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Summary:

Is the rise of Facebook partly a result of “white flight” away from MySpace? That’s the argument made by sociologist Danah Boyd in a chapter from a recent book based on her research into how teens use social networks, but her case is far from convincing.

researcher Danah Boyd

Is the rise of Facebook a result of “white flight” away from MySpace? That’s the argument made by sociologist Danah Boyd, in a chapter from a yet-to-be-released anthology (PDF link) on the issue of race and how it affects the way we behave online. The fact that Facebook has claimed the social-networking crown is relatively obvious — it will soon hit the half-billion user mark, if it hasn’t already, and revenue is expected to hit $1 billion this year. Meanwhile, MySpace seems to have more or less fallen off the map, and has beens struggling with a number of management and other issues. But is there really a racial element behind Facebook’s success? Boyd says there is, but her case is far from convincing.

In the chapter (hat tip to Christopher Mims at MIT’s Technology Review), Boyd builds on the research she did for her doctorate (she is now a researcher at Microsoft and is a fellow with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society) which looked at teenage behavior online, based on a series of interviews that she did with individual Internet users in a number of different states. In 2007, Boyd wrote an essay that said her research showed Facebook users were primarily white and from middle-class or more affluent households and neighborhoods, while MySpace users were more likely to be from immigrant or working-class families and households — a conclusion that got a lot of attention, and also some criticism. Boyd said at the time that it was just a blog post, not scholarly research, but her latest offering carries a similar message.

The book chapter is entitled “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped  American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook,” and is part of a book called Digital Race Anthology, which is being published later this year by Routledge Press. In it, Boyd describes how during her research in 2007, one teenaged interview subject named Kat said that she didn’t like MySpace any more because it was what she called “ghetto”:

It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace is now more like ghetto or whatever.

Boyd says that this kind of comment in a number of interviews drove home the point that “Facebook went beyond simple consumer choice; it reflected a reproduction of social categories that exist in schools throughout the United States. Because race, ethnicity and socio-economic status shape social categories, the choice between MySpace and Facebook became racialized.” Later on, Boyd uses the metaphor referred to in her chapter’s title when she says that one way to understand the shift that teenagers appeared to make in 2007 from using MySpace to using Facebook is to see it “through the lens of white flight” — that is, the departure of white and middle-class residents from inner-city neighborhoods.

But is that really a fair comparison, or is Boyd overplaying the race card when it comes to looking at the shift in fortunes of these two social networks? Without exhaustive demographic analysis of the user bases of MySpace and Facebook — which even Boyd admits she has not done — it’s impossible to say what role race might have played in the rise of one and the fall of the other. It could just as easily be explained by looking at the obvious differences between the two sites and what they had to offer users, regardless of what color those users were.

It’s true that Facebook started as a university-based network, and so likely got a jump start in terms of middle-class and higher-income users, a group that likely included a greater proportion of white users (although again there is little data to show this). And it’s true that MySpace became associated with alternative music, in many cases hip-hop and other “street” culture. But this doesn’t necessarily imply a strictly racial divide — as Boyd acknowledges in her chapter, the term “ghetto” has two distinct meanings: one referring to a specific location in a city or town that is defined by race and class, and the other meaning a whole subculture of fashion, music and other tastes that got their start in such inner-city neighborhoods.

So perhaps MySpace got associated with hip-hop music — that doesn’t mean people leaving were necessarily engaged in “white flight,” so much as “anti-hip-hop” flight. Boyd also said when her essay came out in 2007 that MySpace was a home for “freaks, geeks and queers”, which is hardly an explicitly racial group. And it’s also true that MySpace had (and in many ways still has) a truly hideous user interface, and that there is very little users can do on a MySpace page except post comments or listen to a snippet of music. Even in its early days, Facebook offered what was arguably a much cleaner, friendlier and more appealing experience, with more social elements.

Facebook has also arguably done a far better job of monetizing and expanding its social network and its features, while MySpace has not had much success, despite repeated attempts to monetize its user base through the use of widgets and other features. Could it not be that one network prospered because it was just better, easier to use, offered better features and was better managed? And that the other has declined because it is ugly, the user interface is terrible, and all you can do is listen to small snippets of largely irritating music? Does it necessarily have to be driven by some kind of “white flight” from an online ghetto?

Maybe my perceptions are a result of some hidden racial divide as well, but Boyd is going to have to do a little more work before she can make that case.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Danah Boyd.

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  1. I think the “Ghetto” attributes of MySpace stem from the customization of pages they allowed. With everyone trying to one up each other on the pimp my space look/feel it became hard and very annoying to navigate friends pages.
    Limiting the ability to trick out your page has helped FB a lot IMHO. it’s got clean and standard design no matter who’s page you’re on.

  2. Marshall Kirkpatrick Friday, July 16, 2010

    I think danah boyd is awesome, just sayin’. Fwiw, Facebook’s own (very interesting) analysis of its own data concludes that its userbase was heavily dominated by white people at first but has since become more racially diverse. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/facebook_scientists_dissect_facebook_say_its_alive.php So if boyd’s argument is that Facebook grew by drawing white people away from MySpace, at the very least that was in fact who Facebook’s own analysis says populated the site first.

    Boyd has done some great qualitative research and is an important voice in helping people understand how youth and social networks are changing together. For really quantitative analysis, Facebook should prioritize opening up bulk data to a wider variety of analysts than just their internal staff and a handful of favored partners from outside. I’ve been told that they used to hand out bulk user data like candy, before they got super-big and concerned about (?) privacy and its legal implications.

    Independent quantitative analysis is likely to shine light on all kinds of social patterns, both injustices to challenge and opportunities for good things to happen. Facilitating that in a safe way is no small task, but the academic institutions and others who would analyze this data for good are today outflanked by unscrupulous commercial outfits that insiders believe are buying bulk data on the black market and analyzing for nefarious, or at least obnoxious, purposes.

    I say give danah boyd the data! Barring that, Facebook’s own analysis of its data seems to support, not refute, her conclusions.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Marshall. I have a lot of respect for Danah and her work as well. And I agree it would be very interesting to see what Facebook’s data would show — but I’m not sure what we have seen so far proves her thesis, since it is only one side of the equation.

      1. You want proof? It’s easy enough. Do a search on Myspace and do do a search on Facebook for people. that’s your proof. It will take you less than 10 minutes.

        Anyone with eyes and a mouse could have written that thesis. I actually commented on that same issue days before this report came out.

        http://www.businessinsider.com/your-moms-house-and-other-places-you-should-not-be-able-to-check-in-to-on-foursquare-2010-7

        I am not a scientist but this has been an issue since 2007 and I noticed it even than. This is not new. I don’t know why everyone is acting as if they were not aware of the issue.

  3. Brian S Hall Friday, July 16, 2010

    Can PhD’s (or microsoft employees) really be this dumb?
    Have they ever heard of something called the ‘network effect’? Or how about studying the reasons behind why Microsoft’s OS became even more dominant in PCs than Facebook is now in social media.

    Or, acknowledge that Fox utterly mismanaged MySpace. Or…and maybe she was too busy to learn this, but there are ZERO BARRIERS to join Facebook.

    This is embarrassing in its complete dumbness. (Not you, Matthew, but Doctor Boyd.)

    1. Brian, have your Boyd’s piece? I ask because your response seems totally ignorant. You seem to grasp for some type of intelligence, yet everything you ask in your attempt to appear enlightened is discussed in her work.

      1. I actually tried to read it but it was such shite I couldn’t. So instead I became Jay-Z’s 3 millionth friend — on Facebook.

  4. Brandon Forskinst Saturday, July 17, 2010

    Really? Is Myspace not more ghetto than Facebook? Is that a difficult question? “Why” maybe a good question discussed, but Myspace is clearly more ghetto.

  5. Um I’m not sure how a researcher could be so out of touch, but when the people she’s interviewing say myspace is ghetto, it has nothing at all to do with race. Myspace is ghetto, because any teenager using the word in that sense means the UI is shit (which, even with my hypocritical-because-I-use-it hatred of facebook and many of its design elements, I have to concur with). Let me spell this out so hopefully the author of this book can understand better. So when I’m hanging with my friend and they whip out their phone and it has duct tape holding it together, that’s ghetto. In that case, it’s a direct reflection on socioeconomic conditions that brought about a need for duct tape rather than a new phone. However, the word now means anything that looks messed up or shoddily put together (pretty much anything held together with duct tape is ghetto, e.g.).
    That being said, I think there is something to consider in the user bases of the two sites, but only because it is a natural difference. Generally, upper class people, or any white nerd, will be more in tune with new technological tools for social interaction. I’m sure in the beginning (when it was more expensive), people who texted often also tended to be white. This isn’t really because people don’t want to socialize with other races, but rather because they already don’t in the real world, the same network of friends will carry over into the online world and be reinforced by the natural separation.
    Damn that would be an interesting thesis subject…I’m sure it’s been done before though.

    1. Albert, I disagree with your use of the word ghetto. Let me give you an example, would you call the Archos 7 Home Tablet “ghetto”? Probably not, although it satisfies your definition. There’s a strong social component to ghetto which is that it is the result of someone raised in ghetto culture, which is generally minority and poor.

      This is why MySpace pages are considered ghetto, but CNN.com isn’t, although both are pretty shoddy. The MySpace pages are perceived to be borne of a type of culture that historically is related to the ghetto.

      Now to the broader question of if MySpace is a victim of White Flight… I think its hard to tell without more datapoints. But if such a thing does happen, you’d expect it to happen to Facebook at some point too. And if it does happen, I’d expect that some new upstart social network would be wise to capitalize on it.

      1. Ken, regardless of whether or not you feel that he used the word wrong, this is how it is quite often used. I have heard frequently this example that he gives.

        I must add, I find the use of the term “ghetto” offensive. Being African American, but never growing up in the “ghetto”, I’ve noticed the word being used quite frequently with a negative connotation outside of it’s proper context.

      2. I can tell you as a white person that Albert’s comment is totally correct. There may be other definitions, but people (in this case teenagers) use the word “ghetto” in this way to mean shitty. It is more than likely used with no intentionally racial or offensive connotation. Myspace is “ghetto” the same way these examples are:
        – a beat-up old car
        – something held up in an impromptu manner rather
        than properly mounted

        In fact, the most common variations refer to something that is lousy, of low quality, and/or obviously improvised.
        I used to maintain a Myspace account as a teen and as of a few years ago have stuck solely to Facebook. I guarantee you the great majority of individuals left one for the other for the same reasons: greater simplicity, organization, and a wider range of useful functions. Nothing racial about it. There are institutional barriers to getting “rid” of a racialized country in many of its facets, but it is a considerable stretch at the very least to say this is one of those cases.

      3. @Ken
        I would not call the Archos 7 ghetto, so perhaps I phrased my definition poorly. I was trying to convey the same idea as P-Jizzle, and I think he came up with a nearly perfect two-word phrase to express it: “obviously improvised”. I think even better than this would be “apparently improvised”. When my white friend makes a myspace page that has everything he wants in it, it was just slapped together and looks like the car with the tail light taped on (a more direct derivative of the word) in that both get the job done, but it looks like you did it with the least effort possible. Even if he spent hours and hours picking the glittery background, the comic sans font, makes the page automatically play his favorite screamo as loud as possible, and has a section for all his top friends and bumper stickers, it appears as though he threw it together in haste just to get the job done. Why is that? Well, because he’s not a UI designer, whereas on facebook, your page looks clean regardless. On the other hand, the Archos 7 may have a crappy interface in terms of usability, speed, and logical menu options, but it is relatively aesthetically pleasing, and therefore not ghetto. Similarly, CNN.com may be poorly laid out, but the buttons and text look “pretty”. I hope this clarified what I see as the general meaning behind the word “ghetto” as it is used today.

        @Rashidi
        I hope I didn’t offend you. I’m just trying to clarify the overall societal use, not trying to reinforce it or attach a negative connotation. As a side note, I think it’s interesting that “gangsta” is used as pretty much an opposite version of “ghetto” (in that it’s a positive word). Do you find this offensive as well? That is to say, is it the negativity “ghetto” attaches to African Americans that you object to, or is it the lumping together of every black person under one word?

        @P-Jizzle
        Thanks for the elaboration. Also, I agree with your supposed reasons for migration. I’d like to comment on your last point, however, to say that I think this may actually be one of those institutional barriers, if only indirectly. I say this because it really does enforce your current social circles and doesn’t provide for easy expansion far outside of how they already exist in the real world, so any racism inherent in culture, such as the self-made segregation that occurred at the high school I attended, is reinforced. Is that facebook’s fault? Not in the least; all their (advertised) intention has ever been was to make it easier to socialize with your friends when you aren’t in the same room.

    2. Thanks Albert for making clarifying for everyone what “Ghetto” means to teens and young adults.

      The fact that Boyd took the ‘ghetto’ comment from a teen to be racially motivated (apparently without having the teen clarify) seems short-sighted.

      I am not a teen (by a long shot :-) but when I joined both sites, it was obvious which was better:
      FB UI was much cleaner, and, I immediately was connecting with friends I hadn’t talked to in years.

      I think MySpace being a hip-hop and alternative music based site kept many “mainstream” people from joining it and therefore, FB became the obvious choice.

      As someone else pointed out, once FB hit the ‘critical mass’ of networked friends, the game was won.

  6. Facebook started as a university only social network, which yes may mean demographically more white people but I don’t think race is really a factor.

    MySpace offered more customisation, music on member pages – but all in all a more chaotic experience. And it looked to school kids that as you went to university you grew up and onto Facebook. Kids always want to be more like adults, so when Facebook opened up – those that previously had to wait until they were 18 to join, could now do so at 15 or 16, and then younger.

    Facebook was also the independent alternative to MySpace which has been owned by Murdoch’s Fox Interactive for quite a while. The individualism is what made MySpace different to Facebook – but that “individualism” was under massive corporate control. This meant removing copyrighted music from people’s profiles and more policing in general.

    Even without the ability to share copyrighted music on MySpace profiles, it remained the place for musicians and bands to have their homepages. But since then MySpace has regressed as a music platform. They started having ads with audio (very annoying when you want to listen to the music by the band whose MySpace page you’re on) and more intrusive ads in general. It remained very difficult until quite recently to make a MySpace page look good with the customisation tools they offered. They didn’t offer good user tracking to bands. They didn’t introduce a DRM-free music store and allow the bands to sell their music quickly and easily. Basically they completely dropped the ball.

    The fall of MySpace has little to do with race, and even little to do with Facebook except that they had a critical mass of users so were waiting in the wings to pick up the slack. MySpace just threw it all away and I would be surprised if it still existed in 5 years at all.

  7. Alexander Howard Saturday, July 17, 2010

    Mat, I think you know I’m a fan of your writing and approach. GigaOm is lucky to have your voice and tendency to produce deliberative, thoughtful pieces. That said, I’m not sure this is one of your best posts. It might have been useful to dig into boyd’s responses from 2007 rather than “just” linking to them. You’re right to point out that a real data dump from both sites would be useful, in terms of backing up her analysis from 2007, but I’d tend to agree: her thesis has been validated by subsequent research. It was tremendously controversial at the time. No less so now.

    Your points about UI and usability are pertinent but I think you underplay the DNA of Facebook overmuch, with respect to its start in the Ivies and then other colleges, along with overplay your own experience of MySpace.

    When you write that it’s “ugly, the user interface is terrible, and all you can do is listen to small snippets of largely irritating music” you reflect your own experience and none of the culture that has continued to sustain MySpace as one of the top 20 sites in the US. Young people like to be able to customize their pages, add music that they like (even if we don’t) and socialize there — even if you (or I) do not.

    Here’s some data to consider from Quantcast:
    http://www.quantcast.com/myspace.com

    Yes, the traffic is down year over year – but MySpace still drew 46.5m folks/month in May. And look at the demographics, vs. the Net averages, show more minorities from the lower part of the socioeconomic ladder.

    I don’t completely trust those stats, but it’s worth adding to the conversation.

    1. Thanks, Alex — I have read through Danah’s responses from 2007 (which I agree are worthwhile reading), and I have followed her research and related research since then. I would disagree that her central thesis has been validated, however. In any case, it is an interesting debate — thanks for the comment.

  8. MySpace is an ugly place you don’t want to be in. So yeah, it’s ghetto.

  9. Pure bunk. The only racism here is spewing from Danah Boyd’s keyboard. Do you really think people said “Hey, there’s too many black people here in MySpace. Let’s go over to Facebook where we can be with our own kind.” Give me a break.

  10. Is the Difference Between MySpace and Facebook Black and White? (Mathew Ingram/GigaOM) « My Blog Saturday, July 17, 2010

    [...] Ingram / GigaOM: Is the Difference Between MySpace and Facebook Black and White?  —  Is the rise of Facebook a result of “white flight” away from [...]

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