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October, 2004

Youth Evolving Online

A while back I asked people to make a list of sites they visit everyday. I was finding that there was an increasingly long list of places I visited daily and I was curious if others behaved similarly. What I found ended up changing much of my thinking and consumption of the web. Not only was this stupid little activity the reason that I got into RSS (one of the people I polled listed Bloglines as one of their daily visits), but I also discovered an interesting divide in the way different sexes used the internet. (For anyone interested, the list is available at TimeAtWork.)

Nearly every male I talked to had a list of sites they checked daily, which for most began with ESPN.com. However, when I asked females I know for their lists I got answers like, "I don't know, I don't really have any sites I check that often," or, "I just don't use the internet that way." This way of using the web, checking sites every day, seemed like such a natural thing for me and I couldn't understand how it could be used differently. I mean, visiting my regular sites was always the first thing I did online and consumed a majority of my time. Why would men and women use the technology in such different ways? For the men, this was an information medium and for women it seemed to be much more of a tool. (This is not to say that women aren't consuming information online, but the women I spoke with seemed much less inclined than the men. Most women I spoke to seem to prefer consuming their news as hard copy rather than digital form.)

When I read Danah Boyd's entry titled "a culture of feeds: syndication and youth culture," I immediately thought back to my TimeAtWork survey. Boyd's essay is about the way youth use the internet and specifically whether RSS will be a useful technology for them.

Youth use email to talk with parents and authorities (including corporate emails like from Xanga); it's where they get the functional stuff. They check email once a day. They get notices there, but they're mostly disregarded. IM is where the action is. Youth see this as their digital centerpiece, where they communicate with their friends, thereby maintaining their intimate community. They use the Profiles in IM to find out if their friends updated their LJs [Live Journals] or Xangas, even though they are subscribed by email as well. The only feed they use is the LJ friends list and hyper LJ users have figured out how to syndicate Xangas into LJ. [Remember: blog is not a meaningful term to youth culture.]

In a lot of ways, the differences in the way youth use the internet seem similar to the difference I found between males and females. For youth it is less of an informative medium than a social one. However, this raised two questions in my mind. First, what's the difference between teenage male and female internet use, and second, what will happen when these youth reach college and the work world? Will their online consumption habits change?

The fact is that most teenagers are not overly interested in what's going on in their world. How could they with dating, drinking and sex taking up 90 percent of their mindshare? They are at a time of their lives when they're trying to develop their identity and these activities are far more important than knowing what's going on in the world around them. (I'm not being sarcastic here, at this point in their lives, identity creation really is, and probably should be, higher on their list of priorities. I know it was for me when I was 15.)

However, most will reach a point later in the lives when they feel a responsibility to better understand their world. [Just to clear up one point, I am speaking strictly of youth at this point, while I compared the consumption habits of women to that of youth towards the beginning of the essay it was purely a jumping off point and I apologize for any misunderstanding this may have caused.] Boyd suggests that, "there is a huge cultural divide occurring between generations, even as they use the same tools." I'm not sure that I agree, though, I think that we may be getting our first look at how a generation that grows up with the internet evolves with it. As I grew older my internet habits changed based on my interests. I would imagine that while LJ may be amongst the most popular location for youth in general, that specifically within the male youth demographic there are sites, like ESPN.com, that get visited regularly. It is that kind of surfing pattern that lends itself to RSS so well. Rather than having to visit the sites, these youth will be able to be informed of the updates in real time. While I'm not expecting them to subscribe to the technology now, by the time they reach their college/post-college years it will most certainly be integrated into their browser/OS in an undetectable way.

I also don't think that Boyd is putting enough stock in the content creation side of this trend. She explains that, "Their participation in "blogging" is not in the form of alternative journalism and so they, like most people, seek news from mainstream (even if digital) forms." I would argue that online journaling in this way may be the pre-cursor to 'blogging' in the alternative journalism sense that the word is often used. Whether they understand it or not, they are creating internet content, albeit in a different way and with a different goal than your average 'blogger' does. What will this openness lead to, though? The lesson we learn from sites like LJ and Xanga is that our life should be open to people and that the world is interested. With that said, when it comes time later in life that they are coming up with their own ideas and theories who is to say that they will not publish those as well (as opposed to just their experiences)?

I'm not completely sure where I've gone with this post and feel free to throw in your own two-cents in the comments. Clearly there are divides between the way different groups use the internet, but the overall lessons can not be ignored. Watching Generation Y and the Millenials grow up with the digital world at their fingertips will be a fascinating experience with much opportunity to understand the technology in completely new ways.

October 14, 2004
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.