Facebook's 'white flight'

Why are Facebook's teenage users disproportionately Caucasian, while many black and Hispanic social networkers remain loyal to MySpace?

Despite Facebook's overall increase in popularity, it remains a mostly white website.
(Image credit: Getty)

It's typically assumed that social media is bringing us together, but a recent book excerpt by social media researcher Danah Boyd says that social networks actually perpetuate race and class divisions. Boyd claims that Facebook's popularity is due, in part, to a "white flight" from MySpace, and that MySpace has become a "digital ghetto." What's behind Boyd's theory?

What does Boyd assert in the article?

During the 2006-2007, a divide emerged among American teens as Facebook gained momentum, challenging MySpace's dominance. According to Boyd, Hispanic and black teens tended to remain loyal to MySpace, while white and Asian kids from higher socioeconomic strata were more attracted to Facebook. For Boyd, the trend mirrors the 20th Century "white flight" (in which Caucasians abandoned urban centers for the suburbs). The kids who joined Facebook "were those who bought into a Teen Dream of collegiate maturity, namely those who were expressly headed towards dorm-based universities and colleges." While MySpace became a virtual "ghetto," the "suburbs" of Facebook came complete with digital fences to keep out strangers and undesirables.

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How does she back up her theories?

Boyd's analysis is based on 103 formal interviews with teens, as well as her 2008 University of California, Berkeley, PhD dissertation, Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics, for which she spent 2,000 hours observing the online practices of teens across 17 states. Though her methods were not statistical, others have provided numbers-based back-up.

For instance?

A 2008 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that Facebook users were more likely to be male and college graduates, while those on MySpace were more likely to be black or Hispanic females who did not complete college. Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University has also verified similar correspondences.

Interesting, who knew that MySpace still popular?

In Boyd's analysis, white, Asian, and/or college-educated youths often share that perception. In fact, both sites had a roughly equal number of visitors in May, according to Web traffic tracker comScor: 70.28 million for Facebook and 70.25 for MySpace. However, those numbers represent a 97 percent year-to-year increase for Facebook, but a five percent year-to-year decrease for MySpace.

What are Danah Boyd's credentials?

The 32-year-old academic is social media researcher for Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Last month, Fortune named her one of the "smartest people in tech."

Does all this really matter?

Yes, says Boyd. "Pervasive social stratification is being reified in a new era. If we don’t address this head-on, inequality will develop deeper roots that will further cement divisions in our live."

Sources: Gawker, Technology Review, New York Times

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