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June 26, 2007

The New Class War

Awhile back, Time's analyst of all things Geek, Lev Grossman, mused, "I figure once the real-world federal government inevitably crumbles, we'll just be left with massive online communities as our primary political affiliations. MySpace and Facebook will become distributed nation-states along the lines of Neal Stephenson's burbclaves in Snow Crash. Let the new Cold War commence."

It's not a Cold War, Lev. It's a class war, as is able explained by Danah Boyd's essay on the class differences laid bare by the relative demographics of Facebook and Myspace, and how hard such things are to talk about. For instance, I've long joked that MySpace demonstrates the essential aesthetic horror of the American psyche. It turns out that the people didn't want the clean, elegant interfaces of Friendster and Orkut, but sparkly cursors, and five seconds of music videos, and colors so garish they'll make a parent drop dead at 40 paces. Boyd explains where that feeling comes from:

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and "so middle school." They prefer the "clean" look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is "so lame." What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as "glitzy" or "bling" or "fly" (or what my generation would call "phat") by subaltern teens. Terms like "bling" come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. ...I'm sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the "eye of the beholder" - they are culturally narrated and replicated. That "clean" or "modern" look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I'm drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook."

Seems right. Boyd goes on:

"In sociology, Nalini Kotamraju has argued that constructing arguments around "class" is extremely difficult in the United States. Terms like "working class" and "middle class" and "upper class" get all muddled quickly. She argues that class divisions in the United States have more to do with lifestyle and social stratification than with income. In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits. Class divisions in the United States have more to do with social networks (the real ones, not FB/MS), social capital, cultural capital, and attitudes than income....My friends who are making $14K in cafes are not of the same class as the immigrant janitor in Oakland just because the share the same income bracket. Their lives are quite different.

Part of what's at work here is that class shouldn't be intuited from an economic snapshot. I'm not making very much money right now, but my likely growth over the next few decades is much larger than that of the janitor's. Moreover, there's an issue of potential here. I'm choosing a low-income field, but it would be easy enough for me to take the LSAT, dart off to law school, and quintuple my salary. Not choosing that option doesn't mean it's not there. Should class actually be tied to the most-renumerative reality you could feasibly inhabit?

Indeed, that's the question, isn't it? What are the best indicators of class: Education? Median income of friends? Of parents? Of mentors? And, soon enough, will membership in MySpace or Facebook be added to that list as a relevant indicator?

June 26, 2007 | Permalink


Both are free to join. So I'm kind of... not seeing it.

Posted by: twig | Jun 26, 2007 3:35:34 PM

Twig: there's an awful lot of self-selection that goes on. After all, I'm sure you can find two college campuses with similar acceptance rates and even student body demographics that have totally different cultures.

Ezra: people usually use education. I think for people under 30, education plus parental income are probably the two best indicators. Or maybe education plus parent's education.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 26, 2007 3:49:28 PM

How about relationship to the means of production?

Posted by: Bill | Jun 26, 2007 4:01:56 PM

danah has also written about the digital divide between the email and IM generations, and I think there's a kind of parallel here:

I'm part of the generation caught between email and IM where IM feels more natural but most of the folks just a little older than me refuse to use IM so i'm stuck dealing with email. Today's teens are stuck between IM, MySpace/Facebook, and SMS. There's another transition going on which is why there's no clean one place.

I think Facebook, in its current incarnation, is 'the new email' for many who got online as teenagers or college students in the era before ubiquitous IM. There's a big thirtysomething crowd: I've reconnected with a lot of college friends with whom I hadn't communicated in ages.

Both are free to join. So I'm kind of... not seeing it.

Facebook started out as a very closed shop: you needed a college or alumni email address to join. Now, while Facebook's growth has only really come with open registration and the API, its beginnings still set the tone: it's more structured. And I don't know if you can extrapolate class from that sense structure, but you can make wild-ass generalisations about how it reinforces institutionalised networks.

(There have always been online class strata, even in the earlyish days of the web: my hosted domain beats your G*ocities templated page beats his AOL account.)

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 26, 2007 4:02:11 PM

Class in America is tied, as class is everywhere, to pride and subordination. The lower classes consist of people, who have accepted, or had subordination thrust upon them.

I dare say that a young person can pridefully wait tables or work as a clerk in an office, and be respected by all those she encounters, including bosses, and never experience the oppression, resentment, devaluing, and envy, which are the lot of the lower classes. It is those psychological penalties, more than income, which mark out the lower classes, and lead those, in the lower classes, to feel demoralized and powerless, and to abandon finely-tuned efforts at self-control and self-expression. The real marks of the lower class are not bling, so much as smoking and obesity and foolish risk-taking and apathy.

In most places, class is explicit, as a way of protecting at least some of the people, who must accept subordinate positions, and by offering such protection, to insure that there are competent people in some subordinate positions. It is why there are non-commissioned officers in the Army, and rank for Sergeants and such. The Army can fill all the lowest ranks with inexperienced junior officers of no proven talent or ability, without the Army completely falling apart due to the incompetence and inexperience of its junior officers.

For many years, teaching and nursing depended on a sexual caste system, which served the same function, of channelling some highly talented people into occupations of lower rank and status.

With sexual and racial caste largely broken, the American class system is struggling to emerge and solve some of these problems.

Journalism and opinion-writing are allied fields, where the problem is made particularly acute by a star system, and a system of promotion and selection controlled by relatively small coterie of corporate executives of dubious motivation.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jun 26, 2007 4:24:22 PM

The real marks of the lower class are not bling, so much as smoking and obesity and foolish risk-taking and apathy.

That's true enough for the lower class but also has traction as a statement about American teenagers and twenty-somethings in general. I think the differences lie in the details; which risks are taken or about what people are apathetic.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 26, 2007 4:38:25 PM

The New York Times solved this question with a cool graphic a couple of years ago Check it out, seriously.

Posted by: AJ | Jun 26, 2007 4:41:23 PM

Bordieu! Distinction!

Posted by: Quarterican | Jun 26, 2007 5:06:27 PM

When I was in graduate school, I lived on a government fellowship and loans. According to my income, I was poor. However, I come from a well-off family, who would have helped me if I needed it, and at any time I could have dropped out and parlayed my Univ. of Chicago BA into a well-paying job. I also didn't have children or any other financial responsibilities (the government was paying my tuition). Once I graduated, my income immediately went way up. By no reasonable metric was my situation comparable to those of the truly poor, even though my income at the time would have put me in that bracket.

Posted by: beckya57 | Jun 26, 2007 5:10:25 PM

"In other words, all of my anti-capitalist college friends who work in cafes and read Engels are not working class just because they make $14K a year and have no benefits."

"I'm choosing a low-income field, but it would be easy enough for me to take the LSAT, dart off to law school, and quintuple my salary."

In both of these examples, being educated makes all the difference. Many young people slum briefly during or after college, but have the ability to change careers and incomes.

Posted by: Steve | Jun 26, 2007 5:16:50 PM

"What are the best indicators of class: Education? Median income of friends? Of parents? Of mentors?"

Awareness & identification with a class, i.e. class consciousness.

Someone making $15k can be aligned with capital, for instance maybe the Bush twins, tho they spend more. Someone making $250k can be labour, like Wellstone.

Looked last night at some Lyotard, amd more Baudrillard, who do this "It's all now so much more complicated & subtle than Marx nowadays. It's about frappucinos vs double mochas."

They're wrong.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 26, 2007 5:31:46 PM

Been a whole lot of media made of this demographic point in the past few days, just because someone noticed a trend in a snapshot of data. Theres also a bit of what you might cal a 'seeding issue' in computer science which isnt being mentioned hardly at all.

Myspace has had free and open registration forever, so their demographics reflect that, a very average populace... weighted of course towards the heaviest users of the net, teens.

Facebook has until relatively recently had a closed signup system, as mentioned in the post. So the demographics here are 'self selecting' as well. But they are heavily seeded with people from the academic environment. So all the observations that facebook has a higher number of college students, grad students, and alumni should have been rather obvious.

Are these permanent demographics? ..well that remains to be seen doesnt it. But rarely are things on the net truly permanent. Much depends on how the next rounds of users perceive the current users, and how useful the 2 interfaces with any upcoming innovations continue to be.

..in short.. its a lot of talk for talks' sake.

Posted by: dave b | Jun 26, 2007 5:43:07 PM

"Awareness & identification with a class, i.e. class consciousness."

What? No. Just because Paul Wellstone "identifies" with powerless poor people doesn't mean they're part of the same class. Wellstone was a U.S. Senator, and that makes him part of the select elite.

I'm going to go with education as the single best predictor of class, too.

Posted by: Korha | Jun 26, 2007 6:05:47 PM

"What? No. Just because Paul Wellstone "identifies" with powerless poor people doesn't mean they're part of the same class."

Sure it does. But first, the "poor and powerless" are the lumpenproletariat, not labour. Education does not move you from labour.

Capital is the sum total of social relations in a capitalist society. Nah, I am not going Marx 101 on ya.
Whatever, Wellstone the same as the Bush twins.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 26, 2007 7:01:49 PM

Class issues seem to be very confusing in the United States, until, that is, you begin speaking of the actual upper classes, the billionaires and hundred millionaires whose reach across the generations and into every measurable statistic of power set them apart from the rest of the discussion of class & stratification.

And then the division is fairly simple: you're either a part of this drastically set apart overclass, or you aren't, and all your knowledge of sophisticated cultural styles etc. won't make you part of it.

Posted by: El Cid | Jun 26, 2007 7:01:59 PM

I can't believe the requirement of being associated with a college for most of Facebook's history wouldn't be the largest issue affecting this division between Facebook and Myspace. I only found out that Facebook was open to everyone with a pulse a month or two ago (yeah, I loooove that I don't have to hear people's favorite dumbass song every time I want to send them a message) myself.

Posted by: Sara | Jun 26, 2007 9:16:39 PM

Can you quit your job if you really hate it? If the answer is no, you're lower class, no matter how much money they pay you.

Posted by: Jim 7 | Jun 26, 2007 9:45:23 PM

Well, El Cid, at least we know you identify with the prole masses. :)

I am a firm believer that America is full of class distinctions... but the main point is we like to pretend we don't have them. The fluidity of class - that the janitor could become a millionaire, that the rich girl could identify more with the ghetto teen... these things are what we like to believe, that class is a choice. And in many ways, though I don't think as rigidly as El Cid, it's not fluid at all. Class is determined by the same things as elsewhere - education, social status, and money.

However, there is a lot of nuance here; money doesn't buy class (and this I think is the main rebuttal to Cid), and you can have the wealth of a Trump and still be seen as common, and, as a number of bloggy types point out here, poor but not of the lower class, by education/family etc. We're not as rigid about it, say, as England, which still has very rigid structures and class lines (look, for instance at the mirror "Footballer's Wives" held up to their sports and entertainment culture nad how money there surely does not equal class), but we do have our moments (the notion say of Paris Hilton as "heiress" when it's debatable how she really fits into the old money class).

As for Facebook vs. MySpace this seems more about age distinctions than class; I think many of the people involved in either one essentially come from similar class backgrounds,; as with much of the rest of the blog world, diversity of all sorts, including class, is much more imagined than real.

Posted by: weboy | Jun 26, 2007 11:32:43 PM

How about the fact that Myspace is freaking slow? I admit I don't like the look of the site and think it is a little tacky, but I totally could have overlooked that and become a Myspace addict if it hadn't been for the loading times.

Posted by: Isabel | Jun 27, 2007 2:17:03 AM

[T]he division is fairly simple: you're either a part of this drastically set apart overclass, or you aren't, and all your knowledge of sophisticated cultural styles etc. won't make you part of it.

This sounds like the best summary so far. It seems like there are two issues being discussed, status and taste. Class is used as a synecdoche for both. Status describes social networks. Taste covers a lifestyle's aesthetics.

Relative to other places, America isn't that aesthetically stratified. Our pop culture is a huge, eclectic middle ground that covers the sophisticated to the banal. It's really only at the fringes of social status where the aesthetics have any real meaning. There is a clear distinction between the luxury overclass, the middle, and the lower class that can't afford to eat anything except Denny's and McDonald's.

However, the fringes are a narrow band. Most people in the country, even those with incomes barely above the poverty line, self-identify as middle-class.

The discussion, then, should probably focus on class as it relates to status and social networks. Who you know and where you have entree. Education probably plays a large role in aesthetic preferences, but "who you know" not "what you know' still determines your class.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 27, 2007 6:58:01 AM

Actually, weboy, you might note that I gave an actual and measurable category of where upper class status matters -- power indicators.

So, everyone in the world can look down upon any billionaire they want as a commoner.

Yet objective measures of said looked-down-upon billionaire's involvement in influencing the real world political and economic environment will reveal that should said billionaire involve himself or herself in such influence, their effect is enormous.

There's a difference in being aware of the subtle complexities of social class and its flow in the U.S. and large distinctions between measurable power indicators. Those robber barons who controlled much of US policy in the late 19th century did so less on their understanding of the fluidity of social class -- which they were well aware of having often come from non-upper class backgrounds -- but by using their millions of dollars and their ownership wealth to change reality in their favor.

In fact, arguably one of the greatest absences in understanding the interplay of social and economic class factors in the U.S. is that most people completely disregard the power and influence of the ultra-wealthy. We don't want to believe there actually is a set of people at the very highest end of the wealth and power spectrum, so, poof, they're not there.

This is not rigid or a lack of appreciation for subtle anthropological approaches to notions of class and social circles among the vast majority of the population.

Rather, it's a plea to acknowledge that objective and measurable factors like the possession of hundreds of millions or billions of dollars really really do matter, they're not just ephemera imagined by dumb sticks in the mud like me.

Posted by: El Cid | Jun 27, 2007 7:01:19 AM

Eh, Cid - I don't think people pretend the very wealthy don't exist, or fail to acknowledge that with money comes power; what many people are not is not angry about it, which is what I think "sticks" (I'd never call you or anyone else dumb) really want. It's the "if you really knew what was going on you'd be angry about it too" argument that I disagree with; I know about it, I'm just not that upset about it. And in the context of this discussion - about America's class system and how it operates - money is simply not the only factor in the equation.

Am I concerned about the increasing distance between the very wealthy and the rest of us? Sort of; I think some of this is over-hyped by folks like the NY Times, whose Manhattan-based staff can mistake their condo and coop prices for the Way the World Works. I tend to think a good bit of this is self correcting because truly damaging disparities are unsustainable. But again, a good bit of this is tangential to the question of social class - those Times writers, too, are part of a social elite. And that, I think is why the "class" question is interesting on its own, separate from the wealth issue. More than money, Americans like to pretend that class distinctions don't exist, and that if we ignore them, they're not there. And as you say, ignoring it does not make it so; and I'd plead for acknowledgment that the class distinctions do matter, not just as ephemera for, er, dumb sticks in the limo like me. :)

Posted by: weboy | Jun 27, 2007 9:05:51 AM

One thing that no one here has mentioned is manners. IMHO, class in America is about the ability to navigate social systems.

Let's say you're from "a good family" but one that doesn't have much money. You go to a coctail party. You know the protocol, you meet an attractive and eligible member of the opposite sex, and the social network may choose to bless your union. Because you had the right manners.

Let's say you're from a family that is white-collar management types for two or three generations, and you have to go to court. When you show up you notice that many people there have no idea what to do. You have shown up in a shirt and tie, you speak respectfully and clearly to the judge and may even know your rights. The other people there (and that could just as easily be "The Other people there," if you see what I mean) look like they just got out of bed after a three day bender. They're sullen and unresponsive. They know they're getting screwed because it's not their system and never has been. Why did they get such a bum deal? How were they set up to fail? Why were others given a better deal? Every time we have to navigate some type of system, someone judges us and assigns us a track. Gives us dispensation or short shrift. It's about manners.

Now lets turn it around. Let's say you're either of these two people, and you find yourself in a social situation in Black or Latino America. You're a bit out of your element but you are pop-culture literate and a decent human being. You take it good naturedly when teased for being square, and even get in a few rubs of your own. You're accepted. Because you have good manners.

Now let's say you're (by whatever accident of fate) amidst the deeply impoverished. The social language is incomprehensible. The axioms of interaction are based in personal loyalty and common experience. To the extent that the human interaction is intelligible it seems horribly stunted and self-perpetuating. Nothing you do is going to make you any less a foriegn object here. If you had been of this class, you would have been accepted quickly, just as you were at the coctail party, because of the way you spoke, the way you stood and moved. Because you understood the jokes and supplied the right bit of conversation at the right time, you were able to set people at ease and show your membership in their society.


The way I see it, America does have a great middle ground where people are allowed to establish themselves by choosing with whom they identify and acting accordingly. It would be foolish to think that there are not hierarchical aspects to society within this zone, but at the same time it seems pretty clearly true that a person can identify with relatively lower positions on that hierarchy without taking a substantial hit in terms of material or social standard of living. Call it the television class. An important point is that a person can live their whole lives in this zone and choose not to see the hierarchy happening. And in such a case, does it happen? Maybe not.

At the top and bottom, though, things get much more strict. It matters a lot more at the top just precisely who you are and where you come from (and these quantities are also more inter-related). This intensely detailed awareness of class does not exist at the bottom, but at the bottom just as at the top the distinction of whether or not you belong is unavoidably apparent to the people with whom you are interacting. Also in both cases there is never a question of hierarchy. If you are not from the right place (which will be made apparent by your manners) then you will be excluded. Maybe subtly, maybe not. But the distinction is much more apparent and much more important in either case.

Posted by: chimneyswift | Jun 27, 2007 10:43:10 AM

So, weboy, in measurable, verifiable ways, if there happens to exists an economic upper class in this country which exerts a dramatic and analyzable degree of influence over the political and economic policies of our government, this is not really interesting stuff that people should concentrate on.

After all, in our democracy, why would anyone be at all interested in what may be one of if not the most dominant feature explaining the actions and policies of our own government?

Obviously the only people who would be truly interested in that would be "angry" people.

I would say this for myself: without being "angry" in meaning of the word which suggests one's arguments are weakened, in a democracy I would want us to take every step possible to ensure that the disproportionate influence of concentrated wealth over our democracy be kept to an absolute minimum.

One part of ensuring that highly concentrated wealth maintains a high if not dominant degree of influence over our democracy and its policies is to get as many people as possible to agree that this matter of understanding the degrees and forms of this influence are just not interesting to calm, sober, non-"angry" people.

And if that level of accurate and truthful understanding belongs in the "angry" category, then taking any steps to counteract said undue and democratically unjustifiable influence must therefore be beyond angry and must enter into the "irrational" and bile-spewing territory, no?

For example, if one day we were to successfully implement a public financed elections program in which participation would be traded for no private donations -- a real barrier to undue influence by the ultra-wealthy over politics -- this would surely be evidence that we've all gone off the deep end of bitter class hatred.

If you, for example, were a billionaire, than I would want you to exert as close as possible an influence over my Congressional representatives as any of us non-billionaires.

That may be an antiquated and hideously outdated notion of democracy, but I supposed I'm saddled with it.

Posted by: El Cid | Jun 27, 2007 5:24:54 PM

Yeah, I'm gonna go meta-conversation again: am I the only one that doesn't find El Cid's and weboy's positions to be mutually exclusive?

EC's talking about the political influence that a monied overclass accrues; weboy's discussing the cultural and attitudinal differences engendered by class disparity. Not even different sides of the same coin. Sure, the conversation's about pocket change, but one's talking Anthony dollars and the other's talking Sacagawea dollars.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 27, 2007 6:58:56 PM

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