Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Gentrification of MySpace vs. Facebook...

Talk about a generation gap. The phenomena of social-networking websites, particularly MySpace and Facebook, has reached epic proportions. According to this Forbes article, three quarters of American teenagers now have profiles on such websites (while many over the age of 30 are still largely unaware of their existence), but what's even more fascinating is that they're not all the same. Increasingly, MySpace and Facebook have been splintering along economic class lines.

Two weeks ago, my cousin Julie created me a Facebook page, just as the Nerfherder Gal created me a MySpace one several months ago. Both are a web designer's nightmare - poorly designed, extremely limited, and without the capacity to let the user alter the content outside of far too narrow guidelines. My one sentence review is that Facebook clearly beats MySpace because it lets you create groups, join and promote causes, and add a wide range of software applications. But I digress.

Forbes and a host of recent articles have been chronicling the suddenly obvious gentrification of social networking sites. MySpace stakes claim to far more users and ad revenue, however Facebook is used by a more affluent, educated class. To put it simply, despite both sites being open to the public to join, blue-collar working-class people are naturally gravitating toward MySpace while college students, graduates, and wannabes are shifting towards Facebook.

And it's amazing how if you mention this cyber-gentrification to any teenager, the response is usually "Duh, everyone knows that!". It's common sense to them; a secret that everybody's in on. There must be some sociology doctoral student out there who can help explain how this is occurring in a virtual realm where there are absolutely no barriers to entry. It's as if there were a rich neighborhood and a poor neighborhood within the same town, and even though anyone could move into the rich area and its better amenities, nobody does. By choice.

So how can we explain the splintering of MySpace and Facebook along economic class lines? One can make the historical argument and point out that Facebook was created by and for college students, and until recently that was their only membership. But that's no longer the case, having opened up the gates several months ago. One might also make the argument that the social networks of the real world have simply been transplanted into cyberspace; that individuals join a particular site based on which one their friends have already joined. But that logic seems to fly in the face of more than a decade's worth of evidence from chat rooms, discussion boards, etc.

Perhaps the reason for this gentrification is simply based on the fact that it is, after all, voluntary - that people choose to be where they feel most comfortable, and while we'd like to believe that online associations are based on hobbies, interests, and other tangible preferences based on choice, the sad truth is that the economic baggage that exists in the real world may have already formed a beachhead in the borderless and egalitarian cyberspace realm as well.


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