[Air-l] viewing American class divisions through FacebookandMySpace

Chadwick Andrew Andrew.Chadwick at rhul.ac.uk
Mon Jul 2 03:11:58 PDT 2007

Thanks Dan and Jason - fascinating stuff. It's always interesting to read thoughts about the link between symbolism and social and political identity. But it is a minefield! The implications of your arguments are that those with lower socio-economic status are somehow less likely to have affinities with modernist minimalism in design, but doesn't this design trend in consumption cut across class divisions in contemporary US (and most of Europe)?


> -----Original Message-----
> From: air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org 
> [mailto:air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org] On Behalf Of Jason Wilson
> Sent: 29 June 2007 05:59
> To: air-l at listserv.aoir.org
> Subject: Re: [Air-l] viewing American class divisions through 
> FacebookandMySpace
> Hi Andy and all, 
> Thanks for the question. 
> First I'd reiterate what I'm trying to account for: a 
> specific, well-heeled, well-educated demographic is making 
> the switch to Facebook, while other people stay where they 
> are, and others still continue to join MySpace. In addition, 
> other specific groups are heading to other services entirely, 
> e.g. American teens to Xanga. I would argue that "tipping 
> points" and "usability" arguments can't entirely account for 
> this, and class and the desire to congregate with "people 
> like us" plays a part. 
> I guess that I'd defer to Bourdieu for the most basic 
> theoretical underpinnings of what I'm  arguing here. In 
> Distinction he remarks that "Objectively and subjectively 
> aesthetic stances adopted in matters like cosmetics, 
> clothing, or home decoration are opportunities to experience 
> or asset one’s position in social space, as a rank to be 
> upheld or a distance to be kept." One of the central 
> arguments in the work is that "taste" and cultural 
> preferences mediate class distinctions, that taste is one of 
> the primary ways in which class distance and membership are 
> asserted. This informs my belief that design, "usability" and 
> the contexts of social networking are never neutral, and are 
> always inflected by issues around class (among others). I 
> guess that for me, the problematic assumption would be that 
> social networking, and the selection of an SNS, could take 
> place in a way that somehow evaded, or was innocent of all of this. 
> Why would I think of this specifically in relation to MySpace 
> vs. Facebook? Well, to amplify on an earlier example, I think 
> that the ways in which the two services can be personalised 
> appeal to different taste formations. The often-"gaudy" 
> nature of MySpace personalisation, arising from users' 
> ability to insert large amounts of HTML into their profiles 
> to create background images etc. presents a contrast with the 
> essentially "modular" personalisation available with Facebook 
> profiles, where users select from a range of options which do 
> not disturb the given, "clean" colour schemes and layouts of 
> Facebook profiles. The Facebook interface strikes me as very 
> "designerly" - it is reminiscent to me in its look and feel 
> of an OSX application, with all that connotes in terms of 
> "funky"/creative professions, the blurring of work and/in 
> play, and discernment (think of the Mac vs. PC ad campaigns). 
> The use of whitespace, drop-down menus and a very "Web 2.0" 
> set of icons allow it to be
>  read as uncluttered, fresh and efficient.  Personalisation 
> for many Facebook users takes place by way of deferring to 
> the expert knowledges of application designers. By contrast, 
> MySpace personalisations often seem inexpert, distracting, 
> ungainly - in short amateur, even where the "pimping" is 
> outsourced. Coincidentally, both Danah Boyd and I (me in my 
> blog post on the 22nd) are drawn to the metaphor 
> of/comparison with Swedish furniture stores and their 
> emphasis on modularity and design in thinking about Facebook. 
> There are visual rhetorics in Facebook's presentation that  
> connote a restrained minimalism which is not avant-garde but 
> rational and "tasteful". This observation chimes with the 
> excitement of those marketing high-end consumer goods about 
> getting access Facebook's "elite" user base. Facebook's 
> aesthetic of personalisation appeals to a certain kind of 
> networked, linked-in, design-aware, educated, "mature" 
> (non-emo :-) ) subject, in part because of the "distancing"
>  it offers from messy old MySpace, which begins, by contrast, 
> to resemble the chaos of a teenager's bedroom wall. In this 
> sense, I think we can talk about class in relation to the 
> design interface. 
> That's an example - as I said in yesterday's post, I think 
> the modes of networking Facebook offers as well as the 
> narratives associated with it's success are appealing to a 
> certain kind of contemporary, class-inflected sensibility. If 
> you wanted specific examples of MySpace profiles that bear 
> out the contrast, I'd hesitate to give them on a list, but 
> could send you some off-list if you like. 
> Cheers
> Jason
> -----Original Message-----
> From: air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org 
> [mailto:air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org] On Behalf Of Daniel Sutko
> Sent: 28 June 2007 21:11
> To: air-l at listserv.aoir.org
> Subject: Re: [Air-l] viewing American class divisions through 
> FacebookandMySpace
> I offer no theory but a parallel to Jason's comments. Jason's  
> comments on FB aesthetics also reflect the design elements of the  
> stereotypical, "cookie-cutter," suburban neighborhoods in the 
> US. The  
> designs of the houses vary only slightly, if at all. Furthermore,  
> some of these communities are regulated by community boards 
> or groups  
> that enforce certain aesthetic rules (no flags on the houses, no  
> holiday decorations, no toys left in yards overnight, etc...) The  
> upshot is the anesthetized aesthetic now associated with suburban  
> living. In light of this, I also find the use of language on this  
> thread ("white flight") interesting and suggestive, since that was  
> the popular term for (mainly white, wealthier) folks moving out of  
> the cities (myspace?) and into the suburbs (FB?).  Maybe literature  
> on that social transition would be helpful here.
> Dan
> dan_sutko at ncsu.edu
> TA - Public Speaking Program
> RA - Mobile Gaming Research Lab
> Dept. of Communication
> North Carolina State University
> -----Original Message-----
> From: air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org 
> [mailto:air-l-bounces at listserv.aoir.org] On Behalf Of Chadwick Andrew
> Sent: 28 June 2007 07:25
> To: air-l at listserv.aoir.org
> Subject: Re: [Air-l] viewing American class divisions through 
> FacebookandMySpace
> Hi,
> Jason wrote: "Facebook's aesthetics embody a kind of functional
> minimalism that appeals to a middle class sensibility (significantly
> personalisation applications do not disturb the overall layout and
> colour scheme)"
> Could you explain precisely what you mean by that, and the evidence or
> theorising that underlies it, particularly the part about the 
> affinities
> between social class and the design interface? It's intriguing, but
> problematic.
> Thanks,
> Andy
> ---------------------------------
> Dr Andrew Chadwick,
> Head of Department,
> Department of Politics & International Relations, 
> Director, New Political Communication Unit,
> Royal Holloway, 
> University of London.
> ------------------------------------------------------
> New Political Communication Unit: http://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk
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