MySpace as the Detroit of the Internet

Newsflash: The Internet may not be the singularly uniting force we hoped it would be.

Between 2006 and 2007, Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher and fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, interviewed teenagers and discovered that white and wealthy students were more likely to switch from MySpace to Facebook. The research sparked a debate at the time, and it's been reignited recently, as she explains in a blog post up today. Not only were those white and wealthy students switching, but the language they used to describe MySpace was, euphemistically, racially charged. They described it as a "ghetto" and for "hip hop rap lovers."

Whether there is actually white flight or a real racial divide is besides the point, Boyd says. Race and class shaped how the teens viewed social networks. Even on the Internet, the Great Equalizer, certain sites were seen as being more suited to certain classes and races. Perceptions were similar to the white flight that afflicted Detroit and other northern cities, she argues in a draft chapter to a forthcoming book: "many of the same underlying factors that shaped white city dwellers' exodus to the suburbs -- institutional incentives and restrictions, fear and anxiety, social networks, and racism -- also contribute to why some teens were more likely to depart than others."

Of course, some of that is by design. Facebook began at Harvard and expanded first to other Ivy League schools and then to other colleges generally. The group it first served was generally white and wealthy. Existing disparities migrated online.

But now that Facebook just attracted its 500 millionth user, is this still even a problem? For better or worse, what might once have been described as white flight has just become flight. The doors were opened to all and everyone rushed in. And, fortunately, unlike real-life white flight, no blight-ridden city is left behind. What would be interesting now is to find out how diverse Facebook users' groups of friends are. I suspect the results wouldn't be too encouraging.