Why MySpace is for freaks and Facebook is for preps

Researcher danah boyd explains the cultural differences between the world's largest social networking sites.

Topics: Facebook,

Tech researcher danah boyd — her name is legally lowercase — has conducted a fascinating study of MySpace and Facebook that nicely explains the chief cultural differences between the two uber-popular young people’s social networks.

Facebook, she says, attracts upper- and middle-class kids — kids “from families who emphasize education and going to college” — while MySpace is “still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, ‘burnouts,’ ‘alternative kids,’ ‘art fags,’ punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm.” Boyd’s findings aren’t exactly groundbreaking — they’re evident to anyone who has used both systems — nor are they hard to explain. Still, they point to an intriguing fact about life online: that class divisions crop up even when there are no physical barriers to integration, that freedom to associate with whomever you want online doesn’t liberate you from the psychological limits of association bred into you offline.

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MySpace first became popular as a site for bands to reach out to their fans. Teenagers began to flock to it in 2004, and in 2005, it hit big with kids, becoming the thing everyone was doing. Facebook began as a social networking site at Harvard, and then it opened up to other Ivies, then to all other colleges, and finally, in September 2006, to the general public.

These divergent creation stories led to different audiences and, in a sense, to different cultures — life on Facebook has an entirely different aesthetic and social sensibility than life on MySpace, in the same way that the suburbs are different from the inner cities. A typical Facebook page is clean, well designed, obviously “high class.” MySpace, meanwhile, is a carnival of the gaudy — people rig up their pages to flash bright colors or to play music, and they misuse HTML.

“That ‘clean’ or ‘modern’ look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to),” writes boyd, “while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.”

Boyd adds that “it breaks my heart to watch a class divide play out in the technology.” But she is not surprised by this turn of events. Social networks are popular precisely because they create online representations of our daily lives in the real world. That’s what’s so great about them — but also what’s not.

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