Is MySpace really the ghetto of social networks? Are the people using Facebook really smarter? Researcher danah boyd (who does not capitalize her name, a la bell hooks) seeks to answer these questions, at least where teenagers are concerned, in a new paper, "White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook."
boyd, a researcher with Microsoft and Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, posted a draft of the paper on her blog in December. As the title suggests, the paper looks into how MySpace has become the ghetto of social networks, according to many of the teens she's interviewed over the past several years.
These students have a variety of reasons for preferring one network over another. boyd writes, "Catalina, a white 15-year-old from Austin, told me that Facebook is better because 'Facebook just seems more clean to me.' What Catalina sees as cleanliness, Indian 17-year-old Anindita from Los Angeles, labels simplcity; she recognizes the value of simplicity, but she prefers the 'bling' of MySpace because it allows her to express herself."
While these girls don't mention race, others did, directly and indirectly. Another student outside Boston said, "The people who use MySpace--again, not in a racist way--but are usually more like ghetto and hip hop rap group lovers group."
boyd draws an interesting parallel between MySpace's growth and its use by musicians to spread their work. Because hip-hop is popular among teens of all colors, but represents and comes from Black urban culture, she argues that some parents were alienated by MySpace's "propagating and glorifying 20-something urban cultural practices and values." In other words, while kids might have not gotten into trouble for listening to urban music, when they adopted the images and attitudes of it, parents needed to step in.
I read some reactions to a speech boyd gave on this issue last year, and it was clear that most people assumed she was Black and pulling the race card to explain defections among Whites from MySpace to other networks. But those comments also revealed (as the anonymity the Internet provides often does) people's prejudices--in one article, a commenter referred to those who live in actual ghettos as "people" in quotes, as if their humanity is in question based on the appearance of their front lawns.
Let's not forget where Facebook started--Harvard. Then it spread to other Ivy League schools, and then to other colleges. It clearly has an elite, academic focus, and unfortunately, people of color are minorities in those settings. Still, we are represented, and had the service started at Hampton University, there probably would have been a different diffusion of the network across the country.
This research also focuses on teens, not adults. boyd writes about the self-segregation of students by race, particularly in high school, but for adults who are in the professional world, I imagine their lives, and by extension their Facebook friends, are a at least somewhat more diverse thanks to connections from school, work, and social organizations.
Even if white flight is to explain the change in MySpace usage, the difference between physical movement and virtual is simple--while people of color may have been barred from moving into certain neighborhoods, there is no similar barrier that keeps us from joining Facebook. If anything, certain teens sticking with MySpace are doing so because it's comfortable, for reasons ranging from the customization to the connections.
There are some sensationalist elements here, but its key to read and understand the work, and not assume that a discussion of race automatically translates into racism. At the same time, it is necessary to point out and challenge racist attitudes when they appear, and the most important thing a paper like this can do is force people to challenge their own assumptions. MySpace is not a ghetto anymore than Facebook is a Shangri-La.