Experiencing Social Media Across Generations
1. The Net Gener’s Perspective
By Christian Taske
A while ago something unusual happened. Several friends of mine sent me an e-mail. What’s so remarkable about this, you ask? Well, it’s just not how I communicate with most of my friends any more. My fellow Net Geners and I have discovered better tools. We send text messages to meet for coffee, instant message each other to chat about relationships, and update our Facebook status to share our moods. Socially, e-mail is the snail mail of the Internet.
Don’t get me wrong. I still send dozens of e-mails every day. But the vast majority of them I write at work. I also have a Gmail account, but use it mainly to receive bills, newsletters and spam, of course, or to communicate in a formal setting. When I want to communicate digitally on a social level, e-mail doesn’t meet my needs. It’s “too slow and formal.”
The latter aren’t my words. They were spoken by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg last November. Zuckerberg was introducing a unified messaging system for his social networking site that allows users to communicate on the Web and on mobile phones by combining e-mail, text messaging and online chats into a single medium.[i]
Naturally, I was excited when I heard about Facebook Messages, as the service is called. I am writing about it, not because I want to endorse Zuckerberg’s newest idea, but because it illustrates how I and most of my fellow Net Geners prefer to communicate socially on the Web.
Facebook Messages offers a “social inbox” that prioritizes messages from friends and collects all conversations you have with a person on various media in a single inbox. It prides itself as saving time, eliminating formalities such as subject lines, and being more like a conversation than e-mail. To lure users away from Google, Yahoo and other e-mail providers, the service encourages users to sign up for an address ending in @facebook.com.[ii]
Facebook Messages “is not an e-mail killer,” as Zuckerberg said, and much of the media was wrong in branding it that way when the service was first announced. Few people will give up their traditional e-mail accounts once Facebook Messages is available to the world (at the time this article was written, Messages was available by invitation only to a small group of users). A Wall Street Journal poll, for example, showed that almost two-thirds of its readers would not use Facebook as their primary e-mail provider – most likely due to privacy concerns.[iii]
I assume, however, that most readers of the Journal are not Net Geners, those under the age of 35. Our generation is the first to be surrounded by digital media. We prefer to operate in open, less authoritative and informal settings. We are innovators and we want freedom of choice and expression. We want to customize our products and value networking relationships. We have a need for speed and are comfortable multi-taskers. We write blogs, upload videos, create profiles and, in the meantime, sacrifice privacy. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are just as much part of our lives as the phone, radio and television are for Baby Boomers.
To us Net Geners, e-mail is “anti social” and social media are our preferred tools to communicate on a personal level. Each day, more than 4 billion messages are sent inside Facebook, according to Mashable.com.[iv] The older generation of e-mailers needs to adopt to this new trend if it hopes to reach younger audiences in the future.
Managing Your Presence Online
When my wife and I started dating 10 years ago, Facebook didn’t exist. Carrying on a long-distance relationship spanning two continents and six time zones for the first two years, we heavily relied on e-mail to communicate. To this day, my wife has a folder containing all those printed e-mails. It’s nice to be able to read through them and one day share them with our kids.
But since the advent of social networks, instant and text messaging, it is harder to keep track of all of our conversations across different media. Facebook aims to tackle this problem by combining all messages regardless of the medium as a single conversation with each friend. Users will be able to select which messages make it to the inbox, block advertisements and save work-related e-mails for other “formal” e-mail accounts. In addition, users will be able to send and receive messages in real time through whatever medium or device is most convenient for them.[v] There are also rumors that Facebook will eventually add a video chat function making communication completely seamless and synchronized across multiple platforms.[vi]
In his blog on GigaOM.com, industry analyst David Card called this approach “presence management,” a way to help users announce their availability to other people and, potentially, services. “A powerful, unified presence manager would also enable the user to express how he’d like to communicate, and to manipulate that ‘how’ and ‘when’ availability to different types of contacts,” Card wrote about such tools.[vii]
Card wrote that such presence management tools will “focus on intimacy and immediacy at the expense of formality, flexibility and history.” They will de-emphasize consumer communications like billing, newsletters and lists, which likely will remain in the e-mail domain.
Whether you call it presence management or social networking, Facebook, Twitter and co. serve a very distinct purpose – to keep us all connected on a personal level. In other words, social networking sites have become the market places of our generation. This is where we meet digitally to discuss politics, rally for a common cause and gossip about our neighbors. Some say Facebook is much like high school in that respect, too. It’s a place where the most popular people and the ones who shout the loudest have the most exposure, as a recent article on TheDailyBeast.com pointed out. Editors at The Daily Beast looked into how Facebook prioritizes messages that appear in a user’s personalized news feed, which many use to follow what’s happening in their digital community. What they found was that newcomers with few friends had a tough time getting noticed.[viii]
How exactly Zuckerberg’s Facebook decides who gets exposure in the news feed is unknown, but one thing is certain: the nerdy Harvard drop-out turned billionaire controls how an entire generation communicates while using their data to blast them with advertisements. But Net Geners like me don’t care about our data as much as older people do. Maybe it’s because we didn’t grow up fearing someone would spy on us and rat us out as a communist. I don’t know.
Whatever the case may be, half a billion of us have been lured by Zuckerberg into a privacy-sacrificing, always-on, digital communication network we are not willing to leave behind. The bad news for the rest of the world is that eventually you will have to join us if you want to communicate with us online. The good news is that Facebook is accessible almost everywhere, even in countries such as Syria, Iran and China that have attempted to ban the network out of fear for its democratizing power.[ix] I, for one, believe in this power. But that’s not why I joined. I simply want to stay in touch with my pals.
So, since my social communication takes place almost entirely on social networks, why did a bunch of my friends e-mail me a while ago? Well, they were responding to a series of e-mails they had apparently received from me. Someone or something had hijacked my Gmail account and sent messages offering discounted Viagra and proposing too-good-to-be-true business deals. I apologized in an instant message.
[i] Helft, Miguel. “Facebook Offers New Messaging Tool.” The New York Times. Nov. 15, 2010. www.nytimes.com/2010/11/16/technology/16facebook.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=facebook%20messages&st=cse.
[ii] Seligstein, Joel. “See the Messages that Matter.” The Facebook Blog. Nov. 15, 2010. http://blog.facebook.com/.
[iii] “Question of the Day.” The Wall Street Journal. Nov. 28, 2010. http://online.wsj.com/community/groups/question-day-229/topics/you-get-facebookcom-email-address?commentid=1813601.
[iv] Ehrlich, Brenna. “Facebook Messages by the Numbers.” Mashable. Nov. 15, 2010. http://mashable.com/2010/11/15/facebook-messages-numbers/.
[v] Seligstein, Joel. “See the Messages that Matter.” The Facebook Blog. Nov. 15, 2010. http://blog.facebook.com/.
[vi] Lavrusik, Vadim. “Skype Video Chat Coming to Facebook?” Mashable. Nov. 28, 2010. http://mashable.com/2010/11/28/skype-facebook-video-chat/.
[vii] Card, David. “What Facebook Messages Is Really After.” GigaOm. Nov. 22, 2010. http://gigaom.com/2010/11/22/what-facebook-messages-is-really-after/.
[viii] Weber, Thomas E. “Cracking the Facebook Code.” The Daily Beast. Oct. 18, 2010. www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-10-18/the-facebook-news-feed-how-it-works-the-10-biggest-secrets/.
[ix] Sawers, Paul. “Access denied: Facebook is banned…where exactly?” The Next Web. Nov. 25, 2010. http://thenextweb.com/socialmedia/2010/11/25/access-denied-facebook-is-banned-where-exactly/.
2. An Academic's Social Dream
By Frances Forde Plude
Most people who know me consider me open. I’m a good listener, I generally respect the ideas of others, I prefer to empower rather than manipulate, and I am very open to new ideas. The latter is especially valuable for a communication professor who, since Harvard and MIT doctoral studies, has focused on new communication technologies.
So, yes, I use e-mail a lot; I Skype regularly; I have a Facebook page and a (largely unused) Twitter account. I have not yet become a blogger, but I consult certain blogs regularly. I have several mobile phones since I need different ones when I am in Europe or Asia. However, except for my e-mail use and Google searches, most of the new social tools are a part of my life and work, but not at the center of either.
As I explore here the social media uses and users that are especially exciting for me, you will notice that I view social media as valuable tools for social action – for improving the world. I know millions of people connected on Facebook have fun with these tools; however, here I am reflecting upon their unique social-good potential.
I won’t speak at length about the Obama election campaign (in which I was an active participant) because the powerful use of social media there has been widely acknowledged.
As a matter of fact, just as I was writing this, Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook and the chief digital organizer for the Obama campaign, announced a new Facebook-like project that will index charities to help people find and evaluate them. The new venture will allow charities to have dedicated pages. It is called Jumo which means “together in concert” in Yoruba, a West African language.
The project announcement notes: “Relevant news articles, Twitter posts and YouTube videos will be added to the pages, and users can add their own feedback and comments. Users can also find their Facebook friends and follow their adopted projects and issues on the site.”
Let me begin here with one of my very favorite social media masters: Lawrence Lesser, a professor at the Harvard Law School. I have studied his books for years and now regularly visit websites he is associated with. I occasionally follow his tweets. Why? Because Lessig hopes to use social media to ‘fix’ the U.S. Congress and to organize a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. His site www.fixcongressfirst.org contains a digital strategic plan and www.callaconvention.com allows individuals to find and support an event in their area or plan an event of their own. The site http://convention.ideascale.com allows individuals to submit ideas for constitutional amendments, browse recent ideas and vote on them. As users submit their ideas, the online community discusses and votes for them, and the best ideas bubble up to the top. It’s sort of a social action town hall meeting.
Social Media and Nonprofits Literature
One of my favorite bloggers can be found at http://www.bethkanter.org
Kanter has been blogging for a decade and accumulated over a million page views. She is the co-author of the reference The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change. This book is an extraordinarily valuable guide for how nonprofit groups can use social media wisely. Kanter helps us understand how social networks work, how to listen, engage and build relationships, how to build trust through the transparency required online, and how making nonprofit organizations simpler is part of the strategy. Kanter’s blog is highly interactive, with many folks sharing ideas and visuals.
Another favorite blogger of mine – simply for the intellectual joy of it – is Andrew Sullivan. I don’t agree with many of his posts, and some are shocking, but for the sheer interactive joy of it this one is hard to beat since many, many people globally react to Sullivan’s ideas and to others who log on. An Atlantic magazine writer, Sullivan’s blog (called “The Daily Dish”) is at http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com and contains a helpful “Daily Wrap” summary for those who don’t have time to read the extensive blog ideas. Another fun item is the feature “The View From Your Window” for which people from around the world submit photos. Sullivan has a healthy respect for those who join the conversation.
I’ll insert here – as a change of pace – that Facebook does allow me to stay connected to a number of friends and family members. I can feel a part of the life of nieces and nephews who live far away by reading their posts. One niece shared with selected Facebook friends and family that she was in the midst of a battle with stage 3 cancer. One friend announced that he had learned their baby, not yet born, was a girl. These personal moments of joy and challenge resound among Facebook’s 500 million friends.
Now I want to admit to a social media dream of mine.
I have long rejoiced in the power of the telephone as the almost perfect communication tool. The growth of mobile phone technology – now the site of much social media interaction – has shown that the mobile phone is, truly, the computer of choice of the global poor. In India there are about 20 million new cell phone subscribers every month!
I see mobile phone growth as m-powerment, especially as an investment in women’s development. About 68% of mobile subscriptions are in developing countries. Millions of individuals become entrepreneurial when they are empowered by a mobile telephone. A woman in a small village can use her phone to arrange small loans for other women in the village. A farmer can use his phone to check market prices so he knows the best time to take his produce to market. A woman in childbirth can be aided by mobile medicine – experts at a distance monitoring her progress. Over 120 million school-age children are deprived of any education; a mobile phone can begin to change this by linking individuals to learning sites. Phones allow fund transfers in shops and mobiles can facilitate migrant money being sent home to families.
So my dream is that a movement would begin on Facebook that would allow individuals, churches, and other groups to donate to help the global poor have more access to cell phones to empower them in their daily lives and work. This would be just one more example of social media promoting social good.
Clay Sharkey notes in his book Here Comes Everybody:
One reason the phrase ‘social capital’ is so evocative is that
it connotes an increase in power, analogous to financial capital.
In economic terms, capital is a store of wealth and assets;
social capital is that store of behaviors and norms in any
large group that lets its members support one another. (p 222)
Aaker, J., Smith, A., with Adler, C. (2010). "The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change." San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kanter, B. and Fine, A. (2010). "The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change." San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Kirkpatrick, D. (2010). "The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World." New York, Simon and Schuster.
Sharky, C. (2009). "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." New York: Penguin Group.