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Content-centered Conversations: The Pew Internet Report on Teens and Social Media

Pew_logoI finally read the recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report on Teens and Social Media. Among the most interesting findings, for me, were the correlation between the creation of content (online stories, photos, videos) and conversations about that content, and the connections between connecting online and connecting offline. As I'd noted with another recent Pew report I blogged about last month (on Digital Footprints), there were [also] a number of surprises in the magnitude of some of the numbers.

The concept of object-centered sociality - social practices (such as conversation and other acts of communication and connection) that are inspired by objects of interest within some kind of community - is something that I (and others, notably, and more eruditely, Karin Knorr Cetina and Jyri Engestrom) have written about before. Object-centered sociality is one of the central concepts behind our proactive display applications, which use large displays to show online media associated with people whenever they are detected nearby; our goal has been to spark conversations in the physical world based on objects typically only shared in the digital world.

What is interesting about the Pew study is that it offers some numbers to characterize the socializing that transpires around the social media created and shared [online] by teens (ages 12-17):

  • Photos: 89% of teens who post photos online receive comments on those photos (52% "sometimes", 37% "most of the time")
  • Videos: 72% of teens who post videos online receive comments on those videos (48% "sometimes", 24% "most of the time")
  • Blogs: 76% of teens who use social networking services (SNS) post comments on blog posts written by others.

Power Law of Participation I've noted before that commenting is a form of "filling buckets" (saying or doing things to increase others' positive emotions) online, and have often wondered about what factors influence readers' decisions about whether or not to post comments. The Pew numbers are interesting, but I'm still interested in knowing more. For example, the first two figures are about receiving comments - on photos and videos - and the last figure is about giving comments - on blogs (and only by SNS users). I would be interested to know the full set of numbers for giving and receiving for blogs, photos and videos, as well as the correlation between people who create content (post blogs, photos and/or videos) and people who comment on content created by others. I suspect the correlation is very high, and indeed, if one subscribes to Ross Mayfield's conceptualization of the Power Law of Participation, content and comments are simply different points along a continuum. And, speaking of the power law of participation, I'd also be interested in other social media practices by teens, e.g., favoriting, tagging, subscribing, etc. (an earlier Pew study on tagging reported that 28% of online users have tagged content, and 7% do so on a daily basis, but that study did not include the under 18 population).

I imagine the level of commenting - and other forms of participation - is affected by the scope of people who have access to the content, but I wonder if content that has restricted access (e.g., to family and/or friends) is more or less likely to promote participation - I'm wondering whether a variation of the bystander effect, wherein a smaller group may be more likely to take action (e.g., comment) than a larger group, might apply in this context. Anyhow, the report does offer some numbers on access restrictions as well:

  • Photos: 39% of teens who post photos online restrict access to their photos "most of the time", 38% restrict access "only sometimes", and 21% "never" restrict access.
  • Videos: 19% of teens who post videos online restrict access to their videos "most of the time", 35% restrict access "only sometimes", and 46% "never" restrict access.
  • Blogs: Unfortunately, no numbers are provided for how many teens who post blogs restrict access :-(. I, for one, would be very interested in these numbers.

The Pew report notes that that 64% of online teens (and 93% of teens are online) are content creators - "online teens who have created or worked on a blog or webpage, shared original creative content, or remixed ontent they found online into a new creation". I can't find a reference now, but I seem to recall an earlier Pew study sometime in the past year or two that reported the number of adult online content creators - er, I mean the number of online adults who create content - was 19%. This number has probably grown, as well, but probably not to anywhere near 64%.

The report also includes a breakdown of some specific online creation activities:

  • Photos: 47% of online teens post photos (vs. 36% of online adults); girl photo posters outnumber boy photo posters by 54% to 40%.
  • Videos: 14% of online teens post videos (vs. 8% of online adults); boy video posters outnumber girl video posters by 19% to 10%.
  • Blogs: 28% of online teens are bloggers (vs. 8% of online adults); girl bloggers outnumber boy bloggers by 35% to 20%, and the gender gap is growing larger over time.
  • Remixes: 26% of online teens have remixed content (vs. 17% of online adults), with no significant gender differences in this activity.

The largest arenas for online social media use are social networking sites, e.g., MySpace and Facebook. 55% of online teens have SNS profiles, and those teens are among the most active content creators in all the categories mentioned above, and often by huge margins (e.g., 73% of online teens with SNS profiles post photos, whereas only 16% of online teens without SNS profiles post photos). Of course, given the fact that many SNS platforms include tools for posting or embedding photos, videos and blogs, the wide discrepancies are not terribly surprising.

What may be surprising - especially to many critics of teen online media use - is another finding: "in many cases, those who are the most active online with social media applications like blogging and social networking also tend to be the most involved with offline activities like sports, music or part-time employment." And, teens who use social networking sites are nearly one third more likely to spend time with friends in person on a daily basis than average teens (38% vs. 31%).

One area that I found initially surprising is the observation that "95% of teenage girls participate several times a week in at least one communication activity, compared with 84% of boys" ... meaning that 5% of girls and 16% of boys are, well, rather uncommunicative. Upon further reflection, though, I realize that I have known some people who might fit this description (my wife might claim that I often fit this description). It's [also] interesting to note the significant gender difference here - boys are nearly 3 times more likely than girls to be uncommunicative.

FemaleBrainCover This - and other elements of the Pew report showing that teen girls tend to be more communicative than teen boys (e.g., 35% of teen girls blog whereas only 20% of teen boys blog) - is consistent with some statistics I recently read about in The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine: e.g., women's brains have 11% more neurons in the centers of the brain used for language and hearing. Another interesting statistic in the book was that men's brains have 2.5 times more neurons in the areas associated with sexual drive than women do. She puts these together in some interesting observations relating to teens:

We know that girls' estrogen levels climb at puberty and flip the switches in their brains to talk more, interact with peers more, think about boys more, worry about appearance more, stress out more, and emote more. They are driven by a desire for connection with other girls - and with boys. Their dopamine and oxytocin rush from talking and connecting keeps them motivated to seek out these intimate connections. What they don't know is that this is their own special girl reality. Most boys don't share this intense desire for verbal connection, so attempts at verbal intimacy with their male contemporaries can be met with disappointing results.


Why do previously communicative boys become so taciturn and monsyllabic that they verge on autistic when they hit their teens? The testicular surges of testosterone marinate the boys' brains. Testosterone has been shown to decrease talking as well as interest in socializing - except when it involves sports or sexual pursuit. In fact, sexual pursuit and body parts become pretty much an obsession ... Young teen boys are often totally, single-mindedly consumed with sexual fantasies, girls' body parts, and the need to masturbate.

I plan to blog more extensively about Louann's book in the near future, but for now, I'll just note that there is a whole area of social media use by teens that is not covered by the study, which is prompted in part by the book, and in part by my having recently watched the movie Superbad. If, as some claim, the Internet is for porn, and teens are the most active users of online media, I suspect there is a use case that is significant to at least half of the teen population that is not covered by the study. I won't hold my breath about this usage model being included in some future study by Pew - and I'm not sure whether it really qualifies as social media - but I wonder if the pervasive loneliness, shame and fear of being "found out" that teen boys suffer can be ameliorated through some kind of content-centered conversation in this shadow dimension of online life ... perhaps it already is.

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