Danah Boyd has posted a provocative essay on the class divisions she sees in the users of MySpace vs. Facebook. This is actually a phenomenon I've noticed myself in the past several months as I watch my 15 year old move from MySpace to Facebook and get her perspective on who in her high school is making the shift to Facebook and who is staying on MySpace.
Danah's premise, in a nutshell:
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.
Danah calls the first group "hegemonic teens" and the second "subaltern teens." And within the subaltern group, she notes a further class division, with the "alternative kids, art fags, emos, goths" and similar groups being aware of Facebook, but rejecting its values, while Latinos, immigrants and more disenfranchised groups are often unaware of Facebook.
In comments on the essay, Danah makes clear that she is looking at high school students only and that she's not drawing inferences about college students or adult use of the two sites, although she does note that signing up for Facebook seems to be a rite of passage for those entering 4-year institutions, while MySpace is the social network of choice at community colleges. She's also clear that this is an essay, not research, although it's raising questions she intends to look at more closely.
Danah's observations interest me for a few reasons. From a purely practical standpoint, it underscores the need for organizations that look to operate in social networks to think clearly about the audiences on those networks and what they hope to achieve by operating there. But on a deeper level, there are disturbing implications that concern me for the future.
I've talked previously about the digital divide. I'm afraid that this is another form of it at work.
The beauty of the web is that it makes previously inaccessible networks available to us. People I would not connect to in the physical world because of geography or other differences are often more "reachable" online. But for me to enter those networks, I must 1) know that they exist and 2) know how to navigate them. Furthermore, every social community has specific values, conventions and codes of behavior. Being proficient in these codes marks you as a member of the community, while violations of these conventions mark you as an outsider.
If what Danah says is true, young people who are not headed to college (and who may, therefore, already be at a disadvantage), will be unaware of a digital space that could do much to support their future success. Further, they will not learn the conventions and values of that other space and so if they do enter it, may have difficulties finding their way.
Why should this matter? Because many businesses are increasingly reporting that they are using Facebook as a recruiting tool. If you're not there, then you won't have access to these connections and opportunities. Further, Facebook's move to an open API has developers making a mad dash to create applications and plug-ins to the Facebook platform that will increase it's value as a networking and life-long learning tool. Again, if you're not there, then you won't have access.
Another concern--Danah notes that the military has recently banned use of MySpace (the online home of most enlisted personnel) but not Facebook, where officers tend to congregate. Again, one of the beauties of the web is its ability to allow for a collective voice and collective action. Yet, just as we find that the disenfranchised are silenced in physical space, it seems that its happening in the digital world.
Maybe I'm worrying needlessly about all this. Maybe we're just at a particular point in time between what appears to be a divide on our way to a more inclusive environment. But even so, I think the issues Danah raises deserve attention and discussion as we consider ways to both support people in developing the skills to navigate online social networks, as well as when we look at our own organizational uses of the tools.