Posted on June 20, 2007
Social networking and the news habit
At my university, we are playing host to 17 journalism educators from 17 countries, most of which are “developing” rather than “developed.” We have arranged six weeks of lectures, workshops and travel for them with the goal of increasing their understanding of how we practice and teach journalism in the U.S.
Of course they all use the Internet, Google and e-mail (they teach at universities in their home countries). They have all seen YouTube before. But yesterday we learned that very few of our participants are familiar with Facebook, MySpace or Second Life. We have also learned that in some countries, LiveJournal or MSN Spaces (now renamed Live Spaces) are far more popular than they seem to be here. (Last year two of our students from China told me that MSN Spaces is by far the most popular social networking site in China, and Baidu far outstrips Google in search engine usage.)
It’s a pleasure to stare at this graphic — the data are so clearly depicted, and the information is fascinating. (It represents U.S. users only.)
What you see in the graphic might not surprise you — Americans ages 18 to 21 use social networking sites more than any other age group — but think about what this might mean for the future. We don’t know whether this group will continue to use these sites — or similar sites that emerge later — to the same extent, or in the same ways. But use of such sites is spreading around the world. In countries where access to the Internet is low, and/or literacy rates are low, we won’t see the same patterns emerging. At least not yet.
We do know that mobile phone use is higher than Internet use in many countries, however, and it’s clear that Internet-capable phones are getting better — and cheaper. People in developing countries already create ad hoc networks for text messaging, through which they disseminate news and gossip that often is censored from the news media. This cool chart would be different in other countries.
The Digital Youth research project offers a lot of interesting stories coming out of ethnographic research under way in California. Researchers are studying how kids play, learn and socialize “in virtual places and networks such as online games, blogs, messaging, and online interest groups.”
What I’m pondering is the implications for civil society — modern democracies — social networks in real life, which keep us from devolving into chaos.
As Steve Yelvington has said more than once:
Media consumption patterns are set early in life, and tend to persist. The change that endangers the newspaper business model is not one that involves readers losing the habit. It is, instead, a generational change that involves losing the actual readers from the population pool.
In other words, these 20-year-olds who do not read a printed newspaper are never going to become newspaper readers.
Most of the news industry in the Western countries has recognized this already. We see different patterns in some other countries, such as India, but I think the trend of the Internet — especially via mobile phones — will continue indefinitely.
What I’m thinking about today (and I do apologize for taking so long to get to my point) is that the habit young people in the U.S. do have — now, at that crucial age when patterns are set for life — is the pattern of interacting in social networks.
Their interpersonal networks might well reconfigure over time. The software or sites they use might well change or be replaced by others. But their habit of staying connected digitally, checking for updates, making plans, sharing gossip, getting information — this will likely remain their habit, their means of keeping in touch with the world around them, for the rest of their lives.
That’s why we need to understand these spaces where young people interact. I don’t know if it really requires setting up a bureau in Second Life, but it certainly does demand our attention — immediately, today.