A View from Christopher Mims
Did Whites Flee the 'Digital Ghetto' of MySpace?
A new analysis by Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd argues that Facebook’s success is due in part to “white flight” from MySpace.
We were talking about the social media practices of her classmates when I asked her why most of her friends were moving from MySpace to Facebook. Kat grew noticeably uncomfortable. She began simply, noting that “MySpace is just old now and it’s boring.” But then she paused, looked down at the table, and continued.
“It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever.”
So begins the book chapter White Flight in Networked Publics – How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook (pdf) part of the forthcoming book Digital Race Anthology.
Danah Boyd, author of the chapter, stirred up controversy once before, in 2007, by noting that during the period beginning in 2006 when teens began to flock to Facebook, teens’ preference for either MySpace or Facebook appeared to fall along lines of race and class.
Subsequent statistical analyses of the characteristics of users of online social networks by researchers, marketers and bloggers, she notes in her latest work, backed up her claims that white and asian teens who belonged to higher socieconomic strata (and who aspired to college, with which Facebook at the time was associated) were attracted to Facebook, while latino, black and working-class teens tended to opt for MySpace. Boyd notes in her chapter:
Analysts at two unnamed marketing research firms contacted me to say that they witnessed similar patterns with youth at a national level but they were unable to publicly discuss or publish their finding, but scholars and bloggers were more willing to share their findings.
Boyd’s current work argues that MySpace took on many of the aspects of a “digital ghetto” in the minds of teens who used the site, leading to “white [and asian] flight” from the site, analogous to the white flight from the city to the suburbs that took place in the U.S. beginning in the 1960’s. Boyd continues:
Consider the parallels. In some senses, the first teens to move to the “suburbs” were those who bought into a Teen Dream of collegiate maturity, namely those who were expressly headed towards dorm-‐based universities and colleges. They were the elite who were given land in the new suburbs before plots were broadly available. The suburbs of Facebook signaled more mature living, complete with digital fences to keep out strangers. The narrative that these digital suburbs were safer than the city enhanced its desirability, particularly for those who had no interest in interacting with people who were different.
Boyd argues that MySpace’s inability to deal with spammers added to the feeling of urban blight that overtook the site, leaving derelict profiles “covered in spam, a form of digital graffiti… As MySpace failed to address these issues, spammers took over like street gangs.”
Subsequent media coverage of the “death of MySpace” was a direct result of this flight, says Boyd. For example, she cites a 2009 New York Times article that was entitled “Do You Know Anyone Still on MySpace?” despite the fact that at the time Facebook and MySpace has roughly equal numbers of users.
“The New York Times staff was on Facebook and assumed their readers were too,” concludes Boyd.
Intriguingly, the comments under that news item support Boyd’s thesis:
“My impression is that Myspace is for the riffraff and Facebook is for the landed gentry.”
“Compared to Facebook, MySpace just seems like the other side of the tracks - I’ll go there for fun, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
Boyd’s conclusion is that online environments are merely “a reflection of everyday life,” and that online communities are immune to the techno-optimist belief that the internet eliminates the deep divisions between people in real life. As Boyd notes in her own responses to earlier critiques of her work, this is either a controversial or an obvious thesis - what do you think?