Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Facebook, Myspace -- forget class, let's talk about "research"

"A six-month research project has revealed a sharp division along class lines among the American teenagers flocking to the social network sites," the BBC breathlessly reports. This report, which doesn't have a link, frames the research this way:

The conclusions are based on interviews with many teenage users of the social networking sites by PhD student Danah Boyd from the School of Information Sciences at UC Berkeley.

In a preliminary draft of the research, Ms Boyd said defining "class" in the US was difficult because, unlike many other nations, it did not map directly to income.

Instead, she said, class in the US was more about social life and networks - how people define themselves and who they define themselves with.

"Social networks are strongly connected to geography, race, and religion; these are also huge factors in lifestyle divisions and thus 'class'," she wrote.

Broadly, Ms Boyd found Facebook users tend to be white and come from families who are keen for children to get the most out of school and go on to college.

This research report was picked up by various other outlets as well, such as SmartMobs, which adds this commentary: "Fans of MySpace and Facebookare divided by much more than which music they like, suggests a study." BoingBoing similarly announces the study as "provocative, insightful stuff that exposes the deeper lessons lurking beneath the tens of millions of profile pages on social networking sites."

So let's look at the study. Oh, here it is. But wait: Boyd frames it in this way:

I've been trying to figure out how to articulate this division for months. I have not yet succeeded. So, instead, I decided to write a blog essay addressing what I'm seeing. I suspect that this will be received with criticism, but my hope is that the readers who encounter this essay might be able to help me think through this. In other words, I want feedback on this piece.

That doesn't sound much like a study -- and it reads more like a think piece or op-ed, especially when Boyd (appropriately) uses many caveats in generalizing from her interviews to the whole of the social networking sites. In fact, she has another blog post up today in which she says she's shocked at the response:

I think some folks misinterpreted this piece as an academic article. No doubt this is based on my observations from the field, but this is by no means an academic article. I did add some methodological footnotes in the piece so that folks would at least know where the data was coming from. But I didn't situate or theorize or contextualize this at all. It's more like publicizing field observations. There's much work to be done before this can be anything resembling an academic article. The "citation" note at the top of my pieces also confuses this. That was meant for when people picked it up and stole it whole from my page or when people got to it indirectly. I put that as a standard for my blog essays a while back because of this issue. I guess I see my blog as a space to work out half-formed ideas. I just didn't expect 90K people to read it. Blog essays to me are thoughts in progress, blog entries that are too long to be blog entries. But I can see where there's confusion.

Lesson: As always, follow the source and don't believe people -- even the BBC -- who rely on "research says."

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