Danah Boyd on Social Networking and Values

Danah Boyd, a digital ethnographer who was recently hired by Microsoft Research New England to study online social networks, posted a much-publicized essay last year about how she perceived there to be class divisions between the userbases of Facebook and Myspace.  This essay was entitled “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace”.

Since part of my research is about whether different cultures and countries will use the internet differently, based on their values, rituals, and customs, it would be important for me to make sure that there indeed is a potential for people to express those key differences by selecting a different social networking site online versus others.  Some would argue that behavior online is converging on universal behavior (generally:  feedback loops, transparency, collaboration), but I think cultures will retain their identities even after buying into the online revolution.

So, as Danah Boyd argues, even young Americans make a distinction when it comes to their online activities (note:  she admits this is not an academic paper, and her language is sometimes vulgar):

“Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income. Not surprisingly, other demographics typically discussed in class terms are also a part of this lifestyle division. Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus “class.”

“The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

“MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.”

Personally I didn’t use any social networking sites until Facebook, and I found Myspace to be a mess to look at.  Most of my military friends, if online at all, are on Myspace, but they are gradually moving to Facebook as it is benefiting from growing network effects.

Boyd discusses in another article, entitled “Socializing digitally”, another interesting aspect to study across different cultures:  access to and requirement of private space:

“Teens have increasingly less access to public space. Classic 1950s hang out locations like the roller rink and burger joint are disappearing while malls and 7/11s are banning teens unaccompanied by parents. Hanging out around the neighborhood or in the woods has been deemed unsafe for fear of predators, drug dealers and abductors. Teens who go home after school while their parents are still working are expected to stay home and teens are mostly allowed to only gather at friends’ homes when their parents are present.

“By going virtual, digital technologies allow youth to (re)create private and public youth space while physically in controlled spaces. IM serves as a private space while MySpace provides a public component. Online, youth can build the environments that support youth socialization.”

I would imagine that the US, China, and India can be the more conservative countries when it comes to handling their children, while Brazil is probably the most open.  What do you think?

A final point I want to air here is from Boyd’s article, “Facebook’s “Privacy Trainwreck”: Exposure, Invasion, and Drama”.

“If gossip is too delicious to turn your back on and Flickr, Bloglines, Xanga, Facebook, etc. provide you with an infinite stream of gossip, you’ll tune in. Yet, the reason that gossip is in your genes is because it’s the human equivalent to grooming. By sharing and receiving gossip, you build a social bond between another human. Yet, what happens when the computer is providing you that gossip asynchronously? I doubt i’m building a meaningful relationship with you when i read your MySpace CuteKitten78. You don’t even know that i’m watching your life. Are you really going to be there when i need you?”

What Boyd is talking about here is Facebook’s news feed, which caused online unrest (similar to the current Facebook re-design), because it took all the actions you were already making and then put them into a stream of updates that you could see every time you logged in.  That is, you could view someone’s profile and see that they started dating someone, and that was okay.  But when you saw “x is now in a relationship with y” on the front page, then it got unsettling!

This is when it became “gossip”, as if the news feed is the biggest gossip queen on the planet.  Facebook as a result developed some of the most thorough privacy controls available online.  Which is good.

The truth is that “privacy” is nebulous in its current definition and is invoked often without consideration of its meaning.  The future of the web is going to be increased openness and transparency, so privacy conflicts will flare up with even more frequency.  Will different BRIC countries react differently?  Will the internet be a mirror of the real world, or become its own world?

By the way, Boyd’s papers are really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.  A full list of her work is here.