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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is Facebook for old people?

In Atlanta, I met a shy quiet 14-year-old girl that I’ll call Kaitlyn. She wasn’t particularly interested in talking to me, but she answered my questions diligently. She said that she was on both MySpace and Facebook, but quickly started talking about MySpace as the place where she gathered with her friends. At some point, I asked her if her friends also gathered on Facebook and her face took on a combination of puzzlement and horror before she exclaimed, “Facebook is for old people!” Of course, Kaitlyn still uses Facebook to communicate with her mother, aunt, cousins in Kentucky, and other family members.

Cross-town, I met up with Connor, a well-spoken 17-year-old who is more than comfortable in sharing his opinions with me. His manner of speaking and attitude means that he would’ve fit into Eckert’s “jock” category even though he plays no sport. In fact, Connor is more interested in gadgetry (Macs to be precise), but that no longer has the same geek ring as it once did. Connor tells me about how Facebook is the new thing that everyone is using and that, while he prefers MySpace, he now primarily logs into Facebook. His girlfriend deleted her MySpace profile and most of his friends now spend their time on Facebook. In fact, he can’t think of anyone at school who still actively uses MySpace. Connor is also aware of the presence of adults on Facebook. He messages with his mother and his youth pastor on Facebook and he waxes elegantly about how he thinks that Facebook is just as popular among adults as it is among teens. He believes that the reason that people switched to Facebook was because it was more “mature.”

These two narratives reflect different views about the salience of age in social network site participation. At one level, we can simply read Kaitlyn as rebellious, anti-authoritarian. Yet, that doesn’t quite work. Kaitlyn is not rebelling against her parents or teachers; she simply doesn’t see why interacting with them alongside her friends would make any sense whatsoever. She sees her world as starkly age segregated and she sees this as completely normal. Connor, on the other hand, sees the integration of adults and peers as a natural part of growing up. The difference in their ages is part of the story – Connor is two grades ahead of Kaitlyn.

Yet, there’s another important factor here. These teens come from very different demographics. Both teenagers are white and live in the deep south, but they are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and their public schools have quite different characters. Kaitlyn’s family income is near the median of Atlanta while Connor comes from a family that is better-off. Both have had many different opportunities afforded to them by loving and deeply involved parents. The biggest differences in their lives stem from their friend groups and the schools that they attend.

Connor was lamenting the presence of filters in his school (coupled with the sign in the computer lab that warned of punishment if anyone was caught on MySpace). I asked him why his school was strict and he responded by telling me that it was because they were the best school and they had standards. I asked him what made it the best school and he first started by saying that it was because they were strict and kept people in line, but then reverted course. He told me that in Atlanta, most schools are 60% or more black but his school was only 30% black. And then he noted that this was changing, almost with a sense of sadness. Kaitlyn, on the other hand, was proud of the fact that her school was very racially diverse. She did complain that it was big, so big in fact that they had created separate “schools” (think: Harry Potter) and that she was in the school that was primarily for honors kids but that this meant that she didn’t see all of her friends all the time. But she valued the different types of people who attended. These differences are reflected in their friend groups – Connor’s friends are almost entirely white and well-off while at least half of Kaitlyn’s friends are black and most of her friends are neither well-off nor poor.

Both Kaitlyn and Connor follow the crowd when it comes to social media and their instincts reflect more than just their own beliefs; they reflect what is normative among their cohort.

So going back to the question of age and maturity – why do these dynamics of race and socioeconomic factors matter? One argument made about the differences between teens from wealthy and poor environments is that wealthy teens are much more likely to integrate with adults than teens from poorer backgrounds. (There are obviously exceptions on all sides.) Now, Connor is not exceedingly wealthy and Kaitlyn is not poor, but I can’t help but wonder how much of what they’re reflecting is part of that more general trend.

Will Kaitlyn begin to embrace adults alongside her peers in a few years? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Might their differences be simply a personality thing? Perhaps, but I saw these dynamics occur across many other pairings of teens with similar differences and similarities.

Regardless of whether or not this factor explains the differences between these teens, I can’t help but wonder the significance of teens’ willingness to interact with known adults on social network sites. There’s nothing worse than demanding that teens accept adults in their peer space, but there’s a lot to be said for teens who embrace adults there, especially non-custodial adults like youth pastors and “cool” teachers. I strongly believe that the healthiest environment we can create online is one where teens and trusted adults interact seamlessly. To the degree that this is not modeled elsewhere in society, I worry.

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28 comments to is Facebook for old people?

  • Really interesting case study. And I think you’re right on. A few years back, teens started to realize that all their older, “cooler” friends (those in college) were moving from MySpace to Facebook, so you started to see younger people getting into Facebook and moving away from MySpace.

    This is still happening today, but as you point out the difference is that “older people” are starting to get on Facebook and thus, the younger folks are starting to rethink the switch.

    It’ll be interesting to watch and see over the next year which social network wins out as the tool of choice for teenagers. If I had to bet, I’d still put my money on Facebook, just too much momentum there to think anyone could unseat them (at least in the near term).

  • As with anything, as soon as post-teens find it, it’s no longer got the cachet of cool. It’ll be interesting to see what the post-cool social media platform is — when it’s no longer a sign that you’re cool to be on one of these, but just a sign that you’re alive, cuz everybody will be doing it from birth.

  • interesting… the demographic separation i know has been discussed heavily elsewhere (lower-income minority groups use MySpace while middle-class white kids all moved to Facebook), so i think maybe you’re right in that it’s not about age, it’s about demographic and a community/personality/comfortability thing. kids who grow up having to interact with adults in every-day life more (as opposed to latch-key kids, or kids who don’t participate at school or activities) are probably generally more in the upper classes and much more comfortable with the integration of age and social groups on Facebook. the use of the word “mature” is interesting to me in that way. as if wanting to keep your social networks/social life separate from your work/school/family is “immature”.

    that said, i’m 32 and i still feel awkward having my mom/aunts/former teachers all up in my Facebook.

  • Quite interesting to think about social backgrounds. Here in Brazil orkut is popular among all groups (no matter the age or demographic background), while facebook is starting to get popular especially among “cool” adults. We are still in a different phase, I guess. Not sure if everyone will migrate to facebook. The main question my students pose me is “what’s the point of migrating to facebook, if all my contacts are still on orkut?”

    What about twitter? In Brazil it’s becoming popular, but for the time being, it’s still more used by upper class adults.

    And, of course, you can’t deny the fact that there’s a huge gap between social groups over here…

  • I would like to see some GPA results and taste in music against the MySpace versus FaceBook numbers in 4 dim.

    I have been asking more carefully than I used to about why dual account status is used and what social groups are involved. Free spirits aside, in particular, some neighborhood-identified groups have inertia from middle school. They don’t want to leave their friends behind. Some of it seems to be about leaving the cohort they went through school with because our school is a magnet. That doesn’t mean we are a privileged population. We are a high minority, high poverty, and medium performing high school.

    I don’t know how that might play out at other schools.

    Interestingly, school administrators don’t seem to think that MySpace is ugly and unusable like my medium and high performing kids. Maybe kids that are online a lot could be impatient with slow performance.

  • Ron

    Facebook has replaced Classmates, because it’s free and a lot more useful for old people. On the other hand, I know lots of people from lower-income backgrounds (as in, a great deal of my family) who don’t use any form of social networking at all. The few younger cousins and such who do use these tools, use Facebook and even then, it’s used sparingly.

    I think the digital adoption really does cut across the economic spectrum and its relevance is directly related to that. If no one you know uses it, if you didn’t go to college and don’t live in a city where you’re super connected to people…there’s really no point for you to use something that’s really about maintain contacts, because for folks like that, they invented phones and social networking is just an extra step.

    Not to mention an increasingly awkward and intrusive one.

  • Here in UK Facebook is still the clear winner in my age group (40ish). MySpace is more for school kids or musicians. What strikes me is how the Facebook phenomenon has crossed all socio-economic boundaries and interest groups. I advise companies on comms and those who choose not to have a presence on Fbook (often with good reason) at least need to be fully aware of what their customers are doing on there.

  • Steve

    One question I would ask is whether there is a distinction between “socializing” and “networking”. I will make a quick one-time use distinction. By “socializing” I mean contacts which are undertaken for the pleasure of the contact. By “networking” I refer to contacts which are goal-driven – That is to say contact with those who might “do something for you”. In the language of the streets, those whose social contact is networking-oriented would be said to be “on the hustle”.

    See where I’m going with this?

    I suggest that conformist youth of all classes will choose to socialize for pleasure with their own (somewhat broadly defined) age cohort. (Non-conformist youth will socialize with whoever they think appropriate – they are the hope of the future). I further suggest that youth of the more affluent classes, or those with aspirations in that direction, have internalized the culture of the hustle. They see adults as a source of opportunity, and are willing to do a bit of butt-kising behind that perception. I think your characterization of Connor as “well-spoken” is almost a smoking gun here.

    A digression on language. I was rasied in a home environment where language expectations were strict. My parents were of a strict disposition generally, and my mom was a schoolteacher. In our house we did not use pprofanity, obscenity, vulgarity, slang, or bad grammar. I say this only to explain that once I got into the outside world, I was forced by necessity to develop something of an “ear” for dialect differences among the classes and cultures I encountered.

    What I’ve notied relevant to this topic is as follows. Broadly speaking, lower class youth will tend to use “common” language both to peers and adults – with some moderation for formal settings and varying with whether they were raised not to cuss in front of adults. Youth of the “educated” classes will tend to clean up their language more, and the range of settings treated as linguistically “formal” will be broader. But, among peers (as I’ve noticed on the streets of East Lansing during bar hours), the language will revert to that of the locker room and the rap album.

    So, my suggestion is that Connor does not treat adults as peers for the purpose of socialization. He is treating them, rather, as current or potential associates.

    And, of course, aside from all this, there is the question of Connor’s not particularly disguised racism. This is the “elephant in the living room” and it is a large enough topic that I can’t really say anything useful abbout it – except to note that Eric Holder was spot on when he referred to cowardice in Ameircan discussions of race.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Giorgio

    Very interesting. I’m italian, and i’m writing my master degree thesis (i study social sciences) about social network(ing) sites. I’m observing that here in italy there is a kind of dualism between facebook and myspace, but i would say (in a very broad sense) that facebook is for “normal people”, and myspace is a niche SNS for “non-conventional like” people (17 to 30 y.o.) who discovered the SNSs before facebook hit the mainstream and whose favourite subject of talking is music and art. Facebook isn’t felt like the SNS for older people, but reather “the standard”: the fact is that in italy FB is 2nd place in the ranking of most accessed sites, while MySpace just 25th!

  • I think that this is a very interesting case study, comparing and contrasting the use and perceptions of the use of Facebook by youths. I am currently conducting research on how University students in Singapore utilise Facebook and how their motivations in using the SNS affects the way they present themselves online and their perceptions of relationships in SNS.

    There has been a flurry of media coverage on Facebook in Singapore and a study was conducted recently which mentioned how youths feel about having adults, especially their parents, on their Facebook friends list. Most do not feel comfortable adding their parents on Facebook, some block their parents, and others restrict what their parents can see on their Facebook profiles. The full article can be found here:

    http://www.straitstimes.com/vgn-ext-templating/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=369b510a64b90210VgnVCM100000430a0a0aRCRD&vgnextchannel=cf70758920e39010VgnVCM1000000a35010aRCRD

    What I personally found most interesting was how “parents read about activities and pictures their children put online to feel closer to them and to find common topics to talk about. But this works well only as long as the parents do not find objectionable content in their children’s profiles.” Might be a cultural issue, but it also shows the self censorship involved between parents and youths, which might be a reflection of offline values being brought online as well? :)

  • I think that this is a very interesting case study, comparing and contrasting the use and perceptions of the use of Facebook by youths. I am currently conducting research on how University students in Singapore utilise Facebook and how their motivations in using the SNS affects the way they present themselves online and their perceptions of relationships in SNS.

    There has been a flurry of media coverage on Facebook in Singapore and a study was conducted recently which mentioned how youths feel about having adults, especially their parents, on their Facebook friends list. Most do not feel comfortable adding their parents on Facebook, some block their parents, and others restrict what their parents can see on their Facebook profiles. The full article can be found here:

    http://www.straitstimes.com/vgn-ext-templating/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=369b510a64b90210VgnVCM100000430a0a0aRCRD&vgnextchannel=cf70758920e39010VgnVCM1000000a35010aRCRD

    What I personally found most interesting was how “parents read about activities and pictures their children put online to feel closer to them and to find common topics to talk about. But this works well only as long as the parents do not find objectionable content in their children’s profiles.” Might be a cultural issue, but it also shows the self censorship involved between parents and youths, which might be a reflection of offline values being brought online as well? :)

  • amazing ethnography! Thank you for always being at the bleeding edge and pushing us to think harder. Your research shows that when we finally get around to designing the social media literacy campaign that has a similar scope/reach as the literacy campaigns in the 19th Century, we will need to include a system of carrots/sticks that goes beyond the self-selection of social media platforms that we are experiencing now. More challenges for an imagined cyber state…

  • Extremely compelling insights in this case. We are currenlty working to help a college connect better with high school students and consider our private liberal-arts, NY Metro school as their undergraduate choice. Meanwhile, we are probing into how today’s high-school juniors and seniors take in information and how they relate with the marketplace.

    How do they use digital communications in scouting out and selecting? How can colleges connect to and converse with these prospective students effectively? If there is a teen-ager-tension between Facebook and My Space, there seems to be a college-admission professionals tension between more direct marketing and “something else we should do that’s digital.”

    Most interesting me, from the flow of comments, is the notion that economic and demographic stratification of young people may well determine the language they use and, even more, the tools they employ to communicate with one another and,maybe, the world at large.

    As a marketing dude, my question is this: in a new world where the customer owns the brand, how does one categorize and relate with the clusters of customers?

  • Facebook is for smart people who know how to express themselves in correct English. MySpace is for people whose vocabulary consists of “WTF”, “OMG”, “Total Epic Fail”, and similar web slang.

  • Teens and adults interacting seamlessly? Only place online I’ve found like that would be World of Warcraft!

  • I’m from India where there are no blacks and whites, but the castes that exist have a very similar effect. My personal experience tells me that while we have more of people with a mentality like that of Connor, number of people of Kaitlyn’s mentality is rapidly increasing. And while education helps increase this number, more effect is of living with people of diverse backgrounds rather than education.

  • Peter

    Somehow I think MySpace is going back to it’s roots. The real competition is no longer Facebook but sites who focus around the self expression factor even stronger, like deviantART.

    @Facebook is for smart people who know how to express themselves in correct English.
    Finally – we found a way to meashure smartness!

  • Teens and adults interacting seamlessly? Only place online I’ve found like that would be World of Warcraft!

  • I haven’t logged into my MySpace account since before i got married in September, and even by that point I was only logging in at most once every other month (i had turned on a vacation setting that blocks incoming messages over a year and a half ago). About once a quarter or less i check my profile to skim comments on my wall. I do find MySpace to be immature and notice that the only people I know who still prefer MySpace are those under 18. (With overlap between mature teenagers and young adults who refuse to grow up). I find MySpace obnoxious and annoying, but i just don’t want to delete the accounts.

    I wouldn’t really call Facebook mature though, with all the silly applications, games, and quizzes, but i feel it offers a lot more and the norm isn’t overloads of blinking colors and netspeak. The most appealing thing about Facebook is probably the inability to “pimp” your profile. I do like to express my style, but so many people have bad taste it’s better left blue and white. ^__^

    I’m 24 and my friends on Facebook range from 16 to 51 (my mom), and 98% of them i know (definiton of “know” is flexible: see regularly to have met once) offline. I refrain from saying “in real life” because it’s a pet peeve of mine when people treat websites as if they are a fantasy world. It’s just a digtized version of life. With technology, you have more abilities (like in sci-fi movies) but it’s still real life. So while some people look down upon spending too much time on FB, i see it as hanging out with people i don’t normally get to see as much anymore (from moving and life changes, etc).

    I digress, but in short, i agree with the results

  • Janice

    Why would someone say this was for older people?

  • Quite interesting to think about social backgrounds. Here in Brazil orkut is popular among all groups (no matter the age or demographic background), while facebook is starting to get popular especially among “cool” adults. We are still in a different phase, I guess. Not sure if everyone will migrate to facebook. The main question my students pose me is “what’s the point of migrating to facebook, if all my contacts are still on orkut?”

    What about twitter? In Brazil it’s becoming popular, but for the time being, it’s still more used by upper class adults.

    And, of course, you can’t deny the fact that there’s a huge gap between social groups over here…

  • Quite interesting to think about social backgrounds. Here in Brazil orkut is popular among all groups (no matter the age or demographic background), while facebook is starting to get popular especially among “cool” adults. We are still in a different phase, I guess. Not sure if everyone will migrate to facebook. The main question my students pose me is “what’s the point of migrating to facebook, if all my contacts are still on orkut?”

    What about twitter? In Brazil it’s becoming popular, but for the time being, it’s still more used by upper class adults.

    And, of course, you can’t deny the fact that there’s a huge gap between social groups over here…

  • Facebook is much more formal than MySpace, so it’s not a surprise that older people or younger people are moving.

  • Chrissy

    I’m really interested in your last comment: “I strongly believe that the healthiest environment we can create online is one where teens and trusted adults interact seamlessly.”

    While my intellectual side says that I agree, on the other hand, as a teenager, I disagree. I think that having a space where I can experiment with identities, present a constructed performance of myself, and have pictures tagged of me that I don’t want my mom or youth pastor to see…is also healthy. I think that adults too often think about others actions in a static, judgemental way…and do not leave room for a fluidity of experimentation, learning from mistakes, and being young. I feel like my grandma commenting on my facebook pictures is embarrassing, and now that old people are learning more and more about facebook, they can see through my attempts at setting privacy limitations against them.

    i don’t like listening to adults converse about facebook, though i’m not exactly sure why.

    i really appreciate all of your extensive work on the sociology of the internet. I have been reading your work since I stumbled upon your sight a few years ago through your ani lyrics site…which, by the way, changed the course of my life. (i read ani’s lyrics/poetry on your site before i ever knew who she was or that she sang them into songs)

  • Before I read this post, I never spend any time thinking about wether facebook or any other social bookmark service is for old people or not.

    Here in Germany facebook currently becomes more and more popular. But the major social bookmark service is MisterWong. There you can find a multicultural, multisocial mixture of users across all ages.

  • I agree with Suzana about the technology gap in social groups. When cell/mobile devices have bigger screens keyboards is when kids will use these websites more. Texting is where it’s at for kids these days. A lot of kids think twitter is used by vain old people.

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