My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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ephemeral profiles (cuz losing passwords is common amongst teens)

Sara created a MySpace using an email address that she made specifically for that purpose. After vacation, she couldn’t remember her MySpace password (or her email password). She created a new MySpace page using a new throwaway email address. When i asked her if she was irritated that she had to do this after investing time in the previous profile, she said, “nah.. I had too many Friends that I didn’t know anyways.”

This snippet from my fieldnotes depicts an attitude that i keep hearing from teens that completely contradicts adult norms. Many teens are content (if not happy) to start over with most of their accounts in most places. Forgot your IM password? Sign up again. Forgot your email address? Create a new one. Forgot your login? Time for a change.

While adult bloggers talk about building an identity through extended blogging, i keep finding teens who got locked out of Xanga and responded by making another Xanga (or a Blogger or a LiveJournal). They have expressions scattered across numerous services with numerous handles. Some teens chew through IM handles like candy; their nicks are things like “o-so-funny” rather than the first name, last name standard that seems to pervade professional worlds. It’s not seen as something to build an extensive identity around, but something to use to talk to friends in the moment.

Teens are not dreaming of portability (like so many adults i meet). They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles. (Part of this could be that they have a lot more time on their hands.) The idea of taking MySpace material to Facebook when they transition is completely foreign. They’re going to a new site, they want to start over.

While this feeling of ephemerality is not universal amongst teens, it’s far more prevalent than you’d ever see in adult culture and it has some significant implications for design:

  • Focusing on “lock-in” will fail with these teens – they don’t care if they lose track of something they put hours into building.

  • Teens are not looking for universal anything; that’s far too much of a burden if losing track of things is the norm.
  • Paying for an account can help truly engaged teens remember their accounts (i haven’t found any teen who permanently lost their MMO login) but it can also be a strong deterrent for those accustomed to starting over.
  • The numbers that people cite concerning accounts created are astoundingly inaccurate and are worthless for talking about usage or unique participants. (added tx to a comment by Rich)

I should note that i don’t think that the answer is “help teens remember passwords.” I actually think that this tendency to shed is advantageous in the way that we shed clothes every year because the “old me” is no longer relevant. Technology is a bit too obsessed with remembering; there’s a lot of value in forgetting.

Of course, i do expect everything to change with the mobile. While i don’t expect teens to care about number portability (like their parents), losing a phone is a far more expensive proposition than losing a login (although it seems to be just as common amongst teens). I expect there to be a lot less turnover when accounts are tied to a phone. It’ll be interesting to see if strong identity is loved or hated.

Clarification: This post is not intended to negate or devalue my previous work on how people use different nicks to represent different facets of their identity. This latter practice is common to people of all ages and has great value for impression management. How you represent yourself on LinkedIn is very different from how you represent yourself on Friendster and you don’t want these collapsed. This post is meant simply to highlight another aspect of shifting handles amongst teens that is not common amongst adults; it is not intended to say that this is the only reason for new handles. (While losing passwords is common amongst adults as well, starting over happily isn’t.)

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32 comments to ephemeral profiles (cuz losing passwords is common amongst teens)

  • That’s really interesting and eye-opening. The constant evolution is healthy on one hand but I wondfer if it is also symptomatic of establishing a grazing mentality that has implications for their futures or whether this changes over time? My opening post of the year
    http://makemarketinghistory.blogspot.com/2007/01/be-here-now.html
    happened to come from my observation of the beahviour of some slightly older people (many of whom I nevertheless know to have myspace pages) at a new year party. I wonder if you can see a connection between the two by dint of your sociology expertise?

  • Jackie

    I agree, but I don’t know how much of it’s about lost passwords rather than impression mangement. A new account lets you move between new identities. A new account give a stronger impression of transitioning from prep to emo to goth than simply changing your profile and writing style does.

    Lost passwords aside, have you found anything specifically about teens burying their LJ entries as private rather than making new accounts when they want to reinvent their online identity?

  • My 11 year old daughter is way into IM these days. At this point in her life, she shares an email address with me so I see all the confirmation emails she gets when she registers a new screenname. At the moment, she’s managing about 23 different screennames. When I asked her why she had so many, she said that each one represents something about her. For instance, she plays basketball, so one of her names is hoopsgrrl12. She’s also a NY Giants fans, so she’s also known as giantsrock256. She’s also a fangirl, and expresses her likes with names like nicknjessica4evr or acdcrules360. It’s not so much that she forgets her passwords, but that she’s using the screenname convention to express herself.

  • Aprille

    What about the other content tied to the abandoned id? Any reaction to losing the pics, vids, mail, comments when they move on?

  • I wonder, though, about when they do get older. I believe some of the reasons why the older generations find value in keeping all their accounts are because they treat them as pieces of their identity which should not be lost; connections to other people through comments, photos, memories, etc.

    I agree that having time on their hands probably facilitates the attitude you’ve described. But, I also think the “adults” take their profiles a bit more serious, which lends to the reason why “remembering passwords” would be a valid fix for them.

  • I updated the post to clarify that this is not meant to negate or devalue the significance of maintaining multiple IDs for impression management. This process has been the cornerstone of my research for years. I was simply trying to highlight another factor that has not been discussed and that is not common across people of all ages.

    People primarily bury their content when there is an external stimulus that prompts that as a reaction (breakup, fight, law enforcement, stalker, etc.).

    In an earlier post, i talked about designing for life stages. Teenage years are far more about identity formation than reflection and memory keeping. Losing photos may be regretted later but in the teenage years, they are primarily used in the now and then discarded.

  • This is very interesting.

    Have you thought to consider how the identity formation of current adults and young adults have formed in the past with/in relation to media and particular environments?

    I’m curious to learn more about how the young, profile-flexible teens will develop into adults… will they continue their habits or will they ‘mature’ into more ‘responsible’ and ‘organized’ web presences?

  • The drive among some tech-oriented adults towards portable profiles / single online identities is, I think, a version of the “authority” seeking that took hold among tech-oriented bloggers. It’s somewhat about having a sense of authority via “owning” a quantity of links. And, some people desire technical ways to make that ownership more like permanent property.

    But, people do commonly choose quality over quantity, and a quantity of connections, in itself, only offers limited value. It’s also a particular kind-of use of time (e.g., using continuous partial attention) to focus on maintaining just a quantity of connections.

    But, when one has quality connections, part of the quality is that the connections can persist through media / context changes. One doesn’t particularly need the same online identity to reconnect to a quality relationship.

    To use a (teen) analogy: you move to a different school and some of your old friends stop being your friends, but some stay or even become better friends.

  • not sooo amazed – since teenagers keep losing all kinds of crap and don’t really miss it, unless it costs a lot of money or comes with other sanctions that really hurt when being a teenager, so why not blog accounts, email accounts and other elements of digital identity? its for free, one can always get a new one, and it also has advantages, because a new blog account, email or whatsoever allows to break path dependencies > such the loss even enhances freedom to change an identity, try other aspects of identity and “play” with digital id, enlarge the scope of action, widen your horizon.

  • I suppose I’m a bit strange among my peers, then. I’ve used the same username almost everywhere for over four years (I’m 16), though I have a separate, generic handle for school. I can imagine wanting to reinvent my identity outside of this name- my interests have certainly shifted since its creation- but I value the consistency and recognition. It also means I have no problems with passwords; even if I lose one, it’s under the same username and uses the same email.

    I did, however, have several usernames prior to this shift, similarly using them for expression. So, while this current attitude is not at all surprising, my guess is other teens will grow out their transient identities as well.

  • How fascinating! I wonder how this breaks down across gender, age, and all that other demographic stuff. I wonder what kind of havoc is wreaked upon business models by this kind of behavior. For example, does it cause businesses to think they have five or ten times the number of individual customers than they really do, and how does that affect their valuation and marketing strategies?

    I’m also curious about how this behavior can be catered to, for example, link all of the IDs together and allow the person to select which one they want to be right now.

  • Whether the motivation is lost passwords or multiple IDs for impression management, it seems the net effect of the additional logins is that they pad the “user” count on MySpace and other social media sites. How many of those 75-100 million profiles are dupes or abandoned? Do any of these services clean up idle or abandoned accounts?

    While the post focuses on the ways youth differ from older bloggers, it underscores the dilemma of the huge numbers being tossed around to emphasize the importance of these sites. What will the reaction be when the number of active accounts/profiles is better understood or audited? It could contribute to the growing “Bubble 2.0″ speculation.

  • Margaret

    I’m 17 and I see this a lot. But then, I’m not really into a lot of the sites my friends and peers like. I’ve switched around a bit between standard names though, mostly when I was roughly middle school aged. I see the value in having one single name you use across sites, because that makes it easier to remember that you have an account especially as different companies get bought up and combined. It goes along with the whole teenage search for identity thing. If you can change your entire persona from one year to the next, you can sure as hell change your AIM sn. Plus, what happens when that one annoying guy gets your sn? You have to change it then bc blocking him would be awkward and futile if he’s determined.

  • Suebee

    Post teens are (mostly!) more self assured than teenagers. They have forged their own identity and have a different set of values. Post teens seem to use social networks to make friends, professional contacts and to find partners; there is a greater investment here.

    Teenagers are constantly defining and redefining themselves. I can remember changing the way I spoke, my hair, my style, my friends, my handwriting and my musical taste (etc.) dependant on the subculture I was attempting to emulate. The act of creating a new profile is a way of redefining yourself. It seems logical that this would follow through into a teenager’s online presence.

    A lot of the teenagers who are on my online networks seem happy enough to add people indiscriminately and there seems to be a certain lack of investment in these friends. This would suggest they are less concerned by “losing” people when creating a new profile – they will simply make more friends.

  • I had another idea which has to do with the life cicle. While for teenagers the world is wide open and it’s very easy to make new friends, once you’re 30 something or more, it is a lot harder to get new aquaintancies or even make new frieds because a lot of things are determined – schools you went to, profession one choses, other perspectives in life. I would presume at 30 something one will try much harder to stick to the identity one has invested in.

  • This is really fascinating.

    Like the the above 16-year-old commentor, though, I have kept my handle in continuous use since I was 12. However, I had also read Ender’s Game when I was around 12. I was influenced by two of the main characters to create identities meant to be made famous. The characters started at around 12 and 10. Most of my friends my age within my circle that use IMs/blogs on a regular basis have a handle they have used since they were teens, though they might have a number of secondary identities.

    I think to say that adult bloggers are seeking “authority” is a misnomer. The transition from adolescence to adulthood starts when the person settles into a community, becomes the authority so to speak, not so much as seeking it anymore. Wanderlust is an adolescent trait. I do not want to trade the reputation I’ve carefully built up over the past several years as it enables me to do some of the things I want to do today. As a teen, however, I said and wrote things even knowing then that caching may come to haunt me as an adult. It hasn’t yet, but even now, I’m building up a separate, professional handle.

    -Q

  • tim janke

    This makes perfect sense: teens themselves are in a constant state of flux, trying on new real-world identities and shedding them regularly, so it seems natural to them to do the same with online identities. But I predict that will change as they reach adulthood. As their lives and self-identity become more settled, for most, their online behaviour will change to match; they will behave more like current adults do (e.g. get irritated at having to create a new profile).

  • Lucinda

    reminds me of a comment made by my outward bound instructor: adults on outward bound trips tend to be very stuff-focused, making sure that everything is packed just so, that they know exactly where everything is at all times. in contrast, teenagers dump their stuff anywhere and everywhere and are constantly losing critical items like their parkas – which are truely critical in this case.

  • Like waghdude, I wonder how this perceived behavior plays out across different demographic boundaries and identifiers. More specifically, I wonder how differently this plays out with those with less access to technology and Internet access (i.e. those still on the “other side” of the Digital Divide). Do those teens whose primary Internet access occurs at short intervals (such as in public libraries or classrooms) “take better care” of their usernames and passwords? Or do they exhibit the same behavior but on a different time scale? If we can answer that question it may tell us something important about what motivates this behavior – is it intentional and integral to identity development or is it motivated more by availability of time and convenience?

  • Why the assumptions that only the kiddies do this? I’m about to turn 70 and I’ve been creating new IDs online ever since I started. It’s sort of schizzy, but sometimes you just don’t want to be the same person.

  • Steve

    Teen online identities can be ephemeral, because alnmost everything about being a teenager is ephemral. It is a period of inventing and discarding throwaway lives and throwaway selves.

    But, being a teenager is itself ephemeral. In a few short years they will all be adults, and live the rest of their lives that way, and what they did as teenagers will barely matter.

    -Steve

  • Watching the teens and early adults go through several mobiles a year without shedding much of a tear (contrast with several years ago) and I wonder whether the moblog etc phenomena will actually make that much of a difference.

  • Really interesting post and great comments from everyone. I’m not sure about everyone else, but I’ve changed my account habits on the net quite dramatically since the snowball-down-the-mountain of Web 2.0. A few years ago I also had a couple of identities which I built extensively around and used net-wide. These represented different areas of my “self” (work, hobbies, sexlife etc).
    Since Web 2.0 I notice that I’ve become a lot more ephemeral too. I think the main changes for me have been:
    1. My “brand loyalty” had diminished dramatically. Flikr might be my preferred host for photos at the moment, but lately Twango is looking better to me and I’ve got one eye on what Zooomr, Webshots, ImageShack, Tabblo, Pickle and BubbleShare are doing too. Things are changing fast. I think this is particularly an issue with Social Networking sites. Vox might look great and you might sign up, but what if all your friends join Bebo or you end up being one of only 10 members or it’s just basically not a network you enjoy being in? By being flexible with identity, the discarded or half-built can be left with less baggage.
    2. Who knows what happens to your details when these sites get sold? We know the big money is being paid for Web 2.0 for membership size which means your identity is part of their assets. And who knows how ethical they are in the first place? I was reading today about Spoke.com and how its free toolbar does some very nasty things (http://phil.yanov.com/2007/01/spokecom-is-evil.htm). So again the disposable identity has some distinct advantages.

  • anon_teen

    Personally, I’m all for portability. And I’m all for personality. But I want the freedom of anonymity and change. If I want to start over, being a different person to everybody, then I’ll do that.

    I only lose nicks/handles of stuff I’m not too interested in anyways (like my 2nd and 3rd ICQ accounts), but keep everything I value (my first ICQ account, the accounts to various favorite sites). I often forget accounts on friends’ sites, but that’s only because I can send them an email or give them a call and everything’s back to status quo.
    Also, with 12-16 char passwords, it’s not always easy to remember them ;)

    And I am a teen. No normal teen, admittedly, but I still favor the value of anonymity. I usually only publish any things I’m not too sure about I want to keep it if it can get rid of it later on (like putting a robots.txt in place to prevent indexing for certain material).

  • I lost my myspace password….PLEASE help….

  • Freddy Mercury already said it best in Killer Queen:

    “To avoid complications
    She never kept the same address”…

  • Catan

    Like waghdude, I wonder how this plays out across different demographic boundaries and identifiers. More specifically, I wonder how this plays out across different time scale? If we can answer that question it motivated more by availability of their usernames and Internet access (i.e. those with less access (i.e. those Home

  • Srini

    Waghdude says why not allow id’s to be linked, and pick which one you want to be.

    In most IM/Email systems today, you can pick the sender ID. Yahoo, for example, allows one of multiple profiles to be used in various parts of the system.

    Anyone given any thought as to what extensions to this basic concept would be useful?

  • This great article. You are don’t know how this article help for me. A lot of thank’s

  • This reminds me of what a relief it was to move from country to country as a kid–in each place you can start over, be a new person to the people you meet, all your mistakes forgotten. Maybe adults feel more certain that their past has social value, and retyping the info about their college degrees is a necessity and a bother. Teens don’t have a resume yet, they’re always only just on the verge of doing something more awesome than they did before. And they’re far more eager to bury everything with the things they’ve done wrong, since they don’t have as much they’re proud of to protect.

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