(Disclaimer: I first wanted to name this post “Applying dynamics of urban sociology to the Internet”… I think “The Ghettoization of Facebook” is much sexier, though)
Can we analyze the digital sphere with the same concepts that have proved helpful in describing urban developments in the “real world”? Yes, we can! Today, I want to apply two such concepts to the Internet: gentrification and ghettoization.
Gentrification, according to Wikipedia, refers to “shifts in an urban community lifestyle and an increasing share of wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentrification) Ghettoization describes an opposite process, namely decreases in value of certain areas and a decay and loss of quality of life for the inhabitants. Ghettos are characterized by – mostly racial or socio-economic – segregation and poverty. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghetto)
In my opinion, both concepts are fruitful to analyze processes on the Internet. Gentrification takes place when thriving, creative platforms are taken over by wealthy investors and powerful companies – mostly with monetary interests. Examples are the acquisition of Mendeley by Elsevier or the incorporation of Youtube into Google. Both Mendeley and Youtube were darlings of the artsy early adopters, of the creative communities on the Internet: Youtube of independent singers, movie directors and artists, and Mendeley of open access advocates and progressive scientists. Neither Youtube nor Mendeley have substantially changed their business model after Google’s and Elsevier’s takeover but small adaptions indicate a gradual incorporation of new principles. Youtube, for example, has been increasingly tied to Google+, making it more streamlined and corporate than it used to be. When these platforms become gentrified, the early users tend to move on to other services, where they find fertile grounds for their creativity. Former Mendeley users move to Zotero. Vine offers new opportunities for the fed-up Youtubers. The same is true for Facebook. The recent buzz about Ello proves just how eagerly the early community/the social media avant-garde is waiting for a valid alternative.
It is true, Facebook shows increasing signs of ghettoization. Annoying ads, poor content filtering, and an ever-increasing overload of functionalities make the site a wasteland for many. At the same time, the fact that one’s friends are still there and the previous investments (curating photo albums, promoting events, joining groups and liking pages to stay informed etc.) complicate the goodbye. What I observe in this scenario: The “I-don’t-give-a-fuck” users post crappy “fun” content more frequently than ever, while the considerate and moderate posters of the past shy away from any activity and become mere lurkers (or almost-non-users) – or they don’t post in “public” (i.e., on their newsfeed) but in groups or in private conversations via the messenger… Or they gradually move to other platforms, as is the case for the gentrification processes described above. In this light, Facebook becomes ghettoized and the – relatively – new findings that social and entertainment content production is negatively connected to income (Blank 2013) and education (Hoffmann, Lutz & Meckel 2014) make sense.
Interestingly, the same process seems to have taken place for Myspace some years ago. I guess these processes occur because social network sites – and also content platforms like Youtube and Mendely – are designed to bear some sort of sociality (be it explicit, as in the case of Facebook or more implicit, as in the case of Mendeley, where users read each other’s article and build a scholarly community). In essence, they are social platforms. Both gentrification and ghettoization are disconcerting trends because they entail homogeneity and a lack of diversity (in the case of gentrification, the rich crowd out the creative and working class; in the case of ghettoization the poor and under-privileged are crowded out and – implicitly or explicitly – forced to stay among themselves).
At the same time, we still know too little about the social processes of distinction on the Internet. As always, more research is needed 🙂