Jul 6, 2009

Where You Are Matters: MySpace and Facebook

Picture of a racially diverse group of VERY cute kidsHad an amazing time at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC last week. More than once I felt my head exploding with new thoughts. In this program full of great thinking and new ideas, danah boyd's talk on "The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online" was probably the most referenced, and one that struck a nerve.

boyd began with questioning the hype that Facebook was hot and that MySpace was not. Now that Facebook has caught up, traffic-wise, with rival MySpace, many think it's over for MySpace. But with 70 million visitors on MySpace, how does it not continue to be important?

She then discussed her research and the growing race, class and education divide between the two networks and what she calls a modern day, digital "white flight" from MySpace to Facebook.
All this said, people are already divided and we accept that people from different backgrounds inhabit different environments. We cannot expect technology to automatically integrate people and generate cultural harmony. Although most of you call these sites "social networking sites," there's almost no networking going on. People use these sites to connect to the people they know....

But here's the main issue with social divisions. We can accept when people choose to connect to people who are like them and not friend different others. But can we accept when institutions and services only support a portion of the network? When politicians only address half of their constituency? When educators and policy makers engage with people only through the tools of the privileged? When we start leveraging technology to meet specific goals, we may reinforce the divisions that we're trying to address.

boyd summarized her thinking and research about social networks and the impact of institutions selecting specific venues for outreach.
1) Social stratification is pervasive in American society (and around the globe). Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible.

2) There is no universal public online. What we see as user "choice" in social media often has to do with structural forces like homophily in people's social networks. People connect to people who think like them and they think like the people with whom they are connected.

3) If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you're reaching and who you're not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices.

4) The Internet has enabled many new voices to enter the political fray, but not everyone is sitting at the table.--read the entire talk on danah.org [emphasis mine]
So, as government agencies develop a social network strategy--and even as they are dipping their toes into the social media waters--the decisions agencies are making about resources and resourcing need to be informed by facts and not hype.

If government wants to reach people where they are, it needs to understand not only where "people are," but also who uses which tools and how different audiences expect to interact and consume information.

My excerpts and overview do not give boyd's ideas their due. Please read more here and think about how you might use her analysis as you develop your social media strategy.

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