This neat little essay looking at how Friendster gave way to MySpace was a bit of throwback to my university research days. All this talk of subcultural capital . . .
Portability of identity doesn’t matter. Easy-to-use interfaces don’t matter. Visual coherence doesn’t matter. Simple navigation doesn’t matter. Bugs don’t matter. Fancy new technologies don’t matter. Simple personalization doesn’t matter.
Before you scream “but it does to me!” let me acknowledge that you’re right. It does matter to you. The question is whether it matters to the masses. And it doesn’t. Especially for teens.
What’s at stake here is what is called “subcultural capital” by academics. It is the kind of capital that anyone can get, if you are cool enough to know that it exists and cool enough to participate. It is a counterpart to “cultural capital” which is more like hegemonic capital. That was probably a bit too obscure. Let me give an example. Opera attendance is a form of cultural capital – you are seen as having money and class and even if you think that elongated singing in foreign languages is boring, you attend because that’s what cultured people do. You need the expensive clothes, the language, the body postures, the social connects and the manners to belong. Limitations are economic and social. Rave attendance is the opposite. Anyone can get in, in theory… There are certainly hodgepodged clothes, street language and dance moves, but most folks can blend in with just a little effort. Yet, the major limitation is knowing that the rave exists. “Being in the know” is more powerful than money. You can’t buy your way into knowledge of a rave.
MySpace has grown so large that the needs, values and practices of its users are slamming into each other. It’s facing the archetypical clashing of cultures. Yet, interestingly, most users are not that concerned – they’re trying to figure out how to live in this super public. The challenge is that outsiders are panicking about a culture that they are not a part of. They want to kill the super public rather than support people in learning how to negotiate it. No one knows how to live in such a super public, but this structure is going to become increasingly a part of our lives. It is no wonder that youth want to figure it out. And it is critical that they do, especially since our physical worlds have become more segregated and walled off, partitioned by age, race, class, religion, values, etc. Yet, it is the older generation that did that segregating and they’re not really ready to face collapsed contexts at every turn or to learn how to engage with people who have very different values on a daily basis. Because of their position of power, outsiders are pushing the big red emergency button, screaming danger and creating a complete and utter moral panic. Welcome to a generational divide, where adults are unable to see the practices of their children on kids’ terms.
The rest of the article is a solid discussion of how to MySpace worked because it let its user community do exactly what it wanted to whilst at the same time Friendster was having all sorts of server troubles and locking down its system to any hacks. As the article argues, social networking sites need to maximise the opportunities for expression and personality – that’s why people use them – to create identity – and outside of those such as LinkedIn with an explicit action/goal-oriented ‘reason for being’, they need to be open, flexible and organised by their userbase.