Posts Tagged ‘MySpace’

Building a community: Does a community have to be diverse to be successful?

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Last year, Wikipedia made headlines when a survey commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation discovered only 13% of Wikipedia’s writers and editors are women.  Among people who read but don’t write or edit for Wikipedia, 69% are men and 31% are women.  The same survey found that Wikipedians were much more highly educated than the rest of the population, with 19% saying they have a Master’s degree and 4.4% saying they have a Ph.D.

Facebook and MySpace have similarly gotten press for news that the demographics of the social networks’ members vary across race, class, and education.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these sites, or any other sites, would be more popular among certain demographic groups.

All communities, online or off, tend to reflect their founders and the worlds they come from.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook

Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg while he was at Harvard.  Facebook ended up more popular with Ivy League students.  Wikipedia was founded using wiki technology and principles from the open source software movement.  Wikipedians, not surprisingly, are “mostly male computer geeks,” as described by founder Jimmy Wales.  Yelp started in San Francisco, and the irreverent, young tone echoes the tone of many Silicon Valley start-ups, attracting irreverent, young people.  It’s not just that the sites’ founders attract people who are like them.  They set the tone, based on values they hold, that tend to be shared by people similar to them.

Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

Even as sites grow and expand beyond the first adopters, communities can develop cultures that are more attractive to certain groups than others.

Women are allegedly more active than men on Facebook, whereas the opposite is true on Twitter. 

Although both sites involve sharing information, the mechanisms are quite different.

I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why women are more drawn to Facebook or why men are more drawn to Twitter.  I do think it’s funny when writers forget their personal preferences might not be universal.  This writer, this writer, and this writer, who agree Twitter is much better than Facebook — all men.

Martha Stewart

Here’s one prominent exception, Martha Stewart, who says,

First of all, you don’t have to spend any time on it, and, second of all, you reach a lot more people. And I don’t have to ‘befriend’ and do all that other dippy stuff that they do on Facebook.

Which sounds like a stereotypically male sort of thing to say.

But it is worth noting that certain ways of interacting are more appealing to some groups than others, even when sites are not being marketed specifically to one group or another.

Why does it matter?  A successful community is not necessarily a diverse one.

A forum for breast cancer patients won’t measure the health of its community by the number of men on it.

One of the most attractive things about the Internet is its ability to concentrate people with esoteric interests.

However, for communities with more universal goals, diversity is an important issue.

It makes sense that Wikipedia has publicly been working on making its community of writers and editors more diverse.  If Wikipedia’s goal is to create “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge,” it has to include the knowledge and perspective of people other than male computer geeks.  (I can’t say for sure, but I would bet there were a couple of male computer geeks involved in the writing of this rather literal exposition of the “sanitary napkin.”)

As part of that plan, Wikipedia is rolling out a redesign, which they hope will encourage more people to contribute their knowledge.

Whether or not the redesign drastically affects Wikipedia’s numbers, the plan will likely involve a delicate balancing act.

Wikipedia needs to attract new members without alienating the original members of its community.

If the old interface was intimidating to some people, it was probably equally attractive to others.  Those who didn’t find it intimidating could identify as part of a hard-core, committed group, an identity that can be crucial for energizing early members of a community.

It’s the problem of any community that wants to grow – how do you grow without destroying the sense of community that helped it start in the first place?

Large organizations have traditionally tried to maintain a sense of community with local chapters.

The Sierra Club and Habitat for Humanity International are both built on a network of local affiliates that have a certain amount of autonomy.  The Catholic Church and other religious organizations operate using a similar organizational structure, though with varying degrees of centralized control.

Online, the examples are fewer.

In fact, the only example of a community in our study that’s grown obviously beyond the boundaries of the original group is Facebook, and as I’ve discussed earlier, it’s an outlier.

It contains communities but is not actually a community in and of itself.  Despite the demographic differences between Facebook and MySpace, Facebook has arguably grown so big, those differences have become negligible.  It almost doesn’t matter if Facebook is somewhat more popular among certain groups when it has 400 million active users.  At the same time, though, each Facebook user’s experience of Facebook is filtered through is or her friends.  Even though the dilemma of whether to accept a friend request from a parent has become a common joke, most people on Facebook haven’t directly experienced how quickly Facebook has expanded.

This may be why Facebook has managed to transcend its origins so quickly as an online social network for Harvard students.  The feeling of intimacy and connection hasn’t changed for the average user.  It’s questionable whether Facebook can maintain that sense of localized community with the various changes it’s made to how user information is shared, but Facebook is gambling that it can.

Building a community: the implications of Facebook’s new features for privacy and community

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

As I described in my last post, the differences between MySpace and Facebook are so stark, they don’t feel like natural competitors to me.  One isn’t necessarily better than the other.  Rather, one is catering to people who are looking for more of a public, party atmosphere, and the other is catering to people who want to feel like they can go to parties that are more exclusive and/or more intimate, even when they have 1000 friends.

But this difference doesn’t mean that one’s personal information on Facebook is necessarily more “private” than on MySpace.  MySpace can feel more public.  There is no visible wall between the site and the rest of the Internet-browsing community.  But Facebook’s desire to make more of its users’ information public is no secret.  For Facebook to maintain its brand, though, it can’t just make all information public by default.  This is a company that grew by promising Harvard students a network just for them, then Ivy League students a network just for them, and even now, it promises a network just for you and the people you want to connect with.

Facebook needs to remain a space where people feel like they can define their connections, rather than be open to anyone and everyone, even as more information is being shared.

And just in time for this post, Facebook rolled out new features that demonstrate how it is trying to do just that.

Facebook’s new system of Connections, for example, links information from people’s personal profiles to community pages, so that everyone who went to Yale Law School, for example, can link to that page. Although you could see other “Fans” of the school on the school’s own page before, the Community page puts every status update that mentions the school in one place, so that you’re encouraged to interact with others who mention the school.  The Community Pages make your presence on Facebook visible in new ways, but primarily to people who went to the same school as you, who grew up in the same town, who have the same interests.

Thus, even as information is shared beyond current friends, Facebook is trying to reassure you that mini-communities still exist.  You are not being thrown into the open.

Social plug-ins similarly “personalize” a Facebook user’s experience by accessing the user’s friends.  If you go to CNN.com, you’ll see which stories your friends have recommended.  If you “Like” a story on that site, it will appear as an item in your Facebook newsfeed.  The information that is being shared thus maps onto your existing connections.

The “Personalization” feature is a little different in that it’s not so much about your interactions with other Facebook users, but about your interaction with other websites.  Facebook shares the public information on your profile with certain partners.  For example, if you are logged into Facebook and you go to the music site Pandora, Pandora will access public information on your profile and play music based on the your “Likes.”

This experience is significantly different from the way people explore music on MySpace.  MySpace has taken off as a place for bands to promote themselves because people’s musical preferences are public.  MySpace users actively request to be added to their favorite bands’ pages, they click on music their friends like, and thus browse through new music.  All of these actions are overt.

Pandora, on the other hand, recommends new music to you based on music you’ve already indicated you “Like” on your profile.   But it’s not through any obvious activity on your part.  You may have noted publicly that you “Like” Alicia Keys on your Facebook profile page, but you didn’t decide to actively plug that information into Pandora.  Facebook has done it for you.

Depending on how you feel about Facebook, you may think that’s wonderfully convenient or frighteningly intrusive.

And this is ultimately why Facebook’s changes feel so troubling for many people.

Although they aren’t ripping down the walls of its convention center and declaring an open party. As Farhad Manjoo at Slate says, Facebook is not tearing down its walls but “expanding them.”

Facebook is making peepholes in certain walls, or letting some people (though not everyone) into the parties users thought were private.

This reinforces the feeling that mini-communities continue to exist within Facebook, something the company should try to do as it’s a major draw for many of its users.

Yet the multiplication of controls on Facebook for adjusting your privacy settings makes clear how difficult it is to share information and maintain this sense of mini-communities.  There are some who suspect Facebook is purposefully making it difficult to opt-out.  But even if we give Facebook the benefit of the doubt, it’s undeniable that the controls as they were, plus the controls that now exist for all the new features, are bewildering.  Just because users have choices doesn’t mean they feel confident about exercising them.

On MySpace, the prevailing ethos of being more public has its own pitfalls.  A teenager posting suggestive photos of herself may not fully appreciate what she’s doing.  At the least, though, she knows her profile is public to the world.

On Facebook, users are increasingly unsure of what information is public and to whom.  That arguably is more unsettling than total disclosure.

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

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

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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