're connecting to almost everyone from their high school.

Many of these familiar strangers write comments supporting them. But what happens if the soldiers start to question why they're in Iraq? And if this is witnessed by high school students from working class communities who the Army intends to recruit?

Thoughts and meta thoughts

I have been reticent about writing about this dynamic even though I've been tracking it for a good six months now. I don't have the language for what I'm seeing and I'm concerned about how it's going to be interpreted. I can just see the logic: if society's "good" kids are going to Facebook and the "bad" kids are going to MySpace, clearly MySpace is the devil, right? ::shudder:: It's so not that easy. Given a lack of language for talking about this, my choice of "hegemonic" and "subaltern" was intended to at least insinuate a different way of looking at this split.

The division around MySpace and Facebook is just another way in which technology is mirroring societal values. Embedded in that is a challenge to a lot of our assumptions about who does what. The "good" kids are doing more "bad" things than we are willing to acknowledge (because they're the pride and joy of upwardly mobile parents).

And, guess what? They're doing those same bad things online and offline. At the same time, the language and style of the "bad" kids offends most upwardly mobile adults. We see this offline as well. I've always been fascinated watching adults walk to the other side of the street when a group of black kids sporting hip-hop style approach.

The aesthetics alone offend and most privileged folks project the worst ideas onto any who don that style. When I see a divide like this, I worry because it reproduced the idea that the "good" kids are good and that Facebook participation is good.

As a society, we have strong class divisions and we project these values onto our kids. MySpace and Facebook seem to be showcasing this division quite well. My hope in writing this out is to point out that many of our assumptions are problematic and the internet often reinforces our views instead of challenging them.

People often ask me if I'm worried about teens today. The answer is yes, but it's not because of social network sites. With the hegemonic teens, I'm very worried about the stress that they're under, the lack of mobility and healthy opportunities for play and socialization, and the hyper-scheduling and surveillance.

I'm worried about their unrealistic expectations for becoming rich and famous, their lack of work ethic after being pampered for so long, and the lack of opportunities that many of them have to even be economically stable let alone better off than their parents. I'm worried about how locking teens indoors coupled with a fast food/junk food advertising machine has resulted in a decrease in health levels across the board which will just get messy as they are increasingly unable to afford health insurance.

When it comes to ostracized teens, I'm worried about the reasons why society has ostracized them and how they will react to ongoing criticism from hegemonic peers. I cringe every time I hear of another Columbine, another Virgina Tech, another site of horror when an outcast teen lashes back at the hegemonic values of society.

I worry about the lack of opportunities available to poor teens from uneducated backgrounds. I'm worried about how Wal-Mart Nation has destroyed many of the opportunities for meaningful working class labor as these youth enter the workforce.

I'm worried about what a prolonged war will mean for them. I'm worried about how they've been told that to succeed, they must be a famous musician or sports player. I'm worried about how gangs provide the only meaningful sense of community that many of these teens will ever know.

Given the state of what I see in all sorts of neighborhoods, I'm amazed at how well teens are coping and I think that technology has a lot to do with that. Teens are using social network sites to build community and connect with their peers. They are creating publics for socialization.

And through it, they are showcasing all of the good, bad, and ugly of today's teen life. Much of it isn't pretty, but it ain't pretty offline either. Still, it makes my heart warm when I see something creative or engaged or reflective. There is good out there too.

It breaks my heart to watch a class divide play out in the technology. I shouldn't be surprised - when orkut grew popular in India, the caste system was formalized within the system by the users. But there's something so strange about watching a generation slice themselves in two based on class divisions or lifestyles or whatever you want to call these socio-structural divisions.

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