Whose space is MySpace? A content analysis of MySpace profiles
First Monday

Whose space is MySpace? A content analysis of MySpace profiles by Steve Jones, Sarah Millermaier, Mariana Goya-Martinez, and Jessica Schuler



Abstract
This study examines the content of MySpace pages to reveal the types of personal information users disclose on their pages and the types of communication users engage in via through their MySpace accounts. The researchers performed a traditional content analysis on MySpace user profiles to learn about user characteristics and about the types of content posted on profiles pages. Findings showed a clear pattern of use of the site for creating and developing personal identities and relationships online. Findings show a high degree of control by users over private information, with very few users posting personal information such as telephone numbers and addresses. The results of this research contribute to an understanding of the use of MySpace as a social networking site, a communication tool, and a means of self–disclosure and identity formation.

Contents

Introduction
Literature review
Method
Results
Discussion & conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Social networking Web sites like MySpace have become a popular online destination, attracting a large number of people who spend time using and perusing them. On social networking Web sites users share personal information, which helps to shape their online identity. They also communicate with others to build and maintain relationships and friendships. Users’ levels of self–disclosure vary widely, ranging from some users who release detailed personal information to other users who restrict people from viewing their information altogether.

Identity construction and self–disclosure online and on MySpace in particular have been the frequent subject of media scrutiny. Stories of predatory users and unassuming teens have dominated coverage, but with millions of users across the country and around the world, ill–fated online experiences are far from average. According to comScore’s 2007 report on Web rankings, MySpace has more than 66 million unique visitors, reaching 37 percent of the U.S. online population. To better understand how users present themselves online and what types of information they disclose on this popular social networking site, this study examines the content of MySpace pages. To our knowledge this is the first study that systematically analyzes the content of user profiles, and that focuses on textual and visual materials rather than on users or cases.

In brief, MySpace users, facilitated by the site’s design, were found to provide a great deal of personal information on their profile pages in categories such as race, sexual orientation, body type, height, relationship status, personal photo and first name. The users who were 18 and 19 years old had significantly higher disclosure than adult users. Contrary to anecdotal reports of MySpace users’ enormous friend networks, the MySpace users analyzed for this study had an average of 145 friends, with a majority having fewer than 100 friends. Very few users revealed private information such as address or telephone number. Only about one–third used MySpace’s blogging feature. Those who did used it infrequently and used it mainly to discuss personal matters rather than politics or news.

 

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Literature review

Social networking

The term “networking” as it is used in this paper means an activity through which individuals establish and develop social ties with other individuals. Social networking sites, also called social software and social media (Barnes, 2006), provide the means to create and maintain ties online. Users generate much of the content on these sites. They create online profiles and exchange messages with friends, family and strangers. Users of social networking sites engage simultaneously in interpersonal and mass communication by writing for an audience that is partly known and partly invisible and/or imagined.

According to comScore’s 2007 report on Web rankings, MySpace currently has more than 66 million unique visitors, reaching 37 percent of the U.S. online population. In August 2006, more than half of MySpace visitors were 35 years or older, 34.8 percent were between 18 and 34 years, and almost 12 percent were between 12 and 17 years old. These numbers are indicative of a shift in MySpace’s demographic composition from 2005 when almost 25 percent of visitors were under 18 years old (comScore, 2006).

Several studies measure the time users spend on social networking sites such as MySpace, and suggest that users of the site access it frequently. In a survey of 200 U.S. high school students of whom 81 percent were MySpace users, Rogers, et al. (2007) found that participants “spent an average of 72 minutes per day in social network sites.” [1] In a study of 1,257 teenage MySpace users in which the sample was generated using a snowball technique, Rosen (2006) found that on average participants visited the site five days a week and spent about two hours each day sending, posting and reading bulletins. Twenty–one percent of the 19 participants in Dwyer’s (2007) qualitative study of college and graduate students accessed network sites several times a day, and 79 percent did it at least once a week. Though these studies report different rates of use and their samples were not random, they all demonstrate that those who access social networking sites do so with regularity.

Message exchange and social rules on networking sites

Scholars categorize networking sites in many different ways. boyd (2007) classifies social network sites in which communication exchanges are archived under the broad category of ‘networked publics.’ Archived exchanges give users the ability to search each other’s profiles, which allows for asynchronous communication and creates invisible audiences. DiPerna (2007) characterizes social network sites as “connector websites.” Connector sites are online social institutions that provide infrastructure for interaction among users who seek and/or offer information, goods or services. They serve as “intermediaries for making human contacts” and facilitate social exchanges and community building [2]. Legally, social networking sites are defined as commercial entities with which users can create profiles or Web pages. Users can disclose personal information and establish communication with other users through their profiles.

Interaction on networking sites presents new rules for civic socialization. Users engage in a collective process of self–regulation by following and enforcing the social norms established on the Web site (DiPerna, 2007). In this way, users have the opportunity and the responsibility to report illegal content or misuse of the site. For instance, the ‘terms of use’ document of MySpace states that user–generated content should not be used for information gathering and the Web site should not be used for commercial purposes (Snyder, et al., 2006). Visitors and participants that use social network Web sites not for networking but for information seeking are violating these rules (Snyder, et al., 2006).

Online social interactions are informed by different rules and contexts than offline relationships. Dwyer (2007) explains that computer–mediated communication on social network sites can reduce and delay the transmission and perception of social context cues. Social context cues elicit cognitive interpretations of a given situation which shapes people’s communication. Dwyer explains:

When social context cues are strongly perceived, behavior becomes more other-focused and carefully managed. Conversely, when communication of these cues is weak and cues are not perceived, feelings of anonymity result in more self–centered and unregulated behavior. [3]

On sites such as MySpace, users rely on different social cues specific to the online environment and the features of the user interface.

Friendship

In addition to differences in social cues in online and offline environments, friendship is defined differently on social networking sites than it is in offline relationships. MySpace defines Friendship as any kind of mutual relationship among its members. Adding a friend to a list of contacts is not necessarily an indication of feelings for that person. Rather, it is seen as an expansion of one’s social network. In an ethnographic study of teenage users, boyd (2006a) distinguishes friendship from Friendship: the former refers to a close relationship between two people and the latter refers to an online tie that connects people on social network sites such as MySpace and Friendster. boyd (2006a) distinguishes between several types of online Friends including close offline friends and acquaintances, family members, work and school mates, admired people and strangers.

boyd’s (2006a) and Dwyer’s (2007) work suggests that most users do not take online friendships seriously and consider most of them to be superficial. boyd explains that some of the relative superficiality can be attributed to social pressures associated with “Friending” (adding friends to your list of contacts) online. Some users “prefer to accept Friendships with someone they barely know rather than going through the socially awkward process of rejecting them ... while others hope that Friending a celebrity will make them look cool.” [4] Bigge (2006) suggests that users accumulate friends to increase their social capital. The element of status associated with accumulating friends may explain the large number of friends that most users have linked to their profiles. According to Rosen’s (2006) study, MySpace users link an average of 200 friends to their profile, many of whom they have never met face–to–face.

Despite the alleged superficiality of relationships, users participate in social networking sites to develop new relationships, maintain older friendships, and expand their social networks (Dwyer, 2007; Gallant, et al., 2007; boyd, 2006a; boyd, 2007). Participants in Dwyer’s 2007 study indicated that they use networking sites because they provide an inexpensive, easy and convenient way of managing social relationships. Gallant, et al. (2007) conclude from their content analysis of focus groups of MySpace and Facebook users that participants access network sites for “staying in touch with friends, making social plans, communicating with others and finding out about them, and dating.” [5] In other studies, users report the usefulness of social networking sites as a means of establishing contact with old friends and people they do not see regularly (Dwyer, 2007).

Identity

MySpace is commonly characterized as a forum for identity development. boyd (2007) suggests that online forums such as MySpace provide spaces for teens to “[do] identity work” online [6]. boyd argues that networking cites such as MySpace facilitate aspects of life central to teen identity formation, including exploration of social and cultural identities, social relations, and performances of the self.

boyd (2006c) suggests that the dynamics of identity production online include a considerable emphasis on the construction of “cool.” She comments on the cultural currency of networking sites and argues that profiles

... are digital bodies public displays of identity where people can explore impression management [2]. Because the digital world requires people to write themselves into being [3], profiles provide an opportunity to craft the intended expression through language, imagery and media. Explicit reactions to their online presence offers valuable feedback. The goal is to look cool and receive peer validation. [7]

Comments on sites such as MySpace serve as validation from peers and, boyd argues, as “a form of cultural currency.” [8] Validation as well as negative feedback online can influence users’ self–esteem. Valkenburg, et al. (2006) found in a study of 881 Dutch teenage users of a social network site similar to MySpace that the publicly visible feedback they received on their profiles affected their social self–esteem and well–being. Positive feedback, which nearly 80 percent of the participants received, enhanced their self–esteem, whereas negative feedback, which seven percent of the individuals surveyed received, lowered their self–esteem (Valkenburg, et al. 2006). Rosen (2006), who also studies the relationship between social network sites and self–esteem, found that younger teen users were more greatly influenced by their participation in these sites than were older teen users.

Identity exploration online involves explicit identity construction. MySpace users are engaged in complex social networks online; they must construct a coherent identity for a wide variety of audiences. On networking sites, users’ social networks may overlap. For instance, users may be linked to close friends, acquaintances, co-workers and family members through the same profile. The identity the user establishes online may be appropriate for friends but not for relatives or co–workers (boyd, 2006a, Snyder, et al., 2006; Bigge, 2006). Accordingly, users must learn how to send information to the various groups with which they communicate, and must consider what messages are appropriate for all publics. The type of attention MySpace has received in the popular media suggests that users achieve ‘appropriateness’ to varying degrees. In addition to managing the overlap amongst networks, users must also negotiate communication with unknown audiences or strangers. As boyd (2006a) explains: “addressing multiple audiences simultaneously complicates all relationships, people must make hard choices.” [9]

MySpace eases the burden of these tough choices as it affords users considerable flexibility in their ability to choose and generate content. Comparative analyses of MySpace and Facebook suggest that the flexibility of MySpace is a significant element of its popularity. boyd (2006a) maintains that while a high degree of freedom is expected in online communities such as MySpace and Friendster, the sites differ in the relative degrees of freedom users enjoy. Gallant, et al. (2007) analyze both sites in reference to five heuristics, which, they suggest, “form the structural basis of Web–based communities.” [10] The heuristics include interactive creativity, selection hierarchy, identity construction, rewards and costs, and artistic forms. They developed the list through an examination of past research, a content analysis of written responses by research participants about social networking sites, and a test of the heuristics on three focus groups. Gallant, et al.’s content analysis and focus groups suggest that MySpace is “more flexible and interactive, and allow[s] for more creativity than Facebook.” [11] Gallant, et al. also suggest that MySpace allows for greater personalization than Facebook because of its relatively freer format. A participant in their study put it nicely: “‘With Facebook, your identity revolves around the school; in MySpace, [you] have complete freedom.’” [12]

Gallant, et al. contend that MySpace “encourage[s] identity posting; e.g., biographies.” [13] They highlight the importance of ‘technical features’ available on MySpace and argue that use of these features enables social interaction and enhances identity construction and expression on the site. Users employ technical features to develop individual style and to “create a social statement through the design of their personal community Web space.” [14] Their study points to creative use of video and music as well as the mixing of media as a component of the user interface important to creative expression and sociality.

boyd (2006b) reiterates their sentiment and suggests that use of personalizing features such as music, videos and photos increases the appeal of user’s sites. She contrasts the user–friendly interface of MySpace with that of Friendster and argues that over the course of their evolution Friendster became increasingly restrictive while MySpace facilitated online activity users desire:

... MySpace evolved with its users, building a trusting relationship, figuring out how to meet their needs and cultural desires, providing them with features and really trying to give them what they were looking for. Friendster did not — it fought its users hand and foot, telling them how to behave. [15]

For instance, boyd notes, MySpace became a promotional platform for events, which led to the prevalence of music on the site.

Self–disclosure

Users employ text and images in their profiles and blogs to describe who they are, what they like, and what they do. Through their posts, users send greetings, exchange messages, make plans, flirt, and maintain contact. These features of social networking sites allow users to reveal information about themselves and their lives.

The relative freedom of expression afforded to users of MySpace provides a unique forum for sharing personal information and as Stutzman (2006) points out, users often share a great deal of it. In an article related to online identity on Facebook and MySpace, Stutzman notes that both sites request “a notable level of information disclosure.” [16] On MySpace as well as on Facebook, users must disclose personal information to establish an account including name, birth date, e–mail, gender, country, and zip code. Facebook also requires that users disclose the name of the school, college or group with which they were affiliated (Stutzman, 2006). Users have the option to reveal their sexual orientation, relationship status, occupation, religion, smoking and drinking status, body type, personal photo, ethnicity, income and interests (Stutzman, 2006). MySpace is equipped with a formatting template and standardized choices that users may employ to display this information.

Stutzman suggests that while disclosing this information is optional, many users include it in their profiles. Stutzman (2006) attributes the high level of disclosure of personal information online to the “inherent sociality” of social network communities [17]. Though many users share personal information, its veracity is unconfirmed.

Some users intentionally mask their offline identities by using pseudonyms or remaining anonymous for fear of consequences related to disclosing sensitive or socially undesirable personal characteristics. Although these strategies may mitigate users’ privacy concerns, unintended audiences might still be able to find them through friends’ profiles (boyd, 2007). Unintended audiences such as employers, educational institutions, law enforcement officials, and marketing companies can access and use private information that users make public online. Employers can monitor current and potential employees through social networking sites (Bigge, 2006; Snyder, et al., 2006). Some colleges and schools keep track of their students’ posts on networking sites and issue offline punishments for socially undesirable or illegal activities disclosed online (Barnes, 2006). Prosecutors and police officers could potentially use online data to investigate interactions between suspects and victims (Schesser, 2006). Bigge (2006) and Barnes (2006) criticize the fact that social network sites such as MySpace “coordinate the interpersonal exchanges between American teens and global brands.” [18] For Snyder, et al. (2006), who analyze the ‘terms of use’ document of MySpace, these unintended audiences violate the ‘social contract’ of networking sites because they use the sites for information seeking rather than for networking with others.

Dwyer (2007) found that most participants felt it was their responsibility to control the access and the availability of personal information. Even when most participants expressed privacy concerns, by and large they “accepted the tradeoff of access to no–fee sites in exchange for diminished protection of their private information.” [19] Very few of them used the privacy features that the network sites offer. In contrast to Dwyer, Gallant, et al. (2007) found in their focus group that users had few concerns about privacy. Rosen (2006) reports that 83 percent of the teenagers surveyed believed that MySpace is safe and less than nine percent of them received a sexual request online. Barnes (2006) suggests that users, especially adolescents, have an illusion of privacy when using social network sites.

Parents and lawmakers are concerned about the behavior of teens and children online. Through legislation such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) and the 2006 Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), lawmakers try to protect young teenagers from social network sites by requiring public libraries and schools to install Internet filters (boyd and Jenkins, 2006). MySpace responded to these concerns about youth safety by hiring a safety czar to monitor and delete underage profiles and by siterequiring non–adult users to read safety information prior to creating their pages (Barnes, 2006; Schesser, 2006). Librarians and academics expressed worries in response to these acts, citing concern for the development of a new digital divide in which users who rely on public access would be deprived of socializing online (Miller, 2006; boyd and Jenkins, 2006).

Many parents express concerns about their children’s use of social networking sites. In a survey of 267 pairs of adolescent MySpace users and their parents, Rosen (2006) found that 63 percent of parents think that sexual predators use MySpace; 81 percent of them were concerned about teens meeting online friends in offline locations; and, 88 percent of them were worried about the posting of sexual photos. Despite their expressed concerns, many parents are not involved in their children’s use of social networking sites (Rosen, 2006; Rogers, et al., 2007). In Rosen’s (2006) study, one third of the parents did not know what kind of personal information their children were disclosing online; 43 percent of them did not know how much time their children spent on social networking Web sites; and, 62 percent of them had never talked to their children about MySpace. Moreover, parents imposed little restrictions on their children’s use of these Web sites. Fifty percent of the teenagers surveyed in Rosen’s study were allowed to have computer in their bedroom and less than half of the parents set limits to their children’s computer use and MySpace use. This is consistent with Rogers et al.’s (2007) study in which only 15 percent of the adolescent participants reported having limits on their use of these Web sites.

 

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Method

Sample

A team of undergraduate and graduate students was recruited and trained in coding and research ethics and directed to code MySpace profiles. Intercoder reliability was measured by having the authors recode all items from randomly selected profiles for each other coder (N=6). Reliability is coder agreement on decisions divided by total number of coding decisions for each category. Overall intercoder reliability across all categories and coders was 94.8 percent. The majority of sites (1200) were coded between October 2006 and the first week of December 2007; an additional 200 were coded during January and February 2007. Of the total sample (1,400), 1,378 coded sites were considered valid and were included in data analysis.

Coders followed a series of steps to ensure random sampling. First, they accessed the MySpace home page (http://www.myspace.com) and selected “Browse” from the toolbar that appears at the top of the page. The default search prompted by this action selects a sample of women between the ages of 18 and 35 with photos on their page. To access a sample representative of all MySpace users in the United States, coders de–selected these preferences in the “Browse Users” box. The updated selection criteria included both men and women in the United States between the ages of 18 and 68 (the maximum age available), and users with and without photos. Coders cleared their browsers, cache and cookies before browsing for a new profile. Coders did not log in to MySpace. Public disclosure was a primary interest of this investigation and staying “logged out” ensured that coders only saw content that was publicly available.

Two limitations were imposed on the sample: a) coders searched only for users within the United States; and, b) the search results were sorted by users’ last login. The principal investigator contacted MySpace and was assured that aside from these factors the list of sites generated using these search techniques was a random sample of U.S. MySpace users. Following these steps, coders selected an individual profile for analysis. To select a user page coders used either a random numbers table or selected one profile number and coded that profile every time (for instance a coder may always look at the 98th profile generated in the random sample).

Coding protocol and procedure

The research team developed a coding protocol to account for the user–generated content of individual users’ MySpace pages. The protocol consisted of 67 items and specified codes for several broad categories of information including: user physical characteristics; the identifying user image; personal, identifying and contact information; user communication habits online; blog content; and, required information.

Required information incorporated into the protocol included gender and user name. MySpace users may disclose, through an established format and standardized options, information related to their physical appearance, personality traits and other personal characteristics. The coding protocol accounted for several of these attributes, including relationship status, sexual orientation, body type, and race, and each was coded using the choices provided by MySpace. For example, users who disclose their body type select from the following: Slim/Slender, Athletic, Average, Some Extra Baggage, More to Love and Body Builder. Accordingly, these choices constitute the codes for “Body Type” in the protocol. Height, a category for which users generate their own numbers, was also included in the protocol.

The protocol also included basic visual features of user sites. The template for MySpace pages includes a space for users to provide an identifying photo or image. Users’ identifying marks were classified and coded based on their content. For instance, an image or photo could be classified as a self–portrait, photo with friend or romantic partner, collective photo (a group of friends), cartoon/drawing/animated character, environment (e.g., beach flower, lightning storm, sunset) or animal, to name a few. The research team developed codes for this portion of the protocol based on preliminary research.

The research team developed a more comprehensive coding protocol for images for a second phase of the study. The diversity of images, however, made inter–coder agreement a challenge. Beyond the identifying photo/image, visuals were not included in this coding protocol. Understanding the visual language of MySpace is a rich area for future study.

In addition to users’ identifying images, the coding protocol accounted for identifying monikers were accounted for in the coding protocol. User name and title were classified by type. For example, the title that users assign to their pages was coded as one of the following: first name, full name, nickname with real name, realistic name, online handle, phrase or adagio, or other. A nickname with real name might appear as something like “Jeff Dude;” a realistic name would include a name that could well be the user’s (or any “realistic” individual’s) and that also incorporates a non–linguistic character; John_Smith or John*Smith are two such examples. An online handle is a name a user employs in the online environment that does not include the user’s name. “FlowerChild” and “HatTrick” are examples of handles users may go by online.

Coders also recorded whether or not users provided contact information, including e–mail address, telephone number and postal address. Also incorporated in the protocol were measures to track users’ online communication behaviors, including: whether or not they could receive Instant Messages (IMs) from other users; whether or not they indicated their IM name on their page; whether or not the user received greetings from their friends on their site; the number, frequency and date of comments made by friends on their page; and information about URLs provided by the user. Several of these aspects of the protocol require further explanation.

MySpace pages include a standard ‘communication box’ that includes links whereby others may send instant messages to the user (IM), send them an e–mail, chat, etc. Most users maintain this box on their site and many modify and stylize it with fancy fonts, backgrounds and images. Of interest to this project was whether the IM feature was active on users’ site and whether or not they disclosed their IM name. Tracking the prevalence of this feature and the disclosure if IM names provide an indication of whether people use MySpace as an immediate method of communication.

MySpace users can post greetings and comments on other users’ individual pages. These appear as a series of small text boxes, most commonly with a date and time stamp that indicate when the comment or greeting was posted. (Greetings were distinguished as messages such as “Happy Birthday” or “Happy New Year” or salutations such as “Good Morning.”) The research team was particularly interested in the popularity and frequency of this form of online communication as a contrast to IM types of online message exchange. The protocol coders noted the number of comments posted and the date the last comment was posted. This provided an indication of the frequency with which users make use of this feature.

The final aspect of the coding protocol dealt with blog content with regard to frequency of use, topics mentioned and images posted. To gain insight into the popularity of this feature and the frequency with which users make use of it, the coding protocol stipulated that coders record whether the blog showed activity within the previous three months, the difference in time between the last two contributions, and the total number of posts. In addition to recording these figures, coders also read every entry posted in the sample and coded content with regard to topic. Blog topics included mood, health, family, friends, nightlife, work, school, and other media, including television, music, books and film, to name a few. Blog categories were not exclusive; individual entries could be coded as more than one category. For instance, a user may mention in a single post a family reunion they attended and the book they read on the way there. Such a post would be coded as having ‘family’ content and ‘book’ content.

In addition to text, users can also post images in their blog entries. Team members coded images with regard to image type and content. Image types included self–image, romantic images, images of commodities and popular culture images, to name a few. Coders recorded whether or not those images types were included and, using the content categories listed above, indicated the primary content (self–portrait, photo with friend or romantic partner, animal, etc.). If commodities were featured, coders recorded the type and brand of those commodities as well as the total number of commodities displayed in the blog. Commodities were defined as any item that could be purchased at retail.

MySpace includes a feature, operationalized as “external contributions” in the coding protocol, in which other users may comment on the blogs they read. Coders recorded the number of external user contributions for all of the users that received it. External contributions are an indication of the social interaction between bloggers and those who comment on their writing. Some readers offer advice or support or empathize with what users post. The protocol operationalized this specific type of external contribution as “emotional support.” Coders indicated in yes/no assessments whether or not bloggers received emotional support from the other users who commented on their posts.

 

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Results

Demographics

The study sample of U.S. MySpace users suggests that the site is slightly skewed toward female users. Of the users analyzed, female users represented 55.5 percent of the sample, while male users represented 44.5 percent. Users ranged in age from 18 to 61, with the vast majority of users (92.5 percent) between 18 and 35 years of age. Just over half of the users analyzed indicated they were single (55.6 percent); an additional 37.5 percent of users indicated they were either in a relationship (23.4 percent) or married (14.1 percent). A very small percentage (2.5 percent) indicated they were divorced and a handful (1.5 percent) indicated they were swingers. Only 2.8 percent did not indicate their relationship status. The majority of users sampled (80.9 percent) indicated a heterosexual orientation, while 2.0 percent indicated they were gay/lesbian and 1.7 percent indicated a bisexual orientation. A mere 0.4 percent indicated they were unsure of their sexual orientation. Nearly fifteen percent (14.9 percent) of the sample did not disclose their sexual orientation. The remaining 0.1 percent of the sample contained coding errors.

MySpace users may disclose their race from a list of racial categories provided by the site. Our sample suggests that the majority of U.S. MySpace users (48.8 percent) self–identify as White. The second and third largest racial groups as which users identified were Latino/Hispanic (8.4 percent) and Black/African American (7.2 percent). Other racial groups were recorded in the sample, though in much smaller numbers; less than one percent each identified as East Indian (0.4 percent), Middle Eastern (0.7 percent), Native American (0.6 percent) and Pacific Islander (0.9 percent). One–third of users in the sample (30.8 percent) did not explicitly indicate their race.

In most cases (51.9 percent), users indicated their race in the text of the profile and racial information could also be gleaned from a profile image. By “racial information” we suggest that the profile image provides some indication of that person’s race (i.e., the person is visible in the profile). Coders made no judgment regarding the racial affiliation of users. A specific race category was coded only when the user indicated his or her race in the text of his/her profile. For approximately one fifth (17.9 percent) of the profiles sampled, racial information could be gleaned from the profile image only; a slightly lesser percentage (14.9 percent) indicated their race only in the text of their profile. In 14.2 percent of the profiles analyzed, race was neither indicated in text nor could racial information be gleaned from the profile image.

Self–disclosure

Users generally disclosed a great deal of personal information in their profiles. The overwhelming majority of profiles sampled (98.3 percent) were public and nearly two–thirds (61.5 percent) appeared to display a self–portrait as the user’s identifying image. An additional 14.4 percent included an image of the user with a friend or romantic partner. Image types were determined by pose and content. Other image types included: a collective photograph with a group of friends (4.1 percent), another type of photographic image (4.5 percent), or a cartoon, drawing, or animated character (3.3 percent).

Roughly 60 percent of users (58.9 percent) included information regarding their body type. Users most frequently selected either “athletic” (33.5 percent) or “average” (33.3 percent) from the list provided by MySpace to describe themselves. An additional 17.2 percent of users indicated they were “slim or slender.” Only 4.9 percent admitted they “had some extra baggage” and 8.4 percent indicated they had “more to love.” “Body builder” (2.7 percent) was the least common body type selected. Most users (70.2 percent) included their height in their profile.

While many users provided information indicative of their physical appearance, most were more conservative in their disclosure of more sensitive identifying information. On their profile pages, 78.4 percent of users in the sample displayed their first name while only 11.0 percent disclosed their full name. Approximately two–thirds of users sampled (64.5 percent) displayed their first name as their online user name specifically, while a mere 1.9 percent of users used their full name as their user name. Less than one percent (0.80 percent) used a realistic name, although 3.60 percent of user names were a combination of a nickname with a real name. About 14.6 percent used an online handle (an ID name used on Internet sites) as their user name, while 9.4 percent used a phrase [20].

In addition to a user name, users have the option to create a title for their MySpace page. Approximately one in five users sampled (19.4 percent) chose an online handle for the title of their Web site, while 13.9 percent used a nickname in combination with their real name and 13.2 percent used a phrase. A small portion of the sample (2.5 percent) used a first name or full name (5.4 percent) as their title. Another 2.9 percent used a realistic name [21]. Just over a third of users (36.1 percent) displayed some other kind of title such as a series of numbers or non–linguistic characters. The remaining 6.5 percent did not display a title.

Though many permitted online contact with other users, particularly through features available on MySpace, most users were relatively guarded when it came to extra–network and off–line communication. A significant majority (83.2 percent) received greetings from other users on their profile page, such as “Happy Birthday” messages, holiday greetings, etc. Outside of these greetings posted on the profile, the sample suggests that MySpace users prefer to be contacted via instant messaging (IM). Instant messaging capabilities are a default feature of MySpace and almost the entire sample (94.9 percent) was equipped to send instant messages. It is interesting to note that only 2.7 percent outright displayed their IM name given the apparent preference for this method of communication. An even smaller proportion of users, only one percent, included an e–mail address in their profile. MySpace provides a space in the profile to list a URL that profile viewers may wish to visit. The sample indicates a high degree of self–referencing amongst users: approximately two–thirds (64.9 percent) of users displayed the URL to their own MySpace page. A very small percentage linked to a personal homepage (1.7 percent).

The inclusion of offline contact information was an anomaly in user profiles. Only three users displayed their telephone number. While almost all MySpace users revealed their location (98.5 percent), including a city or town and state, only one user in the sample revealed a home address. Of the 1.5 percent who did not include the required information regarding their location, two users (10.5 percent) had private profiles while the other seventeen (89.5 percent) were public.

Social interactions — Friends and comments

Users can post comments on each other’s pages; the number of comments posted on their page is displayed at the top of the comment section. Approximately nine out of ten users in the sample (91.3 percent) had comments visible. Among those who had comments, there was a high degree of variance in the number of comments posted, ranging from one to 4,095 comments. From those who had comments, the mean was 171.79 posts with a standard deviation of 299.49. After removing outlier users who had over 1,000 posts (2.4 percent), the mean was 138.66 posts with a standard deviation of 179.06. Three–quarters of those who displayed comments (75.2 percent) had less than 200 comments, including (40.7 percent) with fewer than 50 comments, 17.6 percent with 50–99 comments, 9.6 percent with 100–149 comments, and 7.3 percent with 150–199 comments visible. Nearly one in five users (17.2 percent) had between 200 and 499 comments and the remaining 7.6 percent had 500 comments or more. The number of comments a user had was significantly correlated with the number of friends the user had, r (1180) = .287, ρ = .00.

Users boasted a large number of friends in their profiles with an average of 145 per person (see Figure 1). Variability across profiles that included friends (N = 1,180) was extremely high (M = 144.99, SD = 348.06). When removing the outlier users with more than 1,000 friends, the mean was 115.46 and the standard deviation was 125.88. The majority of users who had friends (58.2 percent) had fewer than 100 friends. Of those users, over half (54.2 percent) had less than 40 friends. Roughly 36.5 percent had between 100 and 399 friends and the remaining 5.3 percent had between 400 and the maximum, 7,776 friends. Friend number and age were not significantly correlated. The mean number of friends per user differs from Rosen’s (2006) study of a snowball sample of MySpace teenage users, in which the mean number of friends was 200.

 

Figure 1: Number of friends
Figure 1: Number of friends.

 

Blog usage

MySpace offers a blog feature; all users may maintain a blog as part of their personal page. Of all the MySpace users analyzed (N = 1,378), only 31.9 percent (N = 440) had blogs. Of those blogs, 73.0 percent were active and 27.0 percent had been abandoned, meaning they did not show any activity during the last three months. Sixty percent of the blog users had between one and three posts in their blogs, 37.7 percent had between four and ten posts, and just 2.3 percent had more than ten posts (see Figure 2). The average number of user–generated posts was four (M = 3.97, SD = 3.48).

 

Figure 2: : Number of posts in blogs
Figure 2: : Number of posts in blogs.

 

To analyze the frequency of blog posting among the users who had blogs, the difference in time between the two latest posts was measured (see Figure 3). Only 6.6 percent of the users wrote one or more posts per day, whereas 14.6 percent wrote one post per week and 18.7 percent wrote posts at least once a month. It is interesting to note that the majority of the blog users (60.1 percent) wrote with more than one month of difference between posts or posted just one time.

 

Figure 3: Frequency of posting
Figure 3: Frequency of posting.

 

Content

Over seven in every ten bloggers disclosed their emotional states and moods with emoticons and text in their posts (74.5 percent). Issues related to romantic relationships (35.2 percent) and friendships (30.5 percent) were the second and third most recurrent topics, followed closely by work (28.1 percent). Nightlife (24.8 percent) and travel experiences (24.6 percent) were found in almost one in every four blogs. Over one–fifth of the blogs had posts related to school (21.6 percent) and health issues (20.3 percent), whereas music, religion and sex appeared in just 18.8, 16.9 and 14.4 percent of the blogs, respectively. Other topics mentioned in users’ blogs were sports (11.8 percent), personal budgeting problems and economic successes (11.6 percent), celebrities (10.9 percent), commodities users want to buy (10.5 percent) and commodities that they owned or had recently purchased (9.6 percent). Other media were not particularly popular topics of discussion; only 8.8 percent of those who maintained blogs made mention of television and a mere 8.6 percent made mention of film. Books were the least commonly mentioned topic overall, drawing comments from only 4.4 percent of bloggers. Remarks about politics (6.8 percent) and games (5.1 percent) were also uncommon.

Bloggers have the option to include images in their posts. While emoticons were popular and were often used to indicate mood, other images were posted very infrequently. Of those who maintained blogs, photos with friends or a romantic partner and images of objects were the two most common image types. Despite their relative frequency overall numbers were low. Of the blogs sampled (N = 440), 71 images with friends or romantic partners and 41 images of objects were recorded. Though the counts seem relatively high, the majority of these images were posted in only a few blogs. Thirty–one of the images of objects (75.6 percent) were CDs, posted in a total of nine distinct blogs. MySpace allows users to post images of CD covers they are listening to at the time of their blog post or of which they are generally fond. The relatively high number of CD images posted is thus unsurprising.

Feedback

Seven of every ten users received feedback on their posts (70.6 percent; see Figure 4). Blog readers, friends and other users may comment on posts they read and make notes for the user who posted in a forum provided by MySpace specifically for that purpose. Those bloggers in the sample who had feedback (N = 293) received an average of 7.4 messages, although the variability across blogs was high (M = 7.4, SD = 10.73). Most of the bloggers who received feedback (64.2 percent) received between one and five message from their readers, 15.3 percent received between 6 and 10 messages, 13.7 percent received between 11 and 20 messages and just 6.8 percent received more than 20 messages. The majority of the bloggers who had feedback (68.6 percent) received supportive messages from their readers. Such messages include words of praise or encouragement, or empathy from a reader such as, “Way to go!” or “I know how you feel.”

 

Figure 4: Feedback in blogs
Figure 4: Feedback in blogs.

 

Gender differences

A chi–square test was used to test the significance of the differences on blog usage between genders. Female users (38.3 percent) were more likely to use the blog feature available on MySpace than male users (24.0 percent) (c2 (2, N = 1,375) = 34.83a, ρ<.001). Of those who maintained blogs, females were more likely to write about family (34.9 percent–21.9 percent) (c2 (1, N = 435) = 7.76b, ρ<.01), romantic relationships (38.5 percent–28.8 percent) (c2 (1, N = 437) = 4.03b, ρ<.05), friendships (37.7 percent–46.2 percent) (c2 (1, N = 438) = 2.91b, ρ<.1) and health (22.6 percent–15.8 percent) (c2 (1, N = 438) = 2.82b, ρ<.1) than male users. Male users who maintained blogs, on the other hand, were more likely than their female counterparts to write about music (24 percent–15.9 percent) (c2 (2, N = 436) = 8.45a, ρ<.05; see Figure 5).

 

Figure 5: Blog content by gender
Figure 5: Blog content by gender.

 

Age differences

Likewise, a chi–square test was employed to test the significance of differences of blog content among users of distinct age groups. One significant difference related to blog usage and two significant differences related to blog content — school and family issues — were found across distinct age categories. Regarding users’ blog usage (see Figure 6), users between 18 and 25 years old (35.1 percent) and users of 41 and older (33.3 percent) were more likely to use the blog feature of MySpace than users between 36 and 40 years (30 percent), users between 31 and 35 years (21.9 percent), and users between 26 and 30 years (24.6 percent) (c2 (4, N = 437) = 12.895a, ρ<.05). Not surprisingly, users between 18 and 25 years old (24.5 percent) and between 26 and 30 years old (21.7 percent) were more likely to write about school matters than older users (15.4 percent)) (c2 (4, N = 427) = 9.886a, ρ<.05). Users of 41 years and older (46.7 percent) and users between 26 and 30 years old (42.2 percent) tended more to post about family issues than users between 18 and 25 years (29.1 percent), users between 31 and 35 years (17.4 percent) and users between 36 and 40 years (20 percent) (c2 (4, N = 433) = 8.860a, ρ<.1). Regarding revelation of sensitive information, teenage users analyzed (users with 18 and 19 years old) showed significantly higher disclosure than adult users in categories such as full name (29.3 percent–20.2 percent) (c2 (2, N = 1217) = 6.645b, ρ = .01) and instant messenger name (43.2 percent–20.7 percent) (c2 (2, N = 1358) = 10.951b, ρ = .001).

 

Figure 6: Bloggers by gender and age
Figure 6: Bloggers by gender and age.

 

Several subjects were discussed almost exclusively by younger bloggers. Although other media were some of the least common blog topics they were particularly unpopular amongst older bloggers. This finding suggests there is less ‘mixing’ of media amongst older bloggers — they are less likely to comment on other media through the online medium of the blog than younger users. Only one blogger over the age of 35 mentioned television and just one mentioned film. Not a single user above the age of 35 wrote about books. Games also appear to be a topic mentioned more commonly by younger users; only one blogger older than 35 mentioned games. Despite the apparent aversion to mixing media amongst older users, one must be careful about drawing gross generalizations from these data, as users over age 35 represent only 6.9 percent of the sample (N = 95).

 

++++++++++

Discussion & conclusion

The demographic composition of the sample of U.S. MySpace users in this study does not match the demographics of MySpace visitors reported by comScore (2007). According to comScore (2007), more than a half of MySpace visitors on August 2006 were 35 years or older, while the majority (92.5 percent) of the adult users analyzed in this study is between 18 and 35 years old. This disagreement cannot be fully explained either by the difference in time windows in which the samples were collected or by the fact that comScore also included minors. The data reported by comScore corresponds to August 2006, whereas most of the sample of the present study was collected during the second half of 2006. Thus, even if online populations change fast, the results of the two studies show very different populations. The difference may be accounted for if MySpace users lie about their age in their MySpace profile. Another, more plausible, explanation is that comScore, which employs user tracking to record the sites its subjects visit, counts all people who access the site, regardless of whether they have an account on MySpace. As a result, ‘visitors’ and ‘users’ are very different. comScore collects information about visitors to MySpace pages but not about those who have profiles on MySpace, and comScore, in contrast with our study, thus cannot report age based on user profiles. Nevertheless, it would be valuable for future research to address the motivations and intentions of those individuals who visit MySpace without having an active account.

Consistent with Stuztman’s (2006) findings on self–disclosure, MySpace users showed high disclosure of personal information in categories such as race, sexual orientation, body type, height, relationship status, personal photo and first name. As in prior findings in teenage blogs (Huffaker, 2006), the users who were 18 and 19 years old had significantly higher disclosure on contact information such as full name and IM nickname when compared with adult users. This could mean that adult users are more aware than teenagers of the dangers of making public their private contact information online. The adult users analyzed in this study employed strategies to protect their contact information without hiding some characteristics of their personal identity. Nevertheless, this study did not find any evidence of widespread disclosure of information that would be easily used for stalking or other forms of offline harassment.

By revealing their physical appearance, name and status, users are showing and constructing who they are. These characteristics along with their posts and the visual composition of their sites reveal their digital bodies (boyd, 2006b), which they use to socialize online. However, even if users protect their contact information, they might still be identifiable by searching their contacts (boyd, 2006) and through, apparently, not sensitive information such as occupations or affiliations. The fact that 98.3 percent of the sites analyzed were public could indicate that users prefer to do self–censorship of their contact and identifying information than to eliminate the possibility of being accessed by unknown audiences.

MySpace is widely used to maintain and develop social ties. This is consistent with findings by Gallant, et al. (2007), Dwyer (2007), boyd (2006a), and DiPerna (2007). In contrast with the large proportion of users that take advantage of the social networking capabilities of MySpace, only a small proportion of users (31.9 percent) utilize the Web site for blogging. This fact could have several explanations. It could be that some users are not aware of the blog feature available in MySpace; that blogging consumes more time than just posting messages to friends; or, that users prefer other Web sites to perform this activity. The low blog usage was also evidenced in the infrequent posting of messages in which 60.1 percent of the bloggers post their messages with more than a month of difference or have only one message posted, and 60.0 percent of the blogs have three or less posts.

Even with these low numbers in blog usage, it is important to note that the majority of the bloggers analyzed (74.5 percent) showed a high disclosure of emotions in their posts and that most of the bloggers that had feedback (68.6 percent) received emotional support from their readers. These two facts could be connected with Valkenburg, et al.’s (2006) findings in users’ self–esteem and well–being. The disclosure of emotions, in part facilitated by the use of emoticons, could be a healthy cathartic activity for users and could affect their well–being. In addition, receiving emotional support from their readers could possibly affect their social self–esteem.

The content of blogs of the MySpace users analyzed, which was mostly textual with a very low proportion of images, was devoted more to personal content and daily life events such as emotional states, romance, friendship, work, nightlife and health, than to media related content such as celebrities, sports, television, films, books, games and external events such as politics. Female bloggers chose more social topics such as family, romance and friendships than males. Male bloggers wrote more about media related topics such as music than their female counterparts. Not surprisingly, the oldest group of users, who might be already established or maintaining contact with family members who live outside the United States, and users between 26 and 30, who might be raising a family, wrote more about family issues than other users. Users younger than 35 were more media oriented than older users. MySpace blogs are used as personal spaces for reflection and life narration, through which users disclose their emotions and, at the same time, receive emotional support.

Future research on MySpace content should more closely examine its visual components, in particular video posted by users. Although it will be difficult to create a rigorous and detailed coding scheme for visuals it will be worth the effort, as such an analysis may reveal yet more about self–disclosure through non–textual media. In light of the ever increasing use of the Internet for photo and video sharing there is likely much to learn about users and thier content from such a study. End of article

 

About the authors

Steve Jones is Professor of Communication and Associate Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was first President and co–founder of the Association of Internet Researchers and a Senior Research Fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Direct comments to sjones [at] uic [dot] edu

Sarah Millermaier is a master’s candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Mariana Goya–Martinez is a doctoral candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.

Jessica Schuler holds a master’s degree in Communication from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

 

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Georgy Das, Billy Lally, Alaina Maxwell, Stacie Nelson and Kaitlin Smith, University of Illinois at Chicago undergraduate students at the time of coding and analysis, for their assistance with coding, and Francisco Seoane Perez for his assistance developing the coding protocol.

 

Notes

1. Rogers, et al., 2007, p. 1,804.

2. DiPerna, 2007, p. 7.

3. Dwyer, 2007, p. 2.

4. boyd, 2006a, para. 25.

5. Gallant, et al., para. 21.

6. boyd, 2007, p. 8.

7. boyd, 2006c, para. 17.

8. boyd, 2006c, para. 18.

9. boyd, 2006a, para. 56.

10. Gallant, et al., 2007, para. 3.

11. Gallant, et al., 2007, para. 16.

12. Gallant, et al., 2007, para. 18.

13. Gallant, et al., para. 19.

14. Gallant, et al., para. 21.

15. boyd, 2006b, para. 14.

16. Stutzman, 2006, p. 3.

17. Stutzman, 2006, p. 1.

18. Barnes, 2006, para. 3.

19. Dwyer, 2007, p. 5.

20. Online handle was defined as a nickname with no author’s name, for example, “Music Lover.” “If I had a million dollars” and “Cake is for kids” are examples of the types of phrases that could be employed as user names. Approximately five percent (4.8 percent) of user names were classified as “other.”

21. Realistic names were defined as names that included non–linguistic characters, such as John_Smith and *jane*doe*.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 22 June 2008; accepted 21 August 2008.


Creative Commons License
“Whose space is MySpace? A content analysis of MySpace profiles” by Steve Jones, Sarah Millermaier, Mariana Goya–Martinez, Jessica Schuler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Whose space is MySpace? A content analysis of MySpace profiles
by Steve Jones, Sarah Millermaier, Mariana Goya–Martinez, and Jessica Schuler
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 9 - 1 September 2008
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2202/2024





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