Over two hundred thousand people in one place.  Imagine it—a massive and colorful crowd teeming with bodies, intellects and identities.  Surely such an assembly of individuals would be found at epic marches, buzzing about their business in city streets, or perhaps attending a colossal concert.  And yet this two hundred thousand is just one group of many in cyberspace.  The old visionaries once posited that the internet could be a realm where communities could span time, distance, and transcend their physical bodies to form communities and commons on an unprecedented and tremendous scale.  Even they would have not been able to predict the magnitude to which this has been realized today.  We as a people are yet in the moment of the Information Revolution and may not even know it.  This time the revolution isn’t bloody and may not even heavily involve governments—it is instead global, and fundamentally interlaced with cultural and economic change.1  Production and consumption, exchange and ownership of information, and even our perceptions of identity and community have all experienced paradigm shifts with the coming of the information age.  The availability and specialization of knowledge has skyrocketed as the internet has come to claim a near-ubiquitous role in the first world.  Just as people of the past came to depend and thrive upon electricity, the developed world now embraces instant and easy connection.  For most in the U.S. computers have become directly associated with the internet, and many other devices such as cell phones, TV’s, and mp3 players have begun to follow suit.  The new forms of media embedded in and enabled by the internet open up a new world of innovations, expressions, relationships, and communities.  Perhaps more than ever before, the heterogeneity evident in the U.S. (and international) social mesh calls for new potentially revolutionary and anti-disciplinary models of epistemology and analysis.

Just as computer mediated communication has formed new social contexts and altered the fabric of others, revolutions and evolutions within the world of the web have experienced transformations in kind.  Social networking services (SNS) are social software systems focused on creating social networks online, where pre-existing and new connections are enhanced, verified, and even built.  Though their roots are independent from the internet, they have taken on a new form and life far beyond their previous existence outside of cyberspace.  Internet based systems of SNS have vitally reframed and reformed computer mediated communication (CMC), interaction, and even the potential and opportunity for productive human agency.2  Studies have shown that these tools offer numerous benefits for both the work place and in social contexts (Wellman and Haythornthwaite 1998, Haythornthwaite and Nielson 2007, to offer just a couple) and have undergone assimilation into daily use as extensions of most social processes including personal communications, expression, and relationships (Haythornthwaite and Nielson 2007).  Indeed, with the coming of Web 2.0 most scholars now agree that the internet and CMC have reached a point of ubiquity and merit increasingly thorough and specialized studies (Lievrouw 2004, Haythornthwaite and Nielson 2007).

The impact of SNS on the US (and increasingly international) high school and college student populations is nothing short of monumental.  Students have grown up socialized into a world shaped by the internet and brandish native and latent intuitions and understandings of internet technology unknown to previous generations (Mcmillan and Morrison 2006).  Just like our parents grew up with the TV as a part of their childhood, and our grandparents with the radio, youth gain skills and comfort with on the web from the start.  Social networking services are a natural extension of life for youth, one they can easily explore, partake and shape.  As the business and academic world (and perhaps non-institutionalized social norms) inspire a life progressively filled with more multitasking many youth are challenged by perceptibly limited time for face-to-face interactions.  Online meeting places and social networks facilitate opportunities for the development of personal relationships in parallel with (and beyond) their offline counterparts.  

Activity, Roles and Inequality on Facebook

Social networks must credit their impressive success, in part, as a result of convergence and network effects.  They thrive on viral propagation and provide a plethora (perhaps too many) of functions and have at the same time managed to almost fully saturate the college student population.  Those such as Facebook and MySpace were originally deemed an entirely youth-exclusive public and private space for kids to inhabit and shape.  SNS enable users to present and investigate virtual profiles (digital representations of people), browse and post pictures, observe, join, and create events and groups (purely digital, cultural or corresponding to ones offline), post journals and multimedia (such as music, videos, and art), view the latest news on their friends’ online lives and link to a myriad of advertising and marketing.  What’s more is that SNS systems represent opportunities for entertainment, social movements, new forms of expression, enhancement of social capital and previously unknown thresholds of information.  The cyberspaces found in SNS mediate, thus become a new terrain for, everyday activity and the performance of roles.

The internet, however, is far from the egalitarian utopia once pitched during its conception.  Many individuals do not have physical access and others do not have the skills to operate web technologies (DiMaggio and Hargittai 2001).  Still others do not have experiential access3 and perceived barriers to access (or usefulness or ease of use) play just as much of a role in preventing people from getting online as actual barriers (Porter and Donthu 2006).  As a result, group identities belonging to marginalized or disadvantaged populations could be setback or hindered in the world of the web.  Even once people are established online studies demonstrate that gendered, sexual, classed, raced, and age-based identities and corresponding conflicts continue to be salient factors in determining the character of online relationships (Kendall 1998).  Women, in particular, have had a long history of oppression and the battle for equity between the sexes still rages on fiercely today.  Though often institutionalized or covert, sexism pervades many aspects of society and continues to shape the everyday activity and roles of individuals.  This process is increasingly taking place in the digital theater (as it becomes routine and banal) and spaces such as Facebook enact as the underlying series of stages.  This paper’s task is to explore the way the interface, environment, and discourse within a particularly large and volatile Facebook group affect the perpetuation of gender inequality.

Substantive Sociological Importance

One needs only to talk to any given undergraduate student to unearth tangible, substantive cultural impacts of Facebook.  Everyone has a story, or in all likelihood a whole manifold of experiences, narratives, and interpretations of the system.  In some ways it’s like a social local newspaper—only you can play with it.  If language is a signifier of pertinence, then just as ‘to Google’ and ‘to Photoshop’ have become verbs in the vernacular, ‘to Friend’ and ‘to Facebook’ have risen to this status on account of Facebook4.  Students have assembled extensive investments in the system and many have developed dependencies in varying forms—communications and news, extension of personality, community awareness and involvement, and initiation and continuance of both personal relationships as well as group membership.  Indeed, many students are learning to visit Facebook as much as email and update their Facebook status like they do instant messenger away messages.  These high usage patterns are a logical consequence of the dialectic between offline and online connections (Ellison et al. 2006) and the relationship between the once mostly separated worlds has become strongly coproducing. 

The potential avenues for influence are numerous, especially among youth in the US.  Outside of science and technology studies, many subsets of sociology have traditionally considered internet technology as peripheral or incongruous.  However, education and research have a great deal to learn from the incarnations, uses, interpretations and social movements of new media.  As sociology concerns itself with informing people of the social shifts of the future we ought to pay attention to the influences Facebook will accrue, especially as it becomes nominally interlaced into the everyday life and expands its influences across the globe.  Facebook echoes, extends, and may even transform the interactions of the face-to-face world and has implications for the many social groups5 traditionally of concern to sociology.  The ramifications of this claim insinuate that examination of Facebook ought to intersect with all subsets and variations of sociology be they areas like transnational studies and demographics or methodologies such as historical comparatives, content analysis, quantitative data collection, or ethnographies.  Studying social networking services and Facebook are imperative to modern Sociological study.

Structure of this Paper

The remainder of this paper is structured to accomplish several simple objectives.  First, it gives a background picture of Facebook via numbers and limited substantive analysis.  Second, it presents a literature review pertaining to digital architecture (describing the differences of cyberspace) and some complications surrounding gender.  Third it explains the beginning steps of a corresponding digital ethnography project and its contributions to understanding the perpetuation of gender inequality online.

[1] This notion is put forward by Benkler, Yochai (2006) and Neff and Stark (2002), to name just a couple.

[2] It’s really something to think about.  Yochai Benkler even sees collaborative participation and production as representative of the next as the next stage of human organization.

[3] Not an item addressed in this paper, experiential access refers to comfort, experience and association with the internet.  Many know it as thinking with the web—not only accessing it for information and conceptualizing it as a place for the extension of real-world organizations but also envisioning it as a technology of the self; a place to extend and articulate personhood and identity and arbitrate self-awareness.

[4] The terminology of course varies by social networking service.  Users might “MySpace” one another or “Friend” one another there too.  Other SNS are more formalized, like “adding contacts” on LinkedIn.

[5] Gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, ability and mental illness, class and geography, age and education, and countless others