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Online Networks and Class

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, March 16 2006

I'm a big fan of the online social networking phenomenon, as you can probably tell from my adjoining article about Essembly.com. But before it fades from memory (and jet-lag will do that to you) I wanted to add one comment about the final session at PC Forum, which was about the future of the social networking explosion. The panelists were Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.com, and newcomer Helen Cheng of Seriosity (which is still in stealth mode but is looking at applying the lessons of online gaming to improving remote team collaboration in the business setting).

Much of the conversation was focused on understanding how these sites have grown and parsing how younger people use social networking tools differently than older ones. LinkedIn makes it easier for people in the work world to network, find jobs or recruit new employees, while Facebook helps young people on college campuses connect for social purposes. In each case, the site's administrators have had to figure out how to give users the right amount of control to make the experience of using the site a satisfying one.

When it came time for Q&A, Esther Dyson did a terrific job of bringing some children in the room into the conversation (as it was the final dinner of the conference, kids were included). And so we all roared as a boy who was barely as tall as the tables he was standing next two described being a Level 41 warlock in World of Warfare, and how he managed to get his team to sometimes listen to him--"as long as I don't tell them how old I am." The audience, along with Esther, seemed quite taken with Helen Cheng's assertion that people who spend a lot of time in WOW may be developing a new kind of team collaboration skill-set (see tech investor guru Joi Ito for a similar take), and for a while we all seemed to be enjoying imagining what new kinds of learning and behavior might be spawned by massive multiplayer online games, along with massive online social networks.

But I was left with a different question, and though I wasn't able to stay until the end of the session because I had to catch a plane, I doubt it got asked. Has anyone thought about whether social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook might be doing to the distribution of wealth and opportunity in America? If you're already connected to America's managerial and entrepreneurial class, LinkedIn makes the job of making your connections work for you even more valuable. Is this opening up the old-boy network or strengthening it?

Likewise, Facebook is only open to college students and the people they invite in (younger friends and siblings, I presume). But only about 27% of adult Americans have graduated from college. So, instead of connecting all young people, Facebook gives college kids one more reason to cloister together. Once again, I wonder--will one large societal effect of Facebook be the intensification of inequality that arises when professionals marry other professionals?

Lastly, before you argue that the World of Warfare universe is populated by lots of working class people avoiding the drudgery of monotonous day jobs, don't forget that its costs $20/month to play, and you need a high-end computer with a good broadband connection along with that.

To be honest, these are just speculations, nothing more, about the societal impact of these new sites and trends. I could be totally wrong. But class matters in America--more than most people like to admit.