mass exodus

Over the past few months there’s been a lot of hoopla around the “mass exodus” of teens from Facebook, with particular reference to Facebook’s decreasing cache of cool. Despite several refutations to the mass-exodus hypothesis, people—academics and non-academics alike— still ask me all the time: “So Jenny, what’s up with all the kids leaving Facebook? I hear it’s not cool anymore.”

Now let me be clear; I am not cool. I hold no pretense of being cool, and hence have no business making any sort of objective hipness-rating on anything. Seriously. I just used the word “hip.” I am, however, a social scientist, and I want to take a moment to talk about some data—an area in which I am qualified.

Pew recently released a study of teen social media usage. Their data show that 94% of teens who use social media are on Facebook. Not only is this a huge percentage, it is 1 % higher than the 93% who used the site last year.  Moreover, teens are sharing far more about themselves on the site than they were in 2006, showing an increased presence of the site in teens’ lives.

Clearly, Facebook is not going the way of MySpace as many self-satisfied headlines have suggested. This is largely the case because Facebook has become less a trendy site, and more a hub of social interaction. Like Google, Facebook is architecturally linked to and through numerous other sites, such that one can sign up, and sign in, to other services using hir Facebook account, and can share hir activities in both digital and physical space via Facebook. Facebook has dug its heels in as an integral part of not only the social media landscape, but the interactive social landscape more generally.  Facebook’s continued presence, however, is also not indicative of a stagnant social (media) landscape.

A key finding from the Pew study is that Twitter use has seen a huge bump—up to 24% from 16% in just one year. Further, in qualitative interviews, many teens expressed dissatisfaction with Facebook due to drama, parental presence, and general issues of context collapse. For example:

It sucks… Because then they [my parents] start asking me questions like why are you doing this, why are you doing that. It’s like, it’s my Facebook. If I don’t get privacy at home, at least, I think, I should get privacy on a social network (17, Male).

I think Facebook can be fun, but also it’s drama central. On Facebook, people imply things and say things, even just by a like, that they wouldn’t say in real life (14, Female).

Moreover, many teens talk about shifting parts of their interactive activities to other sites with different norms, structures, and architectures. For example:

Well, because Facebook, everyone sees what I’m doing. But Snapchat is just to one person, unless they’re a jerk and they screenshot it and post it on Facebook. But mostly it’s just the person that you’re sending it to, so it’s like a conversation (16, Female).

I am basically dividing things up. Instagram is mostly for pictures. Twitter is mostly for just saying what you are thinking. Facebook is both of them combined so you have to give a little bit of each. But yes, so Instagram, I posted more pictures on Instagram than on Facebook. Twitter is more natural (16, Female).

In short, teens are not “logging off” of Facebook, fleeing for the new and more popular interactive platform, but rather, actively constructing a sophisticated interactive ecology. Here, teens utilize platforms to fit varied interactive needs: privacy, connectivity, humor, support, information sharing, romantic exploration. Each space becomes its own Generalized Other, with normative expectations about who a person is and how that person should be in the world.

Importantly, these spaces are not without architectural and content-based overlap, but this overlap is not uniform (between or within individuals), nor is it compulsory. For instance, one might link Twitter updates and Instagram photos to Facebook—or not. One might share the same (kinds of) images on Tumblr and Twitter—or not. One might create a Vine loop to accompany a Tumblr post, in which s/he includes a Storified Twitter conversation—or not.   Within this ecology, in which multiple spaces maintain varying degrees of integration with one another, teens navigate the complexities of social life, decoupling pieces of the self through technologically mediated means, negotiating holistic selves which none-the-less maintain multiple dimensions.


Jenny Davis is a regular contributor on Cyborgology and performs part of her Self on Twitter @Jup83

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