danah boyd on Online Class Divisions

23:29 Sun 24 Jun 2007
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I’ve been reading danah boyd‘s work about online public spaces for a few years, and recommend her writing generally. Today I read one of her essays on how class divisions are being reflected online, specifically in the makeup of social networking sites.

While I have almost no practical interest (for reasons I won’t get into here) in social networking sites, I’m extremely interested in them in abstract terms. Partly because any online communities (not just social networking sites per se) are like microcosmic experiments in early-stage political formation. Mini-political petri dishes, almost. I say “almost” because you cannot ignore the larger (online and offline) political world(s) from which the participants come. Social networking sites are, to my mind, like online megalopolises, although their differences from other communities may be in more than just size. Still, in many ways they are to forums and bulletin boards what MMORPGs are to MUDs. As MMORPGs can produce entire seemingly-bizarre industries, it should be clear that colossal social networking sites could have similarly weird, and large, side effects.

I should note that some would consider the social networking sites to be no different from the MMORPGs except for the extent to which they admit they are games. (The Register apparently takes this view of Wikipedia, viewing it as an “encyclopedia MMORPG” where players view for status as strenuously as World of Warcraft players struggle to level up.)

Facebook recently moved out of its invite-only mode, and this opened it up to, among others, high school students. Apparently MySpace also went through a period of being primarily 20s/30s-dominaetd at first, and then became the “in thing” for teens, and now Facebook is following the same pattern. However, this isn’t precipitating (so far) a die-off for MySpace as the teens migrate (unlike Friendster, which as far as I know did have a collapse in its membership when it was superseded by newer sites)—instead, according to boyd, there are clear class distinctions in which teens are on which sites. The teens who are more conformingly “upwardly mobile”, or “mainstream” in the sense of mainstream middle-class/college-bound, are congregating on Facebook and the others are congregating on MySpace.

I find it depressing and worrying in a number of ways. I didn’t go to high school, or college, in the US, but myimpression of American high school culture is that it’s extremely status-obsessed, and (therefore?) riven with class conflict and consumerist excesses, often exhibiting the very worst of institutionalized prejudice and control-freakery. The online realm started out as being an escape from some of that for certain privileged but low-status teens (i.e. those with both the fiscal resources and the inclination to go online), and I had hopes (not entirely naive, not entirely dashed) that it could prove a real counterbalancing force to the damaging effects of a status-crazy environment. Is it inevitable that the offline status quo will be able to push its values onto the online world, co-opting it in service of the same old bullshit?

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2 Responses to “danah boyd on Online Class Divisions”

  1. JC Says:

    Your assessment of the US high school culture would be correct. Watching any of the Brat Pack movies should give you a pretty good idea of what it’s like. It really doesn’t distill down further than say “The Breakfast Club”. This could explain why they are such beloved films.

  2. Tadhg Says:

    Heh, I’ve seen most of those, The Breakfast Club numerous times. But my suspicion is that a lot of it’s gotten worse since then, and that the competition for status is worse than it was then, with more importance attached to it, with increased academic (and sporting) competition as well.

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