Proxy class warfare: Facebook vs. MySpace

This essay about the class division underlying the Facebook/MySpace divide has been linked all over. The basic claim is this:

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.

I’m on both networks but it’s not obvious to me whether this is true, since I’m outside of the relevant demographic—I just don’t know that many teenagers online or off. There is a clear divide between which of my friends are on which network, but it’s much more due to their different origins: for the most part, my friends who are still in academia are on Facebook, and the rest are on MySpace.
Since I joined Facebook roughly a year ago (I was already on MySpace) I’ve considered it to have a couple of clear advantages. One is that from a design standpoint it’s vastly superior: it’s much easier to navigate, and easier to keep track of developments in one’s social network. (I’m one who really likes the News Feed.) Meanwhile it takes loading two or three pages to do anything on MySpace, and that’s assuming the user doesn’t just encounter a random error in the process.
The second point in favor of Facebook is the fact that it doesn’t make my eyes bleed when I read it. The visual layout is clean and simple, in direct contrast to the garish hideousness of MySpace, even before users take the opportunity to crowd their profiles with so many animated GIFs that they induce seizures. I invite you to go to just the front page of MySpace, where an advertisement for the Bratz movie has apparently been loaded into a shotgun and fired at the background.
But, as the essay points out, this preference just reveals my bourgeoise values:

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and “so middle school.” They prefer the “clean” look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is “so lame.” What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as “glitzy” or “bling” or “fly” (or what my generation would call “phat”) by subaltern teens. Terms like “bling” come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics. I’m sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the “eye of the beholder” – they are culturally narrated and replicated. That “clean” or “modern” look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

The author has a point here. What I’m praising Facebook for above is essentially enforcing its users to follow a conformist, generic white-bread design template, resulting in exactly the blandness one would expect. Pottery Barn, indeed. No wonder the more artistic types prefer MySpace. Now if only its interface weren’t such a trainwreck…

14 thoughts on “Proxy class warfare: Facebook vs. MySpace

  1. shellock

    And somehow i still chose niether. Dont know why but in generaly i am turned off by social networking. So many spam mails from the likes of freindster i guess.

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    This seems to be true of many of my friends, so that my network on either site is not very representative of my actual social circles. I get some spam from MySpace (but not a huge amount), and none at all from Facebook.

  3. Lemming

    Bah, I should have posted this when I read it this morning. There was another, similar article as well, that I found completely independently, and thought I had open in a tab, but, alas, it’s nowhere to be seen.
    In any case, thanks for saving me the trouble of posting the same. Also: albeit interesting, it’s less interesting for me, since I’ve avoided those sites ever since a brief test run of friendster.

  4. Mason

    The article was very interesting!
    I have students studying this stuff, so I wonder if the article’s author has data. Also, I’m extremely interested in this business as a mathematical problem (including the real social network versus online social network thing and the inherent biases between the networks). One of my students is studying growth mechanisms for social networking sites, so I would love to pick the author’s brain concerning parameter ranges she observes (say, of active versus passive users on the various sites; I bet the percentage is somewhat different on the different sites, and our model should be able to give some idea of the effects of that).
    As for my practices, I am on many of these sites but I am a passive user. (I occasionally take advantage of the glorified address book deal.) If somebody contacts me, I take appropriate action — read their e-mail, accept their friendship request, and so on.
    As for the value of those sites, I have on occasion gotten in touch with old friends as a result of being on them, so they definitely have some excellent benefits.

  5. Chris L-S

    I’ll admit, I have thus far failed to see the point of either site. Both, from the limited exposure I’ve had to it, seem to be full of “Look at me, look at me!” kinds of marginal content with comment logs full of “Yo, what up!” and other such pithy statements. Perhaps those are simply the friends the people I have seen the pages of have, but it just seemed like a shallow ego-trip.

  6. Josh

    I don’t consider myself an addict to either site in particular, but I have to ask, what’s the big deal here? They’re two online networking sites that encourage open communication on a different medium. The reason there are a variety of different online communication methods, be it e-mail, instant message, online networking, sites, blogs, etc., is that variety is a way of giving someone what they want no matter how odd their preferences are. If you don’t like it, you don’t use it, and more power to you, no matter what your reasons for distaste are. MySpace isn’t a cult, or an addiction, it’s something people do to pass the time when bored, or just feel like entertaining oneself. Leaving inane, stupid, egomaniacal comments to one another has been around since Catullus first drunkenly chiseled a pornographic poem about a senator into the stones at the Forum. Every means of communication is going to have a large percentage of people with bad spelling using it to cry out for attention, and blogs themselves are a perfect example. I think each and every one of our blog rolls would be a lot longer if not for the fact that each of us only find a miniscule percentage of them worthwhile to read. Can one honestly say that utilizing a blog makes one more educated, literary, and intellectually deep than other online people? I’m fairly sure that perusing the old blogosphere for a bit will reveal that no, many people come off as egomaniacal, angsty, and vapid, simply spouting whatever ideas come to mind into an empty void of free web space. And FSM bless them for doing so; they certainly are free to say what they want.
    This all has less to do with the essay itself than it does with my own personal gripe with people who like to be anti-whatever-is-popular and cry havoc against those who dare to have an account on MySpace.
    For the essay, I find it hard to establish a rock-solid argument based on class division (specifically who is going to college, and who is a “burnout”, as the author describes them) when, as the essay states outright, Facebook is still in the process of integrating itself into the names of online communities that are completely open to the public. As it states:
    “Facebook launched in 2004 as a Harvard-only site. It slowly expanded to welcome people with .edu accounts from a variety of different universities. In mid-2005, Facebook opened its doors to high school students, but it wasn’t that easy to get an account because you needed to be invited. As a result, those who were in college tended to invite those high school students that they liked. Facebook was strongly framed as the “cool” thing that college students did. So, if you want to go to college (and particularly a top college), you wanted to get on Facebook badly. Even before high school networks were possible, the moment seniors were accepted to a college, they started hounding the college sysadmins for their .edu account. The message was clear: college was about Facebook.”
    This is a pretty clear statement as to the “why” of Facebook’s attraction to college students and college hopefuls: because that was an established core demographic of the site to begin with. Why would a kid move to a Facebook account when going to college? Primarily because that was the main utility for the design, organized in such a way that it differentiates by particular school, hometown, etc. MySpace is a more open design, allowing you to search for those in your vicinity and even in the same school but not created for that specific method. Most of us who were in college at the time Facebook developed did not even know about or use MySpace, and when MySpace was popular and Facebook was opening its doors to the public, I graduated and went out into the world and found that, surprise, most people on MySpace did not even know about or use Facebook.
    Now, some of us (horror!) use both. I say “use” here because it accomplishes some concrete means, say, communicating with a friend or starting up a common group for people with similar interests or on a similar project. Some of us even leave pointless comments on others’ profiles. For… dare I say it… fun?
    My point is, I guess I don’t see the percentage result in classifying the people who partake in each particular brand of online communication. Is there an educational or, even better, practical benefit to shoving MySpace or Facebook users into little boxes of classification? I’m a bit bothered that class differentiation and racial divide is even entering into the internet forum, since that’s the one place where you can’t tell either race or class if someone doesn’t want you to.
    I’ll close with this one. I have just under 100 friends on MySpace, and a hell of a large percentage of them are college dropouts or only high-school graduates. And I would not describe any of them as the following: “”burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids.”
    My roomate’s gay and I wouldn’t describe him as a “queer kid”. Senator Obama has a MySpace page to promote his campaign. Which category does he fall in? “Gangsta”?
    I, myself, am going to memorize some lines for a scene I have to put up in class on Sunday. And since I have a MySpace page, I guess that makes me an “art fag”. Nice to know where I fit in, though. Let me at that cock!

  7. Mason

    Chris: Online presences have included potentially strong narcissism components for a long time. As Josh indicates, some people are passing the time and having fun doing that. To each their own.
    Josh: I think it is possible for a person to be addicted to MySpace, Facebook, or whatever just like they can be addicted to anything else. I doubt very many people reach that level, but I think there are some cases that have. (Granted, that is a comment on specific people and not on whatever they happen to be addicted to. It would be something else if this weren’t around.)
    As for the class structure, this is an online social network that is giving a biased sample of a real social network. One would expect some of the class structure to go with it in some way. I’m not saying the divisions mentioned in the essay have any merit, but if one, say, takes scientists who know each other and look at how this is reflected by concrete connections such as paper coauthorship, one can see various collaborative cliques show up. Similarly, if one takes real friendships (hard to quantity with robust data) and considers an online representation (via Facebook or any other online service, with well-defined connections), one can also see cliques and some of what one sees most likely will reflect class structure that exists in the society at large. And this type of information can in principle be used to figure out with reasonably high probability + error bars who belongs to what group even with supposed anonymity. It can never be perfect, but one can discern the information through, for example, community detection algorithms. (Man, I wish I could get more data…)

  8. Josh

    Mason, you’re right of course, people do get addicted to MySpace and Facebook, and by no means do I want to discount it. I used the word because recently I’ve developed a bit of concern for the way people throw around the word “addiction” with some pretty offbeat ideas behind it. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, will define an addiction the way the movies define schizophrenia, and often be a misdiagnosis. Anyway, yes, I believe people can be addicted to these things, but I also believe many people ascribe addiction to what are in fact chosen behaviors with no discipline.
    And you’re definitely right about class-system studies in an online environment having some merit; my concern in particular is with the content of this study. The conclusion that college teens move on to Facebook seems obvious and then seems to proceed to some generalizations of the nature of the people who move on or remain.
    Really, I used a thousand words when I could have used a metaphor back in my last comment: the essay says that college teens and college hopefuls are moving to Facebook whereas non-college associated persons stick with MySpace. I get it, but my reaction would be the same as if someone made the announcement that PS3 owners were buying more Blu-Ray discs whereas XBOX360 owners stuck with HD-DVD: “Of course they do. So what?”

  9. Arcane Gazebo

    Josh, I think you’re being a bit unfair. The essay is explicitly not about you or your roommate or Senator Obama, or indeed most of your MySpace friends, because the author is looking only at high school-age teens. Likewise the litany of descriptors for the MySpace groups isn’t intended to be exhaustive, they’re just examples. The point is that there’s a hegemonic class where people are expected to conform to certain aesthetic ideals, and anyone who doesn’t conform gets branded an outsider. I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school this divide certainly existed without MySpace, Facebook, or the analysis of sociologists. (Even at New Canaan High School there were some who didn’t conform!) I don’t see this as danah boyd imposing these classifications on kids who would otherwise be blissfully unaware of class heirarchies. The kids are imposing them on each other, and boyd is just observing.
    I also think it’s overly idealistic to think of the internet as some egalitarian paradise where class doesn’t play a role. A person’s socioeconomic background strongly influences the way they write, the way they relate to others, and their aesthetic sense, and as a result it can be very easy to make inferences about class from a person’s blog or MySpace page. Indeed, part of the point of the article is that these class signifiers are embedded into the designs of Facebook and MySpace.
    Finally, let me say that I would actually be very surprised if high school teens were joining Facebook out of some calculated anticipation of their academic prospects. What actually happens is that people join whatever network their friends are on. And so the divisions between online networks are going to reflect meatspace social divisions. When Facebook was only open to Harvard students, of course it was the social network of the elite and priviledged. But the author’s point is that because of the way people join these networks, this division will continue to persist even though Facebook is now open to everyone. Which I think is a less obvious point.

  10. Josh

    I realize that idealism is looked down upon in a world where cynicism is the norm (or, as you might say, the aesthetic ideal of the hegemonic class), so I won’t particularly apologize for it, and yes, I agree my views are idealistic and in most cases overly so.
    Not that I agree that my views on the way the internet should be adequately describe an “egalitarian paradise” at all. What I mean by the anonymity factor of the internet is not just in presentation or aesthetic style (although I know many people who defy such assumptions one would make based on their writing and aesthetic preferences), but also the immensity of the communities and the ability to choose freely where to go without being noticed that much. In High School, race/class is more prevalent because you have to be in contact with the other archetypal overgeneralizations of human beings because you’ll see them in gym or math and even if they’re a different archetype than you are, you’ll still see them smoking out in the parking lot. Online, if they’re a different class structure, they practically don’t have to exist. So I think it’s much easier to not choose to join a community based on whether or not one knows anyone on that site than what kind of people go there.
    Is it so surprising that people “outside” the norm are branded outsiders? I think it’s overly idealistic to think that people wouldn’t be branded as outsiders in any social group, and pointing at high school students, which tend to be the worst and meanest of examples, and saying, “look! They separate themselves online, too!” isn’t a terribly interesting revelation.
    I’m not sure where I implied that teens are joining Facebook as a calculated anticipation. Beginning as a college-only site before branching out to college-and-high-school only before branching out to general public accessability, wouldn’t it stand to reason that word of mouth would travel in this order, too? High schoolers who have college friends or relatives would be more interested in joining up than those who do not. It’s particularly the argument that this will “continue to persist” that I not necessarily disagree with, but certainly am skeptical of. This period in time for Facebook is one of transition, and while MySpace is a common internet name, Facebook is comparatively unknown. It takes time and word-of-mouth (text?) for the network to spread all six degrees over the online community, and it seems a little early in the game to predict that this will eventually represent the great class division of the American experience. To me, it seems more like a muddied reflection of class division in America when the reality is crystal-clear and right outside the window.

  11. shellock

    I have to agree with Arcane Gazebo high school has a definative natural class order. Though oddly i felt this class sytem was less in high scholl then in middle school.
    And to non comformity I must say I am proud to be a founding Lunatic :) Though i am actaully more conforming then many of my high school or college friends.
    All that said i still dont exist on any virtual soctial networks and this is the only blog I post to (though not the only one i read)

  12. Josh

    I think it depends on the high school, honestly. But I’d rather not go back to a bunch of ’em to find out personally. 😉

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