S. Craig Watkins Investigates What’s Social About Facebook And Social Media For Young People

S. Craig Watkins from the University of Texas at Austin spoke at ICWSM today about young people‘s engagement with social media. He has collaborated with the MacArthur Foundation and is author of the recent book “The Young and the Digital“. His studies mainly examine people on Facebook from around age 14 or 15 to their late 20s or early 30s, in order to get a sociological perspective about social media and to examine the broader social context about social media practices.

The environment in which people use social media includes both a technological and social context. But what do people actually do with social media? What is it about the structure of everyday life that provides the parameters for what people do with social media? People often assume that social media is the same regardless of who is using it and where, but the fluidity of social media across mobile and web platforms does have an effect on how it is used. The parameters of age, gender, class and ethnicity do cause social media to be used to different degrees and at different intensities. There are many more nuanced ways in which people participate in social platforms.

The subtitle of Craig’s talk is that we are beginning to think about what is social about social media. For a lot of researchers, they are moving beyond if these places are social and thinking about why: what are the precise ways in which social media is social?

Facebook is growing, now approaching 500 million users. According to their data team, there are 60 million status updates per day. The average user spends 55 minutes per day online, but possibly up to 1.5 to 2 hours. Three billion photos are uploaded monthly. When it first started in 2004/2005, the demographic was almost exclusively 18 to 22 year-old college students. Since then, the age distribution has widened, and the uses have also broadened.

Social media behaviours are very particular depending on age and have different consequences. The digital tipping point is between 13 and 14 years old, at which point teenagers start creating their own profile, wanting to have an autonomous space and looking to extend their online experience. According to the surveyed students, once you get to high school, there is a large pressure to become a member of the online community.

There were three distinct genres of participation observed in a study from MacArthur:

  • Hanging out with each other to build friendships;
  • Using social media to mess around, explore, experiment, or learn about different things;
  • What is termed “geeking out”, i.e. trying to build up knowledge or master technologies (such as digital photography).

There is a tendency to generalise regarding young people on social networks, but there are nuanced ways in which they use these tools. They carried out a survey nationally to compare and contrast one unique moment in a young person’s life cycle: the change from being in one’s college years to being a recent college graduate. How does one’s status begin to impact the kinds of decisions or practices they take or make online? The survey took 905 students: roughly half and half between current and recent college students. The aim was to confirm that if you use Facebook in college, does your usage change once you enter the paying workforce? The questionnaire posed questions regarding community, social capital, types of communication, civic participation, gaming, posting photos, etc., recognising that social media strategies and usage have evolved.

Regarding the degree to which current students vs. recent graduates shared personal information, there was not much difference. But for sharing political and religious views, there were some distinctions (as you’d imagine, recent graduates were more careful about this), so context and experiences impact the choices these people made online. Also, in terms of who they communicate with – i.e. people who live far away or nearby – there was also not much difference between current students and recent graduates.

There is also the question of the digital divide, and what previously was mainly the gulf between the technology rich and poor. Whereas 10 years ago we had the access gap, now we have the participation gap. There’s a more diverse population using the digital world, and this results in different levels to which diverse groups will use social media.

Two years ago, when examining segregated practices and looking at the ways Facebook and MySpace reflect different groups and uses, it was found that when young people left high school, they left MySpace; when they went to college, they went to Facebook. The words that students used when surveyed in relation to MySpace included: crowded, trashy, creepy, busy, general public, uneducated, fake, open, immature, predators, crazy. Facebook in comparison had words like: selective, clean, trustworthy, simple, college, educated, authentic, private, mature, stalker-friendly, addictive

Facebook has grown more diverse. Some recent figures reflect this: African American (11%), Hispanic (9%), and Asian/Pacific Islander (6%). A high percentage of initial Facebook friends share the same race/ethnic identity. When asked to rank the top three Facebook activities they used, there were roughly similar ranking patterns across different races/ethnicities. But performing a more qualitative analysis, the researchers began to see some differences.

There are also some interesting statistics (see this post by Craig) regarding the higher usage of media (and mobiles) by black youth and Latinos compared to their white counterparts (see the Pew Internet stats). This leads to another question: if people are using their mobiles to do a wider variety of things, what does this rise of mobile devices mean? Is it a means of empowerment or are there challenges to think about regarding this kind of experience?

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