As social media was being embraced, I was doing research, driving around the country talking with teenagers about how they understood technology in light of everything else taking place in their lives. I watched teens struggle to make sense of everyday life and their place in it. And I watched as privileged parents projected their anxieties onto the tools that made visible the lives of less-privileged youth.
Not surprisingly, as social media exploded, our country’s struggle with class and race get entwined with technology. I will never forget sitting in small town Massachusetts in 2007 with a 15-year-old white woman I call Kat talking about her life when she made a passing reference to why her friends all quickly abandoned MySpace and moved to Facebook because it was safer and MySpace was boring. Whatever look I gave her at that moment made her squirm. She looked down and said, “It’s not really racist, but I guess you could say that. I’m not really into racism, but I think that MySpace now is more like ghetto or whatever.”
Fascinated by Kat’s explanation and discomfort, I went back to my fieldnotes. Sure enough, numerous teens had made remarks that, when read with Kat’s story in mind, made it very clear that a social division had unfolded between these two sites during the 2006-2007 school year. I started asking teens about these issues and heard many more accounts of how race affected engagement. After I posted an analysis online, I got a response from a privileged white boy named Craig.
“The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy. The lower class usually were content to stick to MySpace. Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious. Like Peet’s is more cultured than Starbucks, and Jazz is more cultured than bubblegum pop, and like Macs are more cultured than PC’s, Facebook is of a cooler caliber than MySpace.”
This was not the first time that racial divisions became visible in my research. I had mapped networks of teens using MySpace from single schools only to find that, in supposedly “integrated” schools, friendship patterns were divided by race. And I’d witnessed and heard countless examples of the ways in which race configured everyday social dynamics which bubbled up through social media. In our supposedly post-racial society, social relations and dynamics were still configured by race. But today’s youth don’t know how to talk about race or make sense of what they see.
And so, in 2006-2007, I watched a historic practice reproduce itself online. I watched a digital white flight. Like US cities in the 1970s, MySpace got painted as a dangerous place filled with unsavory characters while Facebook was portrayed as clean and respectable.
danah boyd on pattern recognition.