Making waves this week is an essay from Danah Boyd, entitled "Viewing class divisions through Facebook and MySpace." It's a ranging piece, mostly anecdotally driven, that purports to demonstrate that the dividing line between users of MySpace and Facebook is primarily "socio-economic class." It is right and good to be concerned with how the digital divide affects different socio-economic strata, but reading the essay, one can't be blamed for thinking that she's built her argument on the head of a pin.
That the two services present themselves differently is no revelation. MySpace, the "place for friends," with its much touted embedded music feature, pretty much walks the "social" side of the "social networking" street. Facebook, with its professional design and its name derived from those freshman class yearbooks students at tony universities receive during orientation, is more geared to the "networking" side. Different strokes for different folks, right?
Well, Boyd sees in this distinction something nefarious:
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...
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 plan to go into the military immediately after schools. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.
Precisely none of these assertions are backed up with specific evidence -- i.e. we get no human face to go with any of these demographic groups, no individual examples of a "good" or "bad" user. These are just the generalized impressions of someone who has -- with some degree of diligence -- spent time observing each service. But let's operate from the assumption that Boyd is correct in her assertions: What then is either MySpace or Facebook supposed to do about it? Create a "school busing" initiative to integrate the internet? Force MySpace to clean up or Facebook to dumb down?
Frankly, it seems appropriate to greet this critique with a big fat, "So what?" There's no evidence to suggest that users of either service aren't getting more or less what they want out of it. Moreover, were it the case that say, a MySpace user felt like they were denied the professional presentation of Facebook, no impediment exists to that individual making the change -- or maintaining a presence on both services.
And that's what's flawed about this criticism. There may be demographic coincidences that have emerged among people who have self-selected their social networking service, but the central obstacle in any class division is always a barrier to access, and in the case of these two online networks, no such barrier exists between them, and neither seems to specifically troll for users at the exclusion of others.
The simple fact of the matter is, when you talk about the differences between users of online social networks, you're largely discussing different segments of the same socio-economic strata -- people with access to the internet who have the luxury of free time. If you're worried about "the lack of opportunities available to poor teens from uneducated backgrounds," as Boyd is, perhaps its best to start with the ones who lack the access to the internet entirely. They're the ones who've been denied TheirSpace.
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