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Sci/Tech: Classy Web
Monday, 25 June 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
Class was supposed to disappear with the modern world- particularly with the internet. It was supposed to usher us into a world where we all talked to each other and the technology was supposed to create a classless society... but it hasn't quite been like that.

For class has not gone away at all- and even on the internet class persists as a factor in the way that people use the net. Its interesting to note that as the Guardian reveals according to research done by Danah Boyd at the University of California the working class make use of different social networking sites from the middle class. In the States, Facebook (thanks in part to its origins as a site for students) attracts middle class professionals whereas My Space attracts working class and minority groups.

The internet and class have a fascinating intersection. Often utopian enthusiasts for the internet claim and have claimed that because of the absence of faces or accents, the internet allows everyone the freedom to liberate themselves from their backgrounds and to a certain extent that's true. You would never know from this article that I have an irritating whiny voice with a nasal accent- or whether I have a deep booming voice with a ringing tone- nor are you likely to evaluate this article differently because of my attractiveness or any other markers- my clothes or my haircut as you do with the people you meet in your day to day life all the time (even unconsciously).

That's true but there is a sense in which we need markers of simularity and use them on the internet as well as in other ways. Lets start with something obvious. Why are you dear reader at Bitsofnews? Well its probably because you expect a certain kind of article and a certain kind of tone of voice- a tone of voice that you might not get on other sites. In that sense you are directing your interest on the internet towards markers in the voices of the authors of internet sites and that comes down to simple things about spelling and word order as well as subject matter and site set up.

If you want to see how this works- just join an internet dating site on the web. On most dating sites you are required to submit a photo and some money and then can start messaging others- people don't really have anything to go on besides your message and the ways that people filter your messages are quite interesting. For example many people will put up that they want good spelling and good grammar. Many will say that they want to hear from people who share their interests- notice that this is all filtering and ultimately all in some way exposes your social origins as well as your personality.

Ultimately its very hard to separate those two concepts. You are reading at the moment an article written by someone who is a middle class Englishman brought up by a working class father from Yorkshire and a mother from New Zealand- educated at Oxford and Cambridge doing various degrees and with some very artistic leanings- now all of that might not have happened without the social conditions in which I was brought up. I was fortunate enough (fortunate because I like myself!) to be born inside a country and century that allowed me to develop in various ways and curtailed my development in other ways. No doubt had I been born at a different time I would have been a better horse rider and a worse quantum mechanist! But that also applies to my parents- had they been different, had different educations or different attitudes to learning, I would have been different and so on- every word I write, every thing I say or do, even down to writing this article is a consequence of the way that my background has played into my thought.

And I seek out people who are similar to me on the net as I do normally in life- that doesn't neccessarily mean the same social class- but it does mean often similar interests, senses of humour, senses of manners, ultimately all those things reflect my and their social class, my and their bringing up and expectations. There is no one to one relation- some middle class and working class people find more in common than either do within their own class- and actually class is a bit too broad a concept to be incredibly useful- I would suggest there is a correlation between the way that various segments of the population live (both in terms of their material conditions and their access to things like education) and the way that personalities behave. Given that the web is a great liberating force is it surprising then that what will happen on it is that increasingly people gravitate towards groups that reflect their personalities and interests.

The utopia of technology is really one of increasing choice, which means increasing ability to choose who to spend time with and who not to- one of the consequences of that is that people who are alike will gravitate together. Sloans from Chelsea will spend their vacuous lives talking to other sloans, aesthete will take unto aesthete, and the world will segment again.

Its not surprising to find therefore that unsubtle distinctions (and class is an unsubtle distinction) are reflected therefore in the usage of social networking sites- it is what ultimately one would expect.