Thursday, 28 October 2010

don't quote me on that!

Subtitle: Some musings on youth/the interblags/the facebook inspired by a student journalist.

Because my research is on a sexy hot topic, I often get approached by journalists to talk about young people and the internet. More often than not, it's really just about Facebook. I find it incredibly awkward to do this kind of thing, and I'm constantly living in fear of misrepresentation or saying something stupid on the phone or live radio. Maybe I'd be more comfortable if they were asking about the deployment of Goffman's dramaturgical framework to consider identity construction in online social spaces. They never do though! Weird, right?

I guess it's part of the job though, and at least people are actually interested in my research - or the terrain my research finds itself in. Resist the ivory tower and all that stuff. Anyway, I also get approached by lots of student journalists because journalism is taught in the school I work for, so my colleagues love to fwd students to me.

I decided to record some answers to some typical questions I was asked recently, so that a) I can refer future student journalists to this helpful post; b) so I can justify the time-sink; and c) because this particular student journo actually got me thinking about some things I don't usually think about.

Read on for vague anecdotal musings and lots of "I reckon!"

Being in the navy was my other career choice. This blends my social realities. (Stock from fawkmee)

I was wondering if you would answer some quick questions for my story that I have included below... (the name of the student has been omitted for obvious privacy reasons)

What impact, positive/negative/both, do you think social networking is having on our culture and why? 

It's definitely not an either/or situation, so I'd say both. To elaborate, I'd say that different people use new technologies (or any technology) for different reasons and with different intents. We see a lot of bad 'news' about about the negatives of social network sites, so I won't recount those discourses here, but there are also lots of positives, such as rekindling old friendships, staying in contact with people you would otherwise lose contact with, fostering a sense of belonging, exercises of place-making and so on.

I'd also suggest that 'social networking' isn't the best term to describe sites like MySpace and Facebook (if indeed that's what you're talking about). I use the term 'social network sites' (without the networkING bit) because Facebook and MySpace is more about network articulation (demonstrating an existing, offline network) rather than networking in the traditional sense. Most people that use Facebook don't use it to meet new people, they're just staying in contact with their existing friends. You can read more about this usage here:

boyd, d. and N. Ellison (2007). "Social Network Sites:  Definition, History and Scholarship." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1): article 11.

How do you think this type of communication will affect younger generations? Or because it is a new phenomenon to us, will it eventually get old and the hype will pass? 

Well this is a pretty big, two-part question, but I'll answer it in a fairly direct way: yes, new communication technologies always have some affect on people (the development of language, the transition from oral to written history, the printing press, the internet, etc... some holograms soon I hope!).

As for hype, sure - I think the current forms of social network sites will eventually 'get old', but if you look at Facebook they're constantly changing their service to keep people interested. Sure, their regular changes often irritate people and you'll get those 'change Facebook back' memes, but the vast majority of people just get used to the changes and carry on. Facebook will try to keep evolving in an attempt to keep the site fresh, but I think we'll eventually see a move to a platform where users have a greater sense of control. Hopefully, anyway. I think social network sites have become integrated into peoples lives to the extent that they're framed as social utilities almost like telephone services or cable television. They will exist in one form or another for a while yet.

Lifelounge Group and Sweeny Research Group found that Facebook has overtaken music as the number one way young people define themselves. Do you agree with these findings? If not, why?

Well I haven't seen the data or the actual framing of the research, but I think social network sites do play a big role in identity-projects. As for how people 'define themselves', this is a pretty problematic kind of terrain. I don't think you can really quantify how that happens, except to say that people use lots of tools to tell stories about themselves. I'd also say that people use music on social network sites as part of that narrative, so they're not mutually exclusive.

Do you think that young people using social network sites are impairing their ability to connect with one another face-to-face? If so, why?

No, I don't think they're impairing their ability to connect. My research actually indicates young people are using social network sites to facilitate offline (face-to-face) social encounters: planning the weekend, sharing the weekend as it happens, extending the weekend by uploading pictures/stories, debriefing, etc. Sure, there will always be people looking to retreat/disengange sometimes, and the internet also has that potential. Like books or television or the fridge.

You said social network sites and new communication technologies will have an affect on younger generations- Do you think they will be a more connected and informed society? Or because they aren't relying on face-to-face communication, they will be more disconnected?

I think we need to get away from the either/or dichotomy here. We can't say things like 'Gen Y will be more connected and informed because they use Facebook'; that's just not true. Sure, some people will use the internet in really powerful ways to inform themselves and to access the vast knowledge potential of the internet, but others will just sit on LOLcats all day - which can be fun! What I mean is there's no single way to describe the affect of new communication technologies on any single person, let alone an entire generation or generations. The ways in which new media shape us are multiple, and it's often not useful to say X is bad, Y is good. I know that's not very helpful for a journalist, because generalisations sell, but it's the truth I'm afraid.

I'm not sure if you have any knowledge on social network sites and children (aged between 5 and 14), but if you do: Why do you think children lie about their age to join social network sites like Facebook and MySpace? (They must be 13 to join Facebook)

Yeah, this is outside the scope of my research, but I'd say it has something to do with the lure of the forbidden or the appeal of adulthood when you're a 'child'. Maybe they do it for the same reason people get fake ID cards. Someone should tell them when they get 'old' all they'll want to do is to be 'young' again. That never works though, does it?

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