Ah, the La Boite Theatre (which by the way has a kind of populist/grass-roots brand image but is situated in the hyper-modernist, rational and shiny Creative Industries Precinct here at QUT). Perhaps we should applaud them for doing their bit to keep MySpace bourgeios.
But then again, first an iPod on the cover of their 2007 season brochure, and now this – which may create some tensions, because are they really like a Mac (seamlessly, transparently usable, white, and fun, but with “no user-seviceable parts inside”)? or are they more like a home-built PC (ubiquitous, kludgy, hackable, and dripping with DIY authenticity)? Of course my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek, because I think to the La Boite folks, as for most people, the ipod and myspace signify roughly the same thing – something like “the digital generation”. And to most people, the differences between MySpace and Facebook are about as big as the differences between, say, emo and goth to my grandma.
Quite seriously, I am very glad to see discussions of the ways in which cultural “tastes”, and constructions of what counts as usability (which has serious implications for what counts as literacy), being discussed in relation to social networks.
And I was especially impressed with this post to the AoIR list by (soon-to-be colleague) Jason Wilson:
One of the central arguments in the work is that “taste” and cultural preferences mediate class distinctions, that taste is one of the primary ways in which class distance and membership are asserted. This informs my belief that design, “usability” and the contexts of social networking are never neutral, and are always inflected by issues around class (among others). I guess that for me, the problematic assumption would be that social networking, and the selection of an SNS, could take place in a way that somehow evaded, or was innocent of all of this.
Why would I think of this specifically in relation to MySpace vs. Facebook? Well, to amplify on an earlier example, I think that the ways in which the two services can be personalised appeal to different taste formations. The often-“gaudy” nature of MySpace personalisation, arising from users’ ability to insert large amounts of HTML into their profiles to create background images etc. presents a contrast with the essentially “modular” personalisation available with Facebook profiles, where users select from a range of options which do not disturb the given, “clean” colour schemes and layouts of Facebook profiles. The Facebook interface strikes me as very “designerly” – it is reminiscent to me in its look and feel of an OSX application, with all that connotes in terms of “funky”/creative professions, the blurring of work and/in play, and discernment (think of the Mac vs. PC ad campaigns). The use of whitespace, drop-down menus and a very “Web 2.0” set of icons allow it to be read as uncluttered, fresh and efficient. Personalisation for many Facebook users takes place by way of deferring to the expert knowledges of application designers. By contrast, MySpace personalisations often seem inexpert, distracting, ungainly – in short amateur, even where the “pimping” is outsourced. Coincidentally, both Danah Boyd and I (me in my blog post on the 22nd) are drawn to the metaphor of/comparison with Swedish furniture stores and their emphasis on modularity and design in thinking about Facebook. There are visual rhetorics in Facebook’s presentation that connote a restrained minimalism which is not avant-garde but rational and “tasteful”. This observation chimes with the excitement of those marketing high-end consumer goods about getting access Facebook’s “elite” user base. Facebook’s aesthetic of personalisation appeals to a certain kind of networked, linked-in, design-aware, educated, “mature” (non-emo 🙂 ) subject, in part because of the “distancing” it offers from messy old MySpace, which begins, by contrast, to resemble the chaos of a teenager’s bedroom wall. In this sense, I think we can talk about class in relation to the design interface.
There’s also an earlier blog post by Jason where he quite provocatively talks about the migration to Facebook as a kind of aspirational, rather than defensive, “white flight”.
If I could throw something else into the mix, all of this discussion about the link between aesthetic norms, constructions of usability (and ‘hackability’), and so on brings to mind the differences between Flickr and YouTube. Apples and oranges, certainly, but perhaps no more so than the MySpace/Facebook comparison. Like Facebook, Flickr’s interface is white, “usable” and vaguely mac-like, and like Facebook, its norms of participation, design and community behaviour were established by a fairly elite subculture early on, but unlike Facebook, Flickr has held onto a reasonably coherent demographic and a reasonably stable “culture”, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, like MySpace, YouTube looks like a chaotic, “tasteless” free-for-all to an eye schooled in middle-class mores and tastes, not to mention the dominant construction of usability that structures the discourses of the “digerati“. But it is also genuinely popular in all senses of that rich and problematic term, and is emerging as a genuine “mass” medium where vernacular creativity and “big media” swim around in the same mix. What’s in YouTube’s immediate and distant future as far as that all goes is another matter entirely.
I wrote about this (sort of) in my AoIR paper on Flickr last year. There’s a lot more of it in my thesis, organised around the dynamics of “usability”, “hackability” and “playability”. I’ll post a copy of that online eventually, but email me if you’re keen to see it earlier.