Monday, June 25, 2007

Userbase Fragmentation on Social Networking Sites in Canada

This article: Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace has been flying around the net today. Not unexpectedly, the discussion on MetaFilter has been informative and built on the original content, and is certainly more worth reading than the semi-literate sneering on the Digg thread.

The thesis of the paper is that among American users of the two most popular social networking sites, there is a clear distinction in the profiles of the archetypal users that populate and define the two sites.

From the article:

Socio-economic divisions

In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around "class" is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like "working class" and "middle class" and "upper class" get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus "class."

I'm not doing justice to her arguments but it makes sense. My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland just because the share the same income bracket. Their lives are quite different. Unfortunately, with this framing, there aren't really good labels to demarcate the class divisions that do exist. For this reason, I will attempt to delineate what we see on social network sites in stereotypical, descriptive terms meant to evoke an image.

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

In order to demarcate these two groups, let's call the first group of teens "hegemonic teens" and the second group "subaltern teens." (Yes, I know that these words have academic and political valence. I couldn't find a good set of terms so feel free to suggest alternate labels.) These terms are sloppy at best because the division isn't clear, but it should at least give us terms with which to talk about the two groups.

The division is cleanest in communities where the predator panic hit before MySpace became popular. In much of the midwest, teens heard about Facebook and MySpace at the same time. They were told that MySpace was bad while Facebook was key for college students seeking to make friends at college. I go into schools where the school is split between the Facebook users and the MySpace users. On the coasts and in big cities, things are more murky than elsewhere. MySpace became popular through the bands and fans dynamic before the predator panic kicked in. It's popularity on the coasts and in the cities predated Facebook's launch in high schools. Many hegemonic teens are still using MySpace because of their connections to participants who joined in the early days, yet they too are switching and tend to maintain accounts on both. For the hegemonic teens in the midwest, there wasn't a MySpace to switch from so the "switch" is happening much faster. None of the teens are really switching from Facebook to MySpace, although there are some hegemonic teens who choose to check out MySpace to see what happens there even though their friends are mostly on Facebook.

I had become acquainted through a complete random meeting of electrons with a young lady from Orange County, California, who's parents were wealthy enough that she could live without worrying about money, go to clubs and party more nights than not, drive around in a nice car and hang out on the beach a good portion of the time, and was politically very Republican. All the 'class marks' of someone the author would place in the Hegemonic Teen group. Yet she was all over MySpace and as far as I know didn't care much for Facebook — she certainly never mentioned it in conversation. Instead her topics of interest in online discussion were her World of Warcraft characters and Skype. Her MySpace profile reflected this, with pictures of her Avatars mixed in with dance club shots. Her online identity didn't fit in with what facebook allowed, but with MySpace she could define herself exactly as she liked.

And here's where I think the distinction in the service provided by MySpace and Facebook differs. Facebook reinforces existing social structures, while MySpace has no imposed structure, which forces users to make their own. As Danah Boyd says in the article, what will attract a teenage user to Facebook is the desire to get to know the students of the University they want to attend, and slot themselves into school's social structure through the use of an online tool that mirrors that world's networks and values.

A teenager who puts some effort into creating a MySpace profile is probably finding cool pictures for their background image, tweaking the layout to make it look the way they want, adding little gadgets and videos and games and arranging the friends and the bands in his or her Top Friends to reflect how they fit in the user's own tastes. This leads to the ubiquitous charge that "MySpace is tacky and gaudy and cluttered" but that's only how the majority of the users want it or they wouldn't make their profiles the way they do. The first batch of free personal home pages that appeared on Geocities looked like MySpace in the dialup universe for this very reason.

There is certainly a desire to fit in with a group on MySpace just as there is on Facebook, but instead of doing it by joining a network that reflects real-life institutions — Universities and corporations and only recently geographical locations — MySpace users identify themselves as part of a musical or other subculture by decorating their profiles in certain typical styles. Even before the music starts you can tell a MySpace user is a metalhead (even distinguishing a death metal fan from a Norwegian black metal enthusiast) from the spikes and skulls and black backgrounds and sharp-edged fonts. People form clusters by having the same bands and popular people in their top friends and making themselves visible through comments and bulletins and blog posts which generate comments and attention. You know who the goths and the club kids and the anime fans are on MySpace, but there is no 'goths' network on Facebook.

Facebook in Canada — Bigger and Flatter

The social stratification described in the article is more pronounced in the US than in Canada. Facebook started as a site exclusive to top-tier US universities. In the MetaFilter thread someone recalls a Yale student complaining that Facebook went downhill when they started letting NYU students onto the site. The user base then expanded out to more and more colleges, then to High Schools, and finally to an open membership policy, with protest groups filled with thousands of complaining users popping up at every step.

But in Canada things were much flatter, and the growth of Facebook is even faster than in the U.S. In fact, Toronto is now the Facebook capital of the universe with over 500,000 users in the 'Toronto, ON' network, which leaves out users who've only joined the University of Toronto, York University and every other school-related network in the city.

The adopters of MySpace, which became popular in my part of the world in 2005 among independent music fans and gradually spreading until everyone I thought of as part of the more eclectic crowd had their own profiles, but my little sisters never found the site appealing, nor did an of my pretty mainstream co-workers or former schoolmates. If you weren't into indie rock or part of a subculture there was not much there for you to tie yourself to, and the ones who wanted online attention for the sake of it already had been swept up in the blogging phenomenon of two years earlier.

But then along came Facebook, in Charlottetown I would point to Fall, 2006 as the official start of the time when no one would shut the hell up about Facebook. Now the high school kids are just as likely to have a page as University students, and co-workers whom I'd never expect to want to have an online presence are all active members.

The changing dominance of a given social network seems to me to be a de-evolution starting with LiveJournal, which was full of weirdos but where you at least had to be literate to use it, to MySpace where you could get by just fine by only posting pictures of your cat and animated gifs and copy-and-pasted greetings to friends' comments, to Facebook where you don't even have to worry about expressing yourself even a little. They give you a button to 'poke' someone if mustering up the word 'Hi!' is too much creative strain.

And while Facebook doesn't have the same strong institutional underpinnings in Canada — the original meaning of the word face book, a physical book given to students at the beginning of the year to show them their fellow students' pictures is an unknown term in Canadian universities — I also like to think that class is a less pervasive divider in Canadian society. In Canadian universities it matters much less which school you went to as it does who your supervisor was. And certainly no one outside of the most insular Bay Street wealthy elite could give a toss which high school you went to.

In Canada using Facebook doesn't associate you automatically with prestigious or even middle-class institutions like Universities and major corporations, it just means you're doing what everyone else is doing.

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