Review of Chapter 10, "Open doors, closed spaces: differentiated adoption of social network sites by user background," by Eszter Hargittai
By the time the film The Social Network debuted in 2010, it seemed like everybody had heard of Facebook. The world’s most popular social networking site had around 500 million members, while MySpace, second to Facebook, had around 60 million users. The idea of the social network site (SNS) had so inundated the vernacular that “Facebook” was declared the word of the year in 2008. Yet, it should also be clear that there is a noticeable gap between awareness of a social network site and actual use, as educational researcher Eszter Hargittai makes clear in her chapter from Lisa Nakamura’s Race After the Internet. Hargittai’s chapter, “Open Doors, Closed Spaces,” quickly divests us of the misconception that adoption of social network sites, even the most popular ones, is by any means uniform and consistent across groups. Hargittai explores social network use of college age students to determine whether certain groups use specific social network sites. Her findings support earlier research (Hargittai, 2007; boyd, 2011) which suggests that whites and Asian-Americans are likely to use Facebook, while African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to use MySpace. As Hargittai describes how SNS use patterns diverge by groups, she also discusses possible negative implications for some students.
Hargittai’s chapter builds off her earlier research into use patterns of the Internet use. Indeed, difference in use between groups is one of the defining features of Hargittai’s work (2007; 2010; Hargittai & Hinnat, 2008; Hargittai & Shafer, 2006). Hargittai has found, for example, that “white men...claimed higher-level skills than women” and that “capital-enhancing activities, such as looking for financial, political, or government information online, are associated with socioeconomic status” (2011, 225). This research suggests that differentiated online use patterns may lead to drastically different outcomes—if “white men” of “privilege” are using online time for “capital-enhancing activities” that requires “higher-level” skills, what are the implications of different use patterns for those who are not white males? How might this research challenge the notion of the Internet as a neutral technology, and in what ways?
As a researcher, Hargittai’s work is similar to the work of Keith Hampton and Lee Rainie at the Pew Internet Research Center, who examine the interplay between Internet use, friendship patterns, and local context. Additionally, Hargittai’s work also brings to mind that of Mark Warschauer, as both researchers attempt to produce “more nuanced data” that challenges common assumptions about educational technology use (Hargittai, 240). According to Hargittai, prior research on social network sites was limited by its focus on SNS users, thereby ignoring entire groups of people “without realizing or recognizing that we may be doing so” (226). The author attempted to compare social network site use with a level of specificity that has been lacking in earlier research; by comparing use across different sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and others, Hargittai aimed to explore basic characteristics between users and non-users.
While Hargittai reported that over 90% of respondents reported spending time on at least one social network site, SNS use patterns differ by group, as well as by “living context and how much time users spend online” (253). First, group differences. The author found that while just 16 percent of Asian Americans use MySpace, and 30 percent of whites do, “more than half of African Americans and Hispanic students were on the site” (235), finding that “the association between Hispanic origin and MySpace use has only become more pronounced over time” (237). This data is striking, because it seems to contradict my own anecdotal experience as someone married to a Guatemalan woman and with many Hispanic family members and friends. I am interested in exploring the possibility that Facebook use for Hispanics is correlated to the number, and strength of ties, of white friends on the site. Hargittai’s research asks us to consider the possibilities of different experiences on social network sites—does MySpace support certain online activities that may be different than what is happening on Facebook, for example? What are the implications of SNS behavior that occurs as a result of demographic affiliation?
Second, the author discovered differences in SNS use according to living situations. In one of the more troubling findings described in the piece, Hargittai demonstrated that students living at home are “less likely to use Facebook” than those who live on their own, or in shared housing (240). This means that the students living at home are less likely to receive the benefits of using a social network site, which DeAndrea and colleagues (2011) have noted include improved academic self-efficacy as a result of awareness of support services for students. This non-use may be more serious than a particular group’s affinity for MySpace or Facebook; it may be the case that non-use represents a serious obstacle to receiving the kind of help necessary to help students adjust to college.
With her chapter “Open Doors, Closed Spaces,” Eszter Harigittai has produced a significant contribution to social network site research by adding complexity where mainstream media tends to suggest uniform use. This chapter presents a valuable, nuanced approach to SNS use and adoption by demographic affiliation, and demonstrates the methodological significance of disaggregating data by race and ethnicity. Hargittai’s research points the way toward “probing deeper into...a student’s preference for one social network site over another,” which, I would argue, may lead to a rich discussion about the potentially educative value of social network sites—my current area of research (241).
boyd, d. (2011). “White flight in networked publics? How race and class shaped American teen engagement with MySpace and Facebook.” In Race After the Internet (eds. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow‐White). Routledge, 203‐222.
De Andrea, D.C., Ellison, N.B., LaRose, R., Steinfeld, C., and Fiore, A. (2011) Serious social media: on the use of social media for improving students’ adjustment to college. Internet and Higher Education, 1-9 (in press).
Hargittai, E. (2007). “Whose space? Differences among users and non-users of social network sites.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (1), 276-297.
Hargittai, E. (2010). “Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the ‘net generation’” Sociological Inquiry, 80 (1), 92-113.
Hargittai, E. & Hinnant, A. (2008). “Digital inequality: differences in young adults’ use of the internet.” Communication Research, 35 (5), 602-621.
Hargittai, E. & Shafer, E. (2006). “Differences in actual and perceived online skills: the role of gender” Social Science Quarterly, 87 (2), 432-448.