Monday, August 6, 2007

Why didn't she just ask S.E. Hinton?

The public radio program On the Media had an interesting piece on MySpace and Facebook and how they break down along socioeconomic and class lines. It's basically an interview with blogger Danah Boyd, who posted a long "paper" called "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace ."

Though I am personally put off by the author's style--her insistence that this subject "is too important of an issue to sit on while I find the words" and by her maddening use of the word "meta" --I think this blog entry and the On the Media interview will be of interest to YA authors simply for the issues they raise. (The conclusions are another matter, but fortunately fiction isn't really a place for conclusions.) These are, after all, issues that have been important to YA from S.E. Hinton to Scott Westerfeld.

Perhaps her most striking argument is that there are, broadly, two groups of teens on social networks, one tending to prefer Facebook and the other gravitating toward MySpace. Her labels are "hegemonic teens" and "subaltern teens." If you're inclined to care about dictionary definitions of words, then I think you'll find this terminology somewhat provocative (although they do have a nice ring--the "hegies" and the "subs"), but even more interesting is what teens she puts in which group and broad characteristics she ascribes to them. For instance:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids [later, she'll call these kids her "hegemonic teens"] are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace [social networking site of choice for her "subaltern teens"] is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school.

Wow. These are familiar labels, certainly, but the way she describes and groups them fit neither my memory of my experience nor my present observations (which are admittedly less intentional and substantial than the author's). These kids are not sharing a lunch table--not even a cafeteria--in my imagination. But beside that, this statement about the "subalterns" in particular feels very old fashioned: "These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school." No doubt, there are lots of kids who fit this description, but is it really such a pervasive characteristic as this would suggest?

As an editor, whenever I see this sort of narrative in teen fiction, my pen comes out. Almost as a rule, I'm inclined to feel like a character who takes for granted not going to college after high school (that is, doesn't even give it a second thought) as a suspicious and perhaps mythological working-class stereotype--or at least something in need of very careful characterization. Generally, I'm much more interested in taking for granted that any given teenager will think about college, but that there are at least two very broad ways of thinking, one where college is cultural right of passage and an experience you share to a certain extent with your parents, and the other is as a means to an ends--a stepping stone on a way to a career. To my way of thinking, this is the interesting and more broadly applicable demarcation.

In short, I think she's painting with the wrong colors and with a brush too broad to make a meaningful picture, but I think that she's trying at all is really interesting.


Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe said...

I agree. It’s not very smart to box people into categories. My nephew has a MySpace account and doesn’t fit any of her categories.
Ah well, to each their own.

By the way, nice site. I’m seriously considering querying Flux with my YA novel, Annabelle and Roland, The Night Children.

Terie Garrison said...

Well, going by those definitions, that explains why *I* have a MySpace and not a Facebook page. And I'm old enough that my kids (if I'd had any) wouldn't be teenagers anymore. LOL!

Seriously, though, I hate boxing kids--or adults, either, for that matter--into weird stereotypical groups.

Sam said...

Recently, my young kids (8 and 11) asked me a few questions about hippies. After an initial shiver, I launched into a discussion about how “hippie” is a media label and therefore of no sociological value. There was no science to the box they tried to put kids in back then and there isn’t today. Some people just don’t like how big and messy the world is. Of course, they got bored and started fighting.

Personally, I’m a fan of the clutter that diversity makes.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

I think the tendency to try and box people is always dangerous - it narrows everyone's thinking, creates unfortunate stereotypes and is inevitably based on far to much supposition and personal and subjective perspective.

Anonymous said...

Someone told me facebook was for "college kids," but I just figured that meant myspace was more for teens and facebook was geared more for college kids (based on their ages not race or social class.) I have a myspace, but don't have a facebook. I'm a white, 30-something with an MFA. 'Course I'm also a Nerdfighter, which we all know are a 'class' of our own. =)

Megan said...

I'm a teenager and have a Myspace, while by their standards, I would probably fit into the Facebook category. Mostly, there still seems to be high schoolers on Myspace and college students on Facebook. Teens get whatever their friends have.