Wednesday, April 13, 2011

If websites were people

Take a look at the above artist's rendition of what various popular websites would look like as people (larger view and source here). There are undeniable demographic trends among social networking sites, but furthermore, this picture shows how we can anthropomorphize something as inhuman as a website. Of course, this is just one artist's (conspicuously white) conception, but it's an interesting window to the way websites become lifelike and entirely separate entities in our minds. Now check out this discussion about the image. Some of the comments could fit right into Danah Boyd's research:

"And myspace should be some ghetto hoodrat that thinks he can rap but sucks or a grungie 35 year old guitar player living with his parents, still waiting to 'make it big.'" --superbreakfasttime

So something as faceless as a social networking site can definitely take on an aggregate personality, relative to who's viewing it. I wonder, though, how much of an effect does this really have? I think Boyd exaggerates when she calls the Facebook to Myspace user base transition as "modern day 'white flight.'" I believe many of the reasons for the collapse of Myspace boil down to its many interface and usability issues. Facebook was simply superior, and people flocked to it. People also go where their friends are, so in a sense, Boyd is right that these things are based on trends. Homophily has inertia. But the internet still has a social flattening effect. We all have a sense of the racial demographics in our areas -- it's essentially unavoidable. On the internet, though, it's difficult to get a sense of your true "surroundings." Because of that, I think something like white flight is far less likely to occur. Online social networks, being physically disconnected, can be highly modular within the same site as well.

Still, the web has many divisions. Boyd asks an excellent question: "So as we think about creating public spaces, what's the meeting point for our conversations? Is it MySpace or Facebook? Twitter or IRC?" I agree with her that "What you choose matters," but that doesn't answer the question. One feature of many social networking sites is that they are tightly coupled. When you add friends on Facebook, you become part of a concrete network. The network is visible to everyone in it, and communication is internally very open. Sites like Twitter, on the other hand, are loosely coupled. Users don't see each others' data streams, as with Facebook walls, and being "friends" isn't a mutual handshake. Retweeting can expand the data you see on Twitter beyond just the people you choose to follow. Tweets are also much more easily captured and shared than Facebook wall posts. I'd venture to say that Twitter is much more data-focused, while Facebook is more focused on the social aspect. My question is, which format is better for meaningful discussion about serious topics like racism or politics? Despite Twitter's character limit, I think it's better-suited because of the lack of social context. It's purely an exchange of ideas. On Facebook, a comment is an event. These are two very specific examples of different networking paradigms that are likely to evolve quite a bit in the future. Perhaps the best solution for facilitating equalized dialectic on the internet will be entirely different from both. I'm not entirely sure. Regardless, we must remember not to ". . . interpret an advancement as a solution," as Boyd says.


  1. I had never thought of Twitter functioning as a system for data propagation until now. It is true that there seem to be more Tweets about what's-going-on on a journalistic level rather than a purely personal one. This is actually the opposite of what I had imagined before using Twitter for the first time this semester. On the other hand, I don't think that either Facebook or Twitter are adequate platforms for meaningful discussion at this point in time. I applaud their efficiencies in storing and transmitting data, but the content of the data is questionable in both cases. I think this partly has to do with the high speeds of information transmission causing transmissions to have only fleeting importance. Due to this impermanence, people don't seem to spend enough time on one thread of inquiry before hopping to another. Perhaps this is more of an indication of the user's limitations rather than the limitations of social media itself.

  2. I love that graphic, that is excellent. It all seems fairly reasonable as a generalization... I like the "trolls" on YouTube. However, I have to question the Twitter demographic. Is Twitter mostly a younger crowd? I actually envisioned Twitter's youngest users to High School or College, but mostly ages 18 and up. Maybe my assumption was incorrect. I don't know a lot about Twitter and have only started using it since this class began.