Social media is here to stay... Now what?

Danah Boyd · March 16, 2009 · Short URL:

Network effects; youth vs adults; reshaping publics

Social media is not new. Media has been leveraged for sociable purposes since the caveman's walls. Even in the realm of the Internet, some of the first applications were framed around communication and sharing. For decades, we've watched the development of new genres of social media - MUDs/MOOs, instant messaging, chatrooms, bulletin boards, etc.

Social media is the latest buzzword in a long line of buzzwords. It is often used to describe the collection of software that enables individuals and communities to gather, communicate, share, and in some cases collaborate or play. In tech circles, social media has replaced the earlier fave "social software." Academics still tend to prefer terms like "computer-mediated communication" or "computer-supported cooperative work" to describe the practices that emerge from these tools and the old school academics might even categorize these tools as "group-work" tools. Social media is driven by another buzzword: "user-generated content" or content that is contributed by participants rather than editors.

But for the last few years, everyone's been abuzz with the idea of "social media." Right now, those who want VC backing need to bake the "social" into any Web 2.0 app they create. There are many new genres of social media that have gained traction here: blogs, wikis, media-sharing sites, social network sites, social bookmarking, virtual worlds, microblogging sites, etc. These tools are part of a broader notion of "Web2.0." Yet-another-buzzword, Web 2.0 means different things to different people.

For the technology crowd, Web 2.0 was about a shift in development and deployment. Rather than producing a product, testing it, and shipping it to be consumed by an audience that was disconnected from the developer, Web 2.0 was about the perpetual beta. This concept makes all of us giggle, but what this means is that, for technologists, Web 2.0 was about constantly iterating the technology as people interacted with it and learning from what they were doing. To make this happen, we saw the rise of technologies that supported real-time interactions, user-generated content, remixing and mashups, APIs and open-source software that allowed mass collaboration in the development cycle. We saw half-baked ideas hit the marketplace and get transformed by the users in an elegant dance with the developers. This was a critical disruption to the way in which technology was historically produced, one that rattled big companies, even those whose agile software development cycles couldn't cope with including all consumers as active participants in their process.

For the business crowd, Web 2.0 can be understood as hope. Web 2.0 emerged out of the ashes of the fallen tech bubble and bust. Scars ran deep throughout Silicon Valley and venture capitalists and entrepreneurs wanted to party like it was 1999. Web2.0 brought energy to this forlorn crowd. At first they were skeptical, but slowly they bought in. As a result, we've seen a resurgence of startups, venture capitalists, and conferences. At this point, Web 2.0 is sometimes referred to as Bubble 2.0, but there's something to say about "hope" even when the VCs start co-opting that term because they want four more years.

For users, Web 2.0 was all about reorganizing web-based practices around Friends. For many users, direct communication tools like email and IM were used to communicate with one's closest and dearest while online communities were tools for connecting with strangers around shared interests. Web2.0 reworked all of that by allowing users to connect in new ways. While many of the tools may have been designed to help people find others, what Web2.0 showed was that people really wanted a way to connect with those that they already knew in new ways. Even tools like MySpace and Facebook which are typically labeled social networkING sites were never really about networking for most users. They were about socializing inside of pre-existing networks.


I research Web 2.0 from many different angles, primarily looking at everyday consumer practices, but also thinking about how this connects to technology, business, and society. I am new at Microsoft. Some of you know my work; others of you don't. In putting together this talk, I went back and forth as to whether or not I should go deep or go broad.

Given the diversity of this audience, I decided that we should go for the sampler plate. Given that I've recently made my research available in semi-book form, I decided that I'd rather focus on the implications of my findings. If you're looking for data or direct analysis, you can visit this URL or talk to me afterwards.

I'm going to share my research in three acts:

1) How did social media - and social network sites in particular - gain traction in the US? And how should we think about network effects?

2) What are some core differences between how teens leverage social media and how adults engage with these same tools?

3) How is social media reconfiguring social infrastructure and where is all of this going?


History is never a linear narrative and there are multiple histories that can be told of any phenomenon. I'm going to tell you one history of how social network sites gained traction in the United States, beginning with the rise of Friendster in 2003. This history is explicitly partial and American-centric, but I'm going to tell it anyway to highlight a few important things.

Like many other sites at the time, Friendster was designed as to be an online dating site. The goal was to attract audiences repelled by Quickly, the site got picked up by gay men, the digerati, and urban 20-somethings who were known for running around naked in the desert on an annual basis.

Friendster, the company was not prepared for what the latter group would do. With too much time on their hands and a lot of artistic idea, many of the early adopters began creating “Fakesters” or fake characters. They used these for many different purposes, but notably, they were used to collapse the network graph.

As the company tried to swat away what they believed to be the blight on their digital landscape, a new wave of 20somethings started flocking to the site to join in on the fun. This new group - indie rock bands - had a goal. They wanted to connect with their fans and they thought this new tool would be purrrfect. Of course, by creating portraits that looked like the Fakesters, they fueled the ire of Friendster. They too were shooed away.

Angered by the site's management, many of the early adopters started leaving. Many different sites entered the market on the coattails of Friendster and attracted different audiences. Many of the Burners flocked to The digerati flirted with Orkut before moving onto other media-sharing-focused social network sites; they returned to SNSs with Facebook.

The most significant player that emerged during this period - MySpace - was effectively ignored by the press and digerati. MySpace aimed to attract all of those being ejected from Friendster. They succeeded in getting a few small niche populations before gaining traction with the musicians who were just starting to get that social network sites were valuable. Based in Los Angeles, they had an upper hand.

They managed to attract club promoters and others catering to 20-something urban hipsters who were looking for a tool for coolhunting. This in itself would be a footnote in the history of social network sites, except that bands have fans. And indie rock bands are not just listened to by those who can legally hear them play in clubs. They are loved by young people. Slowly, a symbiotic relationship emerged on MySpace as bands and fans became mutually dependent on one another. Against this backdrop, a youth phenomena emerged.

Meanwhile, another U.S. site was taking hold with a slightly older population. Facebook had launched as a Harvard-only site before expanding to other elite institutions before expanding to other 4-year-colleges before expanding to 2-year colleges. It captured the mindshare of college students everywhere. It wasn't until 2005 that they opened the doors to some companies and high schools. And only in 2006, did they open to all.

By that time, the landscape around social network sites had changed. MySpace's popularity with American teenagers had sparked a new wave of moral panics, driven primarily from the media's misrepresentation of teenage runaways and disturbed kids who leveraged the site to find and knowingly meet up with older men for sexual encounters.

Facebook was narrated as the "safe" alternative and, in the 2006-2007 school year, a split amongst American teens occurred. Those college-bound kids from wealthier or upwardly mobile backgrounds flocked to Facebook while teens from urban or less economically privileged backgrounds rejected the transition and opted to stay with MySpace while simultaneously rejecting the fears brought on by American media. Many kids were caught in the middle and opted to use both, but the division that occurred resembles the same "jocks and burnouts" narrative that shaped American schools in the 1980s.

While there were many adults on MySpace for legitimate purposes, it wasn't until white collar professionals joined Facebook en masse that the moral panic started to subside. Finally, privileged Americans "got" social network sites, even if they were stuck confronting their high school identities through the listing of 25 things. At this stage, over 35% of American adults have a profile on a social network site. The adoption by this older, wealthier, more educated crowd changed the headlines of the news. Facebook became the new darling and most people thought that it had squashed MySpace long before it had even a fraction of the number of users.

So why am I giving you this much history? Many who build technology think that a technology's feature set is the key to its adoption and popularity. With social media, this is often not the case. There are triggers that drive early adopters to a site, but the single most important factor in determining whether or not a person will adopt one of these sites is whether or not it is the place where their friends hangout. In each of these cases, network effects played a significant role in the spread and adoption of the site.

The uptake of social media is quite different than the uptake of non-social technologies. For the most part, you don't need your friends to use Word to find the tool useful. You do need your friends to use email for it to be useful, but, thanks to properties of that medium, you don't need them to be using Outlook or Hotmail to write to them. Many of the new genres of social media are walled gardens, requiring your friends to use that exact site to be valuable. This has its advantages for the companies who build it - that's the whole attitude behind lock-in. But it also has its costs. Consider for example the fact that working class and upper class kids can't talk to one another if they are on different SNSs.

Friendster didn't understand network effects. In kicking off users who weren't conforming to their standards, they pissed off more than those users; they pissed off those users' friends who were left with little purpose to use the site. The popularity of Friendster unraveled as fast as it picked up, but the company never realized what hit them. All of their metrics were based on number of users. While only a few users deleted their accounts, the impact of those lost accounts was huge. The friends of those who departed slowly stopped using the site. At first, they went from logging in every hour to logging in every day, never affecting the metrics. But as nothing new came in and as the collective interest waned, their attention went elsewhere. Today, Friendster is succeeding because of its popularity in other countries, but in the US, it's a graveyard of hipsters stuck in 2003.

Network effects should be extremely important to most of you.

Marketers know all about stickiness, but how many of you measure network density? You purchase all sorts of data from Nielsen and comScore that tells you about uniques, but do you know anything about the cluster dynamics of the users? Are you able to see when the network graph is reaching a sustainable point or, more importantly, when things are starting to fracture?

Community managers and abuse teams have a sense of the health of a community. You probably use all sorts of tools to search for inappropriate behavior or content. But how often are you looking at the network? In a Friend-driven system, if someone is posting child porn, you better be paying detailed attention to that person's Friends. And if you wanna curb problematic behavior, you need to think of the problem in terms of networks, not individuals. Further, while we all agree that killing off some behavior is an absolute imperative, what about the gray lines? The health of a community has a lot to do with its network and you can prune if you prune wisely. There are times and places to chop off a branch and let all of the leaves fall, but this isn't always what's desired.

Network effects are also critical for deployment. People pick up the things that their friends use. This is all fine and well if everyone can get access to the same platform, but when that's not the case, new problems emerge. We're all developing nice new social technologies for the mobile phone. And people even want those technologies. But they aren't taking off. Why? There are no cluster effects. If you use IE and I use Firefox, we can still both get to Facebook. If you use Windows Mobile and I use an iPhone or you're on Verizon and I'm on AT&T, the chances of us being able to do the same things with our devices are pretty limited, especially when you take into account the limited nature of data plans. We can't role out cool new technologies if we can't get cluster effects. We don't just need network effects to get things to spread; we also need to think in terms of complete clusters. And we need to design with this in mind.


Let's now turn our attention to youth for a moment. As many of you know, youth played a central role in the rise of some social media. Now, many adults have jumped in, but what they are doing there is often very different than what young people are doing. This showcases the ways in which some tools are used differently by different groups.

For American teenagers, social network sites became a social hangout space, not unlike the malls in which I grew up or the dance halls of yesteryears. This was a place to gather with friends from school and church when in-person encounters were not viable. Unlike many adults, teenagers were never really networking. They were socializing in pre-exiting groups.

Social network sites became critically important to them because this was where they sat and gossiped, jockeyed for status, and functioned as digital flaneurs. They used these tools to see and be seen. Those using MySpace put great effort into decorating their profile and fleshing out their "About Me" section. The features and functionality of Facebook were fundamentally different, but virtual pets and quizzes served similar self-expression purposes on Facebook.

Teen conversations may appear completely irrational, or pointless at best. "Yo, wazzup?" "Not much, how you?" may not seem like much to an outsider, but this is a form of social grooming. It's a way of checking in, confirming friendships, and negotiating social waters.

Adults have approached Facebook in very different ways. Adults are not hanging out on Facebook. They are more likely to respond to status messages than start a conversation on someone's wall (unless it's their birthday of course). Adults aren't really decorating their profiles or making sure that their About Me's are up-to-date. Adults, far more than teens, are using Facebook for its intended purpose as a social utility. For example, it is a tool for communicating with the past.

Adults may giggle about having run-ins with mates from high school, but underneath it all, many of them are curious. This isn't that different than the school reunion. We all poo-poo the reunion, but secretly, we really want to know what happened to Bobbi Sue. Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the recent "25 Things" phenomena. While teens have been filling out personality quizzes since the dawn of social media, most adults only went through this phase once, as a newbie when they felt as though they really needed to forward the chain letter to 10 friends or else. The "25 Things" phenomenon took me by surprise until I started thinking about the intended audience. Teenagers craft quizzes for themselves and their friends. Adults are crafting them to show-off to people from the past and connect the dots between different audiences as a way of coping with the awkwardness of collapsed contexts.

Social media continues to be age-graded. Right now, Twitter is all the rage, but are kids using it? For the most part, no. It's not the act of creating and sharing social nuggets that's the issue. Teens are actively using Facebook status update, MySpace bulletins, and IM away messages to share their views on the day and their mood of the moment. So why not Twitter? While it's possible to make Twitter "private," the culture of Twitter is all about participation in a large public square. From the digerati seeking widespread attention to the politically minded hoping to appear on CNN, many are leveraging Twitter to be part of a broad dialogue. Teens are much more motivated to talk only with their friends and they learned a harsh lesson with social network sites. Even if they are just trying to talk to their friends, those who hold power over them are going to access everything they wrote if it's in public. While the ethos among teens is "public by default, private when necessary," many are learning that it's just not worth it to have a worrying mother obsess over every mood you seek to convey. This dynamic showcases how social factors are key to the adoption of new forms of social media.

Why do these differences matter? First off, there's the design question. We design social media for an intended audience but aren't always prepared for network effects or the different use cases that emerge when people decide to repurpose their technology. Even here at Microsoft, many folks are surprised to learn that Powerpoint has become one of the most frequently used tools for animation. In elementary, middle, and high schools across the country, children are preparing slide decks on topics like "monkeys" or "robots." They are bringing their design flavor to the drawing board, complete with animated icons and flashing images. Any designer would cringe at the average youth's sensibilities, but they're putting Powerpoint to use to do some pretty extreme animation. Too bad that most of the templates that they are given are much more corporate in nature.

We can continue to design and deploy, but one of the amazing things that is happening in the realm of social media is that folks are starting to iterate with their users. This creates an interesting opportunity for us. We need to be able to evolve with our products as people begin to use it. This can be quite tricky, especially for folks who are used to a build, test, and deploy methodology. As a developer, you are no longer simply an author of software. You are an actor in a process in which software is being developed and repurposed. The key lesson from the rise of social media for you is that a great deal of software is best built as a coordinated dance between you and the users.

There are also significant policy implications in all of this. Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you've heard about the ways in which the Internet is eating children. Few of you are probably even aware of how inaccurate the public portrait of risk is, although if you're bored, I can give you a 80-page report on the topic. Policy makers in this country are hell-bent on "solving" the safety problem, but what they're trying to fix is not what's really happening. Yet, in trying to address public fears, they run the risk of putting more kids in harm's way AND forcing companies to build technologies that would help no one. As parents, citizens, and a corporation, we have a responsibility to understand what is actually going on here. (One of the advantages of adult participation is that they're starting to grok what's really going on on these sites and the fears are subsiding.)


This brings us to Act Three. I've talked about the phenomena and addressed a particular population. This is all fine and well, but you might be wondering how what I'm conveying goes beyond market research, especially if you're a researcher in the room. My work focuses on how society is shaping and is being shaped by these phenomena and the practices that unfold. So let's talk how these systems reshape public life as we know it and why this matters to more than researchers.

A great deal of sociality is about engaging with publics, but we take for granted certain structural aspects of those publics. Certain properties are core to social media in a combination that alters how people engage with one another. I want to discuss five properties of social media and three dynamics. These are the crux of what makes the phenomena we're seeing so different from unmediated phenomena.

1. Persistence. What you say sticks around. This is great for asynchronicity, not so great when everything you've ever said has gone down on your permanent record. The bits-wise nature of social media means that a great deal of content produced through social media is persistent by default.

2. Replicability. You can copy and paste a conversation from one medium to another, adding to the persistent nature of it. This is great for being able to share information, but it is also at the crux of rumor-spreading. Worse: while you can replicate a conversation, it's much easier to alter what's been said than to confirm that it's an accurate portrayal of the original conversation.

3. Searchability. My mother would've loved to scream search into the air and figure out where I'd run off with friends. She couldn't; I'm quite thankful. But with social media, it's quite easy to track someone down or to find someone as a result of searching for content. Search changes the landscape, making information available at our fingertips. This is great in some circumstances, but when trying to avoid those who hold power over you, it may be less than ideal.

4. Scalability. Social media scales things in new ways. Conversations that were intended for just a friend or two might spiral out of control and scale to the entire school or, if it is especially embarrassing, the whole world. Of course, just because something can scale doesn't mean that it will. Politicians and marketers have learned this one the hard way.

5. (de)locatability. With the mobile, you are dislocated from any particular point in space, but at the same time, location-based technologies make location much more relevant. This paradox means that we are simultaneously more and less connected to physical space.

Those five properties are intertwined, but their implications have to do with the ways in which they alter social dynamics. Let's look at three different dynamics that have been reconfigured as a result of social media.

1. Invisible Audiences. We are used to being able to assess the people around us when we're speaking. We adjust what we're saying to account for the audience. Social media introduces all sorts of invisible audiences. There are lurkers who are present at the moment but whom we cannot see, but there are also visitors who access our content at a later date or in a different environment than where we first produced them. As a result, we are having to present ourselves and communicate without fully understanding the potential or actual audience. The potential invisible audiences can be stifling. Of course, there's plenty of room to put your head in the sand and pretend like those people don't really exist.

2. Collapsed Contexts. Connected to this is the collapsing of contexts. In choosing what to say when, we account for both the audience and the context more generally. Some behaviors are appropriate in one context but not another, in front of one audience but not others. Social media brings all of these contexts crashing into one another and it's often difficult to figure out what's appropriate, let alone what can be understood.

3. Blurring of Public and Private. Finally, there's the blurring of public and private. These distinctions are normally structured around audience and context with certain places or conversations being "public" or "private." These distinctions are much harder to manage when you have to contend with the shifts in how the environment is organized.

All of this means that we're forced to contend with a society in which things are being truly reconfigured. So what does this mean? As we are already starting to see, this creates all new questions about context and privacy, about our relationship to space and to the people around us.

Specific genres of social media may come and go, but these underlying properties are here to stay. We won't turn the clock back on these. Social network sites may end up being a fad from the first decade of the 21st century, but new forms of technology will continue to leverage social network as we go forward. If we get away from thinking about the specific technologies and focus on the properties and dynamics, we can see how change is unfolding before our eyes. One of the key challenges is learning how to adapt to an environment in which these properties and dynamics play a key role. This is a systems problem. We are all implicated in it - as developers and policy makers, as parents and friends, as individuals and as citizens.

Social media is here to stay. Now we just have to evolve with it. Thank you!

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