How Class Shapes Social Networking Sites...

danah boyd knows more about social network technology than anyone I know. I was lucky enough to have her as a student in my Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture class some years ago and she's been teaching me things ever since. She and I conducted a public conversation at South By Southwest this past year which was well received, and we are going to be running a similar session at the YPulse's Mashup 2007 conference in San Francisco later this month. danah's bright, articulate, playful, and extremely well informed about how young people are constructing their own cultural identities through their use of new media technologies. Last week, she published an important statement through her blog about the role which social class plays in defining which social networking site young people use, which I wanted to call to my reader's attention.

boyd struggles with the concept of class here. As Americans, we don't tend to want to talk about class very well and our class structure is squishier, less clearly defined, than the way class works in the various caste systems of Asia or Europe. Drawing on sociologist Nalini Kotamraju, boyd argues, though, that class works through lifestyle choices and social networks rather than purely economic stratifications:

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....Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus "class."

Trying to avoid loaded terms, boyd distinguishes between "hegemonic" youth (upwardly mobile, college bound) and "subaltern" youth (operating outside those norms defined for them by their parent's generation), identities which she suggests have implications in terms of where these young people congregate on line:

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.

These divisions reflect where these social networks started (MySpace's early users including rock bands and their fans; FaceBook starting at Harvard and radiating outward through other colleges) and what they have become. With social network sites, young people tend to go where their friends already are, using their face-to-face community as a starting point for connecting with like-minded others. And as a result, the membership of these sites reflect social divisions within youth culture -- who knows who and who knows what:

While teens on Facebook all know about MySpace, not all MySpace users have heard of Facebook. In particular, subaltern teens who go to school exclusively with other subaltern teens are not likely to have heard of it. Subaltern teens who go to more mixed-class schools see Facebook as "what the good kids do" or "what the preps do."... Likewise, in these types of schools, the hegemonic teens see MySpace as "where the bad kids go." "Good" and "bad" seem to be the dominant language used to divide hegemonic and subaltern teens in mixed-class environments....

To a certain degree, the lack of familiarity amongst certain subaltern kids is not surprising. Teens from poorer backgrounds who are on MySpace are less likely to know people who go to universities. They are more likely to know people who are older than them, but most of their older friends, cousins, and co-workers are on MySpace. It's the cool working class thing and it's the dominant SNS at community colleges....

In so far as social class gets defined through lifestyle, it is reflected through aesthetic choices, including those surrounding the design of personal profile pages. The patterns she identify here are familiar to anyone who has read Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction, which develops a sociological theory of how taste and aesthetic judgements get mapped onto class differences in very powerful ways. Tastes, he argues, are systems of choices, which point towards a basic division between bourgeois restraint and working class excess, rather than individual or local decisions. Anyone who wants to see this dramatized should check out the classic 1930 melodrama, Stella Dallas, where a mother, who is proud of her "stacks of style" (as played out in excessive make-up, jewelry, and fru-fru clothing) must ultimately distance herself from her more "tastefully" restrained daughter if she is to insure the girl's class mobility.

In many ways, this same notion of "stacks of style" carries over into the design of MySpace pages. Again, here's boyd:

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook... are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and "so middle school." They prefer the "clean" look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is "so lame." What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as "glitzy" or "bling" or "fly" (or what my generation would call "phat") by subaltern teens. Terms like "bling" come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics....That "clean" or "modern" look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I'm drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

And in return, these stylistic differences play themselves out in public policy where there is a moral panic about the sexual excesses of MySpace while teachers, parents, and others have tended to accomodate FaceBook because of its associations with higher education. It is as though FaceBook represented a gated community and MySpace the sketchy section of town.

boyd shows how this even translates into military regulations, where MySpace preferred by enlisted men has been banned as a drain on bandwidth, while Facebook, preferred by officers, remains uneffected. She speculates that this decision may have more to do with the military's concern about recruitment than about any technical issues:

MySpace is the primary way that young soldiers communicate with their peers. When I first started tracking soldiers' MySpace profiles, I had to take a long deep breath. Many of them were extremely pro-war, pro-guns, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, pro-killing, and xenophobic as hell. Over the last year, I've watched more and more profiles emerge from soldiers who aren't quite sure what they are doing in Iraq. I don't have the data to confirm whether or not a significant shift has occurred but it was one of those observations that just made me think. And then the ban happened. I can't help but wonder if part of the goal is to cut off communication between current soldiers and the group that the military hopes to recruit....Young soldiers tend to have reasonably large networks because they tend to accept friend requests of anyone that they knew back home which means that they're connecting to almost everyone from their high school. Many of these familiar strangers write comments supporting them. But what happens if the soldiers start to question why they're in Iraq? And if this is witnessed by high school students from working class communities who the Army intends to recruit?

At Project nml, we have argued that social networking skills are one of those core cultural competencies young people need to master if they are going to become full participants in our society. More and more of us use such sites to manage our professional contacts and learning how to move from our core contacts to others who have skills, knowledge, or connections we need is part of what it means to be upwardly mobile in the digital age. We have often drawn an analogy to older writings about the "hidden curriculum" -- the ways that children who grow up in middle class homes, where they regularly experience high culture and political discussions, often perform better in schools because their cultural style is better aligned with the expectations of their teachers.

We are just beginning to understand how class manifests itself in the ways children relate to new media technologies. This discussion takes us beyond the Digital Divide which had to do with unequal access to the technologies themselves. It certainly includes the Participation Gap which has to do with unequal access to the social skills and cultural competencies which emerge from participation in online worlds. But boyd's essay suggests ways that class works to divide and fragment this generation of young people even where youth are embracing the online world and developing new media literacies. This is somewhat distressing to imagine given how lofty the rhetoric has been about a cyberspace where no one knows you're a dog, erasing differences of all kind that hold people back in the real world. Anyone who cares about the principles of participatory culture should care about the invisible forces which work to segregate our communities or exclude people from participation.

At the same time, boyd is warning us against the impulse to use this new knowledge to regulate or influence where young people go online. It is too simple to embrace Facebook and reject MySpace without understanding what these sites mean to the young people who choose to congregate there. As boyd notes several times, much "misconduct" occurs on Facebook but it gets read differently because of the class and educational status of the people involved.

I am still processing some of the implications of boyd's analysis of how class operates in social networking sites. I am hoping her post may spark some thoughts and comments amongst my readers.