Where will online teens go next?

Some of us are watching to see if, now that so many parents are joining Facebook, teens will migrate somewhere else (see this post, suggesting that mobile texting might be a sign of diversification vs. mass migration). In her YPulse blog, Anastasia Goodstein just asked a good (related) question: "Should Large Social Networks Give Teens Their Space Back?" Teens have always needed to have hangouts of their own, away from parents (online too, now). I posted a comment to that effect at YPulse but want to blog about this too because I think the social network space is in a bit of a transition right now, and parents and teens might want to think together about and weigh in on this.

Where online socializing's concerned, I can see merit to both sides of the debate – on one hand, that teens deserve their own space and should have their own social network sites and, on the other, that it's more "normal" or reflective of the "real world" for sites, worlds, and games such as MySpace, Facebook, and World of Warcraft not to age-segregate.

Some social sites and services – such as YourSphere.com, Teen Second Life, and a forthcoming service called "My Secret Circle" – make segregation an actual safety feature, but I think segregation for safety will slowly be replaced by segregation by interest – people sharing interests such as fairies (as in Disney's PixieHollow), slopestyle skiing (as in NewSchoolers), or teens who aspire to be professional writers (as one teen told me is her reason for spending time on YourSphere). Segregation by interest brings a measure of safety with it, I believe, but you may be asking why I think segregation for safety is losing steam….

Because it's a response to the predator panic teens and parents have been subjected to in US society, not to the realities of youth on the social Web. What nearly a decade of peer-reviewed academic research shows is that peer-to-peer behavior is the online risk that affects many more youth, the vast majority of online kids who are not already at-risk youth offline (see the 12/08 Internet Safety Technical Task Force report's Executive Summary). Segregating teens from adults online doesn't address harassment, defamation, imposter profiles, cyberbullying, etc. It may help keep online predators away from kids (even though online predation, or abuse resulting from online communication, constitutes only 1% of overall child sexual exploitation, according to UNH's Crimes Against Children Research Center), which is a great outcome, but it's not enough unless all that parents are worried about is predators. A long-winded way of explaining why I think age segregation is losing steam: the facts are emerging, and parents, schools, policymakers, and businesses will increasingly respond to reality rather than hyperbole (call me an idealist, but isn't this the way it works?) – please post if you disagree.

So my vote's with diversification. Teens will simultaneously: 1) continue to diversify their platforms and channels for socializing (social sites have lost a percentage of teens' social/leisure time to texting on phones, but I think also to a lesser degree to massively multiplayer online games and gaming communities like Xbox Live and Sony Home); 2) stay in the giant, general-interest social network sites just because that's where everybody is and these really are social utilities that for teens have replaced email, chat, IM, etc. as separate social tools; and 3) also increasingly hang out together in vertical sites and other quiet corners of the Web where parents aren't around.

As for Anastasia's question about whether the giant sites should give teens their space back? I don't know about should because I'm sure she'll agree the business question is would they? And the answer is no, because their massive-traffic business models won't allow it. The logical question is where the social Web's natives and early adopters will choose to go not just to hang out, but to do the amazing array of things they use the fixed and mobile social Web for: keeping in touch, comparing class notes, designing, software writing, fiction writing, commentary writing, video producing, being entertained, job seeking, marketing, activism, solidarity – generally just the digital version of living. The answer to that, necessarily, is a vast and growing number of social media and technologies. I don't think it's going to be a giant monolithic thing like social networking again. But I definitely could be wrong about that. Please tell me if you disagree, especially if you know what the next big thing is!

Related links

* "Living and learning with social media: Many American youth are embracing a wide array of social media as part of their everyday lives," a talk given by social media scholar danah boyd at Pennsylvania State University
* For some background on social networking in general: "The Life and Death of the Social Network: The Glory Days Are Over"

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