Youth Unfriending The Separation Between Physical and Digital



We’ve previously explored how Facebook is affecting relationships of young people . Our Headbox community member Rusha (23) described her relationship with her contacts on Facebook and how she didn’t know as many of them as she did in her day-to-day physical life saying that she had “never spoken to a third of them at all”. She outlined the passive nature of friends on Facebook, suggesting quite a negative impact upon social relations. She goes on to say that social networking encourages a way “to connect to people in a way that could only be described as passive”. Yet the word ‘passive’ could easily be substituted for more positively connotated words such as ‘ambient’ or ‘continuous’. There have been many news reports stressing the negative impact that social networking may have upon physical social relations (another example here). Yet there is a recent bout of news that suggests that social networking is actually impacting somewhat positively upon social relationships as people become both aware of the limits of social networking as well as how to maximize their social networks online. 2009 has provided enough of a shake up, largely through the mainstream notoriety of Twitter, to begin conceptualizing social networks differently to how they were at the beginning of the year.

Social networking sites have even been criticized for not having a panic button for young people who are being bullied online. Yet with digital being a reality that isn’t a separate sphere for young people as Tech Tribe 2009 suggests, the positive effects must surely outweigh the negatives as 8.5 million (and growing) young people between 14-24 are Facebook users in the UK.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project has examined the effects of social networking and cell phone use over the last 20 years. According to the study, although the participant’s social circles were self-reported to smaller than 20 years ago, this was not due to internet usage. In fact, people who regularly use digital technologies are far more social than the average American, having wider more diverse networks and are more likely to visit parks, cafes or volunteer for local organizations according to the study. This suggests, that in some ways a greater interaction with the internet and social networking sites, presents a greater interaction with community around their users, be it through a niche or a geographical interest. Many studies have hypothesized that the average person is feeling more socially isolated because of the rise of the internet. Pew confirmed previous findings that close networks had dropped by 2 or 3 friends, yet it also reported that only 6% of Americans fell into this previously attributed isolated category of citizen, with no significant change over the last 20 years. The study suggests that people are becoming more aware of exactly how to use social networks and are unperturbed by how the media might suggest that they take them too literally. The recent suggestion that young people are now ‘finally flocking’ to Twitter suggests that they are realizing the power of the social network merely for what it is, rather than an indicator for how many deep and connecting friendships one has.

Twitter has become the great example of the realistic social networking next step in that there is nothing beyond the 140 characters that can be shared. It is the bare bones of the information and possibly a link to a new site, in some ways confirming Pew’s findings that although people still prefer to connect in a face-to-face fashion, there is a growing realization that social networking is effective for exactly what it suggests rather than igniting a more close and meaningful friendship connection with others. Not necessarily knowing your contacts very well on Twitter allows a certain openness that is crucial to, perhaps, Twitter’s greatest reward, serendipitous discovery – the adjustment of this feature caused an uproar on the microblogging site earlier in the year. With more young people using intentional misspellings with leetspeak or lolspeak even as far as using exclamation marks with a few number 1s purposefully inserted when ending the group (!!!!11), indicating an excitedness that is usually conveyed with such haphazard typing mistakes, it could be suggested that there is possibly an increasing awareness of the internet’s impact upon society as digital becomes a less separate reality for young people. It is perhaps no coincidence then that the New Oxford American Dictionary has named ‘Unfriend’ as its word of 2009.

Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for the Oxford US dictionary program states that as a 2009 Word of the Year, Unfriend “has both currency and potential longevity”. The OAD word of the year even sparked a debate as to whether it was actually Unfriend or Defriend is the word that should be used.
The popularity of the concept perhaps further indicates John Fischer comments that it’s an “example of how things like social networks are changing our relationships. You used to have to deal with all the messy real-world parts of ending a friendship and now you can just click a button and delete someone.” This changing relationship has even manifested itself within mobile phones as the Samsung Jet features an incoming fake call function to alleviate annoying conversation.

This shift is further evidence that young people who are growing up with social networking and digital are beginning to see them less as separate realities from the physical and are integrating real life privacy concerns into their personal social media strategy. We’ve already shown through Tech Tribe 2009 that in the last 12 months well over half (63%) of 19-25 year olds have upped their privacy settings. Social media strategy has become such a popular concept with the quitting of Twitter by Miley Cyrus, Lilly Allen and Stephen Fry (the latter temporarily) that it has satirized with the term suicide, particularly in the case of Ed Droste, founder of the band Grizzly Bear . The satirist even ran his own cyber suicide story http://www.carlesisdead.com/ with a more satirical hipster character, Mikebro, replacing him for the 10 top albums of the decade post and on the Hipster Runoff twitter account. This hipster-based satire of social media strategy is an example of how conscious young people are becoming of it and also how the digital world is becoming less distinct from the physical.

This lack of distinction is ever more apparent in industries that directly involve laying digital information onto the physical world such as geotagging and augmented reality, the latter being a market, which may be worth $732million by 2014 and is already interacting with children’s action figures. While young people have generally begun to suss privacy settings for social networks. There are privacy warnings to be heeded as these new technologies become mainstream. Now that Twitter has enabled location information to be noted to tweets, and digital information can be added to pictures via augmented reality apps there are concerns that releasing such a combination of information such as visual cues and location could invite unwanted attention. This discourse is however part of a larger ‘transparency versus personalization’ debate that has always run since people started beginning putting up personal information on the internet, as Kevin Kelly notes that “if you want total personalization, you have to be totally transparent”.

Most people won’t take their personal social media strategy this far however, and will be utilizing different social networks for different purposes as they become more aware of how integrated they become into society. Linkedin is used for professional collaboration, Facebook for personal friends while Twitter is used both to connect with friends and collaborate serendipitously. There will always be those who opt out categorically such as 25 year gold physics graduate Tomek Kott whose wife started a mini-crusade to get him to join in creating the Facebook group “Tomek Kott Must Joint Facebook”. It seems as though these examples are becoming more anomalies worth noting however as more and more of the world become socially networked.

Yet while it is noted that a huge majority of young people have joined social networks and are beginning to perceive them for precisely what they are, the assumption that young people are becoming intuitive with technology and are therefore, what some call Digital Natives, can be challenged as was the case at a lecture last week at the London School of Economics. Professor Sonia Livingstone noted that digital intuitiveness is not a staple characteristic of young people growing up today, instead noting Ofcom’s recent study showing that there is no real consensus for 12-15 year old internet users about exactly how search engines work with 37% suggesting relevance was the key factor, while 32% believed truthfulness to be the factor that ranks results. These results suggest that there is no clear way to define young people beyond the fact that they are young people. While the large majority is becoming aware of personal social media strategy there will always be those who are unaware, yet things like this are teachable in school, unlike the older methods for consuming media like TV. Dr Rebekah Willet suggested at the digital native lecture that for children social networks were more of an instrument of sub-conscious expression rather a conscious platform of it’s own. This is supported by the fact that recent psychological research has suggested that Facebook profiles capture their users true personalities, rather than exaggerated ones. It is perhaps necessary to view a combination of the two views as social networks become as immediate realities for young people as their daily face-to-face interactions – the conversations are both unconscious and conscious of those viewing them online.

Twitter founder Biz Stone has suggested that the inevitable openness that occurs because of information being placed online at all is beneficial for society. He states that “when people are more open, they become more engaged, and they tend to become more empathetic. They become more of a global citizen, which will help us move forward as a species” . The behaviour of young people within social networks and online generally will have to continue to be examined as 2010 will inevitably bring about changing thoughts of social networks on the internet as 2009 did.

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