February 21, 2011

The share-it-all generation closes the blinds

From the NYT:

Blogs were once the outlet of choice for people who wanted to express themselves online. But with the rise of sites like Facebook and Twitter, they are losing their allure for many people — particularly the younger generation.

The Internet and American Life Project at the Pew Research Center found that from 2006 to 2009, blogging among children ages 12 to 17 fell by half; now 14 percent of children those ages who use the Internet have blogs.

We've been hearing forever about how exhibitionistic the Millennials are, but I was never very convinced and have periodically shown why that was wrong. The most obvious fact is that they don't hang out in public spaces like young people used to. Their social lives are more like those of the tupperware party women of the 1950s, not the out-and-about carnivalesque of Woodstock, Studio 54, or the megamall. Second, there is ascertainment bias -- we can only see exhibitionists if the technology for detecting them is any good. In 1968 it was a lot more difficult for preening young people to be seen and heard; just imagine if they had had YouTube back then. And last, as I pointed out awhile ago, the practice of streaking and flashing your boobs at a concert have totally died out. (I'll bet skinnydipping has too, but that's harder to get an impression about.)

This move among young people from more visible websites like a blog to less visible websites like Facebook is just another example of the pattern of their only going into public spaces if there's no alternative, but preferring to keep their thoughts and actions completely private, at most only sharing them with their tiny real-life social circle.

Most of the Baby Boomer observers, who started the rumor about share-it-all Millennials, have no idea how private Facebook has become since 2008 or so. It used to be that anyone could see anyone else's profile, within a very large network that both belonged to, like any two people who listed Boston as their residence or Hill Valley High as their school. Now you can only see someone's profile if you're mutual acquaintances.

Also, the potential for exhibitionism on Facebook is virtually nonexistent these day. Back in the wild, wild west days of Facebook -- up through about 2007 -- teenagers decorated their profiles with all kinds of junk, especially girls. It looked like the wall of their room -- funny phrases and joke pictures, pictures of hot boys and girls, pictures of their role models, still images from their favorite movies or TV shows, and so on. Some of these were added by their close friends, but if they didn't want them up, they could always have taken them down. And for awhile you could embed a video clip on your main profile page.

Now you can't do any of that, and the profile resembles a blog, just one that is only viewable by a small number of known people. There's a really long comment thread in the middle, a list of friends on one side, a list of ads on the other, and some barebones information and a picture at the top. The "all about me" information -- where people blab about what their favorite music, movies, and other interests are, what their brief life story is, and where they put an endless list of quotes (either movie/TV/music quotes or inside jokes) -- has been banished to a separate tab that no one will ever click on.

We can also point to the immediate death of MySpace once Facebook offered a social network site that was at least somewhat closed. The Facebook networks were still very large at first, but they didn't include everybody like MySpace did. Again compare how pimped out the average MySpace profile was compared to the average Facebook profile -- orders of magnitude more bling.

During the euphoria of the peak housing bubble years (say, 2003 to 2006), the otherwise don't-look-at-me Millennials opened up quite a bit and strutted their stuff, but that really was just a blip. I too was blinded by that moment of craziness and took that to be their natural way, but now that the housing bubble party has been over for three years, and also looking back at the late '90s and early 2000s, it's clear that their basic preferences are to not stand out or cause a sensation. At least I got to get close to them when they were still rather outgoing and fun-loving, during my stint as a tutor. And that's what counts, since your memory tends to block out how boring a once-exciting scene eventually became. Sure was fun while it lasted.

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