Facebook and MySpace have been at war for years now, with the two major social networks vying for world domination, claiming country by country, demographic by demographic. A recent speech titled “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online” by Danah Boyd of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society begs the question, why does there seem to be a race and class divide when it comes to Facebook and MySpace?
Is Facebook really more elite, with MySpace having become the “ghetto” of online social networking? It’s an interesting question that forces us to look at social networks in a new light. Chris Matyszczyk of CNET likens the shift from MySpace to Facebook to the white flight we see all too often when a once-established neighborhood becomes a little too diverse for its white residents.
An interesting perspective, and one that’s readily able to relate to in American culture. It’s a major part of our history and has been so even before the days of the modern suburbs. But it also speaks to a long history of institutionalized classism as well as racism, which often go hand in hand. Is that really the level of analysis we’re ready to apply to online social networking? If that’s the case, then there are some serious questions we need to be directing to the founders, executives and investors of both MySpace and Facebook.
But first let’s look at the Utopian side of things. Both Facebook and MySpace are online social networks, meaning that they’re virtual pieces of property and can be accessed by anyone that has an Internet connection. Utopia, right? Not really. There was already the long-standing matter of Internet access as it applies to the race/class divide. If you’re a racial minority and economically deterred, then Internet access is a novelty. You are relegated to public access Internet points and your mobile device, which may or may not be a smart phone capable of high functions for social networking.
While the technology divide is narrowing, it becomes less and less of an issue for the purposes of this particular case, but it cannot be entirely ignored, especially as it was still a factor when both MySpace and Facebook were launched and began to gain major traction.
But another factor I find noteworthy is the approach employed by each social network in question; MySpace began as an online tool for getting musicians set up with their own website, while Facebook began as an exclusive network for Harvard students. MySpace came about when the only other major option for widespread social networking was Friendster, which also targeted the college-age demographic. The tactic used for MySpace included posting photos of scantily clad users and enticing new sign ups. Facebook required a confirmed .edu email address just to let you in the front door.
The two strategies towards growth, new user acquisition and existing user retention are vastly different and inherently attract different crowds. So is this race/class divide self-selecting or in fact more institutional? If the trend is self-selecting then we can attribute much of the world’s view on these social networks to be indicative of current mentality for those that use the networks. We can also expect to see some changes with both MySpace and Facebook. Perhaps Facebook will too become a dated neighborhood, run down by the “wrong crowd” and witness another white flight to the next hot spot. And that hot spot would likely be a revived and gentrified MySpace, full of nostalgia and gritty determination to be hip.
We’d also be able to apply these theories to other social networks, and I don’t think online social networking has been around long enough to draw any solid conclusions in that regard. This is mainly because very different strategies are applied to each social network that is launched, and many of the social networks we’ve seen in the past decade have been rather niche. From LinkedIn to BlackPlanet, you can expect a different crowd no matter where you go. There will almost always be a different crowd with a different objective. Fortunately these are all factors that Boyd studies in her ongoing work and research in social media.
What’s disappointing is the fact that these strategies can ultimately lead to an overwhelming sense of distinction based on race and class, especially when you think of the business concerns revolving around the spending power of the actual demographics on MySpace and Facebook versus the widespread perception that could either deter or encourage the stimulation of an economy around each network. From developer apps to advertising campaigns, the affect that race and class distinctions have on any business is real.