An SNS caste system?

danah boyd has written an interesting and controversial essay documenting an observation she has made in recent months that there seems to be a socioeconomic/cultural division between young people using MySpace and Facebook. Privileged kids are gravitating to Facebook; lower-income and otherwise marginalized kids are staying on MySpace. There are a lot of very serious concerns about increasing inequality and decreased social mobility in the US. And if I was looking for domains to worry about it, Facebook and MySpace would be somewhere near dead last.
Like other folks who have commented on danah’s essay, I would be watching out for change. The demographics of Facebook changed rapidly when they opened it up. The population is likely to change further with new applications. Maybe developers will add apps to Facebook that have more media and decoration features, so kids who want music and more pictures will be able to have those things on Facebook. Without more research, it’s hard to say how much of the relative preferences have to do with overall visual style, vs. features, vs. preferential attachment. Not to mention, sns’s are the subject of fashion, like physical clubs. What is considered “cool” will change in different social groups, too.
I don’t see an increased concern about the creation of an SNS-based caste system. People group themselves, that is nothing new. A person will go where their friends and perceived peers are. We’re talking about MySpace vs. Facebook, so digital divide access issues are factored out. Free social network services have much less built-in stratification than: selective colleges; the ability to pay for higher education or private education; racial profiling in shopping areas and on the street; clothing; transportation; neighborhood safety… any number of factors in the real world that differentiate strongly by income inequality, and are much higher, more persistent, more tightly closed barriers than social groupings on Myspace or Facebook.
One of the reasons that the article was controversial was that danah wrote about her anecdotal observations before going and getting quantitative data. I think it’s fine to blog prepublished, unfinished and informal things. I would very much look forward to danah’s cut of the analysis based on data. Once source might be the Pew data set which has socioeconomic information. The Pew study doesn’t have the psychographic categories that danah is talking about, but they do have household income, education level of parents, race and ethnicity, and age, and might be a place to seek to validate some of the hypothesis.

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