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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.