Happy New Year! It’s 2014 and according to the mass media the digital age is now in full flow. We’re all online, chatting in chatrooms, updating our Facebook profiles, downloading films and music to our new tablets, communicating on the move with our new smartphones and we are loving it, aren’t we? In particular, the rise of social media seems to have become emblematic of the digital age. Yet if recent press reports of findings from an ongoing European research project are true, the older generation may have fallen well behind in their understanding of teenagers’ lifestyles and social media preferences. Headlines such as ‘The Fall of Facebook’ and ‘Facebook is Dead and Buried’ tell the tale of the wholesale rejection of Facebook by young people. Although this is not strictly what the research says, there is some evidence that young people’s social media use is diversifying and Facebook may be the long-term loser.
The Global Social Media Impact Study is an EU-funded project on social media use amongst teenagers across eight European Union countries using ethnographic research methods. From the UK project, Daniel Miller argues that research carried out in three schools in North London shows a majority of 16-18-year-olds turning away from Facebook to alternatives such as Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter. However, this is not because such sites are functionally or technically better than Facebook; indeed the latter remains superior in most respects. Rather, when your parents, grandparents and other relatives all use Facebook to keep in touch with family news, it is clear that the platform is no longer ‘cool’ but is just somewhere you go to do your duty and communicate with older people. After all, how many self-respecting rebellious teenagers want to be part of the same social media as their parents? As Miller says: ‘You just can’t be young and free while all the time Mum is watching you.’
Having seen off MySpace as the main site for young people to communicate and interact, Facebook’s rapid growth and commercial appeal have transformed it from a radical outsider to the very epitome of the Internet establishment. In the process, other platforms have moved into the space left behind providing young people with the distinct, separate sites they desire. Is Facebook then the new MySpace? Probably not. The young people in the London study had not left Facebook altogether and continued to spend a large amount of time on it. However, they no longer saw it as the fashionable place to engage in peer-to-peer communication. Globally, Facebook continues to expand, reaching around 1.2 billion users by the end of 2013, but in countries where it has been most successful, it appears to have peaked and is adapting to a different set of typical users. In that sense Facebook looks to be pretty secure if it can maintain its niche as the place for family networking and business.
The mass media interest in social media sites needs to be put into a wider context. Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS) examine Internet use amongst a sample of 2,000 British people aged 14 and over and began in 2003. The sixth such survey (2013) provides some interesting findings regarding social media in the UK. Of the 78 per cent of people who are Internet users, some 60 per cent also make use of social media. However, despite an increase in the number of social media sites, this figure has not increased over the last two years, perhaps suggesting that social media may have reached their peak anyway. Of course it could also just be that, like the spread of CB radio inthe 1980s, social media could prove to be a short-term craze that will wither away in time.
The Oxford survey also found that some 20 per cent of their sample just had no interest in the Internet and did not go online at all, whilst attitudes towards the Internet were equivocal, even amongst a majority of users. By no means were all Internet users enthusiastic about the medium’s potential. In fact OxIS (2013) identified five broad ‘Cultures of the Internet’: Adigitals, Cyber-moderates, Cyber-savvy, Techno-pragmatists and E-mersives. Adigitals (14 per cent) find the Internet a frustrating and immoral environment that is just not tailored to their needs. They do not believe it makes them more efficient or happy and feel that it is a part of life that is out of their control. Cyber-moderates (37 per cent) perceive the Internet to be something that can enhance their lives, provide pleasant working, leisure and social experiences and is not particularly dangerous. That does not mean they express unqualified enthusiasm. 19 per cent are described as Cyber-savvy: comfortable online whilst using the Internet for research, information gathering and much more. Yet they also feel frustrated by its invasion of privacy, time-wasting and their own loss of control. By contrast, Techno-pragmatists (17 per cent) do feel in control of their online life, but they only go online for work, to pay bills or for other instrumental reasons. For this group the Internet is not at all ‘fun’. Finally, the E-mersives (12 per cent) are entirely at home online, having integrated the Internet into all aspects of daily life. As a result, this is a medium they feel in control of, which saves them time and helps them communicate.
What can we conclude from this research? We’re not all online though a majority of us are but only a minority of us have social media profiles. Most of us do now go online, but for widely differing reasons, yet a majority of us do not really enjoy the experience. On the other hand, many of us are increasingly using the Internet for basic things such as communicating with friends and family, banking, research and as an escape from the mundane world of work. What empirical social scientific research (such as the examples above) continues to offer is reliable evidence on which to base public policy, but much more than that, too. It also helps us all to develop a more realistic orientation to our social world by debunking some widely held, but partial or inaccurate, beliefs about a range of phenomena such as the Internet. In this sense it remains an indispensable part of the modern world.
Dutton, W.H and Blank, G. (2013) Cultures of the Internet: The Internet in Britain [Oxford Internet Survey 2013 Report] (Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute).
Miller, D. (2011) Tales from Facebook (Cambridge: Polity Press).
Chapter 18 – The Media, is the place to start exploring these issues, especially pp. 768-775,779-81, 783-6 and 811-6. Internet use is also covered on pp.982-3, ICT on pp.128-33 and Facebook on pp.324-7. In Sociology: Introductory Readings, Readings 37 (James Slevin), 38 (Howard Rheingold) and to a lesser extent 48 (David S. Wall) will also be useful in this context.