MySpace, Facebook: A Tale of Two Cultures

MySpace, Facebook: A Tale of Two Cultures

July 2, 2007, 10:44AM EST

Emerging data suggest the two may not be direct competitors after
all. Businesses that want to reach these audiences have more to learn

The blogosphere is buzzing about a provocative June 24 essay by U.C. Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd suggesting that MySpace and Facebook
users are dividing along race and class lines. Even as her timely
ethnographic observations touch off debate among users and Web
developers, they underscore a question businesses have been asking
since MySpace first launched: Who really uses these sites and what are
they doing there? What can businesses learn from the emerging
information about growing audiences on MySpace and Facebook, the
largest of the online social-networking sites? We took a look at
current data to ascertain who’s doing what, where, and how.

One thing’s for sure: These networks—and questions—are big. According to comScore,
68 million unique users logged on to MySpace in the last month; 26
million to Facebook. On both networks, adults predominate, but on
MySpace, half of the users are age 35 and older, while users age 18-24
make up only 17%. On Facebook, older users make up 40%, with college
students (29%) being the next biggest group. MySpace users tilt toward
the lower middle classes, Boyd says. ComScore reports that the three
lowest income brackets are overrepresented there, whereas on Facebook,
the opposite is true: There, the three highest income groups dominate.

Identity and Fantasy

MySpace understandably has been defensive about these income and
education differences. A spokesperson says that nearly a quarter (22%)
of its users earn more than $100,000. She adds: "The actual numbers
according to comScore show that MySpace has a larger percentage of
graduate students than Facebook."

One critical distinction between MySpace and Facebook is how users
present themselves. Facebook originally flourished in college
communities (it was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, then an undergraduate
at Harvard), and students needed a ".edu" e-mail address to join the
site. As a result, users stuck more closely to their real identities,
and their online behavior in terms of manners and expectations tended
to mirror their offline behavior. Although Facebook is now open to
anyone, that tradition still holds. "On Facebook, you really have to be
who you are, so it’s more controlled and polite," says Jason
Hirschhorn, president of Sling Media Entertainment Group, formerly head of digital media for MTV.

On MySpace, on the other hand, there is an understood degree of fantasy
involved. Users reveal who they want to be, through their interests in
music or movies, but people aren’t always who they say they are. Says
Jeff Jarvis of popular media blog BuzzMachine.com: "Facebook brings
elegant organization to real identities and communities people already
have. MySpace is a gussied-up personal Web page, and it’s about new
publishing forms and mediums." If Facebook users are displaying their
real-world relationships, MySpace users are self-promoters, concerned
with making new connections through exaggerated, even fictionalized,
personas.

Different Purposes

Boyd’s research and the sites’ contrasting cultures suggest that
although both networks are open to the public, they may not be direct
competitors. "The press is saying MySpace is going out of business;
everyone’s switching to Facebook," says Boyd, but really, "they’re
hitting different audiences."

In truth, the same audiences are patronizing both networks—comScore
reports a 64% overlap—but they are using the sites for different ends.
MySpace helps users showcase their interests in music or film, find new
artists to follow, and meet others with similar tastes. Facebook begins
with relationships, rather than content, helping users keep in touch
with friends from college or professional colleagues. "A lot of young
users find that MySpace and Facebook can serve distinct functions in
their lives," says Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural studies professor at
New York University. "Facebook and MySpace are achieving something
close to an identity and a niche that can allow both of them to
thrive."

For businesses, then, both networks continue to merit investment for
different reasons. For consumer-products companies targeting younger
audiences or entertainment companies, MySpace seems like the obvious
best bet. According to MySpace, entertainment giants Sony (SNE), 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros. (TWX)
are among its top advertisers. "When it comes to discovering bands,
promoting music, MySpace is still the place," says Vaidhyanathan.

Attractive Minimalism

But Facebook’s minimalist approach to features can also be
attractive to companies. While MySpace has its own media players and
formats to which companies simply upload content, Facebook allows users
and companies to build multimedia applications. Travel companies, such
as SideStep.com, have built interactive maps allowing users to share vacation ideas. The Washington Post’s (WPO)
Compass application allows users to share political beliefs. "Facebook
is very Web 2.0," says Hirschhorn. "It is the ‘unbrand’ and it allows
users to pick the best features and companies to showcase their own
brands."

Advertisers continue to pour their dollars into MySpace, where a
more traditional banner-advertising approach still applies. Google (GOOG),
for example, paid $900 million in August, 2006, for the right to put
Google ads on the site. "Facebook’s been pretty limited to a niche
market," says Peter Gardiner, partner and chief marketing officer at
advertising agency Deutsch (IPG). "But the audience is going to change dramatically," now that membership is open to the general public.

As these networks continue to evolve, the demographic divides noted by
Boyd may give way to new distinctions. Our understanding of who the
users are and how they use the sites is also on the rise as research
companies are cropping up to help businesses measure and interpret
online behavior. Now businesses need to turn that growing understanding
into smart strategies for communicating with their customers.

Maha Atal is an intern at BusinessWeek.

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