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New York Magazine has a great article in its current edition where it attempts to understand the psyche of the users of social networks, especially the younger users. Although as investors and entrepreneurs, we do our best to get into the heads of these users, many of us are a generation (or at least half a generation!) too old to be of this demogrpahic. The article won’t have much new to say to regular readers of Dana Boyd and Clay Shirky, both of whom are quoted in the article, but its worth reading none the less.

The author, Emily Nussbaum, has been tracking this theme for several years and wrote a good story in the NYTimes a couple of years ago on teen blogging that is also a good read.

Nussbaum talks about younger internet users’ willingness to reveal their private lives on the Internet (blogging, posting photos, sharing “private” details on myspace or facebook) as causing the first true generation gap since rock and roll 50 years ago. She satirizes the older generation’s “disgusted, dismissive squawk” as going something like this:

Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numebrs, their stupid poetry- for God’s sake, their dirty photos! – online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. they talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention – and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtula stage to another.

Nussbaum highlights three changes in the mindset of younger internet users who grew up as Digital Natives:

They think of themselves as having an audience

They have accepted that in a world of cellphone cameras and security videos and Google, there is no guarantee of privacy anyway. Whereas once only celebrities and politicians had to parse every sentence, these users have learned to modulate their voices to address their constant audience. They have learned the coping skills of Paris Hilton: enjoy the attention instead of fighting it and do your own publicity before someone does it for you. One telling quote “why go to a partiy if you’re not going to get your picture taken?”

They have archived their adolescence

Unlike older generations, whose memories of their youth are largely centered around yellowing old photos in shoeboxes and the occasional artifact – a trophy or an award, this generation has a detailed history of their lives stored digitally. This archive is open to anyone – potential employers, spouses, friend – but most importantly it’s open to its creator, who can dip back into her past with ease. Its certainly open to online predators and pedophiles too – but worrying about that is akin to saying “How can you move to New York? You’ll get mugged!” in the minds of these users who have grown up learning to deal with porn popups and IMs from dodgy strangers.

Their skin is thicker than yours

Public life is fun. It’s creative. It’s where your friends are. It’s theatre, but it’s also community. But the flip side of all of this is that you also open yourself up to shaming, to snark, to anonymous flaming. These internet users can feel embarassment and absorb it without shutting down. Quoting another of Nussbaum’s interviewees “Well, I guess you have to be sort of honored that someone takes the time to write about you, good or bad”.

The key takeaway for me is that user generated content on social networks (whether away messages on AIM or posts on the Wall at Facebook or restaurant reviews at Yelp) is as much about performance (for an audience) as it is about communication. Self expression is not about what I think, its about what I want you to think about what I think.

In an offline world, my self expression is limited to choosing from a predefined set in a confined space: which bumper sticker will I put on my car, which poster will I put on my dorm room wall, which colored charity band will I wear on my wrist. In each case, I’m carefully choosing my “self expression” to make sure that it casts me in the light in which I want to be seen. Online, my self expression is unbounded. As is often the case, online adoption occurs fastest when it mirrors existing offline behaviour and improves it, and we definitely see this in the area of social networks.

So while I highly recommend reading the article, and agree with a lot of its observations, I ultimately don’t think that this generation is so hard to understand. They’re just like us, only moreso.

  • http://chikkman.blogspot.com mike

    Definitely agree that the social network phenomenon has a lot to do with “performing” for others.

    By the way, really enjoy your blog so far. Keep up the good work.

    -Mike

  • http://www.scoreboard-media.com/ Brian Provost

    “They have learned the coping skills of Paris Hilton: enjoy the attention instead of fighting it and do your own publicity before someone does it for you.”

    This is exactly what Corporate America and every single startup needs to learn from all this. Ask Ted Leonsis.

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  • http://www.eightfatswine.com/View.aspx?bid=20 Phil

    im a psychologist who has been studying the psychological dynamics of web2.0 and have been writing about it on my blog. i see no one else doing the work i am doing and truly believe it has huge implications on design.

  • http://chikpea.wordpress.com Bhaskar Roy

    We have started our venture, taking some of these social networking concepts and to apply on an eCommerce platform, we are looking for funding, any reference to Lightspeed will be greatly appreciated, our website – http://www.chikepa.com , i can be reached at bhaskar.roy@chikpea.com

  • http://www.bouncebase.com David Armstrong

    I’ve been an entrepreneur of viral marketing and studying the execution of Metcalf’s and more importantly Reed’s Law. It started way back with the usnet groups..where the .alt groups just grew exponentially (Reed’s law) Specialty sites with Forums are similar but don’t enable across site connections, e.g. I’m on a skiing forum but it doesn’t have motocross stuff, both in my “social” group. Enabling conversation between groups is the basis of GFN’s (Reed’s law) I’d encourage any Web 2.0 Entrepreneur to get close to Reed’s Law and find applicable models.

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  • Berlin

    Thesis without numbers or vice versa. I think following compliments the article or rather give a clearer picture.

    According to Red Herring Metrics (Feb 12 2007 Issue) only half of the teens in the U.S. have a virtual world. about 21% keep their profile private, 45% keep their profile visible only to friends and about 31% leave it wide open for anyone. (sample: 935 youths 12 – 17)

    about 10% reveal their full name, 7% post photos of themselves in swimsuit or underwear, 18% post photos of ‘friends’ in swimsuit or underwear, only about 58% have their real photos on their profile. (sample 9,282 random profiles on myspace)

    On 1,388 adolescents 2007: 54% or so of the females have created online profiles compared to 45% in males, 20% of females and 18% males have been harassed via IM, 18% of females and 10% of males have been harassed via email.