My most recent research article looks at predictors of social network site (SNS) usage among a group of first-year college students. First, I look at whether respondents use any social network sites and then examine predictors by specific site usage (focusing on Facebook, MySpace, Xanga and Friendster based on popularity). Before asking about usage, I asked about having heard of these sites and all but one person reported knowledge of at least one SNS so lack of familiarity of these services does not explain non-adoption. The analyses are based on a representative sample of 1,060 first-year students at the University of Illinois, Chicago surveyed earlier this year. This is an especially diverse campus concerning ethnic diversity. (See the paper for more details about the data and methods.)
Methodologically speaking, I find that it is worth disaggregating the general concept of social network site usage, because analyses looking at usage on the aggregate mask predictors of specific site use.
Of particular interest seem to be Facebook and MySpace since they are the most popular with this group. About three quarters of students use the former and over half use the latter in the sample.
I find statistically significant differences by race, ethnicity, parental education (a proxy for socioeconomic status) and living situation (whether a student lives with his or her parents or not) concerning the adoption of Facebook and MySpace. No point in reprinting the entire findings section here, so just quickly a few results: (1) Hispanic students are considerably more likely to be MySpace users and less likely to be Facebook users than others; (2) Asian and Asian American students are more likely to be Xanga and Friendster users and less likely to spend time on MySpace than others; (3) students whose parents have less than a high school education are more likely to be MySpace users, students whose parents have a graduate degree are considerably less likely to be MySpace users and students whose parents have a college education are more likely to be Facebook users than others; (4) students who live with their parents are considerably less likely to be Facebook users (no such difference for the other sites) than those in other living situations; (5) students who have Internet access at a friend of family member’s house – a measure of autonomy of use – are more likely to be users of both Facebook and MySpace than those who don’t. These findings hold when controlling for other factors such as age, gender and amount of time spent online (see Table 6). The results reinforce observations made by danah boyd over the summer based on her qualitative studies of high school students’ SNS uses.
Some people’s first reaction to all this is to figure out what it is about the aesthetic differences between these sites that might attract different types of people to them. Such an approach to the issue seems to me to be misplaced. While Facebook, MySpace and other SNSs may be different in looks, they are structurally different and I suspect that has a lot to do with who chooses to use which one.
Consider the history of Facebook and the restrictions it put on who could join during the first couple of years of the service. Initially, it was only open to Harvard undergraduates. Then it expanded to college students at a few select schools eventually including numerous higher educational institutions. Next came high schoolers and then some corporate networks. Finally, at the end of 2006 anyone could join. In contrast, MySpace was much more open to people from different backgrounds and thus social networks.
Obviously, the participants in my study are all at a university so would’ve been eligible to join Facebok even if the restrictions on college student status had been kept. However, some of the friends in their networks may not have had this option a year earlier. Research has shown that people use Facebook especially to keep in touch with their existing networks rather than to meet new people. This makes sense since the site – another structural feature – organizes people and one’s connections according to one’s existing offline networks. Again, especially in the beginning, what mattered most was a user’s school affiliation. If your friends who graduated from high school a year or two ago didn’t go to college then they probably didn’t join Facebook so if you want to keep in touch with them, that’s not the network where you’ll be able to do it best.
Of course, this doesn’t explain all issues. For example, why the differences in MySpace use? Perhaps it has to do with the number of social network sites any one person cares to use actively. I am working on another paper where I look at intensity of SNS use and I classify people as various types depending on sites used and frequency of use. I’m not far enough along in that project to comment yet, however.
My main point in this post is that the issues are likely more related to the composition of people’s offline networks and the structure of these sites rather than people’s aesthetic preferences. If anyone knows of research on the latter especially concerning Web site use or SNS use in particular, I’d be curious to hear details.
Why does any of this matter? It relates to discussions about the Internet’s potential to create opportunities for people. If people’s online networks mirror their offline networks and constraints placed on people in their everyday lives are reflected in their online interactions then that means that there is a limit – for some more than others – to what different people can get out of their online activities and interactions.
My paper appears in a special theme section of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication edited by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison on SNS. It includes several other related pieces including a helpful introduction on Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship by the editors.