Ramblings & ephemera

Socioeconomic analysis of MySpace & Facebook

From danah boyd’s “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace” (danah boyd: 24 June 2007):

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.

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.

She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus “class.”

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. … That “clean” or “modern” look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

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.

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. …

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.

Thoughts and meta thoughts

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.

In the 70s, Paul Willis analyzed British working class youth and he wrote a book called Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. He argued that working class teens will reject hegemonic values because it’s the only way to continue to be a part of the community that they live in. In other words, if you don’t know that you will succeed if you make a run at jumping class, don’t bother – you’ll lose all of your friends and community in the process. His analysis has such strong resonance in American society today. I just wish I knew how to fix it.

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