Building a community: Are we all at the same party?

May 3rd, 2010 by Grace Meng

In my last post, I described the ways in which Yelp and Facebook are different animals, despite Yelp’s social network-like qualities. Yelp feels like a community in which its members share the goal of writing good reviews for Yelp; Facebook contains communities, none of which particularly feel any affinity for doing anything for Facebook.

You would think, then, that Facebook isn’t a community simply because its members aren’t invested in a shared mission. But when you look at MySpace, a site that is also a social network and nothing else, the question of what makes a community a community becomes more complicated.

MySpace, first off, is not exactly a community either. Its members aren’t invested in MySpace any more than Facebook members are invested in Facebook. But it does feel very different from Facebook in a couple of obvious ways.

MySpace feels crazier, looser, and less professional, and thus also more personal and individualistic.

One of the most obvious and immediate visual differences between MySpace and Facebook is the way users design their profile pages. MySpace allows its users to customize their pages, which means MySpace is a riot of colors, animated gifs, and backgrounds. There’s a basic template with neat boxes, similar to what Ashton Kutcher has here:

But there are many more users who have so much animation and graphics, sometimes even their names are obscured.

The aesthetic reminds me a bit of my teenage bedroom, how much I was interested in making sure that the the posters I hung, art and music and what have you, expressed exactly who I was. A lot has already been said about the racial and socioeconomic differences between MySpace and Facebook, so I won’t go into them here, but it’s worth noting that this flexible aesthetic, as danah boyd points out, doesn’t only attract kids who are poor or don’t plan to go to college, but “the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.”

Facebook, on the other hand, has uniform blue and white boxes. You might choose to upload a quirky or weird profile photo, or even make up a profile like Peowtie del Toro, but your aesthetic choices are severely limited.

Facebook provides a more corporate, professional framework on which people are neatly displayed, like a telephone book or directory (aka, a college facebook).

MySpace’s design gets made fun of all the time, at least by the kind of people who tend to write for tech blogs, but it’s a draw for people who want to be able to individualize their profiles. Facebook’s design, in contrast, doesn’t promote a particular aesthetic. There are people who are drawn to Facebook’s clean professional look and repelled by MySpace’s free-for-all.

But the reason people praise Facebook’s design is because they value the way it’s a clean slate, bland and able to absorb almost anything and anyone.

Facebook is growing faster than MySpace, and although that may be in part due to its design, but it’s less because Facebook’s design is so compelling and more because it’s inoffensive.

MySpace feels like one big party.

The free-for-all of MySpace, compared to the clean, blank slate of Facebook results in very different atmospheres on both sites. MySpace feels like one big party. There are definitely subgroups within MySpace, but there is an openness to the site that is completely missing from Facebook.

From the moment you go to MySpace, you see content that’s available to you. With a few clicks, you can find videos, band pages with music, and individual profiles that have been made publicly accessible to anyone, even those who are not registered members of MySpace. Although there are MySpace users who don’t make their profiles public, you can browse the profiles of those who are public, and there’s a sense that any of these strangers might connect with each other. (It helps that so many of the photos are aggressively flirty.) Everyone’s at the same party.

Facebook certainly isn’t private, and as its many new developments indicate, the company is aggressively trying to make more of its users’ information public. (More on that to come.)

But Facebook isn’t one big open party. It’s a convention hall where you’re supposed to find your group and join whichever cocktail party, networking event, or shindig is being hosted by your group.

Your first view of Facebook is a virtual wall. The first page consists mainly of a blue and white graphic with abstract images of people connected all over the world. The login for members is the only visibly interactive part of the page, other than the sign up for new members. There isn’t even a search box for existing members. The impression is that until you log in or sign up, you don’t really have access to the site.

There’s definitely no “Browse” function. Even after you log in, you can only search for specific people. At best, you can browse your friends’ friends, but even that is based on the connections you already have. Although people increasingly have Facebook friends they don’t actually know, the connections most people have to each other aren’t based on the fact that they’re both on Facebook. Rather, people friend each other because they went to the same school, work at the same place, or have friends in common. To some extent, I really don’t know the full range of people who are on Facebook because I can only see the people I’m friends with.

It’s not surprising MySpace is the place to hear new music.

Despite Facebook’s rapid growth, MySpace is still the most popular site for bands. Part of that has to do with the ease with which tracks can be uploaded, but it also has to with the one party atmosphere of MySpace. You’ve come to have a good time, you’re open to hearing new music, you might just end up talking to the drummer after a set.

For example, when you look at the MySpace page for The National, the band’s 63,798 friends write messages that are directed to the band like,

THANX SO MUCH FOR THE ADD!! LUV UR MUZIK!! DIGGIN UR ENTIRE PLAYLIST!!
MUCH RESPECT!! MAD LUV!!
Angela Marie ;)
HAVE A BEAUTIFUL DAY AND ALWAYZ REMEMBER TO ROCK IT WITH A SMILE LIKE ME, UR KICK ASS FRIEND MISS A TO THE G!! ;)

Whereas on Facebook, the people who “like” The National don’t seem to necessarily have a sense of personal connection to the band. Some of them write direct appeals, like please come play in my town, but there are just as many comments that are directed to other fans as to the band itself, like,

just purchased tickets for the seattle show in sept!! can not wait to see them live..what an amazing follow-up to Boxer.”

Although The National is a relatively famous band, anyone can upload music on MySpace and hope to make it big, the way Lily Allen did. Many of the comments on The National page are from people in their own bands asking them to check out their music. They don’t have to already know each other to comment or become friends, whereas the social expectations are very different on Facebook.

Even as Facebook tries to make more of its users’ information public, it will never feel like MySpace.

Recently, Facebook rolled out several changes that either encourage or push its users to make more of their information public, depending on how you feel about Facebook.

These new developments — Personalization, Community Pages, and Like buttons across the Internet — are changing the way Facebook users’ information is available. Yet these changes are still in line with the “many communities” model, rather than the one-big tent feel of MySpace, with some interesting consequences for individual privacy.

More to come in a follow-up post…

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