In front of a packed audience in a New York City auditorium, researcher Danah Boyd posed a question. She asked the roomful of political junkies, activists and tech aficionados at the annual Personal Democracy Forum how many were on Facebook. Almost all raised their hands. Then she repeated the question, instead asking about MySpace. Almost no hands. At the time of her lecture, though, the two sites were almost tied in traffic. (Watch the speech here, read the transcript here.)
Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was using the exercise to illustrate an often unnoticed but important invisible barrier that, according to some researchers, separates the two biggest social networks — education level, class and sometimes even race. It’s a barrier that’s crucial to understand for professional communicators who are trying to distribute messages to broad audiences using new technology.
In fact, some sociologists, including Boyd, have argued that social networks, designed to promote unity and collaboration, are equally suited to promote the opposite. Knowing where these invisible barriers lie can be difficult because the networks don’t collect such information. And even anecdotal observations can be ineffective because most perceptions of a social network are gathered from within one’s own social circle.
MySpace and Facebook both allow users to create profiles and list virtual “friends”, join “groups” that often promote a common cause or belief, and post picture and videos for other members to view. MySpace, however, allows users great control over the appearance of their pages, from the music that plays to colors to fonts. This has helped make the site more popular with certain ethnic groups, some argue, but also alienates users who are averse to the busy pages. Facebook profiles are more nondescript with information filed away in standardized fields on the same white background with the same font across the whole network. Many businesses also have “pages” on Facebook, while musicians and nightclubs are likely to be found on MySpace. Facebook and MySpace are still by far the two largest social networks. Last week’s post covered other more specialized social networks on niche topics.
S. Craig Watkins, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Young and The Digital, observed some of these divisions during a multi-year research project on media use by young people for his book. For example, he observed that users of Facebook tended to be college students or college-educated and that making the switch from MySpace often happened as users started their college educations.
“Facebook, frankly put, has become a way for young collegians to get away from users of social network sites they believe are unsophisticated, uneducated, and undesirable,” Watkins wrote.
He also observed that regular users of social networks had distinct thoughts on what each network was like — feelings that may be unnoticed by the casual user. MySpace was considered crowded, trashy, creepy, and for the uneducated and immature. Facebook, on the other hand, was selective, clean, trustworthy and for the educated and mature. Boyd had similar findings.
These differences may not even be apparent to some users, who only care about being able to connect with their real-life social network online. Understanding the composition of the various networks, however, is important for communications professionals. It’s possible that a college-educated communicator is unlikely to have a presence on the same network as half of the people he or she is trying to reach. The same goes for many organizations. Some say that’s no different than offline life.
“The membership of certain online communities mirrors people’s social networks in their everyday lives,” Northwestern University’s Eszter Hargittai wrote in a 2007 study. “Thus online actions and interactions cannot be seen as tabula rasa activities, independent of existing offline identities.”
Because of that, it all comes down to simply understanding the differences between different networks, what the strengths and weaknesses of each are, and how each network extends interactions that already take place offline. Communicators will ultimately have to understand that posting to one of the large social networks doesn’t always mean reaching the entire world of social network users. Even though many have presences on multiple networks, studies such as Hargittai’s show that the networks are very distinct publics.
As social networks evolve, will these divisions become more pronounced? Does it make sense for organizations to maintain presences on multiple networks at the expense of the extra time it takes to maintain those presences? Will users begin to maintain multiple profiles in multiple places (many already do) to keep up with the growing differences between networks?