“The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online”

by Guest Contributor danah boyd, originally published at Zephoria


[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk]

Citation: boyd, danah. 2009. “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online.” Personal Democracy Forum, New York, June 30.

This talk was written for a specific audience – the attendees of the Personal Democracy Forum. This audience is primarily American, primarily liberal-leaning, primarily white, and primarily involved professionally in politics in one way or another. Keep this audience in mind when I’m talking about “we” here.

Good morning!

Many of us in this room have had our lives transformed by technology. Some of us have grown up with tech while others have embraced it as adults. Many of us have become enamored with tech and its transformative potential. And because of this, many of us have become technology advocates. We’ve worked our way into different institutions, preaching about new opportunities introduced because of the internet. Furthermore, many in this room have been active in transforming politics through technology. We’ve leveraged technology for fundraising and getting out the vote. We could go on and on about political events that have been shaped by technology, from the Obama Campaign to the post-election Iranian protests.

All of this is brilliant and powerful, exciting and motivating. But I’m also worried. I’m worried about the rhetoric we use when we talk about technology. Given what we’ve experienced and what we witness today, we tend to believe that these technologies are the great equalizers, that they can help ANYONE participate, that the technologies in and of themselves can revitalize democracy. In other words, we tend to believe in a certain utopian myth of the internet as the savior. What if this weren’t true?

There’s nothing more tricky than standing up in front of a room full of people passionate about transforming society at a conference on big ideas and asking you to do a privilege check, but I’m going to do so anyhow because I’m a masochist. More acutely, I think that we need to unpack what’s happening with technology in order to productively engage with the development of technology. You need to understand the sticking points in order to move the needle in the right direction.

I want to ask a favor here today. I want you to step away from the techno-hyperbole for just a moment and think about issues of inequality and social stratification with me. I want you to think about the ways in which technology is not equally available or equally transformative.

For decades, we’ve assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with “access” and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the “digital divide.” Yet, increasingly, we’re seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we’re seeing a social media landscape where participation “choice” leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions. This is most salient in the States which is intentionally the focus of my talk here today.

MySpace vs. Facebook

Rather than staying in land of abstract, let’s go concrete. To do so, let’s deal directly with a very specific case study: MySpace vs. Facebook. How many of you currently use Facebook? [90%+ of the audience raises their hands.] How many of you currently use MySpace? [A few lone figures raise their hands.] Look around.

Two weeks ago, comScore released numbers showing that Facebook and MySpace were neck-and-neck in terms of unique user visits in the U.S. The meta-narrative was that Facebook was winning in the States and that MySpace was dying. I would argue that the numbers can be read differently. The numbers show that MySpace has neither grown nor faded in the last year while Facebook has expanded rapidly and has finally reached the same size. Of course, this is not to say that Facebook isn’t doing tremendously. In a business environment where monetization is shaky, the only definition of success is “growth.” Given that, it’s reasonable to see Facebook as more successful than MySpace this year. But we still need to account for the fact that as many people visit MySpace as Facebook and that, as exemplified by the people in this room, that’s not because there’s a complete overlap of users. Even if you think that Facebook is winning the game, we need to account for the fact that *70 million* people in the US visited MySpace. That’s not small potatoes.

As is the case in many situations, teenagers are a darn good indicator of broader trends. I’m an ethnographer. For the last four years, I’ve been traveling the United States, talking to American teenagers about their use of social media. During the 2006-2007 school year, I started noticing a trend. In each school, in each part of the country, there were teens who opted for MySpace and teens who opted for Facebook. (There were also plenty of teens who used both.) At the beginning of the school year, teens were asking “Are you on MySpace? Yes or No?” At the end of the school year, the question had transformed to “MySpace or Facebook?” Given this transformation, I started analyzing my data to understand the transition. I also went back into the field to specifically talk to teens about the tensions between MySpace and Facebook. What follows are quotes from my fieldwork.

In analyzing this data, one can reasonably see this as a matter of individual choice in a competitive market. There are plenty of teenagers who will tell you that they are on one or the other as a matter of personal preference having to do with the features or functionality.

Jordan (15, Austin): [Facebook has] unlimited pictures. I like that.

Melanie (15, Kansas): I leave a lot more comments on Facebook, just because that’s more what Facebook’s about more than MySpace.

Catalina (15, Austin): [Facebook] doesn’t take eight hours to load the page. That really bothered me [about MySpace].

There are also those who will talk about design and usability.

Anindita (17, LA): Facebook’s easier than MySpace but MySpace is more complex. You can add things to it. You can add music, make backgrounds and layouts, but Facebook is just plain white and that’s it.

Heather (16, Iowa): It’s much easier to use Facebook than MySpace. MySpace is a little complicated. You have to be in the network. It’s complicated and some people are just kind of too lazy to do that.

Teens will also talk about their perceptions of different sites, about what they think certain affordances mean or how they perceive the sites in relation to values they hold such as safety.

Cachi (18, Iowa): Facebook is less competitive than MySpace. It doesn’t have the Top 8 thing or anything like that, or the background thing.

Tara (16, Michigan): [Facebook] kind of seemed safer, but I don’t know like what would make it safer, like what main thing. But like, I don’t know, it just seems like everything that people say, it seems safer.

And of course the dominant explanation teens will give to justify their choice has to do with their friends. Simply put, they go where their friends are.

Kevin (15, Seattle): I’m not big on Facebook; I’m a MySpace guy. I have a Facebook and I have some friends on it, but most of my friends don’t check it that often so I don’t check it that often.

Red (17, Iowa): I am on Facebook and MySpace. I don’t talk to people on MySpace anymore … the only reason I still have my MySpace is because my brother’s on there.

All of this would be fine and dandy if friendships and aesthetics and values weren’t inherently intertwined with issues of race, socio-economic status, education, and other factors that usually make up our understanding of “class.” But they are. And the further into the analysis you go, the more uncomfortable the data might make you feel.

Kat (14, Mass.): I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever, and Facebook is all… not all the people that have Facebook are mature, but its supposed to be like oh we’re more mature. … MySpace is just old.

This quote provides the key to understanding the distinction between MySpace and Facebook. Choice isn’t about features of functionality. It’s about the social categories in which we live. It’s about choosing sites online that reflect “people like me.” And it’s about seeing the “other” site as the place where the “other” people go.

Anastasia (17, New York): My school is divided into the ‘honors kids,’ (I think that is self-explanatory), the ‘good not-so-honors kids,’ ‘wangstas,’ (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,’ (they tend to band together even though they could fit into any other groups) and the ‘emo kids’ (whose lives are allllllways 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 – and adults – use social categories and labels to identify people with values, tastes, and social positions. As teens chose between MySpace and Facebook, these sites took on the frames of those social categories. Nowhere is this more visible than in the language that those who explicitly chose Facebook over MySpace.

Craig (17, 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.

As adults began engaging with Facebook, another twist emerged around perceived maturity. One thing to keep in mind… there’s plenty of documentation about how teenagers from wealthier, more educated backgrounds are more willing to participate in environments alongside adults than those from poorer backgrounds. Of course, this language has more to do with perception and values than actual co-participation.

Kaitlyn (14, Georgia): Facebook is for old people.

Melanie (15, Kansas): Facebook is way better. MySpace is just boring, and it’s still lame because you can still make the background like you’re a little kid on Xanga, and Facebook is more like adultness.

In this example, note that Kaitlyn chooses MySpace in order to keep away from “old people” while Melanie embraces Facebook to engage with adult society.

In looking through my data, 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 lament 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.


Explanations

There are many potential explanations for how we got here.

One explanation comes from looking at the origin points. Early adopters matter – they shape services in the long-term. MySpace came out first and quickly attracted urban 20-somethings. It spread to teenagers through older siblings and cousins as well as those who were attracted to indie rock and hip hop music culture. Facebook started at Harvard and spread to the Ivy Leagues before spreading more broadly. The first teenagers to hear about Facebook were those connected to the early adopters of Facebook (i.e. the Ivy League bound types). The desirability of the site spread from those college-bound teens. As word of these sites spread, teens went to where their friends were. The origin points of these sites explain many of people’s choices, especially when it comes to first adoption because people adopt the sites that their friends adopt. Yet, it doesn’t explain why people some people left MySpace to join Facebook and others did not.

One way of thinking about the transition from MySpace to Facebook is through the frame of fashion cycles and fads. MySpace was first; arguably, some people got sick of it and, when Facebook came along, voila! This is certainly true for many teens (and adults), but this explanation would only work if MySpace was dead or if users of MySpace thought of it as uncool. The fact that MySpace is still quite popular among a certain segment of the population. Only a month ago, I was doing fieldwork in Atlanta where I found heavy usage of MySpace among certain groups of youth. They knew of Facebook but had no interest in leaving MySpace to join Facebook.

Herein lies the reality that makes all of this quite messy to deal with. It wasn’t just anyone who left MySpace to go to Facebook. In fact, if we want to get to the crux of what unfolded, we might as well face an uncomfortable reality… What happened was modern day “white flight.” 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.

This dynamic was furthered by the press, an institution that stems from privilege and tends to reflect the lives of a more privileged class of people. They narrated MySpace as the dangerous underbelly of the Internet while Facebook was the utopian savior. And here we get back to Kat’s point: MySpace has become the “ghetto” of the digital landscape. The people there are more likely to be brown or black and to have a set of values that terrifies white society. And many of us have habitually crossed the street to avoid what is seen as the riff-raff.

The fact that digital migration is revealing the same social patterns as urban white flight should send warning signals to everyone out there. And if we think back to the language used by teens who use Facebook when talking about MySpace, we should be truly alarmed. Those who are from privileged backgrounds tend to be far more condescending towards those who are not than vice versa. Many of us in this room come from privileged worlds where we want to “help” those who are not well-off. Here is where a privilege-check is necessary. How often do our language and mannerisms reflect a problematic level of condescension? Perhaps we should look at our teens. They are certainly speaking in a manner that reveals distrust and condescension.

I highlight this because I think that we need to think twice when we dismiss or devalue popular “mainstream” trends and environments. The mainstream isn’t all from a privileged background and the values they bring to the table may look quite different than ours. I suspect that, more often than not, what we’re dismissing are the values and cultures of people who are different. I think that this is blatantly true when it fear becomes operationalized. Fear of the “other” is core to white flight; it is core to suburban attitudes about urban life. But the same thing holds online. Take for example the moral panics around MySpace and online sexual predators. The data has consistently shown that MySpace is not a site of increased risk for youth and that risky behavior is more likely to occur in chatrooms than on MySpace. Yet, if you’re a parent of a teen in this room, you’re probably scared shitless of MySpace. Why? What are you scared of? Are you scared of the site or the possibility that your child might be exposed to values that are different than yours? Are you scared of the display of sexuality or just the display of working class sexuality? Needless to say, that’s a topic for a whole different conversation.

While teens are the starting point of this division, it has percolated through adult adoption as well. And more explicitly so. Unlike teens who are often straddling MySpace and Facebook, most adults are active on one or the other unless they have a specific professional or hobby-based reason to be on both. Many of you know people who joined Facebook in the last year. Well, numerous adults have also joined MySpace in the last year. My guess is that no many of you know adults who have recently created accounts on MySpace. Why? Because they probably aren’t like you.

In many ways, adult worlds are even more divided than teen worlds. Adults are less likely to know other adults who aren’t like them than teens are. There’s a concept in sociology called “homophily.” It means birds of a feather stick together. Whites know whites. Democrats know Democrats. Urbanites know urbanites. Tech people know tech people. Rich people know rich people. And before you immediately start listing the people you know that aren’t like you, realize that this is the auto-reaction to an uncomfortable reality (more colloquially noticeable when people refer to “my black friend…”). Structurally, social networks are driven by homophily even when there are individual exceptions. And sure enough, in the digital world, we see this manifested right before our eyes.

One thing to keep in mind about social media: the internet mirrors and magnifies pre-existing dynamics. And it makes many different realities much more visible than ever before. Racial divisions in American society should not shock anyone in this room, but the explicit-ness of them online can be quite startling. For example, even schools that are “integrated” show racial rifts through Friending practices. You can see homophily online and you can see the ways in which people who share physical space do not share emotional connections.

Implications

So why am I telling you that Facebook and MySpace are divided by race, class, education, and other factors? Because it matters. And we need to talk about and address the implications of this divides.

First off, when people are structurally divided, they do not share space with one another and they do not communicate with one another. This can and does breed intolerance. Sociologists are obsessed with homophily because of the social and economic implications for such divisions. If you don’t know people who are different than you, you don’t trust them. Think about this in the context of the politics around gay rights. The #1 predictor for how someone will side in issues of gay rights is whether or not they know someone who is gay.

Social network sites complicate this even further. 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, you can’t send messages 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.

All this said, people are already divided and we accept that people from different backgrounds inhabit different environments. We cannot expect technology to automatically integrate people and generate cultural harmony. Although most of you call these sites “social networking sites,” there’s almost no networking going on. People use these sites to connect to the people they know. In other words, even if they could talk across the divide, they might not anyhow. And even when people talk across differences, it doesn’t automatically solve underlying tensions. Racial integration of schools was valuable for many reasons, but it didn’t solve racism in this country.

But here’s the main issue with social divisions. We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged? When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we’re trying to address.

If you want people to connect around politics and democracy, information and ideas, you need to understand the divisions that exist. Many of us in this room see social network sites as a modern day incarnation of the public sphere. Politicians login to these sites to connect with constituents and hear their voices. Campaign managers and activists try to rally people through these sites. Market researchers try to get a sense of people’s opinions through these sites. Educators try to connect with students and build knowledge sharing communities. This is fantastic. But there isn’t one uniform public sphere. There are numerous publics (and counterpublics).

In many ways, the Internet is providing a next generation public sphere. Unfortunately, it’s also bringing with it next generation divides. The public sphere was never accessible to everyone. There’s a reason than the scholar Habermas talked about it as the bourgeois public sphere. The public sphere was historically the domain of educated, wealthy, white, straight men. The digital public sphere may make certain aspects of public life more accessible to some, but this is not a given. And if the ways in which we construct the digital public sphere reinforce the divisions that we’ve been trying to break down, we’ve got a problem.

Not everyone has the skills or understanding to engage with the public sphere in a meaningful manner. If you think that civics education is in bad shape in this country, take a look at media literacy. Digital publics combine the worst of both of these. Most of you in this room learned to use Twitter and Facebook through your friends. Collectively, you set the norms for what is appropriate among your network. If you aren’t part of these networks, these technologies may feel very foreign. I recommend each and every one of you to login to MySpace and try to make sense of it today. It will feel foreign to you because it’s not your community, it’s not your friends. Now imagine how people who aren’t like you feel when they walk into Facebook or Twitter.

So as we think about creating public spaces, what’s the meeting point for our conversations? Is it MySpace or Facebook? Twitter or IRC? What you choose matters. Where you and your colleagues hang out matters. The “voices” of the Internet that you get are biased by the people who are in the places that you hang out. But do you know this? Do you account for it? Are you working to represent all people or just the people that you can see and hear? When you’re trying to reach out to people, are you trying to reach out to all people or just the people in the environments that you understand? Are you embracing difference or are you only taking into account that with which you are comfortable?

In the US, we can talk about MySpace and Facebook, but the politics are different in every country. What divides people often differs as well, although “class” is still salient almost everywhere. For example, if you look at Indian use of social media, you’ll see a divide between Orkut and Facebook that plays out along caste and professional lines. Even if you’re not working in the States, you need to account for social divisions. You just might have to look in different places.

Divides also play out inside sites. Consider everyone’s beloved Twitter. For starters, who uses the site represents a small minority of American (let alone international) online participants. Teens, for example, are not using the site. But even among those who are, they aren’t part of one gigantic public space. Consider the discussion of the Iranian election. If you were in certain cohorts, you couldn’t miss the green-ification of people’s profiles, the discussions of #iranelection. But, even though said conversations were massively prolific, only a small percentage of the user base was even aware of this beyond the trending topic. Those who were following 50cent and Miley Cyrus were oblivious to these conversations. And, in a matter of moments, this became visible when Michael Jackson died and captured the attention of a much broader swath of users, nearly taking Twitter down with it. In your world, Iran probably matters more than Michael Jackson. But don’t for a second think that this is universal.

MySpace vs. Facebook is not the only divide taking place online nor will it be the last. These divides are going to keep on happening as social media becomes increasingly prevalent and as features of social media are baked into every site on the web.


Takeaways

Talking about inequality and social stratification is difficult and messy. Even as I’m diving into this data, I find myself struggling to get my words around these issues because it is patently clear that Americans – self included – do not have a language for talking about issues of race and class and stratification. Academically, we primarily rely on British language but this doesn’t work so well in the States. So, as you think about these issues, don’t feel badly if you find yourself stumbling over words or facing ideas that you can’t articulate. Goddess knows, I struggled in writing this talk. And I’m sure that I offended some, but my hope here is to get to the crux of the story, even if my language is imprecise.

Before I leave you, I want to more explicitly highlight the ideas I hope you can take away from this talk.

1) Social stratification is pervasive in American society (and around the globe). Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible. What we see online is not the property of these specific sites, but the pattern of adoption and development that emerged as people embraced them. People brought their biases with them to these sites and they got baked in.

2) There is no universal public online. What we see as user “choice” in social media often has to do with structural forces like homophily in people’s social networks. Social stratification in this country is not cleanly linked to race or education or socio-economic factors, although all are certainly present. More than anything, social stratification is a social networks issue. People connect to people who think like them and they think like the people with whom they are connected. The digital publics that unfold highlight and reinforce structural divisions.

3) If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. If you choose to make Facebook your platform for civic activity, you are implicitly suggesting that a specific class of people is more worth your time and attention than others. Of course, splitting your attention can also be costly and doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be reaching everyone anyhow. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you’re reaching and who you’re not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices. Understand your biases and work to counter them.

4) The Internet has enabled many new voices to enter the political fray, but not everyone is sitting at the table. There’s a terrible tendency in this country, and especially among politically minded folks, to interpret an advancement as a solution. We have not eradicated racism. We have not eradicated sexism. We have not eradicated inequality. While we’ve made tremendous strides in certain battles, the war is not over. The worst thing we can do is to walk away and congratulate ourselves for all of the good things that have happened. Such attitudes create new breeding grounds for increased stratification.

The more that we rely on certain kinds of social media as the solution, the more we define a modern day “second class citizenship.” We desperately need to address issues of access and media literacy to combat this, but we also need to re-engage around broader issues of inequality, intolerance, and social divisions. Technology isn’t the savior, but it sure can highlight the work we need to do. We have some serious work to do, work that goes beyond technology. We can use technology as a tool to connect with people, but we can’t assume that it will eliminate all of the serious issues we have to face in this country.

My hope is that each and every one of you might begin looking at social media with a critical eye. This is a tremendous time, filled with inspiring case studies. But it’s also a harrowing time where pervasive social stratification is being reified in a new era. If we don’t address this head on, inequality will develop deeper roots that will further cement divisions in our lives. Please don’t look the other way. Please use this as an opportunity to face our societal issues head-on. Thank you!

More Information

This talk is based on research for a much broader project. To learn more, check out Chapter Five in Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. More detailed (and better theorized) work in this area will be coming soon.

If you are looking for quantitative work on this topic, check out Eszter Hargittai’s JCMC article “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites.”

To follow my work and findings, see:

* Blog: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts
* Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/zephoria
* Papers: http://www.danah.org/papers