October 26, 2009

The Rhetoric of MySpace vs. Facebook

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Equity
myspace is for losers graffiti on building

From Eszter Hargittai’s scholarship to more recent work by marketing analytics firms, we know that race and socio-economic status shape MySpace and Facebook usage. Yet, it is the rhetoric used by participants that highlights how these distinctions play out.  In an upcoming paper entitled “White Flight in Networked Publics?” (to be published in Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White’s upcoming anthology on Race and Digital Technology), I map out the language used by teenagers – and, to a lesser degree, adults – to explain the divisions between MySpace and Facebook.


When one of the teens that I interviewed explained that MySpace is “like ghetto”, I began to realize that the divisions surrounding MySpace and Facebook could be understood in light of the dynamics between urban environments and suburban communities and the implicated race and class-based structures. Responding to a New York Times article about the death of MySpace, a commenter wrote: “Compared to Facebook, MySpace just seems like the other side of the tracks – I’ll go there for fun, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”  This language, like much of that which surrounds the tension between MySpace and Facebook, highlights a socio-cultural divide between the two sites that goes beyond just differences in features and functionality. Spatial metaphors and taste referents are used to differentiate these sites, but those markers should be interpreted in light of the race and class signals implied by them.  When teens talk about the aesthetics of a site being “bling” as opposed to “gaudy,” they’re signaling more than simply taste.

Interpreting MySpace vs. Facebook through the lens of ghettos and movement from urban regions to suburbs also sheds light on the moral panic that unfolded around MySpace. Like the city, MySpace is seen as an unsafe part of town.  Like a gated community in the suburbs, Facebook is often seen as the safe alternative.  What is it that gives certain people this impression about these sites?  Likely, it boils down to a question of which people are on which site and the feeling that one site is populated by “people like me” while the other site is not.

Fundamentally, people choose to go to a social network site because their friends are all there.  We all want to be in a place where everyone knows our name. Yet, in choosing to segment based on our personal ties, we replicate the social divisions that exist in everyday life. Although many believe that the internet should be the great equalizer that connects people in new ways, what we see is that it replicates and reinforces pre-existing connections and the structural configuration that surrounds them. As such, the social divisions that exist in the United States are reproduced online. Not surprisingly, this means that we see divisions along axes like race and class.

Why should we care?  As we increasingly see social media as the producer of networked publics where people can gather and connect, we must take into account the divisions that exist.  Focusing only on one place where a portion of the public gathers does a disservice to those who choose to gather elsewhere. The internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life, making visible many of the issues we hoped would disappear, including the race and class-based social divisions in American society.

(The argument that I put forward in this upcoming article extends those that I’ve made elsewhere: [1] [2]. Photo by bitterjug. )