The Evolution of Facebook and Its Users

“Hey have you heard of Facebook?”

“No, what is it?”

“It’s…it’s like out facebook, but online… I dunno…a friend from UPenn sent it to me…here, I’ll invite you.”

“Ok, whatever.”

This conversation, between my college roommate and I, took place on April 4, 2004.  Five minutes later I clicked on his email, registered on this thing called Facebook, and lo and behold, I had access to a profile of my roommate.  Big freaking deal.  I asked a few friends around Georgetown about Facebook, but no one knew what it was, and by the end of the month I had three friends.

About a month and a half later, I was up to 100.  Then a couple of hundred more by fall.  By the time I graduated, a day barely went by when I didn’t check the Facebook to see who else was on (this was before automated updates, which took all the fun out of stalking people).

Clearly I remember the days when Facebook was just a curiousity shared by few, when only the Ivies and select schools had access.  I watched as more and more schools were added, first the Tufts and Bucknells of the world and then gradually even local community colleges.  I rued the day that Facebook became open to high schoolers, when this close social network became infested with “14 year old kids” excited to be invited by as many college students as possible.  Most recently Facebook has expanded its services to absolutely anyone with an email account, and, even more significant, has attracted superfulous applications galore. 

I missed out on the Friendster craze, and was always wary to join MySpace.  MySpace was too interactive for me, encouraged to much creativity (read: time and effort) and seemed to have boundless uses other than the one I was really excited about when Facebook gained some popularity – to connect to pals from high school I had lost track of and create a rudimentary social network.  Eventually MySpace dealt with scandal after scandal, known for its pedophilic stalkers, and being censored by the military for troops abroad.  The security seemed minimal, and it was just too much clutter for me to sift through.  Besides, all my college friends, who mostly went to top tier schools, were on Facebook, so why bother?

This topic is looked at in a new light Dannah Boyd’s “Viewing American Class Divisions Through Facebook and MySpace”.  Hardly a piece of academia, it still makes some interesting, if not controversial, points.  She, like me, agreed that high schoolers saw Facebook as the cool, college thing to do, while MySpace for many was framed as negative by the media.  However, she goes on to write that “good” kids are going to Facebook, while MySpace continues to attract a much different crowd: 

“MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are teens who plan to go into the military immediately after school.”

Obviously the above statement makes a lot of assumptions, which is countered by her portrayal of Facebook, and the hegemonic teens who prefer it over MySpace:

“Most teens who exclusively use Facebook…are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and “so middle school.” They prefer the “clean” look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is “so lame.” What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as “glitzy” or “bling” or “fly” (or what my generation would call “phat”) by subaltern teens. Terms like “bling” come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics. I’m sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the “eye of the beholder” – they are culturally narrated and replicated. That “clean” or “modern” look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.”

I agree that I fall into this category that prefers the aesthetic nature of Facebook, but I believe that this stems from the original intent of Facebook.  Facebook was not concieved as another MySpace, but a type of “OurSpace”.  It was meant as an elite social network, which quickly expanded (for surely corporate reasons) beyond the original dozen colleges.  But it still centered on the school community, requiring users to belong to a university via email.  Its first feature was groups, a means to band classmates together.  When high schoolers could join, it was still only via invitation, clearly obstructing certain individuals (from a different class?) from joining, but still centered around universities.  The social network tool is prized by those in colleges, who look to life beyond and want to interact with classmates.  The corporate culture had LinkedIn and other sites, the high schoolers had MySpace. 

So I can understand why “customization” wasn’t the quickest development to be incorporated into Facebook, and by nature this drew in people who want to fit in, scope out a culture, and adapt.  The MySpace users I knew were either only on because they were social butterflys and Facebook didn’t exist, or because they had bands or other artistic tendencies which conveniently found a homepage.  But I think the author neglects to take into account the needs and personality of this ‘alternative’ culture.  Even the most stubborn of friends have signed up for Facebook by now, realizing that posting reminders of when their band is in town is just as important and effective as leading them to a MySpace page with live music, and that networking is important for everyone.  The author does stress that class has little to do with income and more with attitude, the ability to network and get what one wants when one needs it.  I agree to a certain extent with this statement, and if Facebook opens this ability to a whole new set of users, beyond the crust of society, more power to it.

Facebook is quickly adopting a corporate mentality, while its pages are trying to attract  and appease the most fringe users.  Graffiti is available, music and videos can be uploaded, even external services are being mimicked such as Ebay.  I for one have not yet grown comfortable with these changes, and perhaps it is because of my “hegemonic” outlook and refusal to be once again a part of the masses.  The article “How Facebook could crush MySpace, Yahoo! and Google” points out that the worldwide appeal of social networks is growing, and soon Facebook may be an “all-encompassing portal”.  However, class-centric or not, even the writer expresses hope  that MySpace, with its ‘alternative culture’, is replaced:

“…If there is going to be a supernetwork, I’d much rather have it be clean and navigable like Facebook than spam-filled and occasionally creepy like MySpace.”

For now, it is a popularity contest, and it will probably be the “jock”, not the “geek”, who comes out on top.

 

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