Viewing American Class Divisions Through Facebook and MySpace
Ethnographic essay describing how the use of social networking sites MySpace and Facebook by American teenagers reflect socio-economic divisions, with college bound high school students using Facebook, and students with fewer prospects or alternative attitudes using MySpace.
While acknowledging the problematic nature of her subject, and the difficulty of meaningfully defining "class" in the United States, Danah Boyd describes observations she's made in the field. Boyd "analyzed over 10,000 MySpace profiles, clocked over 2000 hours surfing and observing what happens on MySpace, and formally interviewed 90 teens in 7 states with a variety of different backgrounds and demographics." She also observed teens on buses, in malls and other hangouts, and spoke to a variety of adults who regularly interact with teens, including parents, teachers, and pastors.
Myspace started in 2003, and evolved through its heavy use by bands. Teenagers really began flocking to the site in late 2004. In contrast, Facebook launched in 2004 as a Harvard-only networking site, and then gradually expanded to other universities. Facebook allowed high school students to join in mid-2005, but by invitation only. High School students who wanted to go to college, especially to top colleges, desperatley wanted invitations to Facebook. "The message was clear: college was about Facebook."
Class in America is difficult to describe, because it is less about money, and more about lifestyle, social circles, ambitions, and "cultural capital". Acknowledging this, Boyd proceeds to discuss class divisions among teens in deliberately well-worn, stereotypical, descriptive terms. The "jocks", and "goodie-two-shoes", whose families emphasize going to college use Facebook. They are what Boyd calls "hegemonic teens": primarily white, in honors classes," looking forward to the prom", actively engaged in school activities, and fitting in to the traditional American High School culture. On the other hand, Myspace is the hang-out of choice for the "subaltern teens": "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 who are expected to get a job after high school or go into the military. This division between teen MySpace and Facebook users is most apparent in communities hit by the "predator panic" surrounding MySpace. Teens in these communities were told that MySpace was bad, and Facebook was the way to make friends at college. Schools in these communities are very clearly divided into MySpace users and Facebook users. In communities (particularly in The Cities and Coasts), where MySpace became popular among teens before the media buzz about predators, The hegemonic teens tend to have accounts on both sites, having started on Myspace, and now preferring Facebook.
Teens who exclusively use Facebook have negative opinions of MySpace: it is "gaudy", and "immature". They prefer the "clean" look of Facebook. The look of MySpace is much more popular among the subalterns, who value its more anarchic, flashy, brash anti-aesthetic. While all teens on Facebook know about MySpace, not all MySpace users know about Facebook, a reflection of its exclusivity. In schools with mixed populations of hegemonic and subaltern teens, the two groups strongly identify the two social networks with their groups, Facebook is "what the good kids do", and MySpace is "where the bad kids go."
The class divisions between MySpace and Facebook users are clear in the military as well: officers use Facebook, the enlisted predominantly use MySpace. MySpace was the primary way that young soldiers stayed in touch with their friends while on active duty. Myspace was recently banned by the military (Facebook was not) due to concerns over information leaks, and bandwidth usage, but Boyd speculates on other motives, particularly the negative affect that growing disillusionment among GI's in Iraq would have on recruiting their friends back home, especially in working class communities where recruiting is most successful.
"I clearly don't have the language to comfortably talk about what's going on, but I think that this issue is important and needs to be considered. I feel as though the implications are huge. Marketers have already figured this out - they know who to market to where. Policy creators have figured this out - they know how to control different populations based on where they are networking. Have social workers figured it out? Or educators? What does it mean that our culture of fear has further divided a generation? What does it mean that, in a society where we can't talk about class, we can see it play out online? And what does it mean in a digital world where no one's supposed to know you're a dog, we can guess your class background based on the tools you use?"