International Communications Association (ICA) Conference
23 May 2009
[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk]
Citation: boyd, danah. 2009. "MySpace Vs. Facebook: A Digital Enactment of Class-Based Social Categories Amongst American Teenager." International Communication Association (ICA) Conference, Chicago IL, May 23.
For decades, we've been told that the Internet would be the great equalizer. Access has been the core concern. But, if we can only get everyone access, the Internet will be the idyllic utopia where we are free of all of the embodied factors that are at the crux of inequality. Race and gender and socioeconomic status will no longer matter. Free at last, we will be free at last! Or so the rhetoric went.
Of course, we can snort at these utopic dreams. And many of the folks in this room have spent a bunch of time thinking about how inequality persists online in all sorts of nefarious forms. We know that not all access is created equal and that even when supposed access issues are addressed, there is still a participation gap. We know that race and gender and other categories are visible in new forms online. We know that issues of social capital and cultural capital extend to the digital environment. Against the backdrop of other issues of inequality, I want to address a very specific case study in order to analyze what it means.
In particular, I want to talk about adoption patterns of social network sites by American teenagers during the 2006-2007 school year. During this period, American teenagers flocked to MySpace and Facebook. Some of those who flocked to Facebook had previously been on MySpace before. Some of them had never joined a social network site. Pew collected data in October and November of 2006; they found that 55% of American teenagers 12-17 had a profile on a social network site. 85% of those teens said that they updated MySpace most frequently; 7% said that they updated Facebook most frequently. This changed during the 2006-2007 school year, but we have no solid statistical data to say by how much. Yet, qualitatively, it became very clear that some teenagers chose to go to MySpace and others chose Facebook. There were also plenty who chose to use both.
We can easily see this to be a matter of individual choice in a competitive market. And you can certainly find teenagers who will narrate the reason that they are on one or the other as being a matter of personal preference. You will find teens who will talk about specific features.
Jordan (15, Austin): [Facebook has] unlimited pictures. I like that.
Melanie (15, Kansas): I leave a lot more comments on Facebook, just because that's more what Facebook's about more than MySpace.
Catalina (15, Austin): [Facebook] doesn’t take eight hours to load the page. That really bothered me [about MySpace].
You will also get explanations around ease of use.
Anindita (17, LA): Facebook’s easier than MySpace but MySpace is more complex. You can add things to it. You can add music, make backgrounds and layouts, but Facebook is just plain white and that’s it.
Heather (16, Iowa): It’s much easier to use Facebook than MySpace. MySpace is a little complicated. You have to be in the network. It’s complicated and some people are just kind of too lazy to do that.
Of course, the primary reason why teenagers choose one or the other stems from where their friends go. Teenagers are drawn to the space where all of their friends are hanging out. And, in conjunction with this, they are drawn to the places that are cool among their peers.
Kevin (15, Seattle): “I’m not big on Facebook; I’m a MySpace guy. I have a Facebook and I have some friends on it, but most of my friends don’t check it that often so I don’t check it that often.”
Red (17, Iowa): “I am on Facebook and MySpace. I don’t talk to people on MySpace anymore … the only reason I still have my MySpace is because my brother’s on there.”
There are cultural explanations. Here is where things start to get interesting because teens begin to project onto the environments certain social norms or values, whether the norms and attitudes of their peers or those of adults.
Cachi (18, Iowa): Facebook is less competitive than MySpace. It doesn’t have the Top 8 thing or anything like that, or the background thing.
Tara (16, Michigan): [Facebook] kind of seemed safer, but I don't know like what would make it safer, like what main thing. But like, I don't know, it just seems like everything that people say, it seems safer.
Connected to this is the notion of maturity and whether or not one should be valuing the same things as adults and whether or not adults are accepted co-constituents of the particular space.
Kaitlyn (14, Georgia): Facebook is for old people.
Melanie (15, Kansas): Facebook is way better. MySpace is just boring, and it’s still lame because you can still make the background like you’re a little kid on Xanga, and Facebook is more like adultness.
All of this would be fine and dandy if friendships and culture and adult relations and values weren't peppered with issues of inequality and status. But they are. Because all of these explanations that we've heard so far can be interpreted differently when you look at them in the light of this quote.
Kat (14, Massachusetts): I'm not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever, and Facebook is all... not all the people that have Facebook are mature, but its supposed to be like oh we're more mature. We don't want a MySpace where there's more college and high school kids. We don't need the music on our profile and the background layouts or whatever; although now they've added music that you can put to your profile, but I don't use that. MySpace is just old.
Kat's valuation of Facebook over MySpace is not unique. I heard similar sentiments echoed in different parts of the country, as a certain class of teenagers condemned those who were on MySpace.
Anastasia (17, New York): “My school is divided into the 'honors kids,' (I think that is self-explanatory), the 'good not-so-honors kids,' 'wangstas,' (they pretend to be tough and black but when you live in a suburb in Westchester you can't claim much hood), the 'latinos/hispanics,' (they tend to band together even though they could fit into any other groups) and the 'emo kids' (whose lives are allllllways filled with woe). “We were all in MySpace with our own little social networks but when Facebook opened its doors to high schoolers, guess who moved and guess who stayed behind… The first two groups were the first to go and then the 'wangstas' split with half of them on Facebook and the rest on MySpace… I shifted with the rest of my school to Facebook and it became the place where the 'honors kids' got together and discussed how they were procrastinating over their next AP English essay.”
Craig (17, California): “The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious. Like Peet’s is more cultured than Starbucks, and Jazz is more cultured than bubblegum pop, and like Macs are more cultured than PC’s, Facebook is of a cooler caliber than MySpace.”
By and large, the opposite is not true. Those teens who opted for MySpace will note that Facebook is boring, but the most condescending language you'll hear regarding its users is that it's the "goody goody kids."
Part of this was timing - Facebook was the new kid on the block and so MySpace was what could be understood as "normative." Thus, the decision was choosing to go to Facebook in lieu of MySpace.
Let me take a moment to highlight the history of MySpace and Facebook early adoption. MySpace started out in Los Angeles and it quickly spread to indie rock and hiphop musicians and the scene culture around them. It spread to teenagers through two routes: 1) older siblings and cousins who participated in urban culture; 2) music fandom.
Facebook, on the other hand, started at Harvard and spread to Ivy League college students. The teenagers who initially wanted access to this site were primarily those who were intending to go to a certain type of college, those who were already connected to older youth in those colleges.
As the popularity of these sites spread, a division occurred, a division marked by the descriptive quotes I shared with you earlier. Networked adoption practices based on social ties revealed a pattern of social divisions that has persisted in American society for a long time. What we see reflected through the lens of "choice" is not a random pattern, but one that showcases a modern day form of class in American society. The divisions are not cleanly based on socioeconomic factors, but those are there. The divisions are not cleanly based on race, but raced-based categories are unequally represented in each cluster. These divisions are not cleanly based on "lifestyle" but patterns of taste and cultural capital are present.
What we see play out through social network sites is the emergence of what Penny Eckert marked in her seminal text "Jocks and Burnouts." Those who are drawn to Facebook are more likely to represent privileged, educated, stronger socioeconomic backgrounds. They are more likely to be respectful of adult society and more likely to connect with adults who hold power over them. Those drawn to MySpace are more likely to come from immigrant families and from poorer, urban communities. They are more likely to be resistant to normative value and affiliate with subcultures. Of course those divisions are not clean and a good number of teens straddle both worlds. But that's precisely why Eckert noted that the hegemony of high school is not comprised solely of one group or the other, but the tension between them.
So why does this matter? In an era where being "in" means participating on one of these sites, which site says a lot about a teen's social world. And as privileged adult society values Facebook over MySpace, they reinforce the view that Facebook is the accepted choice. These sites have become distinct publics and it is impossible to communicate with someone in these publics unless you too are participating. Thus, we are seeing a new type of participation gap emerging. One where status is marked and brokered differently. One where differences in values are visible. One where adults continue to value youth space differently in ways that reinforce age-old divisions.
Skyler (18, Colorado): If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.
Tara (16, Michigan): Like everyone says get a Facebook. You need to get one.
Please note: If you're not familiar with my work in this area, check out Chapter Five in "Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics." This talk is a brief commentary on this issue meant for the audience of ICA. More detailed (and better theorized) work in this area will be coming soon.