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What those crazy kids are doing online…

My friend danah boyd graced the Berkman Center with her presence last Tuesday and fans of her research on American youth culture and social networking sites packed our conference room for her talk over lunch. I’ve been remiss in posting notes from her talk, but the research she posted yesterday on class divisions in usage of MySpace and Facebook seemed like a good excuse to write up a summary of her talk.

danah began her discussion with two quotes, one from über-blogger Kathy Sierra‘s 16-year old daughter Skyler, who observed, “If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.” The other quote, from a 16-year old named Amy, explains the appeal of these spaces for some American teens: “My mom doesn’t let me out of the house very often, so that’s pretty much all I do…” The central point of danah’s talk – or at least the one I took away – is that teens are using these online spaces very differently from the way my generation of online users did. They use them not to meet people from around the world who share a common interest, but to have interactions with people they know in real-life because they’ve got so few opportunities for interaction in the real world.

The methodology danah is using is qualitative and ethnographic – since 2003 she’s been talking to the users of social networking sites, starting with the users of Friendster. In revent years, she’s focused on youth usage of these sites, spending thousands of hours on MySpace, and interviewing teens in eight states about their use of MySpace, Facebook and other sites. Because her data comes largely through personal interviews, there’s a tendency to push back on her observations as anecdotal. I think that sometimes misses the point of danah’s work – she’s sharing stories as a way of illustrating larger trends that she’s getting out of many, many interviews and the analysis of a large set of online data.

As she points out early in her talk, quantitative data is tough to come by with this population – she points to a Pew study that suggests that 55% of online American teens have a profile on a site like MySpace or Facebook, a number that rises to 70% of girls between 15 and 17. danah points out that these numbers are from 2005, and they reveal the percent of youth who’ll admit to having these profiles in front of their parents – the real number is likely quite a bit higher. danah points out that 91% of the survey respondents tell the study authors that they use these spaces to “talk to friends they see a lot”.

This contrasts sharply to the history of “networked publics”, a universe that begins with Usenet newsgroups and includes the world of topical mailing lists, as well as topical communities on tools like LiveJournal. The communities on MySpace and Facebook are organized based on groups of friends, not on topics. This means that some users can have surprising conceptions about these tools – users who belong to religious communities sometimes tell danah that they think MySpace is primarily a space for religious communities.

Based on her early research on Friendster, danah tells us the space was largely settled by “geeks, freaks and queers” – more specifically by bloggers, Burning Man attendees and gay men in NYC. danah believes that the bloggers’ role in popularizing the service is overstated and that much of the credit has to go to the Burning Man crowd, who treated the space as “a place to play around with your friends.” This was counter to the intentions of the site’s creators, who saw it as a dating site, and played “whack a mole” with the communities that tried to use it in other ways. A “fakester” profile existed for Harvard University, as a way of uniting Harvard graduates – these fakesters were generally frowned on by the site’s administrators, though they were useful in creating new social interactions in these spaces.

MySpace, danah contents, was designed “to rip off Friendster”, but to be more friendly to communities and groups. MySpace realized that indie rock musicians were using Friendster and routinely getting kicked off for abuse – they reached out to these musicians and invited them to help design the site. As a result, the site became the palce to go “to get tickets to the Viper Room” and the number of fans a band had on MySpace became an important indicator of their popularity. As music fans came online, the minimum user age dropped from 21 to 16 and now to 14… a point at which it can’t get lower without courting legal problems.

MySpace users aren’t especially technical, danah argues. They have “copy/paste literacy”, the capability to make sites “flashy and atrocious” based on what they’re able to copy from other sites. “The blink tag is back, she warns, but argues that the point of these sites is “to make adults run away.” They are personalized in the sense that high school lockers are personalized… and she points out that lockers are rarely allowed to be decorated these days “because of fire hazards.”

It’s unclear to some MySpace users what’s a socially appropriate way to act online. We have social scripts for behavior in the real world, but these scripts are less obvious in online spaces. The internet used to give structure to online conversations by assigning topics, she argues. There was a certain set of rules for “rec.pets.cats”, and if you broke those rules, you were likely to be berated or have your posts added to kill lists. But groups like “alt.tasteless” used to specialize in group invasion, coming onto the rec.pets.cats group and posting their recipies for cooking cats or requesting advice on shaving their cats. These actions move from a “like-mind” effect into a world where you realize your closed topic conversations are visible to the wider world. More disturbing, they’re persistent and searchable…

danah reminds us that “teenagers” are a recent contept – three generations ago, kids above fourteen would move into work or farm environments and would be rapidly socialized into adult life. With the emergence of 1950s teenage culture, we’ve moved into a realm of age segregation where “it’s considered freaky to know people two years older than you are.” This age segregation has been compounded by pervasive fear of “stranger danger”, which has unfortunately been reinforced by real-world events like the revelations about abuse in Catholic churches, which has removed yet another context in which adults and teens interact. (danah points to World of Warcraft as one of very few online spaces that encourages “real age diversity”, with people of different ages cooperating on common goals.)

Stranger danger leads to a locked-down culture where teens are denied access to social spaces for fear of encountering child molesters. But the fears of online teens are different – they’re a fear of authority figures, and especially of Mom, discovering their online interactions. This sense of “invisible audience” changes how teens interact online, in the same way that we change our behaviors in public spaces. But teens also “pretend that the invisible audiences don’t exist,” given that most of their interactions are with a small set of known peers.

In the questions after danah’s talk, I wondered whether there was much concern amongst teens about the commercial nature of the spaces they’re using as “public” space. She notes that many teen users are excited about advertising, noting “If it’s got ads on it, it will be free forever!” She tells us that teens are “used to being blasted with ads” in all aspects of life, and that the commercial nature of these spaces aren’t a turnoff. But the specific nature of the ads may contribute to the image of specific spaces. MySpace ads tend to be flashy and visual; the ads on Facebook tend to be “quiet and acceptable”. This contrast echoes the social dynamics danah sees in the reputations of the two sites. Facebook is attracting the preppy, college-bound kids, and is seen as socially acceptable because it’s a critical tool for these kids heading to college. MySpace, by contrast, is flashy, sleazy and dangerous, used by the marginalized and subculture kids. This disparity extends into the military as well – MySpace, widely used by the enlisted soldiers, has been banned, while Facebook, more widely used by the officers, is still accessible.

One of my favorite details from the lively discussion after the talk was danah’s insight that many teen boys have profiles that were created for them by girls – “the girls create them so they can be first in their top eight.” (This gets a gasp from the crowd, most of whom are significantly more choosy about passing around their passwords…) Boys will engage with these spaces when planning offline activites, and are more likely to connect with strangers… especially adult models who post profiles online, who are likely to be in their friends’ lists. Girls tend to have higher copy/paste literacy, but the boys frequently know the HTML better, as well as the proxies needed to acess these sites from within school.

5 thoughts on “What those crazy kids are doing online…”

  1. I’m not sure why, but there’s something that makes me melancholy about all that. Maybe it’s the vision of all those people, (70%+ girls …) holed up with their friends in their minds, unable to move through the world of stranger danger.

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