Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Whose space?

Posted by digglahhh on 30 June 2007

So, as the family sociologist, Meta asked me to write about America’s class divisions as signaled by the choices teenagers are making between Myspace and Facebook. The issue comes up because of an article by sociologist Danah Boyd that is circulating the net. The crux of the Boyd’s argument is that teens of higher socio-economic class and other “good” teens are more likely to use Facebook, and those of lower socio-economic class are more likely to use Myspace.

Here’s a more detailed description of Boyd’s “good” teens:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

Boyd acknowledges that “good” and “bad” are loaded terms here, but she persists in using them. Here are the “bad” teens:

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 the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

One of the arguments put forth in the essay, and particularly the comments section on the accompanying blog entry, notes the differences between making “friends” and “contacts.” Facebook, particularly because of its genesis in the collegiate world (originally in Harvard), is more suited to “networking” and cultivating relationships that can be professionally advantageous. Myspace relationships are less substantive. I fail to see a major distinction on a behavioral level. I don’t differentiate talking to a classmate because her dad works at Smith Barney from talking to a classmate because her breasts are three-quarters exposed. They are both inherently selfish actions.

The distinctions make for some glaring contradictions. For example, “jocks” are included in the hegemonic group, and associated with higher socio-economic status and social mobility, the group that is considered mostly white. Does that imply that there are no “jocks” in poorer schools, or that the moneyed class disproportionately produces our best athletes? Surely schoolyard culture has its jock heroes. Boyd might want to tune into some professional sports that are popular in America, or introduce herself to Pacman Jones or Tank Johnson. She might also want to educate herself about the dark underside of recruiting and academic eligibility slight-of-hand often used to siphon top high school athletes into collegiate athletic programs.

I’m not going to get wrapped up in the Facebook versus Myspace socio-economic question. If the usage differs along socio-economic lines, it is merely another manifestation of a phenomenon we’ve seen with cellular phone providers, e-mail servers, etc. Why the known fact that “taste” is inherently dialectical would not apply to technological applications is beyond me.

What I want to take issue with is the way social and economic class is discussed in this article, and the value judgments that accompany the discussion. This essay is full of broad generalizations, arbitrary characterization, and contradiction; these characteristics belie the ethnographic methodology the author professes. Ethnography’s greatest strength is dealing with nuance, getting beyond stereotype. Early in the essay, we read:

In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around “class” is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like “working class” and “middle class” and “upper class” get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income

All her anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels?… Whoa! I have friends who work in low-level service jobs and read Engels, and they disagree with one another about politics and culture as well as the really important matters (for example, whether the spitting incident on the Keith Hernandez episode of Seinfeld [“The Boyfriend”] centering around a key Hernandez error, on June 14, 1987, that “opened the door to a five run Philly ninth” compromised quality of the episode, because the actual box score from that date contradicts all those circumstances). If this is the level of stereotypical depiction she’s going to use to describe her friends, how imprecise and sloppy can we expect it to get when she begins discussing people she doesn’t know personally?

I’m not doing justice to ( Kotamraju’s) arguments but it makes sense. My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland just because the share the same income bracket. Their lives are quite different. Unfortunately, with this framing, there aren’t really good labels to demarcate the class divisions that do exist. For this reason, I will attempt to delineate what we see on social network sites in stereotypical, descriptive terms meant to evoke an image.

Oh, okay, that was intentionally stereotypical and shallow. But, your friends may want to read Engels again. If your friends are making the same money as the “Oakland janitor,” but are somehow living in materially better conditions, either somebody needs to call H.U.D. or they are being supported by their boomer mommies and daddies, and that’s the reason they aren’t the same class as the “Oakland janitor.”

By the way, the Engels argument is dropped for the rest of the piece, which talks about those of lower socio-economic class without delving into why they may have lower income levels. Are their parents Engels-reading baristas, or are they Oakland janitors? This is especially curious since some of the sub-categories of the predominantly Myspace-teens are “art-fags,” “punks,” “queer-kids” and others whose identities are related to a rejection of dominant value structures more than a failure to live up to them.

Boyd breaks down the teenagers she studies into two groups, “hegemonic” teens and “subaltern” teens. Later she speaks about them in the terms of “good” and “bad” The first set of terms are weighted with academic baggage, and are bad choices, which she acknowledges. The other set is terribly oversimplified, almost guaranteeing more false dichotomies to come – and they do. At one point, Boyd remarks that she’s seen more “half-naked, drink-carrying high school students on Facebook than on Myspace.” This is relayed as an oddity, yet it actually proves her point. Boyd associates Facebook with college, and college-bound high-schoolers. Well, documenting oneself half-naked and drink-carrying IS A COLLEGE THING. Or maybe I missed the release of “Girls Gone Wild, Compton.”

By setting up these vague, and mutually-exclusive categories, and attaching value-judgment-laden language we are thrown into familiarly choppy waters of false dichotomies, identity binaries and absolutes. Later, as she talks about the teens codifying her categorical distinctions, she writes:

Subaltern teens who go to more mixed-class schools see Facebook as “what the good kids do” or “what the preps do.” They have various labels for these hegemonic teens but they know the division, even if they don’t have words for it.

The shoddy distinctions and less than impressive ethnography makes the reader question whether Boyd is capable of, or accurate when, discerning the implicit distinctions she alludes to the teens making. What words do they have? Perhaps if we hear them, we can get a better understanding of how they codify their categorical distinctions.

Oversimplifications abound. There are numerous references to the “average Latino user,” as if second-generation New York Puerto Ricans, the grandchildren of Castro refugees in Miami, and first-generation Mexicans in Albequerque share a culture. There is no deeper exploration of the “Latino user” community, nor does she even glance at MiGente, which many Latinos use instead of, or in addition to, MySpace.

When discussing the flamboyant aesthetics of Myspace, she refers to it as a “bling” style, stating that the aesthetic is rooted in hip-hop culture where such “brash visual displays are accepted and valued.” There is no distinction made between commercial hip-hop culture, which does promote such imagery, and non-commercial hip-hop, which does not. There’s no attempt to understand the context of contemporary hip-hop culture.

These are, precisely, the more nuanced distinctions that an ethnographic epistemology is designed to understand, and for which we forewent a more superficial but comprehensive statistical approach.

Tangentially, if hip-hop is the most dominant global music and culture of the youth, is it really even correct to classify it (especially, the commercial version) as “subaltern” as opposed to hegemonic? After all, many prominent hip-hop figures are “hegemonics” who market themselves as “subalterns.”

The essay concludes with a discussion of Boyd’s concerns for the future of the youth, both the “hegemonic” and “subaltern” teens. The discussion is barely relevant and frames the issues in a fashion that reeks of disconnected liberalism.

The false dichotomies and absolutism doom the piece from the start, as it focuses on separating two groups, using two social network services that are more similar than different, but focusing on the differences.

Certainly, there are differences between social and economic class, but they overlap more than they diverge, especially in an increasingly consumer-driven culture. Many of these categories of students were based on appearance. If that’s the case, then access to cultural groups can be purchased with a credit card.

Styles, even in their pure forms, overlap. What does it mean to be identified as any one of these groups? Real identities are complex; many of those on opposite sides of the social and economic class gaps have both envy and disdain for their counterparts. Street thugs don’t know whether they want to rob their idols or work for them. These dynamics are evidence of the complexities, and multi-tiered constructions of class identity.

Facebook and Myspace are, essentially, consumer choices. If there is a difference in the using body, the prospective users are given the opportunity to choose who they want to identify themselves with. Similarly, they are given the opportunity of what groups to identify with when they buy a pair of sneakers, or choose which movie to see. Those choices are not necessarily inclined to match a person’s more objective class status, professional tract, or moral foundation. There is a potential chicken-and-egg issue at play here too. Do people of a certain status make a consumer decision as a result of that status, or is their projected class identity a product of the consumer decisions they make?

Consumer driven culture teaches us to judge the book, or at least value it, by its cover. At the same time, it increases the chances those judgments will be wrong. Boyd’s essay, nomenclature and problematic attachment of values emphasize these dangers.

3 Responses to “Whose space?”

  1. JoAnne said

    The “brash visual displays” thing is funny, because it’s totally culture-driven. Brash just means it doesn’t fit the upper-middle-class norms. I have a hard time thinking of gigantic SUVs as anything but brash, but because they’re ubiquitous in the burbs, they’re almost invisible.

  2. digglahhh said

    Good point, JoAnne.

    Apparently the luxury SUV is not brash until it is outfitted with large chrome rims. The Caddy Escalate, as it appears on the showroom floor, is, of course, minimalist and understated.

    The ghetto did not invent conspicuous consumption.

    Another (related) term that this dynamic applies to is “gaudy.” As if the jewelry worn on the Red Carpet isn’t… A hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds is a hundred thousand dollar worth of diamonds.

  3. ClaireDePlume said

    Can all American teens be taken on face value and boxed into a personal space based on a momentary whim or a choice which appears to be “cool”? Only if we as observers are that superficial to think we can categorize and marginalize others based on face value. This is reminiscent of the old spaghetti westerns where the good guys wore white, and the naughty boys were clad in black. Or perhaps presidential debates where the swarthy complexioned candidate can never win popular approval. As long as we ask the “dumb” questions, we will continue to arrive at “dumb” answers. And as long as “researchers” get paid to research fluff and find fluff, we will be fed fluff.

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