Is Facebook a Gated Community?: An Interview With S. Craig Watkins (Part One)

Earlier this year, I was asked to write a blurb for `S. Craig Watkins’s book, The Young & The Digital: What the Migration To Social-Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means For Our Future. The book was an eye-opener as Watkins brings a sociological perspective to the kinds of social lives young people are building for themselves through their deployment of a range of new technologies and emerging cultural practices. Here’s what I ended up writing about the book:

Why does Facebook have the same appeal as gated communities? Is distraction more concerning than addiction? How do video games like World of Warcraft value friendship? Bracing yet reassuring, often surprising, and always substantive, Craig Watkins acts as an honest broker, testing the contradictory claims often made about young people’s digital lives against sophisticated fieldwork.

I don’t agree with everything the book says — that’s probably what “bracing” means here — but it shook up some of my own preconceptions and has stayed with me since I first read it.

We are seeing an explosion of significant new books on young people’s digital lives — in part inspired by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiatives, in part by the pervasiveness of digital culture all around us. I am trying to feature as many of these books and resources as they come out through the blog.

Watkins’s book ranks among the best I’ve read on this topic. The Young & The Digital especially stands out for his close attention to the perspective of teachers as they grapple with the ways new media change how young people learn and to the perspective of young people who may not have the economic and social capital to fully participate in the digital and mobile realm inhabited by their more affluent and priviledged counterparts.

Watkins does not simply celebrate the “democratizing” impact of new media; he also looks at it as a space of social exclusions and in doing so, he calls attention to those factors which make it harder for some to participate more fully in the new media landscape. That’s why I have chosen to highlight this interview as part of my contribution to this year’s One Web Day with its theme — “One Web. For All.” And that’s why I chose to include this book on the syllabus for the graduate course on New Media Literacies I am teaching at USC this fall.

In this installment, he takes on one of the senior figures in the sociological study of media, Robert Putnam, describing the ways that online participation may be paving the way for greater civic engagement, but he also ponders whether the online world may be making us “too social” for our own good, again striking a balance between utopian and dystopian arguments about the impact of digital media on young people’s lives.

The Young and the Digital complicates in some important ways the arguments which Robert Putnam makes in Bowling Alone about the impact of electronic media on our social lives. Why did your field work lead you to reappraise Putnam’s arguments?

The fieldwork did force me to reconsider some of the more enduring arguments about media and, especially, the well-traveled “Bowling Alone” thesis by Putnam. From the very beginning of the Web as an everyday tool, researchers have openly speculated about its influence in our social lives. Does the growing amount of time we spend in front of a screen make us more or less social, more or less interested in our friends, neighbors, and the world around us? Putnam’s most compelling evidence regarding this questions is based on television. Among researchers who study TV as a leisure activity, the medium’s greatest legacy is how it influences our connection, or lack thereof, to our neighbors, communities, and civic life. Putnam argues that TV watching comes at the expense of nearly every social activity outside the home, resulting in the erosion of social capital–a sense of neighborliness, mutual trust, and reciprocity that binds people and communities together. The big fear, of course, is that we will all retreat into our own media fortresses, forgoing any valuable social interaction with friends and acquaintances. While I understand the concern, the research evidence simply does not support it. This was certainly true in our research.

As we began talking with young people and combing through our survey results it became clear that their engagement with technology is first and foremost, a social activity. Conventional wisdom contends that time spent at home with TV is time spent away from friends and public life. But computer and mobile phone screens represent very different kinds of experiences than the ones traditionally offered by TV. Among the teens and young adults that we talk to, time spent in front of a computer or mobile screen is rarely, if ever, considered time spent alone. Screen time, increasingly, is time to connect with friends and acquaintances.

It’s true, connecting via a mobile or Facebook is a different way of bonding, but, as I argue in the book, these practices are expressions of intimacy and community. We tend to get caught up on how much time young people spend with their computers and mobile phones. But what I came to understand is that their true interest is not in the technology per se, but rather the people and the relationships the technology provides access to.

Finally, I believe that young people’s move online is also forcing us to reconsider another argument made by Putnam’s regarding decreasing political participation. The final chapter of the book considers how young people’s use of social and mobile media appears to be reversing some of the disturbing trends Putnam documents regarding a once decisive shift among Americans from political participation–for instance, attending political events, signing petitions, or writing an editor or politician. While establishing their support for President Obama, young people used Facebook, mobile phones, YouTube, and digital cameras to essentially redefine what electoral politics will look like in the future. Their use of digital media was social, communal, and in its own distinct way, political.

Throughout the book, you have a good deal to say about the ways digital media is reshaping young people’s relations to traditional media (newspapers, television). What insight can you offer people working in the television industry about their prospects of attracting or holding the attention of younger Americans?

I’m glad you asked me about television. My interests in young people’s engagement with the social Web is driven, in part, by a desire to understand the shift from television to screens that are more social, mobile, and personal. It’s a historic shift and one that breaks from a more than fifty year cultural institution and experience–television as the first and most dominant screen in our lives.

Our research indicates that among persons ages thirty and under television is not the first or most preferred screen in their lives. They are just as likely to view their laptop or mobile phone as their “go to” screen. Young people still watch television but in ways that are quite distinct from previous generations–they watch it while media multitasking, on the go, and online. Moreover, kids are being socialized to engage TV in ways that are distinct from the generations that grew up in TV-centric households. These and other changes have forced a group of executives accustom to the dominance of TV in the household to rethink their business and programming models.

The television industry is diligently struggling to avoid what has happened to the pop music and newspaper industry. The TV business is struggling with what most of the corporate media world is struggling with and that is the question, “who will control content?” It’s a hard lesson to learn but the rules of engagement really are changing.

It will be really interesting to see what network television looks like in about ten years. There is no doubt that it will look different but it will largely be outside forces–the ways our viewing and media behaviors shift–that will provoke change. Everything from rethinking the prime time schedule (NBC’s decision to decrease scripted dramas and the impending Leno experiment) to the scaling back of the up-front presentations that once defined the industry’s premium status among media buyers.

The biggest thing that the industry has to realize is that they can no longer control content or our viewing habits like they did in the past. It took a while but they began putting their shows online and making them available as downloads. Hulu– a network response to the rise of YouTube–has shown signs of early success for long-format online video. But there is still a debate within the industry regarding this question of control. That is, should the network partners in Hulu make their content exclusive or, as some contend, make it available everywhere. I think it’s clear that if network TV is to have a meaningful future it will have to permit its audience to not only access content across multiple platforms but also encourage audiences to shape and influence content, too.

You question the argument that digital media has had an anti-social impact on young people. Are there ways that these new media technologies and practices have made us “too social”?

I think so. Still, I realize that the idea of being “too social” is peculiar. Here is what I mean. The assertion that the Web and mobile phones are making us less social, caring, and involved with others is baffling when you consider the preponderance of evidence that actually compels a substantially different question: is today’s “always-on” environment making us too social, too connected, and too involved in other people’s lives?

In an “always on” world we are constantly communicating with each other via social network sites and mobile phones. It was interesting to learn that part of the initial appeal of Facebook among college students, for example, was the opportunity for constant status updates as well as the chance to gaze into the backstage world of friends and acquaintances. Young college students consistently made references to what they called, “e-stalking,” that is the degree to which their peers frequently use social-network sites to track people’s lives, activities, and relationships. Twitter and this idea of what Clive Thompson refers to as “ambient awareness” is another example of a technology that promotes a desire to be in constant connection with others.

In the digital age the idea of being out of touch or disconnected from family and friends is practically obsolete. No matter where we are–in class, at work, driving, or on vacation–the idea of being connected to our social networks is now a constant opportunity and, quite frankly, a constant challenge.

Rather than worrying about the likelihood of becoming anti-social I wonder if the reverse outcome–being too social–is a more legitimate concern. Talk to teachers in high school and you will learn that students are constantly connecting via their mobile phones while sitting in the classroom. Talk to university professors and there is a growing belief that students are constantly connecting with each other via platforms like Facebook while sitting in class. Again, it’s the idea that we are using these emerging technologies in ways that are inventively social and dare I say excessively social.

S. Craig Watkins teaches in the departments of Radio-Television-Film and Sociology and the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

His new book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future (Beacon) explores young people’s dynamic engagement with social media, online games, and mobile phones. Craig participated in the MacArthur Foundation Series on Youth, Digital Media and Learning. His work on this ground breaking project focuses on race, learning, and the growing culture of gaming. He has been invited to be a Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (Stanford).

Currently, Craig is launching a new digital media research initiative that focuses on the use and evolution of social media platforms. For updates on these and other projects visit theyoungandthedigital.com.