Social Spring Cleaning Begins

by , May 12, 2011, 7:58 AM
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After some serious doubts due to April's monsoon showers, I note that Spring has finally sprung in my neck of the woods, and I couldn't be happier. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and people are rediscovering the world outside the four walls of their humble abodes. Before they venture outside, however, many of my neighbors engage in a ritual that spans continents and dates back centuries -- spring cleaning. This top-to-bottom exorcism of dirt and dust bunnies with disinfectant and determination is much more than chore; it is reclamation of personal space from the grip of winter's cold and clutter.

Spring cleaning, of course, is not limited to the "real" world anymore than it is limited to adults. Many of us strive for the elusive "inbox zero," and I have more than a few friends who set aside time in spring to clean up their virtual worlds -- thinning their herds of Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, and Twitter tweeps. The most avid social media spring cleaners, however, may actually be teens. According to a recent post from danah boyd (her lack of capital letters, not mine), a noted expert on social media and a senior researcher at Microsoft, she's seeing instances of teens deleting posts and unliking things on Facebook as a means to keep their profiles more "in the moment." In the case of one teen, danah found that:

Her narrative has nothing to do with adults or with Facebook as a data retention agent. She's concerned about how her postings will get her into unexpected trouble with her peers in an environment where saying the wrong thing always results in a fight. She's trying to stay out of fights because fights mean suspensions and she's had enough of those. So for her, it's one of many avoidance strategies. The less she has out there for a jealous peer to misinterpret, the better.

As I wrote about previously ("The Internet Is Forever"), teens are acutely aware that their digital footprint is expanding and, to some degree, permanent (thank you, Google). The behavior danah documents -- called "whitewashing" in some circles -- is an adaptation that allows users to control how they present themselves on Facebook as opposed to letting Facebook control them. It's a sort of continuous "spring cleaning" designed to minimize personal risk in ways that may seem arduous to older Facebook users but are critical to image- and safety-conscious teenagers.

The propensity of teens to keep their Facebook profiles "in the moment" may also be having an effect on their adoption of new social media. Consider that a new survey of 11-18 year-olds in the UK found that 48% haven't heard of Facebook Places, Foursquare or other LBS (location-based services) providers while 58% of those who have heard of LBS "don't see the point." Indeed, it's hard to see the point if LBS just becomes one more thing you need to keep clean.

All of this raises interesting questions for marketers:

1. Do your efforts place teens "in control" or "at your disposal"? If it's the latter, you may risk alienating a large percentage of teens for whom social media control is a big issue.

2. Are teens who "whitewash" their Facebook profiles in the minority or an indication of broader trend? Indeed, danah also documents instances of "super log-offs" where teens delete their accounts and reinstate them as a means to prevent people from posting to their page when they're offline.

3. At what point will teens simply find it too difficult to keep their social profiles "clean," and what will that mean to social networks? Anecdotally, I've heard from a number of people who are running into more teens who use Facebook only as a sort of public, white pages listing -- they save their personal conversations for text messaging.

I suppose one should never take issue with a teenager wanting to keep anything clean -- be it their locker, their room or their Facebook profile. However, the lengths to which some teens are going to control their virtual identities go well beyond the realm of spring cleaning and highlight the real risk that something said in jest today could be hazardous tomorrow.

How that fear shapes their use of social media in the years to come remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure -- do not mistake a teen's Facebook profile as a reflection of who they are so much as a reflection of how they want to be seen. And perhaps that's a truth about all of us -- regardless of age.

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