Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Social Networks reflecting Class Divide

Social Networks have been a growing phenomenon for several years. I'm not sure what drives it, but certainly things such as the growing mobility of our population, ubiquitous net access, and the shifting workplace that no longer provide lifetime employment opportunities. Things such as this tend to leave society's youth with no sense of community.

I'm sure there are many forces at work here, and they will likely make for a compelling thesis by some aspiring doctoral candidate, but the facts are that there have been overlapping and dramatically growing 'social networking sites' (SNS) on the net for many years. Overlapping in the sense that as popularity wanes for one, it grows for another. And when that happens, one looks for the 'features' that make one SNS more attractive than another.

Friendster was one of the first... and it was more than moderately successful. But in 2004-2005 the MySpace phenomenon took the forefront. Growth (though understandably difficult to accurately measure) has been such that if MySpace was a country, it would be about the 10th largest in the World! Teens have flocked to the site, and stories about it became the biggest nightmare for parents - who typically didn't understand it at all. But regular nightly news stories warned us about predators lurking on MySpace... and instead of "it is eleven o'clock, do you know where your children are?" it became, "Are you familiar with your child's MySpace profile page?"

In 2005-2006 a new player came on the scene. Starting in the Ivy Leage schools on the east coast, Facebook had limited access since only members of a select group of high end universities could set up accounts. The site quickly opened up access to more and more schools and recently has opened up access completely - to anyone.

While MySpace is still the hot site for teens, Facebook has been attracting a lower and lower age range (instead of just college and post-college students). In fact, go into any high school and you will find some teens with MySpace accounts and groups and others talking only about their Facebook accounts and groups.

An Emerging Pattern?
What is kinda scary to me is that over the past couple of years a researcher, Danah Boyd, has started to see an emerging pattern in the use of the networks. In her June 24, 2007 paper she discusses the emerging pattern of class divide reflected in who chooses MySpace vs. Facebook.

Teens who see themselves as college-bound are setting up Facebook accounts while those that don't are using MySpace. While this is far too much a generalization, her observations are compelling. And I can see the same thing from a personal perspective - from people I know and work with.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise anyone that our societal visions of class distinction would play out in any online 'society'. SNS offer virtual grouping capabilities by definition... so it is natural that it will reflect the types of grouping we display in everyday life. We hang out with folks we feel comfortable around - usually because we have several things in common.

Army Impact?
One of the scarier things, though, is that earlier this summer the U.S. Army cut off access to MySpace thru its networks. There were many reasons given, but the fact seems to be that the MySpace users were most all enlisted ranks, whereas officers tended to set up Facebook accounts. Hmmmmm.

At a time when we give verbal homage to worrying about class division and achievement gaps, and supposedly celebrate diversity, isn't it interesting that our unspoken views of class distinction are playing out in our youth's choice of social networks?


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