The Online Landscapes of Social Networking

Facebook and MySpace have emerged as America’s dominant social networking websites, boasting over 124 and 245 million members, respectively. While their technical, political, and social implications have been much discussed, these websites also represent virtual landscapes drawing from two distinct strains in American culture.

Invented at Harvard University by a native of New York’s Westchester County, Facebook offers users a regimented experience. Aside from minor customizations in layout, users profiles share a common structure, color, pattern, and design. The individual must be subordinate to the common order unifying the whole. It is, I’ll argue, a European approach to space.

The brainchild of Los Angeles internet entrepreneurs, Myspace users can fully customize their profiles. In a sense they fully “own” what web designers call screen real estate. This is the digital equivalent to the landscape of suburbia, where each owner may landscape and decorate their own as they choose.

A quick tour through American and European cities and cemeteries will clarify the comparison.

In the 19th Century American culture entered a new phase of self conscious cultural independence. Romantic cemeteries were created throughout the country. Designed to replace the church boneyard, where remains were often disinterred to make room for more, the romantic cemetery sought to “rob death of a portion of its terrors,” staking out for each of the deceased a portion of earth. Bellefontaine Cemetery in Saint Louis is a celebrated example. The deceased occupy individual plots, decorate and identified (generally) as the family pleases.

Visitors are reminded through design and allusion this is a natural landscape, far away from the domain of everyday life. Here, in the form of a stained glass window.

At the same time, the country’s first garden suburbs were developed, such as Riverside, Illinois. Invariably these neighborhoods were single family homes placed on uniquely landscaped lots, a pattern that continues to this day.

In contrast, European cemeteries and cities are often quite different. Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery, founded in 1804, takes a different pattern. Here family mausoleums line miniature cobblestone streets, creating an urban landscape of death where the individual is subordinated to a familial structure.

Here and elsewhere in Europe from Roman times, human remains are often stored vertically in Columbarium, high-rises of human remains removing the individual from a direct relationship with the earth. Multifamily housing for the deceased, if you will.

Apartment living is commonplace in both city and suburb, seen here in this picture of Finland.

These deep-grained cultural preferences are reflected in the structure of social networking websites, tools used intimately by millions. To be popular, the system must reflect their users preferences. Although celebrated as a seat of American cultural independence, Boston shares close cultural ties with Europe, and its physical structure of many neighborhoods resembles European cities. Like Europe’s vertical family crypts or apartment house living, Facebook’s regimented framework removes from individual control the digital turf on the screen.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, has been celebrated as a quintessentially American city in structure. While it is true the city once enjoyed a large urban railway system and has the highest population density of any major U.S. city, it is a city of single family homes on individual lots. It is fitting, then, that Myspace deeds full ownership of screen real estate to members, allowing them to decorate their profiles with blaring music, intelligible color schemes, and absurd fonts, the digital equivalent of pink flamingos in the yard.

These subtle cultural preferences may explain why Facebook’s membership growth has slowed and remains biased towards certain groups. Perhaps it is some cultural quirk that explains why Orkut has become wildly popular in Brazil. Although Mark Zuckerburg may hope to transform his service into a social networking “utility,” its appeal for some Americans may be limited until he lets the American masses deck out their page in flashing colors and blaring pop tunes. It is, after all, the American way.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Rob… I’m glad to see you branch out a little bit from the minutia of planning details. I like these sort of discussions of, what I guess could be called, social geography. Or anthropology of space. It’s why I read BLDBLG and StrangeHarvest and recently, if you haven’t found it, CityofSound. Anyway, as anthropologist (or a guy with a background in anthropology), I tend to lean toward the idea that culture differences have a much bigger impact than social utopians think. As I’ve mentioned before, my partner is Japanese. Online social networking is quite popular there, but we’ll never find it. Like most things in Japan, the internet has not socially connected the Japanese with the world — it’s just reinforced the existing cultural paradigms. The major online social network, Mixi, is invite only, password protected. You are invited by your existing friends and that’s creates your network. It’s significant as other sites try to move into the Japanese market — they have so much broadband! so many mobile devices! — as on paper its tempting. But there are pitfalls in not understanding the culture that surrounds it. Ideas might spread around the globe, but we are still a bunch of tribes with language, geography, food and history separating us all.

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