Are Social Media Elitist?

Several pieces I read recently, as well as a conversation with a friend, have me questioning whether the crowd around social media is elitist, whether I am elitist.

The first piece that planted a seed of doubt about the universality of social media was “Understanding Users of Social Networks,” written by Sean Silverthorne in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. Silverthorne discussed research by Harvard Business School professor Mikolaj Jan Piskorski on how men and women use social networks differently and how Twitter use is different from either Facebook or MySpace use. What really stuck with me was his analysis of the differences in the populations of Facebook and MySpace, specifically their geographic bases. Pikorski’s analysis of a dataset of 100,000 MySpace users shows that they live mostly in smaller cities and communities in the south and central parts of the country, including “Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Florida. . . not anywhere near the media hubs (except Atlanta) and far away from those elite opinion-makers in coastal urban areas.” It still boasts some 70 million members, so my conclusion is that claims that MySpace is “dead,” it seems, may be coming mostly from the media hubs where Facebook rules.

In the second piece, “a rough, unedited crib” of danah boyd‘s talk to the Personal Democracy Forum on June 30, 2009, titled “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online,” Boyd asks her audience to do her a favor during her presentation: “I want you to step away from the techno-hyperbole for just a moment and think about issues of inequality and social stratification with me. I want you to think about the ways in which technology is not equally available or equally transformative.”

boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, discusses some results of her research into differences between teenage Facebook and MySpace users and some of the reasons teens use one or the other. Boyd comments, “Choice isn’t about features of functionality. It’s about the social categories in which we live. It’s about choosing sites online that reflect ‘people like me.’ And it’s about seeing the ‘other’ site as the place where the ‘other’ people go.” She also notes the “condescending” attitude of teens who use Facebook towards teens who use MySpace: “Teens who use MySpace may lament teen Facebook users as ‘stuck-up’ or ‘goodie two-shoes’ or the ‘good kids.’ But they’re not nearly as harsh in their language as Facebook users are of those who use MySpace.”

boyd discusses some explanations for the “divide” between the two groups as well, which I won’t do justice to in this short post, but strongly recommend that you read the entire piece for those. (Note the explanatory material at the top, clarifying the audience for this talk, and keep it in mind when reading it.) Summing up some takeaways, Boyd says: “Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible. What we see online is not the property of these specific sites, but the pattern of adoption and development that emerged as people embraced them. People brought their biases with them to these sites and they got baked in.”

Finally, a conversation with my friend, who’s deep into and fluent in social media and Enterprise 2.0, got into who’s left out of social media and Enterprise 2.0 – actually, I guess I am talking about Life 2.0. Do the most interested parties, who know the most about and are most invested in Life 2.0 include a broad social strata of the U.S.? My sense – I lack any data so this entire post may be dismissed – is no, they do not. (Developing such data might be an interesting research project, IMO; if anyone knows of such research, please point me to it.) My belief is that they should.

And for me, the key to getting people involved in the power and potential of Life 2.0 lies in education. The more exposure young people have to life outside their social groups and their environment, the better for them and for us. If we believe in collaboration as a good way to tap into the best of everyone, it won’t do if “everyone” is just “people like us.”