danah boyd recely gave a talk at the Microsoft Research Tech Fest on her research on social media titled “Social Media is here to stay … now what?“. Most interesting to me were her insights into how youth and adults use the various social sites (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace etc) differently. I’ve bolded some of the sections that I thought were most insightful
Let’s now turn our attention to youth for a moment. As many of you know, youth played a central role in the rise of some social media. Now, many adults have jumped in, but what they are doing there is often very different than what young people are doing. This showcases the ways in which some tools are used differently by different groups.
For American teenagers, social network sites became a social hangout space, not unlike the malls in which I grew up or the dance halls of yesteryears. This was a place to gather with friends from school and church when in-person encounters were not viable. Unlike many adults, teenagers were never really networking. They were socializing in pre-exiting groups.
Social network sites became critically important to them because this was where they sat and gossiped, jockeyed for status, and functioned as digital flaneurs. They used these tools to see and be seen. Those using MySpace put great effort into decorating their profile and fleshing out their “About Me” section. The features and functionality of Facebook were fundamentally different, but virtual pets and quizzes served similar self-expression purposes on Facebook.
Teen conversations may appear completely irrational, or pointless at best. “Yo, wazzup?” “Not much, how you?” may not seem like much to an outsider, but this is a form of social grooming. It’s a way of checking in, confirming friendships, and negotiating social waters.
Adults have approached Facebook in very different ways. Adults are not hanging out on Facebook. They are more likely to respond to status messages than start a conversation on someone’s wall (unless it’s their birthday of course). Adults aren’t really decorating their profiles or making sure that their About Me’s are up-to-date. Adults, far more than teens, are using Facebook for its intended purpose as a social utility. For example, it is a tool for communicating with the past.
Adults may giggle about having run-ins with mates from high school, but underneath it all, many of them are curious. This isn’t that different than the school reunion. We all poo-poo the reunion, but secretly, we really want to know what happened to Bobbi Sue. Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the recent “25 Things” phenomena. While teens have been filling out personality quizzes since the dawn of social media, most adults only went through this phase once, as a newbie when they felt as though they really needed to forward the chain letter to 10 friends or else. The “25 Things” phenomenon took me by surprise until I started thinking about the intended audience. Teenagers craft quizzes for themselves and their friends. Adults are crafting them to show-off to people from the past and connect the dots between different audiences as a way of coping with the awkwardness of collapsed contexts.
Social media continues to be age-graded. Right now, Twitter is all the rage, but are kids using it? For the most part, no. It’s not the act of creating and sharing social nuggets that’s the issue. Teens are actively using Facebook status update, MySpace bulletins, and IM away messages to share their views on the day and their mood of the moment. So why not Twitter? While it’s possible to make Twitter “private,” the culture of Twitter is all about participation in a large public square. From the digerati seeking widespread attention to the politically minded hoping to appear on CNN, many are leveraging Twitter to be part of a broad dialogue. Teens are much more motivated to talk only with their friends and they learned a harsh lesson with social network sites. Even if they are just trying to talk to their friends, those who hold power over them are going to access everything they wrote if it’s in public. While the ethos among teens is “public by default, private when necessary,” many are learning that it’s just not worth it to have a worrying mother obsess over every mood you seek to convey. This dynamic showcases how social factors are key to the adoption of new forms of social media.
The NY Times Magazine has an article this Sunday, “Growing up on Facebook” that reaffirms danah’s point that adults use Facebook (and other social media) for reconnecting with their past:
Ever since I signed up a couple of months ago, I have felt thrust into a perpetual episode of “This Is Your Life” (complete with commercials). “Friends” from nursery school have resurfaced, as well as high-school teachers (including the one who pinned me to a wall during a graduation party and slurred, “You’re not much to look at now, but when you’re 30 you’re gonna be terrific”). I have reconnected with the brother of a friend who was killed; rediscovered college chums and colleagues from my early days in New York. I am by turns amused, touched and horrified by these gentle breezes and icy blasts from the past.
Skip to next paragraph
Enlarge This Image
All of which is possible because I actually have one — a past, that is. As do most people my age, and apparently, we’re digging its excavation: there was an estimated 276 percent increase in Facebook users ages 35-54 during the last six months of 2008, bringing their total to almost seven million. Still, that number is dwarfed by the nearly 25 million users under 25. That gives me pause. They can’t be doing what we’re doing, right? What do they have to look back on?
Even a cursory glance at Myspace and Facebook pages of young people show that they have an entirely different use case;the “grooming” of existing social relationships that danah talks about.