You’re Probably Looking For Porn

by Susan McWilliams on October 27, 2009 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Politics & Power

Computer Lady
Claremont, CA. If you don’t want to read the new report from Harvard Business School, titled “Understanding Users of Social Networks,” you can just listen to the song from Avenue Q, titled “The Internet Is For Porn.”

So it turns out that despite all this chatter about how social-networking sites are totally transforming every element of the way we live our lives and make our friends and craft our communities and have our babies and brush our teeth, in practice the primary use of websites like Facebook is not just old-school but, well, primal.

Specifically, the report reveals that the most significant “usage categories” of social networking sites are – (wait for it) – men looking at pictures of women they don’t know, followed by men looking at pictures of women they do know.

The report dances around about what this means in what is either a really oblivious or really evasive way. (“This was a very big surprise: A lot of guys in relationships are looking at women they don’t know,” says the lead researcher, Mikolaj Jan Piskorski. He then speculates that such men are looking to see if other women “might be a better match.”)

I prefer the summation that Peter Sagal offered on NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”:

Why did Willy Sutton rob banks? Because that’s where the money was. Why do men look at Facebook? Because that’s where women put the pictures they take of each other while drunk.

This finding is the by-product of a Harvard Business School research program into how companies might better use social networking. In an unsurprising finding the lead researcher calls, quote, “surprising,” the number one thing men do on Facebook is look at women they don’t know. Number two? Looking at women they do know.

Number three is letting the site sit idle while they imagine how much better life would be if the women they do know were replaced with the women they don’t know. Harvard Business School also found that looking at women was the number one reason men read Playboy, watch the National Geographic channel, and open their eyes.

I suppose you could be somewhat depressed by this news, since it signifies that thus far human technological advancement culminates in a porn-maximization device. But don’t get too down about that, because the report’s other conclusion is depressing in a more legitimate way:

Today’s perception is that Twitter has the buzz and Facebook has the users. MySpace? Dead; no one goes there anymore. Tell a marketer that she ought to have a MySpace strategy and she’ll look at you like you have a third eye.

But Piskorski points out that MySpace has 70 million U.S. users who log on every month, only somewhat fewer than Facebook’s 90 million and still more than Twitter’s 20 million in the U.S. Its user base is not really growing, but 70 million users is nothing to sneeze at.

So why doesn’t MySpace get the attention it deserves?

The fascinating answer, acquired by studying a dataset of 100,000 MySpace users, is that they largely populate smaller cities and communities in the south and central parts of the country. Piskorski rattles off some MySpace hotspots: “Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Florida.”

Now, if I had a chocolate-chip cookie for every time someone told me that the Internet is “democratizing,” I would probably have diabetes and a severe weight problem by now.

But it turns out that even in the virtual sphere, rural people are likely to get overlooked by urban people. Poorer people are likely to get overlooked by richer people. And richer, urban people still control the chatter about what counts as important. (See earlier mention of chatter about how awesome social-networking sites are and how they change our lives. That’s definitely rich urbanites talking.) I’m not exactly sure where the burgeoning fulfillment of a democratic ideal comes in here, but maybe some technophile more eagle-eyed than I am will let me know.

The funny part is that like a good Harvard Business School professor, the lead researcher seems not so interested in that big-picture conclusion, but rather in making us feel bad for the corporate positioning of MySpace. “MySpace has a PR problem,” he says, “because its users are in places where they don’t have much contact with people who create news that gets read by others.”

Poor MySpace. You are frequented by people who live in rural communities and small-towns, which means you’d better change your ways if you want to matter.

In the end, the big news here is how little news there is here. Heterosexual men like to look at women. Americans who live in urban centers of power tend to overlook Americans who live in rural and small-town communities. Richer people tend to ignore poorer people. Richer, urban Americans dominate the conversations that create the terms of conventional wisdom. A kiss is still a kiss. A sigh is still a sigh. News at 11.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ryan Davidson October 27, 2009 at 8:27 am

Findings in a similar vein were discussed at some length by various netizens earlier this year, though the previous analysis focused more on the types of people which rich urban whites consider to be underprivileged, i.e. ethnic minorities, those with “alternative” sexualities, and creative types. Conclusion? Ethnic types, queers, and bands tend to use MySpace, while college-educated white kids use Facebook. The author of the original paper saw this as yet more evidence of endemic racism and other invidious forms of hated discrimination.

The Internet, as expressed in the commentariat of one of the most highly-trafficked blogs in the net, though this was, well, kind of stupid. It doesn’t help that the author of the original paper is perhaps the world’s most egregiously progressive hipster, which doesn’t do a lot for street cred the way it used to. But the author completely ignored the way Internet phenomenon tend to propagate in the population, i.e. they start with those who are online a lot, who tend to be those who have the best and most regular access to the internet, who in turn tend to be well-educated and at least middle-class, and then move out from there. The poor and less connected tend to be last on the train.

I wouldn’t think it’d be controversial to describe rural Americans as those who are least likely to adopt the latest technological trends. Just look at the list of “hotspots”. Those aren’t exactly the areas that immediately come to mind when compiling a list of the top ten states with the most connected populations.

Thus, while the thesis that urban American tends to look down upon or simply ignore rural America seems beyond dispute, I don’t think we need go so far as to conclude that from this study. It bears out what one would expect, i.e. Oklahoma is a few years behind California in terms of internet fads. Concluding that this is yet another instance of discrimination in our society–other than by the researcher himself–seems an unnecessary step.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 27, 2009 at 10:53 am

Gee, I wonder if those two pilots who flew right by Minneapolis and well into Wisconsin while looking at their laptops were really reviewing the airline company labor policy or looking at coeds on Facebook?

We can only be relieved that jet technology possesses really good auto-pilot

avatar polistra October 27, 2009 at 8:43 pm

“Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Florida.”

As a category, those aren’t rural and poor states, they’re Southern states. Many Northern states are more poor and more rural.

And that’s the real point. It’s not lack of money, it’s Northern bigotry and superstition. Yankees can’t stand the idea that the electrons and photons generated by their marketing plans might be sullied by reaching a Confederate eyeball.

This is fairly new, specifically post-1968. Before the Cultural Revolution, Yankees were perfectly happy to sell things to Southerners and make money from Southerners. For instance, Chevy’s main model in 1932 was the Confederate.

http://www.hemmings.com/hmn/stories/2005/10/01/hmn_whatworth1.html

Crass commercial appeal, sure. But unlike modern times, it was non-snobbish commercialism.

avatar Arthur MacInness October 29, 2009 at 7:43 am

Two words: Thorstein Veblen. Modern consumerism is all about winning status through possession ahead of the curve of those positional goods which will define where the curve is next. Modern consumerism is not about keeping up the Joneses. It’s about staying as many steps ahead of the Joneses as one can. Once the Joneses, who live in Alabama, start using MySpace, then a need arises for Facebook, so that there can be something that the Joneses don’t have and Facebook users do. Once the Joneses, who live in Alabama, start using Facebook, then a need arises for Twitter, so that there can be something that the Jones don’t have and Twitter users do. Once the Joneses, who live in Alabama, start using Twitter, then a need arises for something that some “hipster” in a “creative city” is working on even as we speak. What all of this speaks to is the way in which democratization gives rise to manufacture aristocracies. Nowhere is class more acute than in a “classless” society like ours. And nowhere is the fight for class-status more fierce than it is in the consumer sphere. And no one is more invested in consumerism than “hipsters” in “creative cities” are, because no one is more invested in class-status than “hipsters” in “creative cities” are, because no one is less invested in democracy and more invested in aristocracy than “hipsters” in “creative cities” are.

avatar rufus October 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm

From what I can tell, those sites are most often used by young people who already know each other in the outside world- so they would tend to be very geographically specific anyway. It’s hard for me to imagine that the culture would become more democratic if “facebookers” spent more time trying to get to know strangers in rural areas across the country.

As for the “perception” of urban marketers that hipster yuppies tend to have more disposable income that they’re more willing to waste on stupid crap that they don’t need in order to impress each other, I’d venture to guess there’s some logic in that position. But, it’s hard to be seriously depressed that marketers don’t sell more crap on myspace.

Actually, one of the most depressing things about living in a “hip” city, and why I no longer do, is that as soon as anything that could be reasonably described as “culture” pops a sprout up from the soil, it gets quickly dug up by marketing experts trying desperately to sell whatever cuttings they can get to anyone who wants a third generation simulation of aura. Usually, the original sprout dies in the process. There’s a certain bliss in the “invisibility” of being outside of all of that. I’m all for eschewing the small town chip on the shoulder and embracing disappearance as a strategy.

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