Category Archives: yasns

responding to critiques of my essay on class

One month ago, I put out a blog essay that took on a life of its own. This essay addressed one of America’s most taboo topics: class. Due to personal circumstances, I wasn’t online as things spun further and further out of control and I had neither the time nor the emotional energy to address all of the astounding misinterpretations that I saw as a game of digital telephone took hold. I’ve browsed the hundreds of emails, thousands of blog posts, and thousands of comments across the web. I’m in awe of the amount of time and energy people put into thinking through and critiquing my essay. In the process, I’ve also realized that I was not always so effective at communicating what I wanted to communicate. To clarify some issues, I decided to put together a long response that addresses a variety of different issues.

Responding to Responses to: “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace”

Please let me know if this does or does not clarify the concerns that you’ve raised.

viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace

Over the last six months, i’ve noticed an increasing number of press articles about how high school teens are leaving MySpace for Facebook. That’s only partially true. There is indeed a change taking place, but it’s not a shift so much as a fragmentation. Until recently, American teenagers were flocking to MySpace. The picture is now being blurred. Some teens are flocking to MySpace. And some teens are flocking to Facebook. Which go where gets kinda sticky, because it seems to primarily have to do with socio-economic class.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to articulate this division for months. I have not yet succeeded. So, instead, I decided to write a blog essay addressing what I’m seeing. I suspect that this will be received with criticism, but my hope is that the readers who encounter this essay might be able to help me think through this. In other words, I want feedback on this piece.

Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace

What I lay out in this essay is rather disconcerting. Hegemonic American teens (i.e. middle/upper class, college bound teens from upwards mobile or well off families) are all on or switching to Facebook. Marginalized teens, teens from poorer or less educated backgrounds, subculturally-identified teens, and other non-hegemonic teens continue to be drawn to MySpace. A class division has emerged and it is playing out in the aesthetics, the kinds of advertising, and the policy decisions being made.

Please check out this essay and share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: I wrote a response to the critiques concerning this essay. My hope is that this will help clarify various issues people raised.

Update: I take this topic up again in Chapter 5 of my dissertation. If you are looking for data to back up this argument, check that out.

list of non-english social network sites

I’m trying to track down a list of all major non-English social network sites (definitions below). My interest in collecting this information is for an academic article on social network sites, but i suspect this information would be useful to others as well.

Cyworld: Korean
– launched 1999 as a forum, SNS by 2001
– 20 million accounts (Nov 2006)

Hevre: Hebrew

Lunarstorm: Swedish
– launched 2000
– 1.2 million accounts (Nov 2005)

Mixi: Japanese
– launched 2004 as a diary tool, SNS ?
– ?5.7 million accounts (2004)

StudiVZ: German
– launched in Oct 2005
– 950,000 accounts (Nov 2006)

QQ: Chinese
– launched 1999 as IM, SNS ?
– ?160? million accounts

If you know of ones that i’m missing, could you please add them in the comments? I will update this entry with additions. Ideally, i would also like to know a few things about each non-English site (including the ones above):

  • What do they call “Friends” (both natively and English-translation)?
  • Do they allow people to comment on the profile?
  • When were they launched?
  • Approximately how many accounts do they have?
  • What is the primary age group that uses it?
  • Is there anything significant or unique about the site?

Definitions:

Major: I am looking for the sites that have attracted a core population in that language. They should be relatively large in proportion to the number of speakers of that language. Think MySpace instead of Tagged.

Non-English: I realize that most sites are used by non-English speakers. I’m looking for sites that are dominant in one language where the site’s infrastructure is in that language. If there are multiple languages, i want the dominant one (i.e. Cyworld as Korean not Chinese). Sites like orkut are on the fence because while it is an English site, it is the dominant Portuguese site.

Social Network Site: To count as a social network site, the site MUST have 1) a public or friends-only profile system; 2) a publicly articulated list of “Friends” who are also on the system (not blogrolls). Friends must be visible on an individual’s profile and it must be possible to traverse the network graph through that list of Friends. If the site does not let you “comment” on Friends’ profiles, please indicate that. This is not necessary although it is a common component. I’m not interested in dating sites, community sites, or blogging tools that do not have public profile + friends that are displayed on profiles.

If you have a site that you think fits this, please list it in the comments. The more information you can provide about the site (including links to data but not to the site), the better. I need to confirm these and it’s rather hard since i don’t speak most languages. Please don’t put the site as the URL in your comment – place the name in the actual comment.

Finally, please, i beg you, don’t use my comments as a place to advertise your new startup. I hate deleting comments but i will delete posts people make to advertise sites (as i always do). You don’t get any Google juice from my comments but you do piss me off.

Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks (PEW Report)

I am currently in Iowa interviewing teens so i don’t have time to do a proper analysis but i wanted to alert everyone to the new PEW report on social network sites: “Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace.”

The majority of teens actively manage their online profiles to keep the information they believe is most sensitive away from the unwanted gaze of strangers, parents and other adults. While many teens post their first name and photos on their profiles, they rarely post information on public profiles they believe would help strangers actually locate them such as their full name, home phone number or cell phone number.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of teens with profiles (63%) believe that a motivated person could eventually identify them from the information they publicly provide on their profiles.

I will comment on this when i have my feet back on the ground, but it’s a fantastic report and i think anyone interested in this topic should definitely check it out.

Facebook’s little digital gift

Last week, Facebook unveiled a gifting feature. For $1, you can purchase a gift for the person you most adore. If you choose to make the gift public, you are credited with that gift on the person’s profile under the “gift box” region. If you choose to make the gift private, the gift is still there but there’s no notice concerning who gave it.

Before getting into this, let me take a moment to voice my annual bitterness over Hallmark Holidays, particularly the one that involves an obscene explosion of pink, candy, and flowers.

The gifting feature is fantastically times to align with a holiday built around status: Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is all about pronouncing your relationship to loved ones (and those you obsess over) in the witness of others. Remember those miniature cards in elementary school? Or the carnations in high school? Listening to the radio, you’d think Valentine’s Day was a contest. Who can get the most flowers? The fanciest dinner? This holiday should make most people want to crawl in bed and eat bon-bons while sobbing over sappy movies. But it works. It feeds on people’s desire to be validated and shown as worthy to the people around them, even at the expense of others. It is a holiday built purely on status (under the guise of “love”). You look good when others love you (and the more the merrier).

Of course, Valentine’s Day is not the only hyper-commercialized holiday. The celebration of Christ’s birth is marked by massive shopping. In response, the Festival of Lights has been turned into 8 days of competitive gift giving in American Jewish culture. Acknowledging that people get old in patterns that align with a socially constructed calendar also requires presents. Hell, anything that is seen as a lifestage change requires gifts (marriage, childbirth, graduation, Bat Mitzvah, etc.).

Needless to say, gift giving is perpetuated by a consumer culture that relishes any excuse to incite people to buy. My favorite of this is the “gift certificate” – a piece of paper that says that you couldn’t think of what to give so you assuaged your guilt by giving money to a corporation. You get brainwashed into believing that forcing your loved one to shop at that particular venue is thoughtful, even though the real winner is the corporation since only a fraction of those certificates are ever redeemed. No wonder corporations love gift certificates – they allow them to make bundles and bundles of money, knowing that the receiver will never come back for the goods.

But anyhow… i’ve gone off on a tangent… Gifts. Facebook.

Unlike Fred, i think that gifts make a lot more sense than identity purchases when it comes to micro-payments and social network sites. Sure, buying clothes in virtual systems makes sense, but what’s the value of paying to deck out your profile if the primary purpose of it is to enable communication? I think that for those who actively try to craft a public identity through profiles (celebrities and fame junkies), paying to make a cooler profile makes sense. But most folks are quite content with the crap that they can do for free and i don’t see them paying money to get more fancified backgrounds when they can copy/paste. That said, i think it’s very interesting when you can pay to affect someone else’s profile. I think it’s QQ where you can pay to have a donkey shit on your friend’s page and then they have to pay to clean it up. This prankster “gift” has a lot of value. It becomes a game within the system and it bonds two people together.

In a backchannel conversation, Fred argues with me that digital gifts will have little value because they only make people look good for a very brief period. They do not have the same type of persistence as identity-driven purchases like clothing in WoW. I think that it is precisely this ephemeralness that will make gifts popular. There are times for gift giving (predefined by society). Individuals’ reaction to this is already visible on social network sites comments. People write happy birthday and send glitter for holidays (a.k.a. those animated graphical disasters screaming “happy valentine’s day!”). These expressions are not simply altruistic kindness. By publicly performing the holiday or birthday, the individual doing the expression looks good before hir peers. It also prompts reciprocity so that one’s own profile is then also filled with validating comments. Etc. Etc. (If interested in gifting, you absolutely must read the canon: Marcel Mauss’ “The Gift”.)

Like Fred, i too have an issue with the economic structure of Facebook Gifts, but it’s not because i think that $1 is too expensive. Gifts are part of status play. As such, there are critical elements about gift giving that must be taken into consideration. For example, it’s critical to know who gifted who first. You need to know this because it showcases consideration. Look closely at comments on MySpace and you’ll see that timing matters; there’s no timing on Facebook so you can’t see who gifted who first and who reciprocated. Upon receipt of a gift, one is often required to reciprocate. To handle being second, people up the ante in reciprocating. The second person gives something that is worth more than the first. This requires having the ability to offer more; offering two of something isn’t really the right answer – you want to offer something of more value. All of Facebook’s gifts are $1 so they are all equal. Value, of course, doesn’t have to be about money. Scarcity is quite valuable. If you gift something rare, it’s far more desired than offering a cheesy gift that anyone could get. This is why the handmade gift matters in a culture where you can buy anything.

I don’t think Facebook gifts – in its current incarnation – is sustainable. You can only gift so many kisses and rainbows before it’s meaningless. And what’s the point of paying $1 for them (other than to help the fight against breast cancer)? $1 is nothing if the gift is meaningful, but the 21 gift options will quickly lose meaning. It’s not just about dropping the price down to 20 cents. It’s about recognizing that gifting has variables that must be taken into account.

People want gifts. And they want to give gifts. Comments (or messages on the wall) are a form of gifting and every day, teens and 20-somethings log in hoping that someone left a loving comment. (And all the older folks cling to their Crackberries with the same hope.) It’s very depressing to log in and get no love.

I think that Facebook is right-on for making a gifting-based offering, but i think that to make it work long-term, they need to understand gifting a bit better. It’s about status. It’s about scarcity. It’s about reciprocity and upping the ante. These need to worked into the system and evolving this will make Facebook look good, not like they are backpeddling. This is not about gifting being a one-time rush; it’s about understanding the social structure of gifting.

PEW data on social network site use

PEW has just released the overview of their latest study on teens’ usage of social network sites. Most of the data is not surprising, but it sure is interesting. Here are some of the key findings:

  • 55% of online teens (ages 12-17) have created a personal profile online, and 55% have used social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.
  • 66% of teens who have created a profile say that their profile is not visible to all internet users. They limit access to their profiles.
  • 48% of teens visit social networking websites daily or more often; 26% visit once a day, 22% visit several times a day.
  • Older girls ages 15-17 are more likely to have used social networking sites and created online profiles; 70% of older girls have used an online social network compared with 54% of older boys, and 70% of older girls have created an online profile, while only 57% of older boys have done so.

I wanted to comment on their findings because, frankly, i’m terrified of how this is going to be taken up by the press.

Only 55%?: Participants and Non-Participants

Given last year’s hype, it may seem low that only 55% of teens have created a profile. It probably is, but not by a lot. That said, it’s important to know something about PEW’s methods. PEW calls families; they first speak with the parent and then talk to the teen. It is likely that the parents are nearby when their child is answering PEW’s questions. Parents influence teens answers (as i’ve seen continuously) and in the case of MySpace, teens are more likely to say ‘no’ when the truth is yes than to say ‘yes’ when the truth is no. I’ve also been regularly surprised at how many teens tell me that they don’t use these sites and then, when i poke at them, i find out that they do indeed have profiles (often created by friends) and that they login semi-regularly. Still, i suspect that PEW’s numbers are low by 10% at most.

Qualitatively, I have found that there are two types of non-participants: disenfranchised teens and conscientious objectors. The former consists of those without Internet access, those whose parents succeed in banning them from participation, and online teens who primarily access the Internet through school and other public venues where social network sites are banned. Conscientious objectors include politically minded teens who wish to protest against Murdoch´┐Żs News Corp. (the corporate owner of MySpace), obedient teens who have respected or agree with their parents’ moral or safety concerns, marginalized teens who feel that social network sites are for the cool kids, and other teens who feel as though they are too cool for these sites. The latter two explanations can be boiled down to one explanation that I heard frequently: “because it’s stupid.” While the various conscientious objectors may deny participating, I have found that many of them actually do have profiles to which they log in occasionally. I have also found numerous cases where the friends of non-participants create profiles for them. Furthermore, amongst those conscientious objectors who are genuinely non-participants, I have yet to find one who does not have something to say about the sites, albeit typically something negative. In essence, MySpace is the civil society of teenage culture: whether one is for it or against it, everyone knows the site and has an opinion about it.

Gender differences

I am interested in the fact that in the 12-14 group, there’s little difference in usage across the sexes (46% of boys vs. 44% of girls). Things change in the 15-17 group with 57% of boys and 70% of girls participating. That’s significant. What happens? Most likely, this has to do with the fact that these sites are used to maintain current (and past) friends and girls are more engaged in this than boys. But either way, there’s a shift in participation that appears to hapen along gender lines as teens get older.

Not surprisingly, boys are more than twice as likely to use these sites to flirt than girls (29% vs. 13%). Boys are also more likely to use these sites to make new friends than girls (60% vs. 46%). I have to say that this makes me really sad. This is probably not about boys being more interested in meeting people than girls, but about girls being the subject of most of our fear around strangers. I remember watching 1950s movies about fathers not letting their daughters out while their sons could do whatever. I suspect that we have similar gendered limitations on our children’s internet usage. We allow our sons to talk with whoever, but tell our daughters that everyone they meet online is bound to be a perfecrt. Perhaps it’s rational, perhaps girls are more at risk, but perhaps it is our fear of them that puts them more at risk.

Privacy and Public Expressions

I’m surprised that so many (66%) of teens have limit the visibility of their profile (translation: friends-only). I would not have expected it to be that high, but i think that’s great. I know folks are going to say “that’s low” because they think everyone should be hyperprivate, but that’s not my view. I think that there’s a reason to be out in public if you’re careful about how you do it. I’m public, i’ve been public since i was a teenager and i don’t regret it one bit.

There’s a not-so-highlighted number in this report that i find very interesting though. 84% of teens have posted messages to a friend’s profile or page. This practice, while not particularly surprising to people, may signal something very interesting. Teens are primarily writing “private” (realistically directed is a better word) messages to each other through this feature. In other words, “you, wazzup, we gonna go out tonite?” The response will also take place in the comments section and a conversation will happen back and forth across profiles. These are semi-private conversations written in public to be witnessed by all friends.

On one hand, you could say that this is ridiculous – why not keep private bits private? On the other hand, i think it’s an interesting strategy in an environment where there’s so much “she said / he said.” By speaking in the witness of others, it’s a lot harder to spread hearsay (or fabricated IM messages).

Social Networks vs. Social Networking

I would like to highlight the fact that 91% of teens are using social network sites to stay in touch with friends they see in person while only 49% are using them to meet people (ever). I hope that this makes people realize that, for teenagers, these sites are *not* about networking. They are about modeling one’s social network.

Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites

My new paper on friending practices in social network sites is officially live at First Monday. Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites

“Are you my friend? Yes or no?” This question, while fundamentally odd, is a key component of social network sites. Participants must select who on the system they deem to be ‘Friends.’ Their choice is publicly displayed for all to see and becomes the backbone for networked participation. By examining what different participants groups do on social network sites, this paper investigates what Friendship means and how Friendship affects the culture of the sites. I will argue that Friendship helps people write community into being in social network sites. Through these imagined egocentric communities, participants are able to express who they are and locate themselves culturally. In turn, this provides individuals with a contextual frame through which they can properly socialize with other participants. Friending is deeply affected by both social processes and technological affordances. I will argue that the established Friending norms evolved out of a need to resolve the social tensions that emerged due to technological limitations. At the same time, I will argue that Friending supports pre-existing social norms yet because the architecture of social network sites is fundamentally different than the architecture of unmediated social spaces, these sites introduce an environment that is quite unlike that with which we are accustomed.

I very much enjoyed writing this paper and i hope you enjoy reading it! Please feel free to share your thoughts here.

social network sites: my definition

I would like to offer my working definition of “social network sites” per confusion over my request for a timeline.

A “social network site” is a category of websites with profiles, semi-persistent public commentary on the profile, and a traversable publicly articulated social network displayed in relation to the profile.

To clarify:

  1. Profile. A profile includes an identifiable handle (either the person’s name or nick), information about that person (e.g. age, sex, location, interests, etc.). Most profiles also include a photograph and information about last login. Profiles have unique URLs that can be visited directly.
  2. Traversable, publicly articulated social network. Participants have the ability to list other profiles as “friends” or “contacts” or some equivalent. This generates a social network graph which may be directed (“attention network” type of social network where friendship does not have to be confirmed) or undirected (where the other person must accept friendship). This articulated social network is displayed on an individual’s profile for all other users to view. Each node contains a link to the profile of the other person so that individuals can traverse the network through friends of friends of friends….
  3. Semi-persistent public comments. Participants can leave comments (or testimonials, guestbook messages, etc.) on others’ profiles for everyone to see. These comments are semi-persistent in that they are not ephemeral but they may disappear over some period of time or upon removal. These comments are typically reverse-chronological in display. Because of these comments, profiles are a combination of an individuals’ self-expression and what others say about that individual.

This definition includes all of the obvious sites that i talk about as social network sites: MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Cyworld, Mixi, Orkut, etc. Some of the obvious players like LinkedIn are barely social network sites because of their efforts to privatize the articulated social network but, given that it’s possible, I count them (just like i count MySpace even when the users turn their profiles private).

There are sites that primarily fit into other categories but contain all of the features of social network sites. This is particularly common with sites that were once a different type of community site but have added new features. BlackPlanet, AsianAvenue, MiGente, QQ, and Xanga all fit into this bucket. I typically include LiveJournal as a social network site but it is sorta an edge-cases because they do not allow you to comment on people’s profiles. They do however allow you to publicly comment on the blog entries. For this reason, Dodgeball is also a problem – there are no comments whatsoever. In many ways, i do not consider Dodgeball a social network site, but i do consider it a mobile social network tool which is why i often lump it into this cluster of things.

Of course, things are getting trickier every day. I’m half-inclined to qualify the definition to say that the profile and articulated social network are the centralizing feature of these sites because there are tons of sites that have profiles and social network site features as a peripheral components of their service but where the primary focus is elsewhere. Examples of this include: YouTube, Flickr, Last.FM, 43Things, Meetup, Vox, Crushspot, etc. (Dating sites are probably the most tricky because they are very profile-centric but the social network is peripheral.) But, on the other hand, most of these sites grew out of this phenomenon. So, for the sake of argument, i leave room to include them but also consider them edge cases.

At the same time, it’s critical to point out what social network sites are most definitely NOT. They are NOT the same as all sites that support social networks or all sites that allow people to engage in social networking. Your mobile phone, your email, your instant message client… these all support the articulation of social networks (addressbooks) but they do not let you publicly display them in relation to a profile for others to traverse. MUDs/MOOs, BBSes, chatrooms, bulletin boards, mailing lists, MMORPGS… these all allow you to meet new people and make friends but they are not social network sites.

This is part of why i get really antsy when people talk about this category as “social networks” or “social networking” or “social networking sites.” I think that this is leading to all sorts of confusion about what is and what is not in the category. These alternative categories are far far far too broad and all too often i hear people talking about everything that allows you to talk to anyone in any way as one of these sites (this is the mistake that DOPA makes for example).

While it’s great to talk about all of these things as part of a broader “social software” or “social media” phenomenon, there are also good reasons to have a label to address a subset of these sites that are permitting very particular practices. This allows academics, politicians, technologists, educators, and others discuss how structural shifts are prompting different kinds of behaviors. (What happens when people publicly articulate their relationships? How do these systems change the rules of virality because the network is visible? Etc.) Because of this, i don’t want the slippage to be too great because people are using terrible terms or because people want their site to fit into the category of what’s currently cool.

Of course, like most categories, there are huge issues around the edges and there’s never a clean way to construct boundaries. (To understand the challenges, read Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.) Just think of the category “game” and try to come up with a comfortable definition and boundary for that. Still, there are things that are most definitely not games. An apple is not a game. Sure, it can be used in a game but it is not inherently a game. Not all sites that allow people to engage in social activity are social network sites and it is ridiculous to try to shove them all there simply because there’s a lot of marketing money to be made (yet i realize that this is often the reason why people do try). For this reason, i really want to stake out “social network sites” as a category that has meaningful properties even if the edges are a little fuzzy. There is still meaningful family resemblance and more central prototypes than others. I really want to focus on making sense of what’s happening with this category by focusing primarily on the prototypes and less on the edge cases.

Anyhow, this is a work in progress but i wanted to write some of this down since i seem to be getting into lots of fights via email about this.

social network site history

When i started tracking social network sites, i didn’t think that i would be studying them. I did a *terrible* job at keeping a timeline and now, i realize, this is important information to have on hand. I’m currently in the process of trying to go backwards and capture critical dates and i need your help. I know a lot of you have a lot of this information and can probably help me (and thus help everyone else interested in this arena).

I have created a simple pbwiki at http://yasns.pbwiki.com/ (password yasns) where i’m starting to make a timeline. Can you please add what you know to it? Pretty please with a cherry on top? A lot of this information is scattered all over the web and in people’s heads and it’d be great to get it documented in a centralized source. (I know that there is some info on Wikipedia but it’s not complete; as appropriate, i will transfer information back in their format.) Note: i didn’t include citations because i often don’t have them but if you have them, they’d be very very welcome.

Please let others know about this if you think they might have information to add. Thank you kindly for your time.

(PS: i have a new academic paper coming out shortly. Stay tuned.)

Facebook is open

Facebook is open. I’ve already received friend requests from companies selling their wares by creating a Profile. I am also faced with more contexts that i can deal with. (Note: i’m not accepting friendships from folks that i know in the blogosphere until i figure out how to mix this with my role as an academic and TA. I am also not inviting folks so please don’t ask.)

Anyhow, i owe this issue a long analysis but i’m too tired right now to do anything but say le sigh. *Major* le sigh. I do not believe that social network sites are able to sustain lots of conflicting social contexts. Or, rather, i don’t believe that they can continue as a hang-out space. I know that Facebook will continue to grow but i believe that the core value of it will be lost for the sake of growth. MySpace is already struggling to cope with what happens when teens and parents/authorities are in the same place. At least most professors have had the curtesy to keep distance. Unfortunately, this opening will not simply allow college students without .edus and high schools students to join. It will also open the doors for every adult who is obsessed with youth – parents, authorities, pedophiles, commercial enterprises…

Le sigh.

(tx Liz for the image)