Paul Willis, Social Class, and the Digital Divide

After being away for a few days, I’m still catching up with the many blog postings, listerve discussions, comments, news stories (from NPR to the Chronicle of Higher Ed), and misrepresentations of Danah Boyd’s essay on social class divisions among users of the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Boyd argues that Facebook is the network of choice for the educated, upper-middle class, while MySpace is the choice of kids who are “socially ostracized in school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers”. Boyd cogently argues that these differences are, essentially, grounded in class.

Boyd makes clear that her observations are not (yet) based in research. She’s not reporting on a formal study.

Yet she has sparked deliberation in major newspapers, in hundreds of blogs, on numerous listserves.

She’s talking about class in a land in which class is not supposed to exist.

And people are sitting up and taking notice.

Among the more careful responses to Boyd’s essay are several that press the intriguing questions of why social class would trace into virtual worlds, where ascribed identities would seem to matter less than in the “real” world.

Scott Rosenberg writes that while there have always been distinctions between what is “cool” to the elite few and what is accessible to the broader masses in the on-line world,

The difference today, it seems to me, is not that social class divides extend from the offline world into online space, but rather that online interaction has assumed such a central place in the lives of young people that the divisions now matter far more. For teenagers trying to figure out who they are, the choice of social networking site has become one more agonizing crossroads of self-definition.

Engineers Without Fear writes that

[P]eople cannot help but take the social structures their bodies grew up in online as well. Our virtual existences are a hybrid of the old and the new. We have already created new social forms but we cannot junk the old ones yet.

Boyd references Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor as offering one explanation for why working-class kids might choose community and belonging over accepting the values of higher social classes in which one might never be accepted.

Yet I think that in all of this focus on what’s going on within the technology, we may be missing even more intriguing questions about what is going on within class.

Working class culture in Learning to Labor is circumscribed by the maleness of the shop floor and the pub, by traditional gender roles in the home. In their economic, social and geographic isolation, the racism and sexism of “the lads” go unchallenged. Yet as Willis has written more recently, with the demise of manual jobs, identity formation among working class youth is grounded now more in their participation in a global, consumerist culture than in the culture of work. He writes:

They find more passion and acceptable self-identity through music on MTV, wearing baseball caps, branded sneakers and designer shirts, and socializing in fast-food joints than they do through traditional class-based cultural forms.

Within consumer and electronic cultures, Willis argues, working-class kids now have access to

…something that only the elite has enjoyed as part of their sacred privilege. This privilege entails the formation of sensibilities to mark oneself culturally as a certain kid of person — rather than simply an unconscious carrier of traditional markers of class, race, and gender — or to “choose” to belong to these categories in transformative, distinctive, mannered, celebratory, or self-conscious ways. … there are simply more groups, so to speak, within the working class. …Within the different groups are very many more discursive, symbolic, and socially symbolic resources feeding into their cultural productions.

For Willis, though, the questions in the 70’s and the questions now remain the same:

How do the cultural forms of youth — whether “having a laff with the boys” in the pub, or creating a presence in Myspace – represent the their understanding of their positions within the larger social structure? To what extent do their cultural practices represent their resistance against exploitation, and when do they participate in reproducing their own subordination?

Knowing that college kids are in Facebook and the socially marginalized are in Myspace does, indeed, raise important questions about the reach of class in contemporary culture.

But the much more intriguing questions may be about how class is being lived within new cultural spaces that include not just “the lads” of Learning to Labor, but also queers, immigrants, and punks, all constructing their own representations of identity in a global virtual space.

What are young people learning their positionality, their agency, their potential in their active participation in deep and broad social networks? How is it different being a working-class kid — the child of “the lads” — now connected to potentially thousands of others via tools that enable voice, discourse, and representation of self via a dazzling array of media?


Willis, Paul (2004). Twenty-five years on: Old books, new times. In N. Dolby and G. Dimitriadis (with P. Willis). (Eds.) Learning to Labor in New Times. New York: Routledge.

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