Does your social class determine your online social network?

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(CNN) – Like many people, Anna Owens started using MySpace over four years ago to stay in touch with friends who weren’t in college.

Our real friendships are often a reflection of who we connect with online, experts say.

But soon she felt too old for the social networking site, and the customizable pages with fun music at first started to bother her. By the time she graduated from the University of Puget Sound, Owens’ classmates weren’t on MySpace – they were on Facebook.

Throughout his graduate studies and beyond, as his network began to expand, Owens completely stopped using MySpace. Facebook had come to represent the whole of its social and professional universe.

“MySpace has one population, Facebook has another,” said the 26-year-old, who works for an affordable housing nonprofit in San Francisco, California. “Part-time blue-collar workers may appreciate the appeal of MySpace more.

Is there an online class division? Research suggests that it does. A recent study by market research firm Nielsen Claritas found that the wealthiest people are 25% more likely to be found as friends on Facebook, while the less affluent are 37% more likely to connect. on MySpace.

Specifically, nearly 23% of Facebook users earn more than $ 100,000 per year, compared to just over 16% of MySpace users. On the other end of the spectrum, 37 percent of MySpace members earn less than $ 50,000 a year, compared to about 28 percent of Facebook users.

Social networks in figures

Users with a household income greater than $ 75,000
Facebook – 41.74 percent
MySpace – 32.38 percent
LinkedIn – 58.35 percent
Twitter – 43.34 percent

Users with a household income of less than $ 50,000
Facebook – 28.42 percent
MySpace – 37.13 percent
LinkedIn – 17.34 percent
Twitter – 28.36 percent

Female users
Facebook – 56.33 percent
MySpace – 56.69 percent
LinkedIn – 48.11%
Twitter – 53.59 percent

Users aged 18 to 24
Facebook – 10.27%
MySpace – 15.46 percent
LinkedIn – 3.99 percent
Twitter – 9.51%

Users aged 35 to 49
Facebook – 31.54 percent
MySpace – 29.09 percent
LinkedIn – 43.64 percent
Twitter – 34.02 percent

Source: The Nielsen Company.

MySpace users tend to be “in working-class, middle-class neighborhoods,” said Mike Mancini, vice president of data product management for Nielsen, who used an online panel of more than 200,000 social media users in the United States in August. “They are making progress, or maybe they didn’t go to college.”

In contrast, Mancini said: “Facebook [use] rolls off the charts in high-end suburbs, ”driven by a demographic that Nielsen says is represented by white or Asian married couples between the ages of 45 and 64 with children and high levels of education.

Users of Twitter, the microblogging site, and LinkedIn, a white-collar networking site, are even better off. Almost 38% of LinkedIn users earn more than $ 100,000 per year.

Nielsen also found a strong overlap between those who use Facebook and those who use LinkedIn, Mancini said.

Nielsen is not the first to discover this trend. Ethnographer Danah Boyd, who does not write her name in capital letters, said she saw class division emerge when researching the use of social media by American teens in 2006.

When she started, she noticed that the high school students were all using MySpace, but at the end of the school year, they switched to Facebook.

When boyd asked why, the students responded with reasons similar to Owens’: “The features were better; MySpace is dangerous and Facebook is safe; my friends are here, ”recalls boyd.

And then, said boyd, “a young woman, living in a small historic town in Massachusetts said to me,” I don’t want to be racist or anything, but MySpace is like a ghetto. “” For boyd, that’s when it clicked.

“It’s not about choosing between Facebook and MySpace, it was a move to Facebook from MySpace,” she said, a movement that largely included the educated and upper class.

So why do our online worlds, unencumbered by what separates us in everyday life, reflect the tendency of humans to stick to what they know – and who -?

It has a lot to do with the disparate beginnings of MySpace and Facebook, said Adam Ostrow, editor of Mashable, a social media blog. Facebook originated from Harvard University and was initially limited to students of accredited colleges before opening to the public in September 2006.

MySpace, on the other hand, had a “come one, come all” policy and was racing to monetize, Ostrow said. “They used a lot of banner ads without caring about the quality, and it really decreased the value. [of the site] for the more tech-savvy. “

And while the internet can build bridges between people on either side of the globe, we still tend to connect with the same people through the online social networks we connect with offline, said Sarah. Perez, tech writer and blogger.

“It is effectively a mirror of our real world,” she told CNN. “Social media is the online version of what kids do after school.”

Boyd, who wrote “Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics,” worries about these divisions between social networks. Instead of allowing us to cross the boundaries that exist in our daily lives, these online class differences threaten to carry those boundaries into the future.

“Social network infrastructure is going to be part of everything in the future, just like [Web] the research is, “said boyd.” The internet is not that great equalizer that gets rid of the problems of the physical world – the internet reflects and amplifies them. The divisions we have in everyday life are going to show up online. “

Jason Kaufman, research scientist at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, examined the Facebook profiles of a group of students for four years and found that even within Facebook there is evidence of self-segregation.

Multiracial students tended to have more friends on Facebook than students of other backgrounds and were often the only connection between white and black circles, Kaufman said.

Still, Kaufman believes social media could one day help us overcome our instinct to associate with those who share our income level, education, or racial background.

“I think it’s fair to say that the web has great potential to at least mitigate everyday trends of self-segregation and social exclusion,” Kaufman said. “In some ways, [Facebook] level the playing field of friendship stratification. In the real world you have very close friends and then there are the ones you just say “hello” to when you pass them on the street.

“The playing field is much more level in that you may find yourself having a wall-to-wall exchange with just one acquaintance. If you choose the unlikely friend, not of your race or income bracket, the network may [help you] establish a more active friendship than if you had met them in real life. “

But MySpace users always find something appealing about MySpace that they don’t have about Facebook, and it may have nothing to do with class or race, the blogger said. Perez.

“It’s not just demographics that drives people to choose one over the other,” Perez said. “It also depends on what activities you like. If you like music, you’ll still be on MySpace. If you’re more into apps, then you could go to Facebook because you’re addicted to Mafia Wars or whatever.”

Ultimately, boyd isn’t as concerned about the reasons for these divisions online as he is about the consequences of people only networking within social media groups of their choice.

“Friendships and family relationships are socially divided; people sometimes split up to face racism,” she said. “Okay, great: we’ve made the decision to go our separate ways, but what happens when politicians go to Facebook and think they’re reaching the general public? when colleges only go to Facebook to promote? “

When and if that happens, Mashable’s Ostrow said, we might know we’ve given social media more credit than it’s worth. “When it comes to information, I don’t think social media is the best source for it. The internet is so open,” said Ostrow, who believes users would go beyond their networks to search for information. in line.

If you are looking to get out of your social media box, your best option may be Twitter. Nielsen’s survey did not find a dominant social class on Twitter as much as it found a geographic one: those who use Twitter are more likely to live in an urban area where there is better access to coverage of the wireless network, Mancini said.

“The simplicity of Twitter certainly creates fewer gaps because it’s not a relationship like it is on MySpace or Facebook,” Ostrow said. “If you live in the middle of nowhere or if you live in a city, you can follow anyone about anything.”

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