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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.