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My Parents Joined Facebook: Personalized Clubhouses and Divergent Social Norms Online

Black text on a white background reads “Oh Crap. My Parents Joined Facebook.” Below, in all caps: “Congratulations! Your parents just joined Facebook. Your life is officially over.” The site is, a collaborative portfolio of social doom. In the grand instatradition of thematic tumblelogs (see: ThisIsWhyYou’reFat, Scanwiches), MyParentsJoinedFacebook isn’t so much website as permutations on a sentiment. Every new screengrab conveys chagrin, disdain, and bewilderment at the impressive range of collisions between the incongruous ways digital natives and adults use Facebook.

But really, it’s not about Facebook. It’s about an exclusive clubhouse becoming something else. The interactions documented on MyParentsJoinedFacebook are comical because the parents so clearly don’t get the implicit social ruleset that Facebook’s original target audience of young people takes for granted. But the comedy also serves to delineate young people as insiders and adults as outsiders to the world of Facebook. MyParentsJoinedFacebook reserves special scorn, in fact, for outsiders who try and fail to gain inside knowledge. A screengrab from a site called Facebook for Parents is captioned “This site doesn’t get it ;)”. “Getting it,” of course, is the last thing that the voice of the site wants parents to do—for one thing, their material would dry up instantly!

The appeal of Facebook is that “everyone’s” on it; for many, the site becomes a utility instead of a destination. (Many of my friends, for instance, use it as a glorified cell phone directory rather than a site of major activity.) But “everyone” being on it creates pitfalls, as well. Adults, whose newsfeeds are populated by the status updates and freshly-posted photographs of close friends, distant acquaintances, and long-lost high school classmates, learn “how to use Facebook” by seeing how others in their peer group use it. If a young person or adult takes a chance on “friending” someone from a different peer group, culture clash is almost inevitable. The way that person uses Facebook seems like the exception rather than the norm, because norms are calibrated to peer groups that exist on the real-world social graph.

That Facebook could sustain multiple cultures at once seems, at first, curious. But Facebook has always been grounded in the real-world social graph. From the example of our peers, we learn how to navigate the world. The issue with Facebook is that it’s an enormous world masquerading as a clubhouse. For each individual user, the space feels like a clubhouse: full of your friends, absent your enemies. In reality, though, all of these personalized clubhouses are just different configurations of data. They’re not walled off from each other at all. So adults can be on Facebook and it feels like their place—after all, it’s populated by all the people they know!—and young people can be on it and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s theirs.

Today, while writing this post, danah boyd posted an article that asks, “is Facebook for old people?” Using her field research among teenagers in Atlanta as a starting point, danah explores the possibility that the success or failure of interactions between adults and young people on Facebook might depend on socioeconomic status. “One argument made about the differences between teens from wealthy and poor environments,” she writes, “is that wealthy teens are much more likely to integrate with adults than teens from poorer backgrounds.”

The problem with adults being on Facebook is that, in the real world, they’re the rule enforcers. They determine the rulesets that matter. Not for coolness; for survival, approval, advancement. When adults “get on Facebook” and proceed to treat it like their own personal clubhouse, interactions between adults and young people often falter. In a previous post, danah answers a number of questions about how to navigate that faltering space. But the reason it’s a difficult space at all is because on Facebook, everybody’s an insider in their own personal configuration of the social world; anyone who deviates too drastically from the norms of that personalized world emerges as an outsider. In comparing divergent rulesets for social interaction online, we can learn a great deal about what the real world might look like if everyone did have a personalized clubhouse. It might not be a world we’d like to live in, but online, it’s increasingly one we spend a great deal of time in.

The Future of Digital Natives Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I participated (read: lurked) in a project called FOCUS: Cross-Generational Voices on Digital Media and Society, sponsored by Global Kids, Common Sense Media, and The GoodPlay Project. Having evolved from previous years’ FOCUS projects aimed to create dialogue between teenagers about their online experiences (a white paper report of last year’s activities can be read here), the project aimed this year to foster discussion between teens, parents, and educators on a multitude of topics related to social interactions on the Web. The discussion took place on FOCUS’s message boards and lasted a few weeks.

As you can see from the screen grab to the left, topics ranged from debates about the generation gap to personal relationships to law, and the discussions were started by teens and adults alike. The questions and answers appeared to encompass a similar level of understanding and experience: a bit cautious in approaching online safety, a bit daring in critiquing infrastructure, a bit conscious in debating issues of privacy, sexuality, and identity. The conversations suggested that nobody really has the answers — just as “the meaning of life” remains nebulous in the real world, so is our comprehension of living online — but we want to understand as much as we can. Digital Natives the book set out to inform parents about “those things” with which their children are experimenting everyday on the Internet; however, both the older and younger generations writing on the discussion boards appeared equally educated, skeptical, and curious about similar matters.

The initial set of discussion threads in the first group were sown by only teenagers, and perhaps this was meant to mirror the former year’s discussion. Eventually, users with the labels “parent” and “educator” showed up on the boards. From the conversations that I examined, though, it seemed that more members of the younger generation were speaking up and debating.

I am glad this is the case. When Diana and I spoke at South by Southwest in March (Diana’s previous posts on the issue: 1, 2, and 3), we presented knowing that we were only a few of the Digital Native generation that had attempted to study ourselves, to make an impact in the domain of Internet studies from a different, younger perspective. Most kids, teenagers, and young adults today use the Internet for quotidian tasks, making purchases and fulfilling social habits. Only a handful of students, though, have stepped up to create a dialogue about where they stand in terms of the future of the Internet. When I chose to moderate a panel about a student perspective on technology and education, I wanted to bring that new perspective to the table. I feel that these FOCUS dialogues too are the building blocks for more of the younger generation to make advancements towards becoming researchers and heralds for a new side to Internet and social research. At the same time, the cross-generational conversations of this year’s FOCUS project confirm that parents are beginning to understand life on the Web and that children who grew up in the digital space are losing the ability to exploit their knowledge as an advantage over parents and other adults.

But what’s the next step? To where will the Digital Natives project proceed?

For one, Urs Gasser has already begun to focus on Digital Natives in the workplace, as Diana wrote about before. I am interested to see how Digital Natives will affect the academic realm as well. Since I attended Berkman@10 last year (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), I have also traveled to a number of other conventions at which the company of fellow Digital Natives remained minute. As Digital Natives enter the workforce to become teachers and professors, we will probably see an increase in the use of technology (as teachers who were early adopters have already done) on a wider scale, but I hope that greater focus across all disciplines will provide significant depth into related Internet studies.

For the moment, the FOCUS project of 2009 is already proving that our book, Born Digital, archived a moment in time when parents and other adults needed a resource to understand the online habits of my generation. In a way, it’s reassuring that everyone is understanding online habits without proclaiming them an exotic phenomenon.