Does Social Netorking Breed Social Division?

The New York Times

July 9, 2009, 6:39 pm

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By Riva Richmond

Is the social-media revolution bringing us together? Or is it perpetuating divisions by race and class?

Many of us would like to believe the Internet is a force for unity, but danah boyd, a social-media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, thinks we’re deceiving ourselves.

Speaking last week at the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference that explores how technology is changing politics, Ms. boyd asked a packed audience of activists, political operatives, entrepreneurs and journalists to raise their hands if they use Facebook. Almost every hand in the place went up. Then she asked who uses MySpace, and barely a hand was seen.

How could that be? Sure, Facebook is growing much faster. But MySpace is far from dead. In May, Web-traffic tracker comScore reported that Facebook and MySpace are neck and neck in terms of U.S. visitors, with 70.28 million that month for Facebook, up 97% from a year ago, and 70.26 million for MySpace, down 5% from last year.

Ms. boyd got some answers from group of people she’s been hanging out with over the last four years: U.S. teens. During the 2006-2007 school year, her conversations with high-school students began showing a trend of white, upper-class and college-bound teens migrating to Facebook–much like the crowd in the conference hall has. Meanwhile, less-educated and non-white teens were on MySpace. Ms. boyd noted that old-style class arrogance was also in view; the Facebook kids were quicker to use condescending language toward the MySpace kids.

“What we’re seeing is a modern incarnation of white flight,” Ms. boyd said. “It should scare the hell out of us.”

Others have mounted quantitative studies that confirm these divides. A December 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that, overall, Facebook users are more likely to be male and have completed college, while MySpace users are somewhat more likely to be female, black or Hispanic, and to have not completed college. Since that study, however, Facebook has boomed and the social-network landscape has no doubt changed significantly.

More studies come from Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, who surveyed both 2007 and 2009 first-year college students, ages 18 and 19, at the diverse campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Her February-March 2007 survey of 1,060 students found that Hispanics were much less likely to use Facebook than anyone else and much more likely to use MySpace. Whites, African Americans and Asian Americans were all big users of Facebook, with 80% or more of each group using it sometimes or often. MySpace was equally popular among whites (57%) and blacks (58%), while Asians were least present (39%). There were socio-economic differences, too; Facebook users tended to have parents with significantly higher levels of education than MySpace users had.

Why the social stratification? Probably because “people use these sites to connect with people they already know,” Ms. Hargittai says. “And people tend to have friends like them.”

“Two years ago when I had these findings, people said, oh, this is going to disappear,” she says. But that hasn’t been the case. While everybody’s using Facebook more, differences by race and ethnicity have not only persisted but, among MySpace users, become more pronounced.

Ms. Hargittai hasn’t published the full findings of her February-April 2009 survey of 1,115 students yet, but a table of data on her blog paints the picture. Hispanics are still the most likely to use MySpace (58%). Whites and blacks have diverged, with 30% of whites and 51% of blacks using it. And Asians, already the group least likely to be on MySpace, grew much scarcer (16%). Students from less-educated families were still more likely to use MySpace, while those from more-educated families were more likely to use Facebook.

So is this white flight? Yes, but it’s not quite so simple, she says. Everyone is fleeing MySpace, and whites and Asians are fleeing in larger numbers.

Her research also seems to support Ms. boyd’s contention that social media “mirrors and magnifies” our social divisions, rather than removes them. “We can use technology as a tool to connect with people, but we can’t assume that it will eliminate all of the serious issues we have to face in this country,” Ms. boyd said at PDF. “Pervasive social stratification is being reified in a new era. If we don’t address this head-on, inequalitywill develop deeper roots that will further cement divisions in our lives.”

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