Does Anyone Remember Using Friendster?

What are Facebook or social media sites in general? Some call them voracious, black holes in which to waste precious time; others deem them indispensable links between friends and loved ones. But in the end, they’re just Web sites, right?

In the time I spend on Facebook, I find myself clicking on admittedly pointless links. Or perusing “status updates” that, to be honest, aren’t that interesting (I personally don’t care if that’s the best sandwich you’ve ever eaten – I’m not the one doing the eating).

So am I and legions of fellow social media users simply clicking our lives away? Yes and no. Yes, in that I really shouldn’t be updating my status from the restroom (which I don’t… but I’m sure some of you, for certain incomprehensible reasons, have). And no, in that our social media preferences reveal a more nuanced and meaningful snapshot of our divisions as a society that are far deeper than our divisions into opposing Facebook and MySpace factions.

To fully understand the implications of our social media usage, we have to go all the way back to the beginning. Before the advent of Facebook, there was Friendster, the 2002 ancestor of today’s popular social networking sites. Formulated as a safe and effective environment for virtual peer-to-peer interaction, it was meant to allow faster expansion of one’s friend networks than is plausible in real-life situations. Sound familiar? In layman’s terms, it was the Facebook of its day – the only major social media site frequented on a large scale.

Think Friendster is a relic of the past? Think again. With over 115 million registered users, Friendster boasts 19 billion monthly page views. But the reason many of us today have never even heard of Friendster is because, well, we’re American! Friendster is now the most frequented social network in Asia, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, China, Japan and India.

With all due respect to Friendster, we all know that today’s social networking war is between MySpace and Facebook. They are much more widely used in the United States, particularly by college students.

Let’s visit the past once more. MySpace’s success did admittedly stem from its victory in a corporate marketing clash; it began aggregating features from Friendster in 2003, and was created after 10 days of intense development. The first MySpace users? Employees of eUniverse, an Internet marketing company. Accordingly, if there is any reason for MySpace’s initial viral popularity, it is this – that eUniverse drew upon its existing list of 20 million users to fuel MySpace’s meteoric rise to the top of the social networking world by June 2006.

Nonetheless, at this point Facebook is currently growing far faster than is MySpace. It eventually overtook MySpace as America’s most popular social networking site in 2008. The reason for this trend? Unlike with MySpace’s rise, the forces spurring teens’ gravitation toward Facebook are not merely marketing tactics, but also existing socioeconomic and ethnic divisions. Who knew?

Social media researcher and Harvard Law School fellow Danah Boyd notes that there has been a trend of white, upper-class and/or college-bound teens switching to Facebook, while less educated and non-white teens still frequent MySpace. An anomalous conclusion? Unfortunately, no.

In the same vein, Northwestern University professor Eszter Hargittai surveyed both 2007 and 2009 first-year college students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her February-March 2007 survey found that Hispanics are more likely to use MySpace. Meanwhile, 80 percent or more of surveyed whites, blacks and Asian-Americans were Facebook users. Asians were the least present ethnicity represented amongst MySpace users (39 percent), and popularity between whites and blacks was equal (57 percent and 58 percent). As for socioeconomic disparities, Facebook users usually had parents with far higher levels of education than MySpace users had.
As for Hargittai’s to-be-published February-April 2009 survey, racial and ethnic disparities have since become more distinct, with Hispanics, blacks and the poor still preferring MySpace, and whites, Asians and the rich preferring Facebook in even greater numbers than before. Surprising? Yes. Shocking? Hardly.

Make no mistake, our social media preferences were initially dictated by more benign reactions to corporate marketing. However, today they are not simply the result of naturally occuring social trends, but the fact that social media “mirrors and magnifies” our social divisions. We choose to associate with a specific social networking site based on the invisible forces that reinforce social divisions – sober, yet fascinating notion indeed.

Who knew that a few clicks of the mouse could reveal so much about our deepest social tendencies? Our status updates say so much less about us than the social networking site we choose to update.