Teenagers are always ready for the next hip social networking site, many hoping that class barriers in the real world will vanish online. But after months of interviewing American teenagers, danah boyd has found that socio-economics help determine which site teens choose.
CHRIS BANNON: This is On the Media. I’m Chris Bannon. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. As the hound said in the old New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” The idea is that you’re free to be anyone, and everyone is equal online, but the real world always seems to encroach on the virtual one.
Over the past nine months, Dana Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, interviewed teenagers across the country and poured over thousands of profiles on the social networking sites MySpace and FaceBook.
She posted her initial findings on her blog, and what she found is that there is a class distinction between MySpace and FaceBook, which means that, although the Internet offers the opportunity to connect to anyone, social networking sites are reinforcing the class divide rather than breaking it down. Dana explains that the origins of each site paved the way. DANAH BOYD: By and large, MySpace grew as its first, you know, key social group were Indie rock bands, primarily in Los Angeles, and you had these young people who were deeply embedded music fans who started to join the site to connect with the bands that they loved.
Within FaceBook, it started out as Ivy League and in particular, a Harvard centered and social network site, where you had to have a (dot) .edu email address to get access to it. And each of these groups, they invite their friends. As they invite their friends, they set and stage the tones, the norms, what are to be expected. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Your own observation led you to believe that the teenagers who use each of these sites fall into one of two categories. They’re either, as you described them, hegemonic teens - those are the college-bound ones - and the subaltern teens, outcasts in high school, that sort of thing? DANAH BOYD: You know, on one end you have young people from different groups, from the working class groups, you know, subcultural groups, very much attracted to and drawn to MySpace. They don’t have access to power and privilege. They are not necessarily going to college. They are either intentionally resistant to the social values that are inscribed through media, through the school system, through traditional parent structures. Or they simply don’t have access to them.
What they value is in many ways different, so this is why it’s not surprising that this comes from the music culture. Music has often been about these expressions of resistance and these expressions of positions with - outside of hegemony.
So you have this which, you know, historically comes into the MySpace, and there are a whole group of teens who never joined MySpace, because they saw it as a scary site. They saw it as a place that, you know, young people shouldn’t go.
These teens, by and large, were college bound, and they’re drawn to FaceBook which they see to be all about college. Now, most teens are somewhere in between. There’s a whole slew of them and they have sites on both, but depending on who their friends are, they’ll get drawn one way or another.
And so when they split to these two sites, they’re part of totally separate worlds, and they become invisible to one another. We had hoped that the Internet was going to be this equalizer or be this great, you know, opportunity for anybody to come and hang out and forget about the things that separate us within society.
And the truth is that the Internet is showing itself as a place that reflects all of the biases of everyday life. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you make of the fact that the military has banned MySpace but so far, not FaceBook? You’ve said it’s because soldiers use MySpace whereas officers use FaceBook? DANAH BOYD: Most of the officers are college educated. Their friends are on FaceBook. It had to do with a whole college history. It’s an older group. The soldiers are coming out of high school, and you know, often directly. They are typically poor and they are much more cleanly in the crowd where their friends are all on MySpace.
When you have this split, what does it mean that the primary asynchronous communication channel for a lot of soldiers is being shut off? If it really is about bandwidth and questions of spending too much time on these sites, why are we not stopping the tools of both groups? BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve released your observations not in an academic paper but in a blog entry. The quote was, “The academic side of me feels extremely guilty about this. The activist side of me finds it too critical to go unacknowledged.” What’s so pressing? DANAH BOYD: When I started to see this sort of division, I started going, hmmm, what’s happening here and why, and what are the implications for it?
Obviously, there’s sort of the commercial questions, you know, marketing and what not, but this is less of interest to me than what’s going on as Washington, D.C., makes decisions about who can use what sites and why.
So when I look at this separation between FaceBook and MySpace, what concerns me is that we are building networked public – you know, having these public worlds where we don’t even see the people that aren’t like us, and that’s what breeds intolerance within a society.
And if we want to see the Internet as a place where there’s so much more opportunity, when we start to build these separate spaces, or when people start to, you know, get drawn to separate spaces, we have to question what role this technology has in sort of benefiting society as a whole. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Danah, thank you very much. DANAH BOYD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Danah Boyd is a fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communications.