by: Roger Dooley
My fellow FutureLab blogger, danah boyd, wrote an interesting and controversial essay about the social network migration of high school students: Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace.
Hegemonic American teens (i.e. middle/upper class, college bound teens from upwards mobile or well off families) are all on or switching to Facebook. Marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, subculturally-identified teens, and other non-hegemonic teens continue to be drawn to MySpace. A class division has emerged and it is playing out in the aesthetics, the kinds of advertising, and the policy decisions being made.
Boyd’s blog has received a massive amount of commentary since she published the essay a few weeks ago. Much of it agrees with her basic points, though not all. A number of commenters make the point that the supposed divide is too simplistic and either doesn’t exist or simply reflects the fact that Facebook is still in transition from exclusivity to open enrollment. Some commenters prefer to refer to the college bound teens as “mainstream” vs. the somewhat pejorative “hegemonic” - a sentiment with which I agree.
However you interpret it, there’s clearly a shift underway. According to Helen A. S. Popkin of MSNBC’s article, OMG! YR still on MySpace? Loser!, “U.S. MySpace visitors under 18 dropped 30 percent over the past year, while Facebook’s nearly tripled.” It was inevitable that Facebook’s strategy of open enrollment would appeal to high school kids. After all, Facebook began as a college student-only site, and was something that high school students would have to wait for (to the extent that high school students were aware of Facebook at all). Status conscious high school kids are always looking to be part of a slightly older group, and Facebook’s change gave them that opportunity. This both illustrates the fickle nature of teen fads and also their need to belong to groups that seem to confer higher social status. As one of boyd’s commenters, Valerie Bock, aptly puts it, “Of *course* young people will choose to hang out where the people who are already where they hope to be going are hanging out! It’s the next best thing to sneaking into the bars in the nearest college town.”
The real question is where Facebook goes from here. If an exclusive club throws open its doors, it will be mobbed… for a while. Once it’s evident to the original group members that now everyone can get in, they move on to another exclusive venue. As the environment grows less and less exclusive, even newer members may start seeking novel environs. Will Facebook demographics move downscale (assuming boyd is right about the Facebook/MySpace divide) and attract more MySpace users? Will this shift in demographics cause older Facebook users to move on? How will Facebook’s decision to open their platform to third party applications affect their member base?