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Race, Class, and the Choice of Social-Networking Sites

Sure, both MySpace and Facebook are social networks, and both are beloved by college students. But the two sites are hardly created equal—at least not in terms of the significantly different groups of students who tend to frequent them.

Now Eszter Hargittai, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, has shed some light on what sets MySpace partisans apart from Facebook fans. Her report, “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites,” published in the October edition of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, argues that a student’s race, ethnicity, and upbringing play important parts in predicting which online social networks he or she will join.

Ms. Hargittai, an author of an earlier study of women’s confidence in their Web-surfing skills, draws on the work of other social-network watchers. Several anecdotal reports have noted that MySpace and Facebook users seem to break down along social and class lines, and bloggers have chewed over the idea that social networks have created a new “digital divide.” But the new study adds some empirical rigor to those observations. Ms. Hargittai surveyed more than 1,000 freshmen at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which has one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse student bodies.

White students tend to gravitate toward Facebook, she found, while Hispanic students are much likelier to have MySpace pages. Asian and Asian-American students prefer Facebook, but they also use other social-networking sites, like Xanga and Friendster, that are less popular with other ethnic groups.

Other issues are at play as well. Students whose parents have lower levels of schooling are likely to use MySpace, while students whose parents have more formal education lean toward Facebook. And students who live at home are much less likely to frequent social networks than are their classmates who live on the campus.

What should campus officials take away from the study? Ms. Hargittai says the results show that online social networks evoke real-world communities and demographics. “Online actions and interactions cannot be seen as tabula rasa activities, independent of existing offline identities,” she writes. “Rather, constraints on one’s everyday life are reflected in online behavior, thereby limiting—for some more than others—the extent to which students from different backgrounds may interact with students not like themselves.” —Brock Read

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