Classed Relationships on the Internet

“Social class and the Internet” usually implies issues of access to high-speed Internet and newer computers. But recent online discussions have me reflecting on how my Facebook friends are divided clearly along class lines, in how we interact online. Class differences in dealing – or not dealing – with conflict show up starkly in my online conversations.

Well-educated middle- and owning-class people surround me today, but my upbringing was in a working class neighborhood where Mr. Shoemaker fixed televisions, Mr. Overstreet delivered Pepsi, and Mr. Church delivered Wonder Bread. (No, I didn’t make up the names OR the jobs). My mom worked and wore steel-toed boots every weekday.

I also have working-class friends from Metropolitan State University, where I got my BA in 2007 – a good college choice for Twin Cities poor and working class adults because class schedules are work-friendly, the school is the most diverse of all the schools in Minnesota, and it’s the best bargain in town at less than a third of what the University of Minnesota charges per credit. A course I’m taking right now includes a man who is living on the streets, and not by choice. Every course I’ve taken at Metro has had a firefighter, a baker or postal carrier.

My long-time friend from second grade Raeann, whose father fixed trucks for a living, found me on Facebook first. She connected me with other childhood friends, many living the way their parents lived, only they work at debt collection agencies, auto parts stores and call centers, instead of at factories. Soon we were poking each other, posting funny links and arguing about politics.

So my Facebook friends come from all classes. Facebook seems like a place where all my friends can hang out with me without regard to social class — only it’s not.

With most of my working-class Facebook friends, I can have lively, conflict-filled discussions about politics, theology and pop culture. We talk online about our contentious views on immigration, health care reform and racism. We argue, laugh, and share tender moments with each other.

But when politics come up among my middle- and owning-class friends, there isn’t open and honest and direct conflict. When disagreements do arise, middle- and owning-class people throw up their virtual hands and say things like “this medium isn’t good for conflict.”

For example, a highly-educated friend recently posted a link to a magazine for mothers called “Brain Child.” The title made me think this was a magazine by and for middle- and owning-class people. The articles affirmed my suspicions: inaccessible and written toward middle- and owning-class people. One even says “Today’s parents-specifically, college-educated, professional-class parents-are deeply worried about their children’s future…” (Why not just say “Today’s college-educated, professional-class parents…”???)

So I commented on my friend’s link. “Yes, this [magazine] might be of interest to middle- and owning-class moms. But maybe not so much poor and working-class mothers.”

What came next is typical of what I get from my middle- and owning-class friends: a mini-lecture on how to “appropriately” invite dialog. I wrote back:

“It [my way of expressing concerns] could be [done the way you’d want me to do it]. But that’s not how I do it, and some of that is based in social class. You insist that your way is best and it is not best for everyone. Plain old information in MY culture doesn’t have judgment or value or confrontation. It IS the invitation to open and honest conversation.”

After this conversation, I organized my 250 or so Facebook friends into two lists: people who are okay with open and direct conflict; and people who don’t engage in fights, who lecture me on how to invite dialog, or who always take a difference private in order to end it.

And wouldn’t you know, I can predict who will engage in direct disputes and who won’t based on their class background and current educational attainment, with just a few exceptions (the closer they are to me, the more likely they are to break away from my expectations). I can almost always count on my childhood friends and my friends from Metro State not to lecture me about “best practices” before engaging in a fight.

Here on Classism Exposed!, I will never mince words. Get used to it. However, I do have a query for you, because I’m curious and because you care about social class and classism: What are you noticing about your own classed online presence, and your relationships in online social networks in terms of social class? (And don’t be afraid to be blunt yourself. I can take it.)

N. Jeanne Burns lives in south Minneapolis with her partner Liz. She writes where she can find juice for her laptop, iPod and cell phone. Her muse, on the other hand, prefers to inspire her in places not mentionable in middle and owning class company. Jeanne has been published in Haute Dish, Spout, Northography,  NYYM Spark, and the anthology Writing Cheerfully on the Web: A Quaker Blog Reader. She maintains a blog on Quakers & social class at

10 Responses

  1. I don’t know where I fit in on your Facebook categories, but I wonder if you’re being overly-deterministic in this. Like: how do you confirm which bucket to put people in? The way I approach conflict is influenced by my class upbringing but it’s also influenced by twenty years of conscious choices I’ve made trying to consciously live out Christ’s gospel. That might make me less likely to get into online brawls–to take it offline or to try to guess at the emotional state that anger might be coming from (forgive them their trespasses etc)–but does that make me suddenly owning class?

    And even if you do look at class, it’s complicated. My mom grew up in a working class family but rebelled and often took on more “upper class” attitudes even though her bank account never really matched. She learned to hide her accent, a value that was passed down to me, and she always tried to pass. Like, growing up, my clothes always were clean preppy ones from the “nice” department store while the upper-class kids in my class were carefully sloppy, like their fad of wearing medical scrubs borrowed from their doctor parents. Like a lot of people, I also censor myself online. I’ve had nearly full-time jobs that I haven’t mentioned online because I have a professional reputation to uphold. I sometimes dream of going all tourettes on my Facebook, telling people what I really think–but I to consider my family’s well-being. I have clients and potential clients on my FB friends list.

    So I wonder how you controlled for the two Facebook categories? How did you keep it from being style-like-mine vs style-not-like-mine?

  2. You are such a good writer, NJ! You’ve certainly given me something to think about. Hmm… I’ll get back to you once I have it all organized in my head. Thank you!

  3. Martin, of course class is complicated! I’m only looking at one dimension, and I was a little astounded at my experiment because the internet is supposed to be a great “equalizer.”

    I write this, though, not to put people in boxes but to help people see that we bring class wherever we go. Conflict online is one of the many places we do it. You are one of the most class conscious people I know, so your description of yourself and your online presence makes a lot of sense to me.

    In the end, there was a continuum of course, and a small number of people (less than 10, more than 5, I don’t have my notes in front of me) were outliers, mostly having to do with how close they are to me and how class conscious they are. I don’t have many of the latter in my life that also aren’t the former.

  4. I wonder if this is limited to online interactions only? It may be that working class people are more comfortable with public conflict in general. I am questioning here…. Or possibly the issues that you might raise are uncomfortable for middle/owning class folks to confront in a public forum. I find this is true wherever I am on- or off-line. Certain topics are fine for discussion – even hotly debated political topics – no matter which friends I’m with, but other topics make certain friends too uncomfortable – on both ends of the economic/social scale. My ongoing question is how to bring the topics up in a way that can be heard and discussed in the forums where a difference can be made. Sometimes it’s more about the painful nature of the topics or the judgment that the audience might feel (whether I intend it or not) because of our backgrounds.

  5. T.Dixon

    I notice that I am one who myself does not engage in political conversations online. I don’t trust the medium/forum. I grew up lower-middle/working class and most of my family seems to have become solidly middle class (with a few becoming upper middle class and a few remaining working class). My friends tend to incorporate folks throughout the spectrum. I have a very hard time keeping in touch with my friends and family so i’m using facebook as some kind of glue. I am loathe to risk alienating folks even further than I somehow have already managed to. I do post interesting articles, even provocative ones. Only once has anyone commented. I wish my relationships with people were more engaging, that’s for sure! I comment on other’s links/posts that I agree with, but only in a abbreviated way (“like”).

  6. Amy

    I have definitely seen two different kinds of communication styles with people. I’m a direct person, but learned how to cross-communicate in college. (Interestingly, I don’t think I would have, had I gone to college at 19. But at 30 I was taking special care not to give the impression that I was dismissive of others opinions because of the age difference.)
    I have heard it attributed to different things though. I’ve heard it’s a liberal / conservative thing, east&west coast vs. heartland or southern thing, a class thing, and a cultural thing. I’ve been told that my style is related to my Scandinavian heritage. And it reminds me a bit of Annette Lereau’s observations in “Unequal Childhoods.” Obviously there’s some correlation there too between groups. So I’d be interested in hearing other’s observations on this.

    The best description (and most humorous) I’ve read about this was comparing the communication styles between two neo-pagan groups, Ásatrú and Wicca in an article by Devyn Gillette and Lewis Stead:
    (from )

    One of the most significant social differences between Wicca and Ásatrú is their use of language and the way they communicate. More conflict between the two communities can be traced to this than any other factor. Wiccans tend to speak in a very conditional manner, often using the passive voice. The general mode of communication is quiet, cooperative, and seeks consensus, which parallels the Wiccan worldview of an orderly and harmonic universe. Most statements are usually accompanied by a conversational hook, with which the other person can help his conversational partner to save face in the event of disagreement by affirming the validity of the opposite argument. Conversations tend to be in quiet and reasoned tones.

    Ásatrúar tend to speak in a very direct method using declarative sentences, tending to cite things in a black and white and often simplistic manner. The general method of communication is to state ones position with the expectation that ones opposite will state theirs and either agreement or argument will ensue. Consensus and compromise is rarely the object. This verbal sparring mirrors the general focus on conflict in the religion. A standoff between strong but disagreeing positions (i.e., agreeing to disagree) is generally seen as preferable to compromise. Face saving is seen to be the individuals own responsibility, to be obtained by demonstrating not only the validity of ones beliefs, but how strongly one holds them. Conversations tend to be fast paced and often in emotional tones. Any conflict and anger brought forth in debate is generally dismissed as necessary to the process and quickly forgotten; although when it is not, it tends to create long term grudges.

    These differing methods of communication naturally set up an easy to follow pattern of communication, or rather miscommunication, between Wiccans and Ásatrúar. The Wiccan begins with a statement of where he or she stands on an issue. The statement is conditioned with one or two phrases such as “in my opinion” meant to allow their opposite room for compromise in the event of disagreement. The Ásatrúar, upon hearing this, assumes that because the Wiccan has conditioned his statement, that it is loosely held and subject to revision or correction. He or she replies very directly that he feels the Wiccan’s position is incorrect and supports evidence as to why. Up to this point, each party has acted exactly as their community standards lead them to react. The Ásatrúar expects the Wiccan to either accept the reasoning or to refute it. The Wiccan is simply stunned. He or she feels they have made a polite statement and had it answered in a rude and disrespectful manner. At this point, he has already decided the conversation is without purpose and attempts to end it by agreeing to the validity of the Ásatrúar’s opinion, but restating his own, this time even more conditionally. This is a common way to end such a conversation in the Wiccan community, but the Ásatrúar sees it in an entirely different light. Smelling rhetorical blood, he or she strongly dismisses the Wiccan’s opinion and even more strongly restates his own. The Wiccan now feels insulted beyond tolerance. He replies angrily, not concerning the original subject of the conversation, but chastising the Ásatrúar’s behavior. The Ásatrúar is shocked by this reaction and asks what the problem is. Assuming the problem is obvious to everyone involved, the Wiccan turns and leaves. The two part, the Wiccan convinced the Ásatrúar is a rude and insensitive jerk trying to force his opinions on others, the Ásatrúar convinced he is the victim of yet another attempt at politically correct censorship by someone who can’t defend his own beliefs.

    P.S. I liked the magazine Brain, Child but if you’re looking for something more class-conscious and addressing similar parenting topics, check out the magazine Hip Mama.

  7. Stephanie Charlot

    Interesting. I have a conception (stereotype?) of the kind of brash, conflict-comfortable working class family you are talking about, but my own working class family is the opposite. They are so very conflict-averse that they will let relationships drop rather than confront someone (even privately) about something that bothers them. They do a good bit of talking behind each other’s back about it too. Even more interesting, the family members from my parents generation and my own generation that have moved out of the working class into the professional/middle class — none of us are wealthly or “owning” yet — are the ones who have a more moderate approach to conflict. We tend to handle it in the “middle class” way you outline, in private if at all possible and with less talking behind the person’s back.

    I wonder if ethnicity plays any role here? My husband is Haitian, and boy can they get into a shouting match over politics or whatever and then in a moment switch over to laughter and sharing a good meal. It’s so amazing to me! As for white working class “arguers”, my stereotype jumps to Italians, Greeks, maybe French? Nearly all my folks were from the good ‘ole British Isles long, long ago, so maybe the reticence of that culture has carried through to the present day. (But it was *really* long ago for many of them, so maybe it’s more regional here in the States?) I don’t know. My own experience just doesn’t line up with yours, but I know yours is just as real and true. Maybe more so — maybe my family is an aberration?

  8. Stephanie Charlot

    Sorry for a second post, but I can’t figure out how to edit the one I already submitted. I walked away from the computer and thought about this some more. It seems to me that rather than ethnic differences, there may be a rural/urban difference. My family members have been farmers, farm laborers, or rural/small town tradesmen for generations. I recently did quite a bit of family history research and found that on my father’s side, we have almost *no* history of urban living/working until my generation. There is more on my mother’s side, but still not much. Even our immigrant ancestors passed right through the port cities and headed for the hills! Perhaps the working class culture you speak of is an urban culture in this country, and the one I’m familiar with is a rural culture? Food for thought…

  9. Nicole Renee Brown

    @Stephanie: Thanks for adding your insight about ethnicity and how it could play a role in your experience–no one is a aberration!! Class is such a complex topic in this country and plays out through all of the other -isms: racism, sexism, etc. They are all so intertwined, and the fact that your family has immigrant roots as does your husband shows the complexity in communication, how class is interpreted and how it is acted out in society.

    Your history sounds super interesting! I wish to do some more research on the background of my American born side of the family. The reticience of the British totally translated to their colonies where our families came from so that with the class of earlier immigrants added to the ethnicity factor, definitely explains the various ways class influences our way of communicating. Just like you said, Jeanne’s experience is totally valid as is yours. It’s just a little different!

  10. Tanja

    I found your article highly interesting!
    There´s a really good chapter on “obstacles to alliances” in Betsy Leondar Wright´s “Class Matters” that i highly recommend!
    It talks about “counterculture Lifestyle Clashes” – and it has recommendations for middle-class activists, “what to do, when a working-class person is raging at you”.

    Thanks for writing this.

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