The New York Times’ Pamela Paul writes about our Facebook study in her Sunday bi-weekly column, Studied. Her piece, Does Facebook Make Someone Social Offline?, considers one of the main findings from our research: that Facebook expands our social selves. In between several projects I’ve been thinking a lot about the data we have collected and what it reveals about the steady evolution of social media behavior. In the article, Paul turns to Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor, to offer what amounts to a counterpoint. According to Turkle, our study allows Facebok to define what makes for social behavior. Disclosure: I’m a big fan of Turkle’s work. She was exploring the complexities of life and identity in the age of computer-mediated communication when I was still a student. Still, much of the evidence–empirical and anecdotal–strongly suggests that Turkle’s assertion that our study allows Facebook to define what is social is off the mark.
In fact, the story of the most successful social media platforms is how they evolve far beyond what their creators initially intended. Facebook, once a place to connect with collegiate friends, is also used to connect to social causes, organizations, and pop culture interests. In places like Tunisia and Egypt the political elite are blocking access to social media because it has become an alternative media tool for sharing with the world the unrest in those respective countries. Updating the design features of these platforms so that they remain relevant and flexible enough to matter in people’s lives is a constant challenge not because the creators define the social uses of social media but precisely for the opposite reason–how everyday users adopt and innovate with social media continually redefines their meaning.
What is Social Changes as We Change
The data in our survey offers compelling evidence that Facebook is evolving into a multi-facted platform connecting with nearly every aspect of our social selves. And while that makes some traditionalists uncomfortable it is a fact of life in the digital age. What remains to be seen is how users of Facebook will innovate in the face of “network convergence “a reference to what happens when the varied social connections that reflect our varied selves are connected to each other through online social networks. It is a mistake to assume that active engagement with social media means disengagement with offline friends and acquaintances. In fact, all of the data that we have been collecting over the last six years strongly suggest otherwise.
Even before conducting our study we understood that the use of social media is constantly evolving in relation to several factors including age, education, gender, geography, race and ethnicity. In our earlier work we noticed that teens used social network sites primarily as a destination and opportunity to get away from the controlling gaze of parents, teachers, and other authority figures. My colleagues Mimi Ito and Heather Horst were part of a MacArthur Foundation funded study a few years ago that found that teens’ use of social media is actually quite layered, complex, and, yes, social. For most teens social networks are primarily about two things–crafting a social identity and connecting to a peer community. Despite popular opinion how teenagers use social media is not a predictor of how they will use social media in later years. In our early research we came across evidence that marked some important transitions in the use of social media after high school.
In our research young adults’ rejection of online social networks as a place to hang out illuminates the social and behavioral changes that accompany the transition from teen to young adulthood. First, whereas teens, due primarily to age and the school week, face a number of restrictions on their personal mobility, young adults enjoy more personal freedoms and mobility. Second, young adults also exercise more control over their free time. Third, unlike teens young adults do not suffer from what sociologist Ray Oldenburg refers to as “the problem of place,” a reference to the steady erosion of informal public life and places for friends to gather socially. Young adults gather together in all kinds of places including parties, dorm rooms, coffee shops, fitness classes, and bars.
Facebook Photos Define Social Outward Rather Than Downward
At its core our study explores one question: what is social about social media? Social behavior, as it always does, continues to evolve. Social media expands our opportunities to engage friends, family, acquaintances, and the world around us. Several indicators of sociability emerge from our work but I will focus on one–the posting and browsing of pictures. When we talk with young people (and this increasingly applies to the millions of 35+ users of Facebook) browsing photos consistently emerges as a major part of the Facebook experience. According to Facebook its more than 500 million users worldwide share about 30 billion pieces of content–pictures, web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, etc.–a month.
Turkle observes that, “you can be pro-photo sharing without being convinced that it expands our social lives,” adding, “It’s a way of defining downwards what it means to be social.” Rather than dismiss photo sharing as defining social behavior downward I prefer to think of it as defining social behavior outward.
Not only is the sharing of pictures social– I call it “lifesharing”– but many of the pictures that people post on Facebook often capture activities that are social in nature–friends hanging out together at parties, athletic events, and sharing meals and drinks together. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed in our study say that the photos that they post are of social gatherings with friends. More than half, 55%, say that the photos that they post are of family-based events. It’s true, a growing percentage of the pictures shared on Facebook are of family related activities including weddings, vacations, and reunions.
The pictures that users post and what they elect to share tell intriguing stories about who they are and also who they aspire to be. As I think about our research the posting and browsing of pictures via Facebook is a complex social activity that intersects with many of the current debates about social media in general and Facebook in particular– issues like privacy, publicity, identity, performance, personal expression, narcissism, and prosumption (i.e., people producing and consuming cultural content) just to name a few.
We also have a bit of data on when people are most likely to be on Facebook and our preliminary analysis suggest that it’s usually during the periods they are unlikely to physically be with friends–early in the morning or late during a weekday evening. (We will need to think more carefully about this as Facebook mobile now means Facebook anytime and anywhere). Pictures spark conversations and fond feelings that can pull a close social circle of friends even closer together or help distant friends and family feel connected even though they may be far away.
I don’t see evidence that Facebook is making us anti-social or that its use is defining social behavior downward. I do see evidence that users are adopting the platforms features to expand how we express our social selves.
Click this link, “Got Facebook?,” to see our study.