Social Networks: Too Much Drama

So opine the teen girls on the SxSW panel “What Teens & Tweens Want In A Web Site/Application”. When high schoolers bemoan that social networking sites like mySpace and Facebook are too much like high school, does social networking have a future?

This is not to say these teens aren’t on social networking sites at all: several boys on the panel used mySpace, primarily for the music features. As one precocious teen explained, “I’m kinda a music producer, so I use mySpace for promotion”. Several of the girls explained their mySpace-related activities involved creating layouts or custom code. But many of them had left the social networking sites, citing “too much drama”.

For these youth, social networking sites aren’t for socializing with their current networks: rather, they are a platform for self-expression and creativity, and promotion thereof. Surprisingly enough, it appeared more members of the audience (skewing an older demographic) had more silly games and applications on their facebook profiles: the youth generally had ‘mob wars’ and little else.

eMarketer estimates that 82% of US teens ages 12 to 17 and 43.5% of children ages 3 to 11 will use the Internet on a monthly basis in 2009. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of teens and nearly one-half of tweens own a mobile phone.

This isn’t to say they teens aren’t using digital channels to communicate and be entertained: they all text message, and many of them engage with long-distance friends via their gaming platforms (primarily xbox). Almost all of the youth watch video or television and play games online. (The teens use Stumbleupon in class to find game sites that haven’t been blocked by the school). When quiered about avatars, many of them felt that avatars helped to reinforce the idea they were chatting with real people.

We know that our conceptual skills evolve as we age, and I couldn’t help but wonder if some of this is at play now: the teens favor more tangible engagement when possible. If they can associate with friends in real life rather than virtually, they do. Avatars help with adding that visual frame of reference in other cases. Of the highly-tech-savvy panel, only one member had even heard of twitter, and although she described what it was, it was apparent that she didn’t understand the value thereof. All of the mySpace and Facebook users update their statuses on those sites, yet the benefits of sending out updates into the Twitterverse was lost on the youth. (None of the students were familiar with RSS, another abstract concept)

Teens OnlineFor many of us, facebook is a way to communicate with friends from our past. On the whole, these youth see their friends and peers on a daily basis. They do not need this added layer of communication channel to do so. Think about it: how many work associates do you engage with on social networking sites?

It may be assumed that as they age and move into different circles, these youth may find merits in social networking sites. But unlike most of us, they already have the email address and cell phone numbers of their close friends. They will have to find value in using a platform for interaction, beyond what they currently have at their disposal.

Session attendees patiently lined up to ask the panel questions, eager to have a small focus group at their hands. One of the most interesting observations for the web developers in the crowd was that none of the youth used the Internet Explorer browser. There is hope!

Unfortunately, the hope faded a bit when I asked a bit more about the use of the term “New Tech” in the students’ school names. These youth are enrolled in a special program with a focus on technology. They learn Dreamweaver, PhotoShop and C++. Anytime you hear the word “rubric” roll easily off the tongue of a 16 year old boy, you know you’re not quite dealing with ‘regular kids’. This is not to say their insights aren’t valuable, but their average 2-4 hours a day online (not including their time in class, where they do all their work on computers) is not the norm. As panel organizer Anastasia Goodstein of YPulse stated, these are our future employees: these are youth well on their way to their 10,000 hours.

Like the teens themselves, social networking sites are still maturing. But is the drama a function of the social networking platform itself, or the users? Will future students encounter the same struggles when engaging online, or will the platform mature to avoid such backlash? We can only wait and see…

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