My friend Peter Rukavina blogged how he will no longer push his blogpostings to Facebook and Twitter. The key reason is that he no longer wants to feed the commercial data-addicts that they are, and really wants to be in control of his own online representation: his website is where we can find him in the various facets he likes to share with us.

Attempting to scale the walls of the gardens like FB that we lock ourselves into

This is something I often think about, without coming to a real conclusion or course of action. Yes, I share Peters sentiments concerning Facebook and Twitter, and how everything we do there just feeds their marketing engines. And yes, in the past two years I purposefully have taken various steps to increase my own control over my data, as well as build new and stronger privacy safeguards. Yet, my FB usage has not yet been impacted by that, in fact, I know I use it more intensively than a few years ago.

Peter uses his blog different from me, in that he posts much more about all the various facets of himself in the same spot. In fact that is what makes his blog so worthwile to follow, the mixture of technology how-to’s, and philosphical musings very much integrated with the daily routines of getting coffee, or helping out a local retailer, or buying a window ventilator. It makes the technology applicable, and turns his daily routines into a testing ground for them. I love that, and the authentic and real impact that creates where he lives. I find that with my blog I’ve always more or less only published things of profession related interests, which because I don’t talk about clients or my own personal life per se, always remain abstract thinking-out-loud pieces, that likely provide little direct applicability. I use Twitter to broadcast what I write. In contrast I use FB to also post the smaller things, more personal things etc. If you follow me on Facebook you get a more complete picture of my everyday activities, and random samplings of what I read, like and care about beyond my work.

To me FB, while certainly exploiting my data, is a ‘safer’ space for that (or at least succeeds in pretending to be), to the extent it allows me to limit the visibility of my postings. The ability to determine who can see my FB postings (friends, friends of friends, public) is something I intensively use (although I don’t have my FB contacts grouped into different layers, as I could do). Now I could post tumblerlike on my own blog, but would not be able to limit visibility of that material (other than by the virtue of no-one bothering to visit my site). That my own blog content is often abstract is partly because it is all publicly available. To share other things I do, I would want to be able to determine its initial social distribution.

That is I think the thing I like to solve: can I shape my publications / sharings in much the same way I shape my feedreading habits: in circles of increasing social distance. This is the original need I have for social media, and which I have had for a very long time, basically since when social media were still just blogs and wikis. Already in 2006 (building on postings about my information strategies in 2005) I did a session on putting the social in social media front and center, together with Boris Mann at Brussels Barcamp on this topic, where I listed the following needs, all centered around the need to let social distance and quality of relationships play a role in publishing and sharing material:

  • tools that put people at the center (make social software even more social)
  • tools that let me do social network analysis and navigate based on that (as I already called for at GOR 2006)
  • tools that use the principles of community building as principles of tool design (an idea I had writing my contribution to BlogTalk Reloaded)
  • tools that look at relationships in terms of social distance (far, close, layers in between) and not in terms of communication channels (broadcasting, 1 to 1, and many to many)
  • tools that allow me to shield or disclose information based on the depth of a relationship, relative to the current content
  • tools that let me flow easily from one to another, because the tools are the channels of communication. Human relationships don’t stick to channels, they flow through multiple ones simultaneously and they change channels over time.

All of these are as yet unsolved in a distributed way, with the only option currently being getting myself locked into some walled garden and running up the cost of moving outside those walls with every single thing I post there. Despite the promise of the distributed net, we still end up in centralized silo’s, until the day that our social needs are finally met in distributed ways in our social media tools.

I am a hard bloggin' scientist. Read the Manifesto.Jan Schmidt, a hard blogging scientist, is a sociologist who has been looking at the impact and use of social media for a long time. I met him for the first time on the second ever BlogWalk in Nuremberg in 2004, the series of salons on social media that I used to organize with Lilia Efimova and Sebastian Fiedler.
On Next09 he presented findings from a 15 month study concluded only earlier this month, on social media behaviour of teenagers and adolescents. Given the nature of other presentations at Next09 Jan’s session seemed perhaps somewhat misplaced in the general flow of the conference, but I was glad it was part of the programme anyway. Especially as the results presented are very useful to me, and also seem to fit well with research I did myself into media behaviour of children in an age group just before the age groups Schmidt et al looked at.

The research project combined both quantitative and qualitative (focus groups, interviews) elements, allowing for a rich tapestry of results. (Project site in German, 20 page summary pdf in German)
An interesting starting point of Jan Schmidt’s presentations was the reason he thought the social web is a good fit with teenagers. The three practices that social media actively embrace match up with three important developmental aspects teenagers grapple with. Identity management (status updates, profiles, publishing vids) relates to the task of the development of self (who am I?), relationship management (friending online, commenting, following) chimes with the development of socialization (who/where am I in groups?), and information management (searching, tagging, rating) matches up with the developmental task of general orientation (who am I in the world?)
Among German youngsters Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and ICQ are the most widely used. (ICQ is the IM of choice in Germany, MSN is what the kids in the Netherlands use. I once heard a Dutch girl on the train explain to a friend that her German boyfriend used ICQ, calling it ‘the German MSN’.) Facebook is largely unheard of (ranking under 2% together with Second Life) under German young people, as they use StudiVZ, for students, and SchulerVZ, for high school kids, which combined cover 85%.
About 3/4 of those asked use social networking sites (matching nicely with 70% here in the Netherlands). Young people aren’t confused by the term ‘friend’, as most press coverage seems to always find problematic. Mostly they connect to people they have met face to face at some point, and mostly they do not think those contacts constitute close friendships. In short they know it’s a map and not the landscape. Schmidt concludes, one that I share and find important, that social networking sites make weak ties explicit. I would add that as these teenagers get older, it also preserves context, allowing you to keep in touch where normally you would drift apart as you move into different contexts. Jan Schmidt also holds that this makes a perfect training ground for teenage networking and social skills. During that discovery of networking skills slightly over a quarter of those asked say they encountered problematic usage (like bullying etc.), and 5% (girls) to 10% (boys) say they’ve done things on-line others protested against.
Schmidt also reported on the channels teenagers say they find appropiate for things like arranging meetings, flirting, chatting, meeting new people and breaking up. Ian Forrester of the BBC indicated during the Q&A that they got very different results when asking about actual behaviour. But to me this was interesting because it gives us a picture of the normative behaviour of these teenagers. And the conclusion is that, except (unsurprisingly) arranging meetings, face to face contact is still very much the norm, followed by synchronous communication such as phone and IM at increasing distance (and that snail mail has no future at all).
I find this significant, as it shows us digital media have become part of our daily diet, but at the same time there is no significant shift in values and norms it seems between them and our generations when it comes to human interaction. Behaviour is changing, but normative behaviour is not, and direct human face to face contact is still on top. It flies in the face of fear mongering adults thinking kids these days isolate themselves behind their screens and can’t see the difference between real and fake contact. That fear is something those adults project on their kids, and more a reflection of not wanting to deal with the new skills involved themselves, a case of monster killing. In reality new media channels mean primarily there are more options to communicate when face to face is not possible or not practical.
That social media have become a normal part of every day teenage life is further proven by the observation that terms like social media and Web2.0 are largely unknown to these age groups. Again these are terms we have made up to describe the difference compared to what we knew before. These kids know just this, the internet that is now. They don’t have to unlearn stuff like we do, they use what is there. Let’s stop projecting our notions on these kids, and like Schmidt et al, start observing more what they are really doing, saying and thinking. So that we can connect that to the values and notions we like to instill them with, so that we can give them an education and raising that is meaningful to them.

Video and slides:
Link: Jan Schmidt on Growing up with the social web

Disclosure: I was at the Next ’09 Conference in Hamburg on the invitation of the organizers as a blogger and did not have to pay for my conference ticket.