aesthetics and demographics
After analyzing the in-depth conversations, we drilled the preference 16 among young white collegians for Facebook over MySpace down to two main factors — aesthetics and demographics. Aesthetics refers to the look, style, and manner in which personal profiles are designed and presented. The second factor, demographics, refers to the individuals and communi- ties that tend to use both sites. Aesthetics point to the system features of social sites, while demographics alludes to system users. Together, both factors illuminate the sharp and powerful differences race and class make
in the online communities young people participate in.
Visit MySpace and Facebook and the first thing you will likely notice is that 17 the design, look, and feel of the personal profiles on each site are worlds apart. MySpace’s system features encourage customization and personal- ization, a kind of digital wild style. The color, design, and mood of MySpace pages vary significantly. Twenty-six-year-old Avani said, “With MySpace there’s a lot you can do with HTML.” Facebook profiles, on the other hand, maintain a relatively standard look. Compared to MySpace, the tone and style of Facebook seems antistyle. From the very beginning of its launch, MySpace carefully cultivated a demeanor that is personal, whimsical, and,
at times, oppositional. Facebook, on me other hand, has maintained a rel- atively stable and uniform presentation even as it expands the scope of its services. Though the content — pictures, wall posts, and use of applica- tions—may vary on Facebook, the presentation of it all does not. These two contrasting styles engender strong views from users of social-network sites, especially those in college who believe Facebook is the superior platform.
Gerry, a nineteen-year-old sophomore, told us that “Facebook just 18 looks cleaner. Not now, with all the new applications and stuff, but it still looks cleaner than MySpace and a lot more organized, as opposed to MySpace . . . with all the background and fonts, and things.” In his words, MySpace “feels very cluttered and kind of schizophrenic to look at a page . . .
it really makes your head spin.” Sarah, a twenty-one-year-old communica- tion studies major, agreed. “Oh, MySpace is horrible. It takes forever to download a MySpace page and you never know if you are looking at a real person or not.”
Throughout our conversations with them, college students repeatedly 19 expressed their dislike with the often overzealous design of MySpace pro- files and the time it takes to download them. MySpace, said twenty-one- year-old Matthew, reminds him of the “dark, dark days of the Internet.” When asked to elaborate he said, “I don’t like the fact that the designs of MySpace pages are for the most part dreadful. They remind me of back when I was seven and eight and people had just learned how to create Web pages. And they had flashing texts and bubbles.”
Likewise, twenty-two-year-old Brandon expressed irritation with the 20 customizable features of MySpace.
WATkinS From THE young And THE digiTAl 511
“The big difference I suppose is HTML. There’s no HTML writing in 21 Facebook as opposed to MySpace,” Brandon observed. Like many other college students, he believes the ability to write in MySpace undermines the quality of the user experience. “I think it makes Facebook so much better in the sense that you’re never being plagued by someone else’s bad code.”
Initially, the dissatisfaction with the customized profiles on MySpace 22 caught me by surprise. A hallmark feature of the social Web is the ability to not only read Web-based content, but write content too. In the age of do-it-yourself (DIY) media, the fact that we are both consumers and cre- ators of content redefines the rules of media engagement by redefining the rules of media production and consumption. And yet, it turns out that the customization and personalization of MySpace profiles through creative layouts, music, video, and graphics is a major source of annoyance and cultural friction for many college students.
Nineteen-year-old Shelby was not impressed with MySpace, a social 23 site she believes is filled with phony names, phony profiles, and in her words, “glittery, gaudy-as-shit layouts.” The repeated characterization of MySpace as “trashy,” “messy,” “busy,” and “gaudy” unveils a widespread belief among young collegians that the profiles crafted on the platform are unrefined, unsophisticated, and unappealing. All of this is in sharp con- trast to the generally glowing praise showered on Facebook profiles, which, according to twenty-four-year-old Kevin, “is much better organized and easy to use.” Another young woman described Facebook as “pretty, simple, and classy.”
Beneath the preference for the more uniform interface of Facebook 24 lies a more complex tale about the influence of race, class, and geography in the digital world. The triumph of Facebook over MySpace across Cam- pus USA is not purely about aesthetic judgments or the desire for a simple and easily navigable platform. Matters of taste, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, do not develop in a vacuum but rather in relation to people’s social class position. Bourdieu, widely recognized as a pioneer- ing thinker and theorist in the “sociology of culture,” used the terrain of culture or, more precisely, what we do in our everyday lives, to examine expressions of social inequality. Bourdieu made a career of studying what he calls the “distinctions—tastes, lifestyle, manners, and values—mem- bers of the middle class diligently practice in order to maintain clear boundaries between themselves and the classes they view as less cultured, sophisticated, and desirable.7 Sociologists following in the tradition of Bourdieu refer to these practices as boundary-maintenance work.
Bourdieu carefully illustrates how the accumulation of middle-class 25 cultural capital — education, and a taste for the high arts and the other pre- sumed finer things of life—does more than serve the psyche of the bour- geois classes; it also enables them to reinforce their position of privilege. Many of the distinctions college students make in relation to social-network