Sunday, November 29, 2009

Has the Class Divide Gone Cyber?

This fall I am taking a class called "Social Justice and the Obama Administration," taught by Anita Hill. She's a fantastic teacher, getting the entire class engaged and talking. It's the kind of class where you leave with your head spinning in a good way. This is partly due to the fact that Professor Hill has a teaching style I've noticed in any teacher I've had who's also a lawyer - any point you make is valid and welcomed, pending you can back it up. For you lawyers out there this might seem like standard fare; for the rest of us this is a nice respite from dry lectures and less successful means of getting people talking.

We cover a wide range of subjects, and are required to present to our peers a few times during the semester. By the end of the semester you get a good sense of what your peers are interested in - education, child welfare, economics, obesity, etc. I'm the social media kid, and thus my most recent presentation was on social networking, with a social justice bent.

I've had the idea to look at class divides online since hearing a news story in 2007 regarding a military decision to limit access to certain spaces online. It was a particular low point in the Bush years/Iraq war, with record low approval ratings for the prez and general unrest about the debacle in Iraq. STRATCOM decided to shut down a few websites, citing bandwidth issues, and in doing so cut off the social networking site used more often by soldiers (MySpace), while leaving the social networking site used by Officers (Facebook) intact. While this could certainly be positioned as saving valuable bandwidth, this could also easily be interpreted as an effort to prevent soldiers from reporting back to their families about their interpretation of the conditions overseas. Officers, however, were free to maintain contact with their loved ones.

It seemed unfair, and it seemed class based.

Looking at numbers alone, each site is a behemoth. As of this moment, Facebook ranks as the #2 website in the United States, and MySpace is #5. Even with MySpace numbers falling off, they still have over 120 million users (Facebook has topped the 200 million mark). The question, however, is who chooses to use each site. As social networking expands, which it is has done so rapidly that research documenting these changes can hardly keep pace, where you choose to see and be seen is quickly becoming your personal brand. Just as you might choose Gucci over Coach (or vice versa), or Dunkin' Donuts over Starbucks (or vice versa), you might choose Facebook over MySpace (or vice... you get my point).

I'm certainly not the only one thinking about this. In fact, someone beat me to the punch in a far more eloquent manner. danah boyd wrote her doctoral thesis on the topic of social networking and teens, dedicating a number of pages to how teens perceive each of these sites. Fascinating stuff.

Still, I thought it worthwhile to share with my class, and get them thinking on this topic. I wanted to know if they believed that there really was a divide, or if it was simply market forces that drove people to one or another. It kept them talking for quite some time - a sign of a successful presentation.

In case you wanted to give it some thought as well, below are the slides I put together. My speaker notes aren't included (neither are the fancy animations) so you'll have to either take it up with your friends and family, or start the conversation here.

With that presentation done, I'm now on to write up my final paper - leveraging Twitter for social justice causes. Again, lots of material to pull from!

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