Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"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 Another resource is Eszter Hargittai’s article, Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites.

—Marcia Stepanek

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Blogger Unknown said...

Marcia, thank you for writing this post. A very concerning issue indeed! We are creating new "virtual" gated communities, who would have anticipated that! As a big fan of creative, user created content based virtual worlds like Second Life, I would add that SL in particular exposes residents to a lot of other cultures sometimes even by accident. You can not only create your environment but by way of customizing your avatar, you can "play" a different ethnicity, gender etc. Sure, you have pretty isolated groups that won't venture out much, but the design of SL as a continuous environment allows at least the possibility to cross boundaries, even if it is a walled garden/world in itself! Who know what the future holds. I myself remain optimistic, that virtual worlds of the creative kind enable us to grow closer together rather than separating deeper into new and old class systems!

July 1, 2009 at 4:18 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Drax, for your comment--a good one. And virtual communities are, perhaps, more inherently hopeful because they represent what we'd like the world to be, yes? I'll be posting more from this year's PDF conference tomorrow, more from researchers who are looking more closely now at how these new media tools we're creating are, as McLuhan said, hereafter shaping us. Thanks for reading.

July 1, 2009 at 6:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Danah's research is now a couple of years old and is absolutely fascinating. But to say that the numbers don't tell the story of MySpace's decline, that's it's merely some social construct, is not to know the numbers.

Facebook is crushing MySpace worldwide. And in the U.S., a year ago MySpace's unique numbers were twice that of Facebook; now they are less. And MySpace's engagement numbers are actually on an absolute decline.

There is an interesting cultural story, but the reality of Facebook vs MySpace is that Facebook has won. Either MySpace does something soon to change the dynamic or everyone will only be on Facebook soon.

July 3, 2009 at 2:14 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

danah cited recent ComScore data to make her assertion to PDF attendees; both sites are running pretty much neck-in-neck, but thanks for putting those numbers into historical perspective. It will be interesting to see where MySpace is, share-wise, six months from now.

July 3, 2009 at 7:05 PM  
Anonymous Aman said...

I agree Danah's work brings up some very interesting questions and things to watch. Have people done further research on the diversity of social networks by age and education? I ask this question in part because we need a reference group to make comparisons to (are things getting better or worse over time) and also to understand better the content of social life online.

July 7, 2009 at 10:52 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Woodhead said...

this is really interesting research. I wonder if the Facebook/my space divide is as important as it was now that Twitter is becoming such a powerful force.

I am addressing a number of issues about literacy etc on I'll link back here but if anyone would like to add to my research on the blog please comment there too. Thanks.


August 15, 2009 at 6:19 AM  
Blogger Devious Medievalist said...

When it comes to the Facebook/MySpace divide, I think some of this may have to do with college-culture. Facebook was originally exclusively for college students - it came into being as a gated community instead of evolving into one. My understanding (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong - where I'm from, almost everyone I know is expected to go to some variety of college) is that a lot of places, whites and Asians feel more societal/familial pressure to head to college than black or Hispanic students. From where I sit, it's not, or at least it wasn't, that Facebook is 'cooler' as much as it is that Facebook is 'preppier' - because Facebook was originally college-oriented (and elite college, at that, since it started out with Ivy League schools and Stanford), the students who made the switch were the ones who were college-bound, or had a lot of friends/family who were.

It's not "white flight," it's ... classism? elitism? I'm not sure what the right word is, but I don't think it's a race thing. Look at the descriptions of the groups going to Facebook: the honors students and the good 'not-so-honors' kids (still college/tech-bound, but not taking honors/AP courses, if I'm interpreting that right). I note, in particular, the MySpace loyalty of the emos (a very 'white' group, statistically speaking) - as a very music-centric group, Facebook probably has less appeal to them compared to MySpace with music on every page.

I find the anti-MySpace snobbery more interesting. Sadly, I'm no help, since I find the site appalling on a website design level and have since before there was Facebook to compare it to. I'm too biased in ways unrelated to the issue at hand to have any insight. I'm curious about where that derisive attitude is coming from, though.

August 16, 2009 at 9:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think the premise of this article is interesting, I also think its rather incomplete. For instance, there is no comment from those who remained solely with MySpace. The cultural and social backgrounds of these high schoolers are mentioned, but there is no indication of age. Furthermore, before MySpace, there was Friendster and one could wonder about what triggered the mass migration away from Friendster to Myspace, while others bypassed Myspace altogether and went directly from Friendster to Facebook.
It might also paint a fuller picture to discuss the available technical functionalities and user control of privacy on these sites as indicators for why one site is perceived as being viewed as "safe/cultured" and the other as more "predatory/vulgar". I also think its a matter of user curiosity and perceptions of what's new vs. what's "played out".

August 26, 2009 at 3:41 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

It's great that this post continues to provoke commentary and debate; thanks for all of your comments! I agree that danah's study is provocative; all of the commentary so far on this threat contains some good questions for her work and is inspiring me to write a follow-up post. Thanks for writing and reading, always.

August 26, 2009 at 4:36 PM  

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