by Matt Spaley
A doctoral candidate at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, danah boyd (she spells her name without capitalization), has written a blog essay on class divisions between Facebook and MySpace. The essay asserts that “hegemonic teens” (middle/upper class with some education) are all on or are flocking to Facebook whereas “subaltern teens” (poor, less educated, minorities, and those that identify with various teen subcultures) are on MySpace. Though she is careful to point out that her essay is not meant to be an academic paper, it quickly becomes clear that boyd’s essay suffers from some sizable problems.
The choice of “hegemonic” and “subaltern” as terms are an obvious issue which boyd anticipates:
“Yes, I know that these words have academic and political valence. I couldn’t find a good set of terms so feel free to suggest alternate labels.”
At best this caveat is a cop-out. By borrowing terminology from post-colonial theory boyd loads the essay with unnecessary baggage. Describing a group as “hegemonic” is obviously pejorative and boyd proves it through her descriptions:
“The goodie two shoes [sic], 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.”
This assessment is obviously not neutral. The picture boyd is trying to paint is one of the “cool kids” in high school who are made up of seemingly decent students but are in reality elitist, exclusionary jerks who will steal your girlfriend and beat you up in the locker-room. (As to why jocks and athletes are two separate groups is unclear.) Boyd lets us know this by the use of ironic quotation marks. (They’re not good at all!) The casual statement that concludes the description suggests that there’s no problem in calling these teens “hegemonic” because they simply come from a “hegemonic society.”
The “subaltern” classification is no good either as the group proves to be pop-sociology:
“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…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.”
Most of these groups are vague (the existence of a “burnout” subculture is questionable) and many of them could overlap. This description only serves to show the reader that MySpace is populated by “outcasts,” but doesn’t tell us why they couldn’t be found on Facebook. There is no reason that geeks, freaks, and queers wouldn’t emphasize education (especially geeks). If this were a teen sports movie Facebook would be the black clad team who will ruthlessly stop at nothing to win and MySpace would be the motley crew of misanthropes who can’t seem to get their act together but somehow learn to work together and win the big championship.
Though boyd’s essay is essentially descriptive as she claims (there are no policy prescriptions), the piece’s general tone and her expressed view on her blog is serious concern. There is an unfortunate class division playing itself out and needs to be fixed. The problem with this, of course, is that the division doesn’t exist the way boyd claims it does. The essay’s beginning lays out the short history of social networking sites and then utterly ignores what those origins say about who uses what site. Since Facebook was only for those who an .edu email address until quite recently, its users are mostly current or former college students. MySpace has been available to all since its inception and thus its users are demographically more representative of society at large. The actual data bears this out. As the third most popular website in the United States and sixth worldwide with 106 million accounts MySpace is not home to the marginalized, its home to the majority.
So is there any truth to boyd’s claims that teens are flocking to Facebook? Yes. No less than Rupert Murdoch recently remarked when asked if newspaper readers were heading to MySpace: “I wish they were. They’re all going to Facebook at the moment.” And as Financial Times (subscription only) recently wrote, Facebook is proving to be a serious competitor to MySpace. But the rising popularity of Facebook has more to do with what the site is offering its users. MySpace is a messy free-for-all with lots of entertainment content that teens like. Facebook, on the other hand, is a set of overlapping networks that is far more quite and therefore appeals to 20-somethings. The recent shift by many teens to Facebook that boyd has observered may very well be happening, but it has come because teens have been allowed access into what was recently an exclusive club. Being able to be on the same SNS as college kids has made it the “cool” thing to do.
This is only for the short term, though. Since MySpace and Facebook offer different experiences and different opportunities (you can listen to the latest My Chemical Romance release on MySpace and you can network with other advertising execs on Facebook) it seems likely that once the allure wears off MySpace will continue to be the dominant SNS for teens. When these teens hit college age they might transition to Facebook. More likely though is that kids will be on both, just like many people already are, using each for different purposes and not because they want to be part of a “hegemonic” or “subaltern” group. After all, how marginal can something owned by Rupert Murdoch be?