(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Technology supposedly says a lot about your station in life. I-Phones are for folks who like a lot of bells and whistles while Blackberrys are for the serious businessman. Macs are for cool urbane techies while PCs are for stodgy old office drones. New research shows that being a MySpace or a Facebook person says a lot about you, too. I’m a Facebook guy, and according to recent studies that makes me a snobby middle class White kid.
Dr. Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher and social networks scholar, has put out a recent study showing that MySpace and Facebook are beginning to diverge by class and race. Myspace and Facebook are beginning to look a lot more like America and maybe that’s not such a good thing.
More than 55 percent of American teens between the ages of 12-17 are on one or both of these sites so just about everybody ought to know what’s going on between the two top dogs in the social networking world. MySpace launched in 2003 and immediately become popular with teens interested in music, art and design. The site’s flashy colors and ability to carry lots of music and videos on an individual page launched the careers of celebrities and singers like Tila Tequila, Asher Roth and Cassidy. Facebook was founded in 2004 by a couple of Harvard undergrads looking to meet girls. Initially the site was limited to college students, but upon opening it up to anyone with a valid e-mail address in 2006, the site has surged in popularity finally eclipsing MySpace this summer with more than 60 million unique visits a month. The founders have become Internet legends and a best selling book “The Accidental Billionaires” and a movie are coming out about them soon.
But according to Boyd, the rise in Facebook’s popularity isn’t a result of popular trends but actually a form of Internet “White flight.” In a recent presentation to the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, Boyd relayed survey findings that showed middle-class White kids were choosing Facebook or MySpace or abandoning their MySpace accounts for Facebook because the site had become too “hood” or “ghetto.” It is true that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to use Myspace than Facebook, but the idea that middle-class White teens are abandoning the site in droves because of this is a cause for alarm for activists like Boyd.
Ideally the Internet was supposed to be an environment that broke down barriers and brought different kinds of people, by class, race and faith together. The reality that the digital world might be stratifying the same way as the real world is alarming to many academics and journalists and is viewed as something that we should strive to change. I couldn’t disagree more.
There is a tendency by many well- meaning academics and journalists to see any form of social segregation that can be tied to race or class as inherently problematic. Honestly, I think that voluntary segregation gets a bad rap. People of different ages, races and classes use the Internet and social network sites for different reasons. Take Twitter for example. Twitter is dominated by Gen Xers, 55 percent of Twitter accounts are made by women and African-Americans account for 35 percent more of the Twitter population than they do of the Internet population as a whole. Does that mean that Black Web users are fleeing BlackPlanet and Blacksingles.com to go to Twitter to avoid hoodrats and thugs? The core issue with this fear of “White flight” on the Internet is that people make decisions based on their needs and interest and then justify them later. Are we really that surprised that suburban White kids place their values and decisions above other groups and look down on people different than them? Have you watched MTV at any point in the last 10 years?
Neither MySpace nor Facebook are locking people out of their site for racial or class reasons, and just because a group of kids wants to justify their fad decisions in terms of race isn’t a cause for alarm. As long as people are free to log on and join any community that they want, we should focus more on why people visit where they do than why they are choosing to leave. I use Facebook over MySpace because it’s easier to use, had more functions and it was a better way to communicate with my undergraduate students. That doesn’t make me a snob, a racist or an elitist, it makes me a grown-up—which is a category I think is sorely lacking in most social science research in general.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)