National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” did an interesting piece on the role that social divisions have played in the decline of MySpace, “Facebook, MySpace Divide Along Social Lines.” In 2005, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation purchased what was then largely regarded as the world’s biggest and most popular social network site, MySpace. The rise of MySpace, especially young people’s attraction to the site, was the wider public’s introduction to the world of social media. Soon, the parents of young teens were able to put a name on what they in all likelihood were witnessing in their own homes—their children’s increasing engagement with social media. Teens had been migrating to the digital world long before the press began reporting on the topic. Within a few months after its launch in 2004 MySpace emerged as the preferred destination among American teenagers. Almost over night MySpace began to grow into one of the world’s most talked about social media brands. How quickly did MySpace blow-up?
Here is one statistic that I came across while doing research for The Young and the Digital. In July 2004 MySpace represented about .01% of all traffic on the Web, according to comScore, a digital media measurement company. Two years later, July 2006, MySpace represented about 4.5% of all Internet traffic. That was an increase of about 4300%! As the metrics for assessing social media began to evolve research began to demonstrate that it was not only the number of hits that was impressive but the amount of time young people were spending on social network sites. A 2007 report by Nielsen//NetRatings found that teenagers, ages 12-17, were spending about 331 minutes a month on MySpace and about 74 minutes a month on Facebook. (Those numbers continue to grow across all age categories). The report states, “teens who enjoy social media are intensive users and highly engaged.”
But MySpace is no longer the “hot” brand. There are a number of reasons for that. Certainly, teens attention to brands and pop culture trends is always in flux. From the perspective of teens once adults discovered MySpace it was no longer a cool space. By 2006 adults were just as likely to create a MySpace profile as teens were. From the moment it began to grow, MySpace’s size and anarchic inclinations posed challenges for management, especially the maneuvers to monetize the site. As strange as it sounds, MySpace was too successful. The platform’s supersize led to a lack of quality control that began to steadily erode the user-experience and alienate key segments of young people, especially those bound for college.
Part of MySpace’s dilemma was the fact that, rightly or wrongly, it was marked as a hangout for teens. When we began surveying and interviewing young twenty-somethings it was clear that they wanted nothing to do with a site they associated with immature teenagers, a group they believe uses MySpace to openly display their bodies and emotions. But our research also points to another factor in the troubles MySpace has encountered since soaring to the top of the social media marketplace: the racial and class distinctions young people make in the online world.
In 2007, danah boyd, now a researcher at MicroSoft, distributed a blog piece titled, “Viewing Class Divisions through Facebook and MySpace.” In that piece boyd writes that, “Facebook kids come from families who emphasize education and going to college.” Users of Facebook, boyd asserts, tend to be white and come, more often than not, from a world of middle-class comfort. The MySpace kids, according to boyd, are “kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.” Compared to Facebook, teen users of MySpace were more likely to be Latino, black, and children of immigrant and working class households.
Right around the time that boyd distributed her essay my research assistant and I were assessing the data from the surveys and interviews we were collecting. We noticed among the white college students in our study an overwhelming preference for Facebook. When we asked college students, for example, “Which social-network site do you visit MOST OFTEN?”—among white students, more than eight out of ten, or 84 percent, preferred Facebook. By contrast, 66 percent of those who identified as Latino preferred Facebook. In our survey Latino students were more likely to name MySpace as their preferred site. We collected this data almost three years ago. If you replicate that study today a higher percentage of Latino college students are likely to choose Facebook.
While our survey data revealed some interesting things about race and use of social network sites, it could not tell us why racial identification appears to influence which sites students prefer. Fortunately, we were complementing our surveys with in-depth conversations, going out into the digital trenches to talk directly with young people about their use of social-network sites.
I discuss the results of those interviews in detail in a chapter from The Young and the Digital titled, “Digital Gates: How Race and Class Distinctions Are Shaping the Digital World.” What did we find? Well, take a look at the table below. It is the results from one of the questions that we asked the hundreds of people that we interviewed. The questions went something like this? “What words or adjectives would you use to describe MySpace?” or “What words or adjectives would you use to describe Facebook?” The chart below is what we typically heard from white college students. These are also the words that “Morning Edition” quotes in their report.
Adjectives college students use to describe MySpace and Facebook
MySpace / Facebook
Crowded / Selective
Trashy / Clean
Creepy / Trustworthy
Busy / Simple
General Public / College
Uneducated / Educated
Fake / Authentic
Open / Private
Immature / Mature
Predator / Stalker-friendly
Crazy / Addictive
We drilled our analysis of racial and class distinctions in the use of social network sites down to two factors—aesthetics and demographics. Aesthetics refers to the look, style, and manner in which personal profiles are designed and presented. It turns out that all of those “blinged out” profiles on MySpace—the splashy graphics, colorful fonts, and hip-hop music—are a real source of cultural friction. Demographics refer to the types of individuals and communities associated with social network sites. The chart above tells you what some college students think of MySpace user.
A number of things strike me as interesting about the language college students use and the choices they make regarding social network sites. For example, the language college students use to describe their preference for Facebook—“safe,” “clean,” “private,” “neat,” “selective”—is amazingly similar to the language used by residents of gated communities. The personal networks on Facebook provide a much greater chance of socially homogeneous communities than the networks formed on MySpace. Facebook, frankly put, has become a way for young collegians to get away from users of social network sites they believe are unsophisticated, undeducated, and undesirable.
When we began our work about three to four years ago it was common to see college students switch from MySpace to Facebook. Among other things, the switch was also a bid for a social status upgrade, a move up the digital ladder. Today, middle class students in middle and high school are moving straight to Facebook. Social class distinctions like everything else in the digital age are trickling down to younger and younger users.
I’m a trained sociologists so I find it quite natural and instructive to look at wider sociological trends to understand what is happening in the online world. I simply can not separate what we do online from what we do offline. Social network sites do not cause racial divisions or the desire for homogenous online communities. Insofar as what we do online is intimately connected to the lives we lead offline the fact that a kind of digital sorting is happening is not that terribly surprising. Still, it is striking that among a generation that played a key role in electing America’s first Black president race plays a crucial role in their use of social network sites and who they bond with online.