From The young and the Digital
S. Craig Watkins is a professor of radio-TV-film at the University of Texas at Austin, and is a leading researcher on the ways young people today use the many forms of social media. His publications include Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (2005) and Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (1998). His most recent research is on the dynamics of online spaces, where young people form communities, create identities, and resist or reinstate the val- ues of the dominant culture. Watkins complements his analysis of social media with fieldwork in what he calls the “digital trenches,” conducting hundreds of surveys and in-depth interviews with young people, teachers, and parents in order to understand the richness and complexity of these online communities.
What follows is an excerpt from Watkins’s 2009 book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Any- time, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. In this selection from a chap- ter titled “Digital Gates: How Race and Class Distinctions Are Shaping the Digital World,” Watkins challenges readers to think about the ways class and race distinctions manifest themselves online, even though, as he notes, Americans are not very skilled at discussing these differences. Further, Watkins observes that race is an “‘inconvenient truth’ for evangelists of the social Web” (para. 5), who are often invested in the idea that the Web offers an equal playing field for all participants. Instead, Watkins argues in this piece, online space often reasserts the real-world divides we see in gated communities, and functions as “digital gates.” His close analy- sis of the ways college students describe MySpace versus Facebook should invite you to consider how you and your friends think about—and talk about—those spaces. Watkins blogs at theyoungandthedigital.com, so if you find his work compelling, it is easy—and fitting, given his topic—to stay updated on his latest thoughts.
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I used to have MySpace but got rid of it because it felt too open. You feel safer with a thing like Facebook . . . It doesn’t feel as if you’re vulnerable to the out- side creepy world. It’s just your friends.
— douG, twenty-one-year-old college student
In the summer of 2007, blogger danah boyd posted an informal essay 1 titled “Viewing American Class Divisions through Facebook and MySpace.” Based primarily on her observations of MySpace and Facebook profiles, boyd ponders how class antagonisms influence young people’s use of social-network sites. By her own admission, boyd was uncomfortable with the argument and the sociological vocabulary she was in search of to articulate her main thesis: that the class divisions that shape Ameri- can cultural life off-line are clearly discernible in the communities that form online in MySpace and Facebook. “Americans aren’t so good at talk- ing about class,” she writes, adding, “it’s uncomfortable, and to top it off, we don’t have the language for marking class in a meaningful way.”1 She is right, partially.
Sustaining a serious public conversation about the class cleavages 2 in American life is a constant challenge, but not for the reason usually cited—that Americans rarely if ever think in terms of class. The truth is nearly every facet of our daily lives — the clothes we wear, the foods we eat, the schools we attend, the neighborhoods we live in, and the company we keep — bears the visible marks of social class and the ever-deepening cleav- ages between the economically mobile and the economically vulnerable.
“Facebook kids,” the blogger writes, “come from families who empha- 3 size education and going to college.”2 Users of Facebook, boyd asserts, tend to be white and come, more often than not, from a world of middle-class comfort. Drawing from some of the more familiar social cliques among young people, boyd equates the “preps” and the “jocks” with Facebook. MySpace kids, in contrast, come from the other side of the cultural divide. According to boyd, they are the “kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.”3 Latino, black, and youth from working-class and immigrant households, she maintains, are more likely to be users of MySpace.
In the end, boyd’s essay is consistent with a concept—the digital 4 divide — that gained momentum as far back as the late 1990s as academic and policy-oriented researchers began to ponder how social inequalities impact engagement with the Internet. Some of the most vigorous cham- pions of all things digital—the social Web, blogs, wikis, virtual worlds, user-generated content, and social-network sites—can be intolerant of disapproving analysis. Truth be told, technology enthusiasts pay only scant attention to matters of social inequality. After access to computers and the Internet were widened significantly, the continued gap between the tech- nology rich and the technology poor quickly receded to the background.
Race is a kind of “inconvenient truth” for evangelists of the social 5 Web. Early in the Web’s history, the anonymity of computer-mediated com-
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munication suggested to many commentators that longstanding spheres of social division, discord, and discrimination—most notably race and gender — would be rendered meaningless in the digital world. It was that logic that made the New Yorker cartoon about the dog and the Internet so famous. The cartoon implies that if being a dog on the Internet does not matter, certainly being black, Latino, or female would not matter either. Despite the utopian view that the Web provides a place and a way to escape the social burdens and divisions of the off-line world, this has never been true. All of the optimism notwithstanding, the digital world has never existed in a bubble, insulated from the social tensions and eco- nomic inequalities that are integral to the making and remaking of the social world. Life online has always been intricately though never pre- dictably connected to life off-line. Social inequalities still matter in the physical world. And as we are learning, they also matter in the virtual world. Nowhere is this clearer than in the rise and use of social-network sites.
Right around the time that boyd wrote her essay, my research assistant 6 and I were assessing the data from the surveys and interviews we were col- lecting. . . . the use of social-network sites is the premiere online activity among young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Along with noticing how pervasive the use of social sites is among college stu- dents, we detected something else: a decisive preference for Facebook over MySpace among college students. When we asked college students, “Which social-network site do you visit MOST OFTEN?”—among white students, more than eight out of ten, or 84 percent, preferred Facebook. By contrast, 66 percent of those who identified as Latino preferred Facebook. In our survey Latino students were more likely to name MySpace as their preferred site.
What started out in 2005 and 2006 as a steady move to Facebook 7 among American college students has become, by the time of this writing in 2009, a massive migration and cultural rite of passage. As twenty-two- year-old Sara told us, “In college you are almost expected to use Face- book.” Though many of the young college students we spoke with around this time, in 2007 and 2008, began using MySpace before Facebook, they had either deleted their MySpace profile or seldom bothered to use what at the time was the world’s most populated social-network site. Within months of its debut, MySpace leaped ahead of Friendster, one of the first online social-network sites, to attract a large concentra- tion of American youth. Soon after its launch in 2004, Facebook replaced MySpace as the new digital destination for the college set. By 2007 high school students bound for college were also showing a stronger preference for Facebook.
While identifying emergent themes and trends from our survey, we 8 noticed that the findings from a separate study conducted around the