"White Flight" Online?
(I first wrote this post for PopTech and am reposting it here with permission)
For years, many people have been saying the Internet will be a “great social equalizer.” Give everyone access to technology, and social boundaries built on differences in race, class, and income will start to blur, right? Not necessarily, cautions Net researcher danah boyd.
Speaking at this week’s Personal Democracy Forum in New York, boyd said that even among people with access to the Net, long-held social divisions of race, class, and income are beginning to play out online, particularly among teens now choosing which social network they prefer, MySpace or Facebook. “Social media don’t eradicate social divisions,” says boyd, an expert in NextGen behaviors for Microsoft and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “[Social media are] making the old social divisions obvious in totally new ways.”
Consider the perception in the media that MySpace is losing its rivalry with Facebook, boyd says. The numbers tell a different story. ComScore data released two weeks ago show the two social networks running neck-in-neck with about 70 million unique users each, boyd said. So why the disconnect? boyd, who has spent the last four years traveling the United States and talking to teens about their use of social media, says it probably has something to do with how MySpace is being perceived by teens in society.
boyd said it used to be that most kids were on both MySpace and Facebook, but then, during the 2006-2007 school year, boyd started noticing a trend: teens were starting to decide whether to stay with MySpace or jump to Facebook. They were making that choice based on the social categories in which they placed themselves offline. “Increasingly,” says boyd,” (teens) were choosing the site that reflected who they saw as being ‘people like me’ and seeing the ‘other site’ as the place where the ‘other’ people go.”
Here’s one quote from a teen she interviewed, Anastasia, 17, from New York:
“My school is divided into the ‘honors kids,’ the ‘good not-so-honors kids,’ ‘wangstas,’ (boyd says “they pretend to be tough and black but when you live in a suburb in Westchester you can’t claim much ‘hood”), the ‘latinos/hispanics,’ (boyd says “they tend to band together even though they could fit into any other groups”) and the ‘emo kids’ (whose lives, boyd says, “are always filled with woe”). We were all in MySpace with our own little social networks but when Facebook opened its doors to high schoolers, guess who moved and guess who stayed behind?… The first two groups were the first to go and then the ‘wangstas’ split with half of them on Facebook and the rest on MySpace… I shifted with the rest of my school to Facebook and it became the place where the ‘honors kids’ got together and discussed how they were procrastinating over their next AP English essay.”
Teens also are making the choices based on perceived values, tastes, and cultural perceptions, boyd said. Here’s an excerpt from boyd’s interview with Craig, 17, from California:
“The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious. Like Peet’s is more cultured than Starbucks, and Jazz is more cultured than bubblegum pop, and like Macs are more cultured than PC’s, Facebook is of a cooler caliber than MySpace.”
But here’s what boyd says should really “scare the hell out of us.” As teens choose one site over the other, she said, “it’s clear that it’s not just anyone” who leaves MySpace and goes to Facebook. “What we’re seeing is a modern incarnation of white flight,” boyd says.
“Whites were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. The educated were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. Those from the suburbs were more likely to leave or choose Facebook. …Those who deserted MySpace did so by choice but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.”
And one more thing? “In looking through my data,” boyd says, “I found that teens who prefer Facebook are far more likely to be condescending towards those who use MySpace than vice versa… Teens who use MySpace may (consider) teen Facebook users as ‘stuck-ups’ or ‘goodie two-shoes’ or the ‘good kids.’ But they’re not nearly as harsh in their language as Facebook users are of those who use MySpace.” And only last month, boyd says, she was doing field work in Atlanta where she found a heavy usage of MySpace “among certain groups of youth. They knew of Facebook but had no interest in leaving MySpace to join Facebook.”
Bottom line, says boyd? “…When people are structurally divided, they do not share space with one another and they do not communicate with one another, which can and does breed intolerance.” Social network sites are not like email, where it doesn’t matter if you’re on Hotmail or Yahoo. When you choose MySpace or Facebook, boyd says, “you can’t send message to people on the other site. You can’t ‘friend’ people on the other site. There’s a cultural wall between users…and if there’s no way for people to communicate across the divide, you can never expect them to do so.”“…If we don’t address this head on,” boyd told the Digerati in the PDF09 audience, “inequality will develop deeper roots that will further cement the divisions in our lives.”
For more on boyd’s survey work about teens and their use of social media, see her blog. Her research papers are listed at danah.org/papers. Another resource is Eszter Hargittai’s article, Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites.
(Illustration by istock.com)