The kids are all right

Yesterday, I held a session on privacy and publicness as part of a news literacy event held at Baruch’s journalism school, intending to exploit these young people by interviewing them — rather than lecturing them — for my book on publicness and privacy. I came away greatly heartened about the wisdom and savvy of the NYC teens I heard from there.

I started the day, though, depressed as GMA weekend anchor Ron Claiborne delivered a propagandistic defense of all things professional, closed, and corporate in journalism and an attack on this internet thing. “When was the last time you saw a correction on a blog?” he demanded. I muttered, “fuck me,” and then had to remind myself of the company I was in. So I muttered on Twitter that I’ve seen countless corrections on blogs since I last saw one on network news. Claiborne was telling the internet to get off these kids’ lawns. I got grumpy. My mood didn’t improve when nobody showed up for my first of two sessions. “Well,” I joked with fellow faculty, “they say kids today don’t care about privacy today. I guess this is the proof.”

But in my second session, the room filled with three or four dozen young people (and a few teachers) and I began interviewing them. Boy, was I impressed. Random notes….

No one in the room uses MySpace. They scrunch their collective noses at the name. Not so very long ago, MySpace was said to be the service for young people, particularly urban young people. Well, no more. Rupert’s Folly has fallen off a cliff. It’s clear this is why he’s giving it two quarters to climb back up or he’s setting it adrift.

Almost none of them uses Twitter. They say it lacks context; it is too fast and fleeting; and they don’t care about much of what they read there (which makes sense when your friends aren’t there). When I tweeted that, the NYTimes’ @zimbalist asked why. I think it’s because they’re not publishers (yet). They’re connecting. Whether this is a matter of the the age or their age, I have no way to know; we’ll have to wait to see the impact on Twitter when they grow older.

But I’ve seen this elsewhere. This summer, as my son and I drove up to Facebook’s headquarters to interview Mark Zuckerberg for the book, Jake said he thought Facebook had invented something entirely new in the Wall. Its inventor disagreed; Mark said people always have, in his word, signalled. But I side with Jake. On his Wall (when I’m permitted in) I see him and his friends holding conversations there, in the open, as if in the hall at school. They use the Wall as a place to communicate. I see the Wall — as I think others my age do — as a place to publish or broadcast; we instinctively see it as media. So Twitter fits our reflex; Facebook theirs. But I think the young people are making use of the internet that is truer to its nature: It is not a medium but is a connector.

All the students post photos to Facebook; many post videos there; a few had posted videos to YouTube — interesting that so few do, because some of them come from a school for the performing arts. One young woman says she was going to take down her account because her videos are dumb and pointless, in her view: just her talking. One young man had just put up some impressions and he enjoys the idea of having a public there. Will we see more of that; is it their ambition to make media and audiences? Again, time will tell. I’ll bet we will as they find their public voices.

Every student in the room uses Facebook. They confess to being on it for hours at a time — three or more a day. My son’s was in the first class able to use Facebook in high school four-plus years ago. I thought it might seep down to middle school. So far, not so much. These students say they started using it in high school. I’ll confess relief. I found it fascinating that a few of the students with younger siblings were quite protective of them and did not approve of a 9-year-old using Twitter.

To a young man and woman, the people in this room confirm what I’ve learned from danah boyd: that young people do care about their privacy; that they do protect it; but also that they have to learn this. As danah says — countering Murdoch, btw — young people are not “digital natives” who are born with TOS in their DNA.

These students are very aware that what they tell a few friends on Facebook could end up anywhere, seen also by people they do not know. They post with that fully in mind. Backing up what danah says, many of them seemed to have been burned once and taught the lesson. The biggest challenge to privacy, then, is not so much Facebook or the internet but blabby, gossipy friends. Ever thus.

They are also aware that their parents and other adults are watching. Even if your parents aren’t your “friends” someone else’s may see what you write on their Wall. So they’re careful. Nonetheless they decry classmates doing stupid things (though they also know that folks often exaggerate on Facebook). Like what? Like showing themselves drinking. What could come of this? They could get caught.

Or there’s the college admissions problem. For these kids — bright, active, and mostly college-bound — that’s an issue. I ask whether they think that college admissions officers — and later, employers — should not be allowed to look at their Facebook presences. Surprisingly, none of them seem to object as a matter of principle and right. To them, it seems to make sense to check someone out online.

Almost all these students have changed their privacy settings, restricting their Walls, photos, birthdays, or contact information — even though, again, they know that anything could be repeated. They seem very much in control and like that control. They have other means of control as well: I ask whether they speak in code that they understand and parents don’t; they all laughed and nodded.

Is there, as media would lead us to believe, a sudden explosion of bullying? No, they tell me, there’ve always been bullies; it’s probably just easier to see them now. A teacher complained that fights get bigger crowds because students tweet the location and a mob gathers. “It doesn’t go down like that,” one of her students tells her. “There’s no texting.” Crowds gather the way they always have.

These students are not slavish fans of Facebook. One student argues that Facebook dilutes friendship; he says he doesn’t use it to communicate with his close (real) friends. Another says she unfriends people with some regularity because in reality friendships do change. A few others say they did discover new friends through Facebook. They all expect to use Facebook to stay in touch after they graduate. The point, says one: “Different people have different reasons to be on Facebook.” Some use it to connect with others; some use it just for fun. Which are you? I ask him. A bit of both, he says.

At the end, I ask what I’d missed and one student wants to be sure that I knew about the benefits of using Facebook and the publicness it brings. Oh, yes, I do, I assure her.

  • Jeff, I do think the age of Facebook penetration is declining. My son is 10 and has a Facebook page so he can chat with his friends and play games. We monitor it and know it violates the tos but…

    I think college is also the gateway to Twitter. As a high school teacher, few of my students use it, but more of my 20 something former students seem to be hooked on it.

  • Andrew

    Great post! Just goes to show that young people aren’t so different from any other group in society…maybe just a little smarter :).

    Jokes aside, kids growing up today may experience things differently than their parents, but the same is true for every generation before them. Some things change quickly, some a little slower and other yet much the same.

  • Kathlyn Clore

    I work in the communications department at a private all-girls’ high school in California, and think our students would echo what the kids you interviewed had to say.

    The girls are far more interested in our Facebook page than any other web-based medium we’re on (school website/blog, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn) – as are alumnae and parents, for that matter.

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  • Today I learned that the US government is going formulate privacy laws for the online world. Many European governments are in the process as well. Privacy matters! But … this article confirms my gut feel: Isn’t the wrong generation making laws for a new more savvy generation? I’m 46 years old spending a lot of time on social media … and yes I too have a broadcast mindset. We should leave this medium alone for a while until Today’s kids will have a say in it too! Or make them part of the decision making process.
    What is your take on that?

  • infojunkie

    MySpace — there is a racial/educational gap in demographics between MySpace and Facebook. I’m hardly surprised you didn’t find MySpace users at Baruch. Try a CUNY school instead. Many bands have solid presences on MySpace still, b/c they are still interested in that demographic.

    Twitter — I find the best use for it is for the local connection and certain fast-breaking “newsfeed” items. I follow Gallup and Rassmussen to hear about their new data first-hand, and a few pundits, and a few friends, and the weather reporters for local locations I’m interested in. I sometimes tweet exceptional super-local weather details to one weather guy, and I’ve searched Twitter for near-instant updates e.g., when I felt an earthquake here, and when I heard about some semi-shocking news I wanted to confirm. Before it hit any news sites I’d trust, people were Tweeting about it. So…I would guess that the college students aren’t interested in connecting with the geographically-local community that way yet, unless you’re also in another community of interest that they belong to. Twitter IS good for connections, but different. You need to know to check appropriate hashtags for your area and/or interests. I made a new friend on Twitter during the elections this year when everybody else had gone to bed and we were still wondering in public about the count for #vtgov. :-)

    • Baruch is a CUNY school and these kids come from high schools, not colleges. I’m saying that story about MySpace is over, based on this anecdotal evidence.

  • thx for this first hand insight in the social web behavior of youngsters. in the netherlands – based on personal observation – is that twitter is rarely being used by secondary school kids. twitter is primarily used by professionals in the creative classes with the purpose to portray their skills and intellect. and yes, also to connect and instantly satisfy curiosity. primary school kids are on ‘hyves’, a dutch alternative to facebook and indeed serves as an entertaining connector.

    I would love to read more first hand observations in youngster behavior on the social web. anybody? you van reach me via
    n’joy yr sunday today!

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  • This is a fascinating discussion, Jeff! It makes me wonder what will be the enduring behavioral influences for this generation going forward. Will it be the communication technologies they acquire and only briefly habituate before taking on the next set, forever adapting as they mature; or the societal rites of passage they adopt at each level of matriculation from high school, to college, to job, to marraige to family life? Will their rate of communicating thoughts accelerate, e.g. from Facebook to Twitter to ….. ?, along with the technology, or could it possibly even slow down, e.g. from Twitter, to email, to …….could you imagine……writing letters to family and friends?

    Silly as it seems, at least with the latter , i.e conventional letters, they can expect real old-fashioned personal privacy, enforced by federal law. And, as these kids grow into adulthood with responsibilities for kids of their own, I suspect personal and family privacy will become something of greater concern.

    The reality is, of course, that letter writing is truly on its last gasp. And, without a national postal infrastructure it cannot be sustained, even for hand-written ‘thank you’ notes to grandma.

    The U S Postal Service just announced its loss for last year at $8.5 billion on revenues of $67 billion. The 250 year old hard-copy, volume based delivery model has served the nation exceedingly well, yet is certainly out-dated. But what about its role as protector of of privacy in personal correspondence and transactional business and legal communication?

    Should the USPS be offering a privacy solution in the new world of strictly digital communication? I’d love to hear some thoughts!

    • For certain transactions — billing and payment, legal, and some personal — there’ll be a need for identity verification. Not sure where that will come down. A credit-card company might do it. USPS could. Then we need to look at issues of privacy especially in relationship to government.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Should the USPS be offering a privacy solution in the new world of strictly digital communication?

      Why do you think that the USPS can offer a privacy solution?

      The USPS’ privacy guarantees aren’t all that strong. Most of the privacy comes from managing possession and difficulty in copying, and both are very different in the digital world.

  • Even though most of my friends are 25-40 and Polish, I couldn’t agree more with your observations. Virtually none of them still use MySpace (even though many used it before FB), none that I know of use Twitter and most are aware of privacy implications of posting online.

    I wouldn’t say that the publication model is dead, since something like 75% of content on my wall is produced by 10% of my friends. The problem with Twitter isn’t the model, but the technology. Any social site that doesn’t have awesome support for conversations is bound to remain niche IMO.

    • BTW, a favicon for your site would be helpful :)

  • Hi Jeff,

    nice observations. Two questions though:

    What do you think the future is of local social networks like Hyves ( and Tuenti ( as local (national) social networking sites in the battle with Facebook?

    Hyves (Dutch) has around 9.5 million accounts (on a total population of 17 million)

    I discussed it some time ago and the argument was that Facebook doesn’t know The Netherlands for instance, so there should be an advantage for the local network. how do you see that?


    Last friday we had a live television program called The Voice of Holland (perhaps one day the US will get it’s own version) and in about 3 hours more than 120,000 tweets were send to the participants (using #TVOH) (and ofcourse it was a worldwide trending topic for some time)

    This is a talent-show like American Idol that has it’s target audience between highschool and their parents. How do you explain the huge amount of tweets in response to your observations that almost none of the students used twitter?

    thank you and have a good sunday.


    • Every country and culture may be different. But things can also change. For a time, StudieVZ was huge in Germany; not it’s Facebook. FB hasn’t won’ in every country yet.
      As for Twitter, we’ll see; could be different when you get a bit older; could be different country to country.

  • I would’ve titled this blog by another song’s lyrics. Instead of the Who’s lyrics, I would’ve used lyrics from Pink Flloyd’s THE WALL simply because THE WALL, Facebook style, indicates the rebelliousness of youth. The Writing on THE WALL to coin a phrase can be seen by whoever you want to see your writing on your wall. And in the true rebellious of youth again we were always told you cannot write on THE WALL, but Zuckerberg gives us all permission and says have at it.

    Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!
    All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.
    All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.

    I always thouroughly enjoy everything you have to say Mr Jarvis. You have become an online professor of sorts to all the big kids out here learning from you, as we go, about everything and anything the social media has to offer about the now of nows. I tune in to This Week in Google just to watch you. Thank You for NOT treating the kids young and older like they were born yesterday and you are the big kahuna that gets to talk down to them. The kids ARE all right and so are you. Thank You.

  • And i thought not about a the who song. I thought it is about that film:

    I was astonished about the twitter part.

    • @Weltenweiser….hmmm now you’ve got me thinking. Since I’m older and Jeff Jarvis is older than me, I just naturally thought of the Who? song. If the film name was taken from the Who’s song lyrics then we’re talking “Old School” and we’re both right, AND the smartest kids in class today. Only JJ knows for sure what he was thinking about at the time I guess.

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  • Stan Hogan

    What I think is lacking here is the propensity young people have to move onto the next big thing, leaving what was behind.

    Thus will likely be facebook’s fate, another myspace. What’s next is what we really want to know.

    And by the way, Jeff, I don’t think anyone’s buying “publicness.” It may be the word you’re trying to build your book around but I don’t think it connects, really. Better to attach yourself to someone else’s success, as you did with the google thing.

    You know, “What Has Facebook Done?” or something like that as a title.

    But keep in mind your premises on privacy are being constructed around people who most often know what they are doing, while the vast majority of facebook and other users have no clue. Those are the people you will not find in your college classrooms and seminars.

    It is their blundering and the fallout that will eventually erect the walls of privacy.

    • Aha, Stan, so you are smarter than the “vast majority” of 550 million people. Glad for you.

      • Stan Hogan

        Spend half an hour reading through what’s trending on Twitter and you’ll realize your Thanksgiving turkey is smarter than the “vast majority” of people on that site.

        As for facebook, a whole lotta stupid going on there too. Lamebook does a good job of capturing just a small part of that idiocy. Facebook, by the way, is supposedly trying to shut down lamebook, at least according to lamebook’s plea for help with its attorney fees.

        A “publicness” issue? You may want to check into that.

        So yeah, smarter than at least 500 million of those people.

      • ChrisPineo

        You can prove that via clever Thanksgiving references, but not in any objective sense.

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  • All the kids in my circles are on FB, from middle school up — the older kids are on “all the time.” Across the board, despite periodically being admonished, they don’t “get” the reality that FB (whatever their privacy settings) is public and what they say can and will be held against them.

    Mostly, they are restrained in their posts. Some parents monitor activity; other parents, including some who make a point of not using SM themselves, are clueless.

  • Hi Jeff, Love the book. First time reader of the blog, and it was all I was expecting and more. Great comments.
    Funny thing is I only have a facebook page to access others who contact me via facebook for business stuff. I am a franchise consultant (very part time) taking a break from life, living in Australia and looking after my kids. A few months ago however I was a CEO of a mortgage franchise and I and all my 35+yr old friends use email cause we are working all the time. Seems that we all find it too hard to keep Outlook plus anything else open at the same time. And then I realised the true use of facebook, I don’t use it because my good friends don’t. If they did, then I would, etc
    That may be a challenge for Facebook – to get employees and execs to work out how to juggle outlook, newletters, gmail, and work commitments plus then deciding that facebook is going to be one main contact medium.
    LinkedIn is a bit lame and really only a way to annoucne yourself to someone – their email system is too proprietary, and many companies still don’t allow facebook.
    I heard something today about facebook email and twitter – maybe I will forward my gmail to facebook mail and see what happens…

  • Justing

    Jeff Jarvis, just heard your ‘debate’ (as you put it in your Twitter post) with Ted Koppel on NPR.

    How do I put this? Your head is so far up your arse, I’m amazed you can still speak.

    I weep for the future of journalism when people like you are responsible for ‘teaching’ journalism. Ted Koppel thinks news is bad now, God help us when your miseducated faux journalists are unleashed on the public to serve us their brand of truthiness.

  • Hi Jeff – in fact we titled our own survey of parents and teens (13 to 18) exactly that” The Kids are Alright* *Some Improvement Needed. Take and look and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Best, Fran

  • Eric Gauvin

    What?! No book plug on NPR?! What happened?!

  • It’s interesting to see how the next generation’s attitude toward Facebook and “publicness” affects our privacy laws. It seems that, little by little, complete online openness seems to be the norm — everything is listed, everything is Googleable.

  • Miguel Pinero

    “I started the day, though, depressed as GMA weekend anchor Ron Claiborne delivered a propagandistic defense of all things professional, closed, and corporate in journalism and an attack on this internet thing. ‘When was the last time you saw a correction on a blog?’ he demanded. I muttered, ‘fuck me,’ and then had to remind myself of the company I was in.”

    Does he know you have the hots for him? Hint: I think he might respond better to “Make love to me.” Weekend anchors are like that.

  • I have a 9 and 6 year old and while I was somewhat relieved to read Jeff’s insights into our teen culture, I was also reminded of how much more internet entrenched our children are than we even realize. Just today as I showed my son my day’s work (a new website for my consulting company), he chimed in with “Oh – can I see your blog?”. While I was secretly relieved that I had one to show him — demonstrating my almost 40-year-old with-it-ness — I was also, I have to admit, shocked that he even knew what a blog was. When did that happen?