Just like we’re hard-wired to love social networks (on- and offline) our brains are pattern recognition engines. They love to seek out ways of explaining, simplifying the massively complex universe we live in.
Tempting and satisfying to our psyches as generalisations are – we must be wary of slipping into them unquestioningly. When it comes to the web the complexity is more fascinating than convenience categorisation.
So when we see that MySpace is street and Facebook is more middle-class we don’t just find it interesting: we love it. Of course we do, it explains a lot makes it all so simple.
But even the BBC article written about Danah Boyd’s essay “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace” begins to over-generalise straight off the bat (but hey, that’s how news angles work). The headline announces: “Social sites announce class divide” a theme repeated elsewhere.
Skim the BBC article – as many will – and you will be left with the impression that college kids and professionals go to Facebook, while MySpace-dwellers are more likely to leave school and start work:
The research suggests those using Facebook come from wealthier homes and are more likely to attend college.
By contrast, MySpace users tend to get a job after finishing high school rather than continue their education.
The class divide notion is reinforced by the story – revisted by the Guardian – that the US Army recently banned MySpace (used mainly by soldiers) but not Facebook (used mainly by officers).
The truth is of course much more complex than that. A stock response of mine to the temptation to generalise about social networks is that you can’t make assumptions about 170 million people (the number of people on MySpace): it’s ridiculous and misleading. MySpace – and Facebook - is to big to be thought of as a single network or crowd: it is many networks and groups of course.
None of this post is intended to detract from Danah Boyd’s brilliant insights into the different demographics using the two big social networks at the moment in her essay It’s a dazzling analysis: she’s spotted that teens are gravitating more to Facebook or MySpace based on socio-economic class. If you middle-class and college educated you’re more likely to be signing up for Facebook (which used to be Harvard Uni-only site) :
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.
And among the networks of MySpace users there are subcultures within subcultures, niches within niches:
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.
Not quite as simple as some of the headlines, but much more fascinating. Resist the simple answers: when it comes to people, to the way they behave and live, on the web and off it they’re far to complicated to be segmented by three classes, eight ABC demographics – we’re all far too complicated for traditional taxonomies.