Web Socializing

Stephen DeAngelis

December 3, 2008

World Wide Web social sites like Facebook and MySpace receive a lot of press coverage. Most often because they have been used by predators to locate and connect with victims. They have even been used as tools of revenge leading to teen suicides [see “Woman Who Posed as Boy Testifies in Case That Ended in Suicide of 13-Year-Old,” by Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times, 21 November 2008]. The woman involved in that case was found guilty, but only of misdemeanors. Many parents simply consider these sites a complete waste of time and they wish that their children would spend less time on line and more time involved in constructive activities.

A recent study, however, concludes that Internet socialization may provide some beneficial effects [“Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing,” by Tamar Lewin, New York Times, 19 November 2008]. One might ask why a corporate blog focused primarily on resilience, development, and innovation would care about virtual teenage social lives. For one thing, the thread that ties resilience, development, and innovation together is the future. Teenagers also represent the future and their Web habits play a role in that future. Second, I’m seeing more and more consulting firms and industry associations offering workshops on how to take advantage of social networking sites to promote their businesses. Finally, this blog is also about connectivity and social networking is a growing phenomenon that is changing how people connect.

I found Lewin’s article on social networking interesting because it reports on the conclusions of a study sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation — a foundation well-known for its genius grants. The MacArthur Foundation shares an optimism for the future that I find refreshing and it puts it money where it believes it can best help foster a brighter future. Lewin reports:

“Good news for worried parents: All those hours their teenagers spend socializing on the Internet are not a bad thing, according to a new study by the MacArthur Foundation. ‘It may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media, whether it’s on MySpace or sending instant messages,’ said Mizuko Ito, lead researcher on the study, ‘Living and Learning With New Media.’ ‘But their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.’ The study, conducted from 2005 to last summer, describes new-media usage but does not measure its effects.”

In a recent post entitled On Becoming Nomads, I discussed a BusinessWeek article that predicted society was going to change in some very fundamental ways as a result of mobile technologies. Internet socialization is one of those changes.

“‘It certainly rings true that new media are inextricably woven into young people’s lives,’ said Vicki Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of its program for the study of media and health. ‘Ethnographic studies like this are good at describing how young people fit social media into their lives. What they can’t do is document effects. This highlights the need for larger, nationally representative studies.'”

Nothing sounds sweeter in the ears of a researcher than someone calling for another large study — show me the money. Rideout’s point is that describing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand it. Understanding this new phenomenon is important; especially if Rideout is correct that it is “inextricably woven” into the lives of the up and coming generation. The concern expressed by older generations about social networking indicates that little understanding currently exists.

“Ms. Ito, a research scientist in the department of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, said that some parental concern about the dangers of Internet socializing might result from a misperception. ‘Those concerns about predators and stranger danger have been overblown,’ she said. ‘There’s been some confusion about what kids are actually doing online. Mostly, they’re socializing with their friends, people they’ve met at school or camp or sports.'”

“Mostly” is a modifier that scares the heck out of parents with teenagers. Just because young people are “mostly” socializing with friends doesn’t mean that we should let down our guard or stop pursuing Internet predators. Basically what those interviewed by Lewin are saying is that parents should monitor their children’s Internet activity but they should also appreciate the benefits of such activities. Back in February of this year, I wrote a post entitled Nerds get Curves that discussed research showing that “among the youngest Internet users, the primary creators of Web content (blogs, graphics, photographs, Web sites) are … digitally effusive teenage girls.” I also noted in that post that despite the fact that girls are prodigious users of the Internet they are not rushing into computer science. I noted that users of software and creators of software have profoundly different motivations for doing what they do. Both groups are creative, but their creativity expresses itself in very different ways. Stephanie Rosenbloom, author of article I was commenting on, noted that there are a few theories about why girls provide more content on the Web. Her strongest argument was that girls generally read more and write better than boys.

A more recent article on the fact that women avoid computer science was written by Randall Stross, an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University [“What Has Driven Women Out of Computer Science?New York Times, 15 November 2008.] Stross notes that not only are girls not being drawn to computer science, they are avoiding it.

“In 2001-2, only 28 percent of all undergraduate degrees in computer science went to women. By 2004-5, the number had declined to only 22 percent. Data collected by the Computing Research Association showed even fewer women at research universities like M.I.T.: women accounted for only 12 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science and engineering in the United States and Canada granted in 2006-7 by Ph.D.-granting institutions, down from 19 percent in 2001-2. Many computer science departments report that women now make up less than 10 percent of the newest undergraduates.”

One interesting theory noted by Stross as to why women are avoiding computer science is that the discipline is now dominated by a “male subculture of action gaming.” The point is that researchers have barely scratched the surface when it comes to why and how people use information age technologies. Back to Lewin’s article on the MacArthur Foundation study:

“The study, part of a $50 million project on digital and media learning, used several teams of researchers to interview more than 800 young people and their parents and to observe teenagers online for more than 5,000 hours. Because of the adult sense that socializing on the Internet is a waste of time, the study said, teenagers reported many rules and restrictions on their electronic hanging out, but most found ways to work around such barriers that let them stay in touch with their friends steadily throughout the day. ‘Teens usually have a “full-time intimate community” with whom they communicate in an always-on mode via mobile phones and instant messaging,’ the study said. … In a situation familiar to many parents, the study describes two 17-year-olds, dating for more than a year, who wake up and log on to their computers between taking showers and doing their hair, talk on their cellphones as they travel to school, exchange text messages through the school day, then get together after school to do homework — during which time they also play a video game — talk on the phone during the evening, perhaps ending the night with a text-messaged ‘I love you.’ Teenagers also use new media to explore new romantic relationships, through interactions casual enough to ensure no loss of face if the other party is not interested. … What the study calls “geeking out” is the most intense Internet use, in which young people delve deeply into a particular area of interest, often through a connection to an online interest group. ‘New media allow for a degree of freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting,’ the study said. ‘Youth respect one another’s authority online, and they are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults.'”

Although Internet socializing may not be a “bad thing,” the full consequences of things like instant messaging have yet to be determined. For years college professors and business leaders have lamented that writing skills of students and employees have been deteriorating. I’m sure that learning to write things like, “OMG iono lol/well I left you a comment … u sud feel SPECIAL,” is going to improve those writing skills in the future. My advice to parents: see what skills your children are learning on the computer and encourage them to use them — then identify what skills they are not learning and establish a program to help them gain those skills. I don’t worry too much about the future and the affect that information age technologies will have on societies, but I do believe we need to understand what is happening so that training and education in the future makes the right adjustments to ensure that future generations grow up cultured and productive.