Rupert, MySpace, and social class
The Wall Street Journal interviewed Rupert Murdoch earlier this month (in the middle of News International’s takeover campaign for the WSJ parent Dow Jones). It’s long, and more interesting for his views on newspapers than online, but he”s clearly convinced that Google is going to destroy the newspaper advertising base, and doesn’t seem so sure about his expensive acquisition (which cost $800m in 2005) of MySpace anymore. But the apparent shift towards Facebook is a more complex social issue, as a recent essay suggests.
Before getting back to social networking sites, here are a couple of Murdoch’s comments on trends in the newspaper business. Google first:
They sort of just hit the mother lode of search advertising and they’re just destroying Microsoft search, hurting Yahoo’s and making others irrelevant. I don’t understand the technologies but whatever their technology is, it seems to be producing a much higher margin of profit. What are they going to do next? I saw in the New York Times today they’re devising certain, a lot of computer applications which would directly challenge Microsoft, which they’ll give away. So it’s going to be very interesting. Four or five years ago we were all convinced Microsoft was going to take over the world. Now we’re all convinced it’s Google.
He also suggests that the decline of newspapers, though accelerated by the internet, is the result of longer term trends:
What if they made The Wall Street Journal [online] free instead of charging 80 bucks? … You’d have 10 times as many visitors and lets say five times as much advertising. But you’d lose the other, it works out at about a push…. So, the problem with a regular newspaper is how do they replace or hold their revenue models. It’s not all been about the Internet. Change of lifestyle, people’s time. Circulation really has been going down for 20 years before the Internet. And on top of this, in this country you have the impact of the discounters. The Targets and the Wal-Marts and what they’ve done to the department stores… So what’s happened at papers like the LA Times. Used to see pages and pages of five different department stores. Now you get a couple of pages from one
And right at the end of the interview he mentions Facebook when he’s asked why he didn’t buy the Tribune Group:
I think they’re in decline, they can fire a few hundred people everywhere, save a couple of hundred million dollars … I guess they will have a billion a year to pay down the debt, that’s what it sounds like. No, a bit less … I would have thought that, although the decline in readership … will probably go on…
WSJ: They’re all going to MySpace.
Mr. Murdoch: I wish they were. They’re all going to Facebook at the moment.
I blogged about Jeff Jarvis’ views on the rise of Facebook a couple of weeks ago – he says it’s about the rise of identity on the internet. But some of MySpace’s shortcomings are more basic; some have pointed to the increase in advertising as News International tries to ‘monetise’ the site, in that ugly world.
But the online theorist danah boyd has constructed a more complex argument about the shifts in the (American) user bases for the two sites. Having spent the better part of a year talking to American teens she thinks that it is now about class, blue collar against white collar. The history goes like this: because Facebook started at Harvard, and was initially only open to people with an .edu email address it attracted college students, while MySpace was more a high school phenomenon. Even when Facebook initially opened up to high schoolers it was by invitation from an existing (college) member. The image and attractiveness of the sites are defined by attitudes to education:
The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.
MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.
danah boyd also links her argument about MySpace and Facebook (an argument she is clearly writing reluctantly) about the way people learn about social identity.
In the 70s, Paul Willis analyzed British working class youth and he wrote a book called Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. He argued that working class teens will reject hegemonic values because it’s the only way to continue to be a part of the community that they live in. In other words, if you don’t know that you will succeed if you make a run at jumping class, don’t bother – you’ll lose all of your friends and community in the process. His analysis has such strong resonance in American society today. I just wish I knew how to fix it.
Willis’ argument has even more resonance now as social mobility in the US and the UK is reducing. boyd’s essay is worth reading in its entirety if you’re interested in young people, or in social uses of technology.