Everyone knows that white people love Facebook and hate MySpace. But why? In a sure-to-be-controversial new essay, a famous internet sociologist says it's a lot like white flight.

Facebook users tend to be wealthier and more educated. And, thus, they have been disproportionately white, until very recently. This should not be a controversial observation. (Though, we are sure it will be!) What's trickier is explaining this discrepancy. Everyone's favorite Internet scholar, Danah Boyd, has come up with an intriguing theory in a new book chapter (PDF), as first reported by MIT's Technology Review. White people fled MySpace first because they got scared of it—eventually coming to see it as a sort of "digital ghetto" filled with creepy spammers, weirdo goth kids and people of color.

If you are of a certain age, you probably switched from a MySpace account to Facebook at some point during your youth. Boyd wants to understand this switch, and why white kids have made it quicker and more frequently than others. The obvious explanation is that all their white friends were doing it: Facebook was started at (predominately white, upperclass) Harvard, was built around (predominantly white, upperclass) college students and only opened to the general riffraff around 2006. So, duh, white kids are going to join Facebook at a higher rate than other races who happen to be poorer and less likely to go to college.

But this does nothing to explain the racially-tinged language Boyd turned up in her interviews with high school students when they tried to explain their social network preferences. One white interviewee, for example, described Myspace users as "like ghetto and hip hop rap lovers." (Boyd interviewed over 100 for her study from 2004-2009.) Nor does it touch on aesthetic and functional differences between Facebook and Myspace, and how those might influence the racial and class makeup of the sites.

Boyd tells a more provocative story of Facebook adoption, one that closely mirrors the suburban white flight of the last century. Driven by a series of overblown media panics about MySpace safety, and helped along by the fact that we are all a little bit racist, MySpace became seen by better-off white parents and their kids as a 'digital ghetto'—urban, black, poor and dangerous. Facebook was "safe," "clean" (literally—better spam protection; no blingees!—and figuratively) and more private. The digital suburbs. Writes Boyd:

the first teens to move to the "suburbs" were those who bought into a Teen Dream of collegiate maturity, namely those who were expressly headed towards dorm-­‐based universities and colleges. They were the elite who were given land in the new suburbs before plots were broadly available. The suburbs of Facebook signaled more mature living, complete with digital fences to keep out strangers. The narrative that these digital suburbs were safer than the city enhanced its desirability, particularly for those who had no interest in interacting with people who were different.

And so, Boyd explains, we ended up at a point where a New York Times story on Facebook drawing equal with MySpace in users was strangely headlined "Do You Know Anyone Still on Myspace?" The implication being that the New York Times is written by rich, white Facebook users for rich, white Facebook users, which is true.

Although the story is made explosive by the whole "white flight" moniker, it's really commonsense if you ascribe to the idea, as Boyd does, that

"The internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life, making visible many of the issues we hoped would disappear, including race and class-based social divisions in American society"

Consider the controversies over MySpace and Facebook. In a landmark study, the sociologist Amy Binder showed that media coverage of controversial music lyrics in the 1990s differed depending on the perceived race of those making and consuming it. In writing about heavy metal music, commentators tended to worry about keeping white suburban kids from being corrupted by the its satanic imagery and sexual content; they worried about protecting white kids from themselves. But when it came to rap music, writers conjured up an external threat: hordes of black teens driven mad by provocative lyrics—"legions of misogynistic listeners who posed a danger to women."

MySpace's teen media panics have been all about the shadowy stranger, the creep who arranges ill-fated meetups via blingee-laced comments. While the major threat of Facebook is that an upwardly mobile young person might post party pics of themselves doing body shots off a stripper. God forbid that these come back to haunt them once they launch their startup or apply to Wharton or become Obama's speechwriter.

[Picture of typical Facebook user via Shutterstock]

Update: Here is a chart from Facebook that shows the racial makeup of the site over time. You will see that until last year, blacks and Hispanics were underrepresented on Facebook (Hispanics still are):

But I was too flip in the opening paragraph of this post originally, saying "Everyone knows that black people and Latinos tend to use MySpace." Clearly, a lot of them are using Facebook. The main point of Boyd's essay—and my post—is that the perception of Myspace as a "digital ghetto" spurred a majority white exodus to Facebook early on and has lingered among teens choosing between Myspace and Facebook currently. The raw numbers of members of different races using Facebook right now are not as important to Boyd's analysis as this perception. (See her post on Racialicious for more insight.) Sorry! I cleared the language cleared up above.