Facebook and MySpace Users Are Clearly Divided Along Class Lines
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This talk was written for a specific audience -- the attendees of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on innovations in social networking, technology and politics. This audience is primarily American, primarily liberal-leaning, primarily white and primarily involved professionally in politics in one way or another. Keep this audience in mind when I'm talking about "we" here.
Many of us in this room have had our lives transformed by technology. Some of us have grown up with tech, while others have embraced it as adults. Many of us have become enamored with tech and its transformative potential. And because of this, many of us have become technology advocates. We've worked our way into different institutions, preaching about new opportunities introduced because of the Internet.
Furthermore, many in this room have been active in transforming politics through technology. We've leveraged technology for fundraising and getting out the vote. We could go on and on about political events that have been shaped by technology, from the Obama campaign to the post-election Iranian protests.
All of this is brilliant and powerful, exciting and motivating. But I'm also worried. I'm worried about the rhetoric we use when we talk about technology.
Given what we've experienced and what we witness today, we tend to believe that these technologies are the great equalizers, that they can help anyone participate, that the technologies in and of themselves can revitalize democracy.
In other words, we tend to believe in a certain utopian myth of the Internet as the savior. What if this weren't true?
There's nothing more tricky than standing up in front of a room full of people passionate about transforming society at a conference on big ideas and asking you to do a privilege check, but I'm going to do so anyhow because I'm a masochist.
More acutely, I think that we need to unpack what's happening with technology in order to productively engage with the development of technology. You need to understand the sticking points in order to move the needle in the right direction.
I want to ask a favor here today. I want you to step away from the technohyperbole for just a moment and think about issues of inequality and social stratification with me. I want you to think about the ways in which technology is not equally available or equally transformative.
For decades, we've assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with "access" and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the "digital divide."
Yet, increasingly, we're seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we're seeing a social media landscape where participation "choice" leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions. This is most salient in the States, which is intentionally the focus of my talk here today.
MySpace versus Facebook
Rather than staying in land of abstract, let's go concrete. To do so, let's deal directly with a very specific case study: MySpace versus Facebook.
How many of you currently use Facebook? [90 percent-plus of the audience raises their hands.] How many of you currently use MySpace? [A few lone figures raise their hands.] Look around.
Two weeks ago, comScore released numbers showing that Facebook and MySpace were neck-and-neck in terms of unique user visits in the U.S. The meta-narrative was that Facebook was winning in the States, and that MySpace was dying.
I would argue that the numbers can be read differently. The numbers show that MySpace has neither grown nor faded in the last year, while Facebook has expanded rapidly and has finally reached the same size.