lunes, 13 de mayo de 2013

On 1 January 2009, Oscar Grant was shot and killed in a subway station by Bay Area Rail
Transit officers. This event was recorded by several passengers on their cellphones and
later uploaded to the video-sharing website YouTube. The videos generated significant
protests among online and offline communities, and were eventually used as evidence in
the ensuing trial. This study employed a critical thematic analysis to examine audience
responses to this act of citizen journalism on YouTube. Results indicated that although
some viewers critiqued the video quality and the cameraperson’s passivity, several
supportive comments praised the cameraperson’s presence of mind and courage.
Furthermore, some viewers called for resistance and retaliation, while others advocated
a more prudent response. We argue that these findings necessitate a reconceptualization
of traditional notions of the guard-dog media and the public sphere to accommodate
new media technologies.
Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers' use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression.

The explosion in social networking sites such as MySpace,
Facebook, Bebo and Friendster is widely regarded as an
exciting opportunity, especially for youth.Yet the public
response tends to be one of puzzled dismay regarding a
generation that, supposedly, has many friends but little sense
of privacy and a narcissistic fascination with self-display.This
article explores teenagers’ practices of social networking in
order to uncover the subtle connections between online
opportunity and risk.While younger teenagers relish the
opportunities to recreate continuously a highly-decorated,
stylistically-elaborate identity, older teenagers favour a plain
aesthetic that foregrounds their links to others, thus expressing
a notion of identity lived through authentic relationships.
The article further contrasts teenagers’ graded conception of
‘friends’ with the binary classification of social networking
sites, this being one of several means by which online privacy
is shaped and undermined by the affordances of these sites.

Young people have always devoted attention to the presentation of self.
Friendships have always been made, displayed and broken. Strangers –
unknown, weird or frightening – have always hovered on the edge of the
group, and often, adult onlookers have been puzzled by youthful peer
practices.Yet the recent explosion in online social networking sites such as
MySpace, Facebook, Bebo and others has attracted considerable interest from
the academy, policymakers, parents and young people themselves, the repeated
claim being that something new is taking place.What, then, is distinctive
about the youthful construction of self and peer relations, now that this is
mediated increasingly by social networking sites?
In terms of their affordances, social networking sites enable communication
among ever-widening circles of contacts, inviting convergence among the
hitherto separate activities of email, messaging, website creation, diaries, photo
albums and music or video uploading and downloading. From the user’s
viewpoint, more than ever before, using media means creating as well as
receiving, with user control extending far beyond selecting ready-made, massproduced
content.The very language of social relationships is being reframed;
today, people construct their ‘profile’, make it ‘public’ or ‘private’, they
‘comment’ or ‘message’ their ‘top friends’ on their ‘wall’, they ‘block’ or ‘add’
people to their network and so forth.
It seems that for many, creating and networking online content is
becoming an integral means of managing one’s identity, lifestyle and social
relations. In the UK, MySpace is by far the most popular social network, with
6.5 million unique visitors in May 2007, followed by 4 million for Bebo and
3.2 million for Facebook (Nielsen//Netratings, 2007). US figures are far
higher, with 38.4 million unique visitors to MySpace in May 2006
(Nielsen//Netratings, 2006).Young people are in the vanguard of social
networking practices: 31 percent of MySpace users are under 18 years, as are
54 percent of Bebo users in the USA (BBC News, 2006); 6.6 million unique
users aged 12–17 visited MySpace in August 2006 across Europe (Comscore,
2006), and 32 percent of online 16–24-year-olds use social networking sites at
least monthly (EIAA, 2006).
Optimistic accounts stress new opportunities for self-expression, sociability,
community engagement, creativity and new literacies. Critical scholars argue
that youthful content creation will counter the traditional dominance of
consumers by producers and facilitate an innovative peer culture among
young people, both locally and globally. Public policymakers hope that media
literacy skills developed through social networking will transfer to support
online learning and participation and protect youth from the online risks
associated with transgressive representations of the self and abusive contact
with others. Popular and media discourses all too often reflect a puzzled
dismay that young people live in such a different world from the
(nostalgically remembered) youth of today’s adults.
Media panics amplify the public anxieties associated with social
networking.The ‘MySpace generation’, they suggest, has no sense of privacy
or shame. One attention-getting headline read: ‘Generation shock finds
liberty online: the children of the internet age are ready to bare their bodies
and souls in a way their parents never could’ (Sunday Times, 2007).And
another claimed: ‘Kids today.They have no sense of shame.They have no
sense of privacy’ (Nussbaum, 2007) Moreover, social networkers are
supposedly wholly narcissistic:‘MySpace is about me, me, me, and look at
me and look at me’ (Fairfax Digital News, 2007). In short, it is commonly
held that at best, social networking is time-wasting and socially isolating,
and at worst it allows paedophiles to groom children in their bedroom1 or
sees teenagers lured into suicide pacts while parents think they are doing
their homework.
For once it seems that the academy has kept pace with market innovation and
social practice. Usefully countering the hype, a rapidly expanding body of
empirical research is examining how people create personal profiles, network
with familiar and new contacts and participate in various forms of online
community (boyd, 2006; boyd and Ellison, 2007; Hinduja and Patchin, 2008;
Lenhart and Madden, 2007). Certain trends are already apparent, challenging
the simple distinctions with which new media research began. Notably,
despite the potential for global networking, most people’s contacts are local,
with stronger ties centred on pre-existing study or work contexts
(Haythornthwaite, 2001), especially among teenagers (Gross, 2004); although
niche networks are often geographically spread, interest in ‘strangers’ or
distant others is minimal (Boneva et al., 2006; Mesch and Talmud, 2007).
However, this does not mean that face-to-face communication is being
displaced. Indeed, while social networking is displacing other forms of online
communication to some degree (email, chatrooms, website creation), it
incorporates others (instant messaging, blogging, music downloading) and
remediates yet more (most notably, face-to-face and telephone
communication; Bolter and Grusin, 1999; Jenkins, 2006). Consequently, the
simple distinction between offline and online no longer captures the complex
practices associated with online technologies as they become thoroughly embedded in the routines of everyday life (Bakardjieva, 2005; Silverstone,
These insights centre on emerging social practices with online social
networking. Less is known about the specific contribution of social
networking sites in shaping these practices, if any.To understand the relation
between the two, the notion of mediation – social and technological –
permits us to avoid a technologically deterministic account while
acknowledging the shaping role of technology and social practices
(Bakardjieva, 2005). Hjarvard proposes that
mediation refers to the communication through one or more media through
which the message and the relation between sender and receiver are
influenced by the affordances and constraints of the specific media and
genres involved. (2006: 5)
Thus, while all communication is necessarily mediated, an empirical
account of the specific forms and practices associated with a particular
medium is warranted. In a complementary fashion, drawing on Gibson’s
ecological psychology, Hutchby theorizes the mutuality between
technological shaping and social practices thus:
[A]ffordances are functional and relational aspects which frame, while not
determining, the possibilities for agentic action in relation to an object. In this
way, technologies can be understood as artefacts which may be both shaped by
and shaping of the practices humans use in interaction with, around and
through them. (2001: 44)
This article combines these perspectives with a child-centred, qualitative
methodology (Livingstone, 1998) in order to explore teenagers’ practices of
social networking. In addition to understanding the affordances of social
networking sites, a child-centred approach means that the analysis should
acknowledge young people’s experiences, and it should situate their social
networking practices within an account of the changing conditions of
childhood and youth (James et al., 1998). As has been argued elsewhere, the
tensions over children’s media use often stem from underlying changes in the
positioning of childhood and youth vis-à-vis parents, school and community
(Livingstone, 2002).Today’s teenagers live through an ‘extended youth’,
historically speaking, staying young for longer in terms of education and
economic dependence but becoming independent younger in terms of
sexuality, leisure and consumption (Gadlin, 1978).
Hence, for teenagers, the online realm may be adopted enthusiastically
because it represents ‘their’ space, visible to the peer group more than to adult
surveillance, an exciting yet relatively safe opportunity to conduct the social
psychological task of adolescence – to construct, experiment with and present
a reflexive project of the self in a social context (Buchner et al., 1995;Giddens, 1991) as well as (for some) for flouting communicative norms and
other risk-taking behaviours (Hope, 2007; Liau et al., 2005; Stattin Kerr,
2000;Wolak et al., 2006). Indeed, it seems that even normatively valued
online activities are correlated in practice with risky activities regarding
online content, contact and conduct, suggesting that what for an adult
observer may seem risky, is for a teenager often precisely the opportunity
that they seek (Livingstone and Helsper, 2007); this complicates
straightforward policy attempts to maximize the former while minimizing
the latter.
The complex relation between opportunity and risk is not distinctive to
the internet, rather it is a feature of adolescence. As Erikson (1980[1959])
observed, the adolescent must develop and gain confidence in an ego identity
that is simultaneously autonomous and socially valued, and that balances
critical judgement and trust, inner unity and acceptance of societal
expectations.Thus, they must make judgements that are difficult offline as
well as online – whom to trust, what to reveal about yourself, how to
establish reciprocity, when to express emotion, and so on. By examining how
online identity and peer relations are shaped by both peer culture and the
affordances of networking software, the purpose here is to show how online
opportunities and risks are interconnected.
Sample and interviews
A series of open-ended individual interviews were conducted with 16
teenagers in their homes (see Table 1).
Their ages ranged from 13–16 years, half were girls and half boys, most
were white but several were black or of mixed ethnicity, and they spanned
the range of socioeconomic status categories as well as urban, suburban and
rural locations in the Greater London area. All had home access to the
internet (although in a few cases, this was not working at the time of the
interview) and all had their own personal profile on MySpace, Facebook,
Bebo, Piczo or similar, which they had visited at least once per week in
recent months.
The participants were recruited by a market research agency in July 2007
and interviewed by the author.The teenagers and their parents received a
written explanation of the research aims, methods and ethics (addressing the
answering of sensitive questions, participant anonymity and confidentiality,
data storage and publication of findings) before signing a consent form. Each
received a modest honorarium. Interviews lasted around one hour, and
comprised a free-flowing, open-ended discussion in front of the computer,
while simultaneously going online to visit the participant’s personal profile
and those of others.

Given the overall concern with online identity and peer relations, as shaped
by peer culture and social networking site affordances, along with
implications for online opportunities and risks, the interview schedule
• the choices, motivations and literacies shaping the participant’s own
• the semiotic and social ‘reading’ of others’ profiles (in terms of
conventions regarding form, identity and peer norms regarding
transgressive or risky practices); and
• the social and personal meanings of the contacts sustained online and
their relation to offline friends in everyday life.
The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed before being coded,
using Nvivo qualitative coding software, according to categories derived from
the issues emerging from the participants’ responses as well as from the
questions asked in the interviews.

Enacting identity
Strategies for representing the self were found to vary considerably. For
example, Danielle’s Piczo profile has a big welcome in sparkly pink, with
music, photos, a ‘love tester’, guestbook, dedication pages, etc., all customized
down to the scroll bars and cursor with pink candy stripes, glitter, angels,
flowers, butterflies, hearts and more (because ‘you can just change it all the
time [and so] you can show different sides of yourself ’). By contrast, Danny
has not completed the basic Facebook options of noting his politics, religion
or even his network (‘I haven’t bothered to write about myself ’). Most profiles
are designed in one way or another to provide ‘a way of expressing who you
are to other people’, as Nina put it. Elena, who spends several hours each day
updating and altering her MySpace, Facebook and Piczo profiles, says:
I think layouts really show like who you are. So look at the rainbow in that. I
think that would make you sound very, like, bubbly … I like to have different
ones … it’s different likes, different fashion, different feelings on that day.
In response to this continual activity of representing the self, Elena’s friends
have peppered her profile with nice comments – ‘I’m always here for you’,
‘You’re gorgeous,’ etc. – as part of a reciprocal exchange of mutual support
which she appreciates:
It’s nice, like, if you’ve got a nice picture of you and people are,‘Oh, you look
nice’. It’s like quite nice, I think, when people say you’re pretty … I like it when
they comment me because, like, it shows that they care.
It should not be assumed that profiles are simply read as information about
an individual. Jenny, like others, is well aware that people’s profiles can be ‘just
a front’. For several of the participants, it seemed that position in the peer
network was more significant than the personal information provided,
rendering the profile a place-marker more than a self portrait. Initially, this
author misunderstood this – for example, on Leo’s site there was a comment
from his friend ‘Blondie’ saying that she’s pregnant: when I ask, he observes
that, of course, ‘she’s joking’ – the point being to share (and display) their
humorous relationship, not a personal self-disclosure.A more sustained and
fairly common instance is provided by Paul. A confident and sociable boy
who ‘got pulled into the world of Bebo’ because ‘everybody was talking
about it’, he has constructed his profile as a joke.With a funny photo of
himself, it announces him to be 36, married, living in Africa, a person who likes
to humiliate people and to get unconscious (there were other examples of
teenagers’ playful, occasionally resistant style, for example, posting an image
of their dog instead of themselves).Yet in the interview, Paul takes little notice
of this, since his brothers and friends (with whom he, like some others, has shared his password) have often changed his profile for fun.Thus his profile is
meaningful to him not as a means of displaying personal information about
him to the world, as often supposed, but precisely because the joky content is
evidence of his lively and trusting relations with his brothers and friends.
Pointing to the lack of a one-to-one match between users and profiles,
a point also evident in the way that some users maintain several profiles on
different sites, Paul explains how the profile may display the peer group more
than the individual:
When we go out together, like they take photos on their phones and stuff and
then they upload them on there … So everybody else can see what we’ve done
and, like, see all of our friends and when we’re together and it’s just like
remembering the time when we did it.
Thus although it indeed appears that, for many young people, social
networking is ‘all about me, me, me’, this need not imply narcissistic selfabsorption.
Rather, following Mead’s (1934) fundamental distinction between
the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ as twin aspects of the self, social networking is about ‘me’
in the sense that it reveals the self embedded in the peer group, as known to
and represented by others, rather than the private ‘I’ known best by oneself.
Although teenagers tend to describe their social networking activities in
terms of freely taken choices, when questioned more closely it appears that
they are constrained in two ways: first, by the norms and practices of their peer
group and, second, by the affordances of the technological interface.Various
representations of ‘adult society’ (parents, media panics, etc.) also play a lesser
role in alerting them to the risks of strangers, viruses, threats to privacy, etc.
These will be explored in turn, first showing how young people creatively use
the different affordances of different sites to meet their changing identity
needs; then second, showing how young people also struggle to fit their
interests and concerns within the structures offered by the sites.
Transitions in identity development
Although the intention of this study was to recruit a narrow range of
teenagers in terms of age (i.e. 13–16-year-olds, a cohort commonly combined
by survey research), it emerged that collectively, the participants had a story to
tell about their changing identity.Teenagers are acutely aware of the subtle
differences between those a school year younger or older and themselves,
indicating perceived differences in identity, social position or maturity, and
often media choices are used as markers of relative maturity (‘have you got
your own television set yet, or seen a film classified for those older than
you?’; Livingstone, 2002). Intriguingly, in relation to social networking, such
identity development seemed to be expressed in terms of decisions regarding
the style or choice of site. Nina, for example, moved from MySpace to Facebook, describing this somewhat tentatively as the transition from elaborate
layouts for younger teenagers to the clean profile favoured by older teenagers:
With profiles, everything [on MySpace] was all about having coloured
backgrounds … whereas I just suppose, like Facebook, I prefer to have, like older
people, and it was more sophisticated, can I use that word? … I found when I
was 14 I always wanted to be like someone that was older than me … When I
first got MySpace, I thought it was a really cool thing because all older people
had it, and they were all having their templates and things like that … but I’m
sort of past that stage now, and I’m more into the plain things.
Ellie, 15, points to a similar distinction when comparing her Facebook
profile with her 12-year-old sister’s use of MySpace:
The reason they [younger girls] like MySpace seems to be because you can
decorate your page with flowers and hearts and have glitter on it, whereas on
this [Facebook] it’s sort of a white background with not so much, it’s just a
photo and a name, which is pretty much the same for everyone. [Talking of
herself] I can’t really see the point.This isn’t to show off about my personality.
I’m not trying to say, oh, I love purple or I love hearts … It’s more just like
talking to three friends and, seeing as my friends know me, there’s no real need
for me to advertise my personality … On MySpace, everyone’s got these things
like, I love this, I hate this, and trying to show off who they are, and I just don’t
think that’s necessary if these actually are your friends.
Once sensitized to this stylistic shift, it became apparent to me that some
teenagers preferred elaborately customized profiles while others favoured a
plain aesthetic. Daphne, Danielle and Ryan enjoy changing the backgrounds
and layouts of their profile every day, typically adopting a highly genderstereotyped
style of, for example, pink hearts and sparkly lettering for girls
and black backgrounds with shiny expensive cars for boys.Yet Ryan, the
oldest of the three, has a previous profile on Piczo that is more elaborate and
busy than his current one on Bebo.The shift need not be affected by
changing site: Nicki has remained on MySpace, since the critical mass of her
friends use this site. As she observes:
It’s funny how on MySpace you kind of go through phases where everyone
might have a really busy … background, and then everyone will have a kind of
plain background.
The flexibility of social networking sites in affording revisions of one’s
identity is welcome. Leo says, of his MySpace profile:
The one I made before I thought I didn’t really like it, so I thought I’d start
again, I’d start a new one … [the previous profile] it was just … people I didn’t
like had the address, so I thought I should start fresh.

Note that, unlike Ryan, he changed his profile less not because the
personal information it displayed no longer represented his identity, but
because it was embedded in a network of peer connections away from which
he felt he had moved.
What might this shift, whether managed by changing one’s social
networking site or just one’s profile, signify for younger and older teenagers?
Ziehe argues of lifestyles that these should be recognized as ‘collective ways of
life … [which] point to common orientations of taste and interpretations;
they demonstrate a certain group-specific succinctness of usage of signs’
(1994: 2). In terms evocative of the social practices of online networking, he
argues that lifestyles are characterized by, first, self-attention, a subjective
disposition which ‘raises the question … of a successful life as an everyday
expectation’; second, stylization, in which ‘objects, situations and actions are
placed into a coherent sign arrangement and “presented”’; and third,
reflexivity, whereby
life styles are an expression of an orientation pressure which has turned inwards.
The new questions are ‘what do I actually want?’ and ‘what matters to me?’
[resulting in] an everyday semantic of self-observation and self-assessment.
(1994: 11–12)
Thus Ziehe suggests a way in which the project of the self is represented
according to highly coded cultural conventions (here including technological
interfaces) and social preferences (here embedded in the norms of consumer
With this in mind, Ellie, Nina and others seem to suggest that for younger
teenagers, self-attention is enacted through constructing an elaborate, highly
stylized statement of identity as display.Thus a visually ambitious, ‘pick and
mix’ profile, which frequently remixes borrowed images and other content to
express continually shifting tastes, offers for some a satisfactorily ‘successful’
self, liked and admired by peers. However, this notion of identity as display –
which characterizes Daphne and Danielle’s profiles and, to a lesser degree,
those of several of the others – is replaced gradually by the mutual
construction among peers of a notion of identity through connection. On
this alternative approach, elements of display are excised from the profile,
replaced by the visual privileging of one’s contacts, primarily through links to
others’ profiles and by posting photos of the peer group socializing offline.
Equally stylized, albeit employing a different aesthetic, and still focused on
the reflexive tasks of self-observation and self-assessment, this later phase
brings to mind Giddens’ (1991: 91) argument that the ‘pure relationship’ is
replacing the traditional relationship long embedded in structures of family,
work or community. As he puts it, ‘the pure relationship is reflexively
organised, in an open fashion, and on a continuous basis’, prioritizing the values of authenticity, reciprocity, recognition and intimacy. Reminiscent of
the concerns reflected by teenagers when talking about social networking,
continuous revision of the self is hinted at when Leo says, ‘I’ll always be
adding new friends’.The implications for judging others are brought out
not only by Ellie’s emphasis (above) on people who are ‘actually’ friends and
so know one already, but also by Ryan’s observation about others that ‘you
look at their pictures, see if they are authentic or not, so if they ain’t got any
comments and they’re just adding people, then I can’t believe them’. Now,
we may see that Danny’s omission of personal information on his profile is
less a curious neglect of self than the prioritization of a self embedded in
social connections – for it is not that Danny cannot be bothered to network:
he sustains links with 299 friends and checks every day to see ‘if I’ve got any,
like, messages, new friend requests or anything like that, like, new comments’.
In terms of affordances, then, social networking sites frame but do not
determine. It remains open to young people to select a more or less complex
representation of themselves linked to a more or less wide network of others.
These choices pose advantages and disadvantages. Elaborating the presentation
of self at the node supports the biographization of the self by prioritizing a
managed and stylized display of identity as lifestyle. However, this risks invasion
of privacy, since the backstage self is on view (Goffman, 1959), potentially
occasioning critical or abusive responses from others. Something of the
associated anxiety is evident in Ryan’s comment about his profile that
‘hopefully people will like it – if they don’t, then screw them’.The
interlinking of opportunities and risks is also apparent when Danielle discusses
how her friend used Piczo to express her unhappiness when her parents
separated,‘because other people can advise you what to do or say,“Don’t
worry, you can go through it”’; yet Danielle is one of the few participants who
talked about the risk of hostile comments, noting that ‘sometimes the
comments are cruel and they’re [her friends] all crying and upset’.
Alternatively, identity may be elaborated in terms of the network, the node
being relatively unembellished but resonant with meaning through its
connections with selected others. As Marwick notes, social networking sites
enable people ‘to codify, map and view the relational ties between themselves
and others’ (2005: 3). Here, instead, the project of the self is more at risk in
terms of one’s standing in the network: do people visit your profile and leave
comments, are you listed as anyone’s top friend, etc.This concern may explain
the routine yet highly absorbing activity of checking people’s profiles and, in
response, revising one’s own, often occupying one or more hours each day.
Thus Jenny says of MySpace:
You look through other people’s profiles and look through their pictures,
different pictures of their mates and that … if someone gives me a comment I’ll
comment them back … you get, like, addicted to it.

Similarly, Billy leaves about 20 comments per day: ‘I go from one [profile]
to another, like with my friends, I say hi, how are you?’ Nicki adds that, by
sending a quick comment,‘it feels like I’ve kind of kept in touch’.This timeconsuming
process of sustaining ‘constant connection’ with peers (Clark,
2005) can seem banal to the observing adult (parent or researcher),
frequently often bland in character, and far from the claimed drama of
revealing disclosures and risky encounters. However, as with the acts of
recognition constitutive of offline social relations, it seems that these are
necessary to reaffirm one’s place within the peer network.
Creating private spaces for intimacy among ‘friends’
Creating identity and social relations online is not only time-intensive, and on
occasion risky, but also it can be difficult to manage. In the interviews, the
topic of privacy tended to point up ways in which the affordances of social
networking sites limit teenagers’ self-expression. Although there is much they
express only offline, and although they generally set their profile to private
(Lenhart and Madden, 2007), it is the case that teenagers may disclose
personal information with up to several hundred people known only casually.
This is in part because social networking sites typically display as standard
precisely the personal information that previous generations often have
regarded as private (notably age, politics, income, religion, sexual preference).
Thus to the parent generation, it may seem curious for Ellie to observe:
I don’t have any too personal things on it, like, I’m very happy to say I’m Jewish
or [have] conservative political views and I’m happy to say my birthday or I’m
from London.There’s nothing too detailed that will give anyone too big a
picture of me.
Nonetheless, it would be mistaken to conclude that teenagers are
unconcerned about their privacy. As Sophie says to those accusing her
generation: ‘I don’t give stuff away that I’m not willing to share’.The question
of what you show to others and what you keep private was often the liveliest
part of the interviews, suggesting an intense interest in privacy.Teenagers
described thoughtful decisions about what, how and to whom they reveal
personal information, drawing their own boundaries about what information
to post and what to keep off the site, making deliberate choices that match
their mode of communication (and its particular affordances) to particular
communicative content.This suggests a definition of privacy not tied to the
disclosure of certain types of information, rather a definition centred on
having control over who knows what about you (Livingstone, 2006). Stein
and Sinha put this formally when they define privacy as ‘the rights of
individuals to enjoy autonomy, to be left alone, and to determine whether
and how information about one’s self is revealed to others’ (2002: 414).

The advantage of this definition is that it resolves the apparent paradox that
the ‘MySpace Generation’ is concerned about privacy yet readily discloses
personal information (Barnes, 2006; Dwyer, 2007).The point is that teenagers
must and do disclose personal information in order to sustain intimacy, but
they wish to be in control of how they manage this disclosure. As Giddens
(1991: 94) says, ‘intimacy is the other face of privacy’. However, two problems
undermine teenagers’ control over such disclosure.The first is that their
notion of ‘friends’ is subtle while that of the social networking sites is
typically binary, affording only a simple classification of contacts (e.g. for
MySpace, your friends versus all users; for Facebook, your network versus all
networks). Being required to decide whether personal information should be
disclosed to ‘friends’ or to ‘anyone’ fails to capture the varieties of privacy that
teenagers wish to sustain. Indeed, being visible to strangers (managed through
setting one’s profile to ‘public’) is not so much a concern, notwithstanding
media panics about ‘stranger danger’ as that of being visible to known but
inappropriate others – especially parents. As Jason explains:
You don’t mind [other] people reading it, but it’s your parents, you don’t really
want your parents seeing it, because I don’t really like my parents sort of looking
through my room and stuff, because that’s, like, my private space.
He wishes his private space online, his profile, to be public to his friends
but private to his parents.Thus Simon says, ‘People that know us, it is
probably going to be on, like, public for them’. In short, the language of the
privacy settings is confusing in itself. However, when Nina complains about
Facebook that ‘they should do something about making it more like private,
because you can’t really set your profile to private’, something more subtle is
being said. Nina is not confused about the settings, for in the language of social
networking sites her profile is ‘set to private’. Rather, she is frustrated that her
site does not allow her to discriminate between who knows what about her
within her 300 or so ‘friends’. Indeed, unsurprisingly, teenagers classify their
friends in a range of ways.When asked about her 554 friends on Facebook,
Ellie describes friends from school, friends from a holiday in Manchester,
friends from the London network and so on.Although some reject this trend
towards an ever-expanding social circle (Jason, for example, has only 39 friends
because those are, he says, his real friends, and having hundreds of friends is
‘pointless’), this does not mean that those with many friends make no
distinction among them. Nina’s classification is graded in terms of intimacy:
Well, I have my best friends, and then I have friends that I’m good friends with,
and then I have friends that I see every so often, and they’re normally out of
school friends … And then I have just people that I don’t really talk to, but I
know who they are, and maybe it’s ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ in the corridor at school sort
of friends.

It is unclear to these teenagers how they can reflect such gradations of
intimacy in managing who knows what about them, the privacy settings
provided seeming inadequate to the task. Fahey argues that:
Instead of speaking of a single public/private boundary, it may be more accurate
to speak of a more complex re-structuring in a series of zones of privacy, not all
of which fit easily with our standard images of what the public/private
boundary is. (1995: 688)
Since these ‘zones of privacy’ are now managed partly online, at issue is the
(mis)match between technological affordances and teenage conceptions of
friendship. Of course, teenagers are not seeking primarily to maintain their
privacy from strangers (or else they could simply turn off the computer).
Rather, they are seeking to share their private experiences, to create spaces of
intimacy, to be themselves in and through their connection with their friends.
Teenagers face another problem in managing their privacy online, which
concerns the relation between their internet literacy and the interface
design of social networking sites and settings.When asked, a fair
proportion of those interviewed hesitated to show how to change their
privacy settings, often clicking on the wrong options before managing this
task, and showing some nervousness about the unintended consequences of
changing settings (both the risk of ‘stranger danger’ and parental approbation
were referred to here, although they also told stories of viruses, crashed
computers, unwanted advertising and unpleasant chain messages). For example,
having set his profile to private, Billy tells me it that cannot be changed to
public. Leo wanted his profile to be public, since it advertises his band, yet still
says uncertainly:‘I might have ticked the box, but I’m not 100 percent sure if I
did’. Or again, Ellie signed up for the London network instead of that for her
school when she first joined Facebook and now cannot change this, saying:‘I
probably can, but I’m not quite, I’m not so great that, I haven’t learned all the
tricks to it yet’.The result is that she sees the private information for thousands
of Londoners but not that of her schoolmates. Unsurprisingly, then, when
asked whether they would like to change anything about social networking,
the operation of privacy settings and provision of private messaging on the
sites are teenagers’ top priorities, along with elimination of spam and chain
messages – both intrusions of their privacy.
These difficulties in managing privacy via privacy settings reflect broader
internet literacy issues. For example, the top bar of a MySpace profile lists
‘blog’, ‘groups’, ‘forum’,‘events’,‘music’, ‘film’, and more.While it was
observed that most of the teenagers include music on their profile, when
asked about blogs, groups or forums, often the question was met with blank
looks. Even 16-year-old Danny, whose father works in computers and who
says confidently, ‘I know a lot about computers’, was confused when asked about the group facility, saying: ‘I don’t know if I’ve got a group … I didn’t
even know there was [sic] groups’. Ellie has joined 163 groups – including
the appreciation society for her local bus, one for a favourite programme,
another for a charity that she supports, etc. However, she had hardly noticed
and certainly does not use the blog, noting that ‘I don’t think any of my
friends have either’.The limits of teenagers’ supposedly exploratory and
creative approach to social networking are, it seems, easily reached.
Pragmatically, such difficulties are ‘resolved’ often by simply ignoring sites’
affordances (irrespective of whether these are well or poorly designed),
including not using the detailed privacy options provided by some sites.
Nonetheless, as Ellie implies, this partial neglect of social networking site
affordances reflects the shaping role of social expectations in the peer group.
Designing a profile is not solely a matter of individual choice. It is geared
towards others through the choice of site (one must select that already used
by one’s friends), mode of address (most say that they put on their profile the
content that they consider their friends would enjoy) and, practically, by the
moment of setting up a profile (commonly achieved with the help of a friend
who already uses the site). Literacy matters here also, for several of those
observed felt limited by the particular way that the profile was set up initially
by their friend, not always feeling able to alter this. A case in point is the
misleading information about age often posted on their profiles, following the
peer group belief (not necessarily accurate) that they were too young to be
allowed on the site: Billy is typical in describing himself as 16 rather than 14
because the friend who set up his profile thought 16 to be the minimum age
permitted; several have an official age (misleading) but also put their real age
elsewhere on their profile; and some use joke ages (Ryan, for example, says he
is 98). Correcting misleading information later is not something they can do,
as several teenagers stated.
In late modernity, ‘self-actualisation is understood in terms of a balance
between opportunity and risk’ (Giddens, 1991: 78). Both the opportunities
and risks arise because self-actualization is a social process. Selves are
constituted through interaction with others and, for today’s teenagers, selfactualization
increasingly includes a careful negotiation between the
opportunities (for identity, intimacy, sociability) and risks (regarding privacy,
misunderstanding, abuse) afforded by internet-mediated communication.
Among this admittedly small sample of teenagers, younger teenagers were
found to relish the opportunities to play and display, continuously recreating a
highly-decorated, stylistically-elaborate identity. Having experienced this
‘phase’, older teenagers tended to favour a plain aesthetic that foregrounds
their links to others, expressing a notion of identity lived through authentic relationships with others. As has been previously suggested, this apparent shift
in phases of identity development may have implications for teenagers’
experience of online opportunities and risks.
Also influencing the balance between opportunities and risks online are the
specific affordances of social networking sites, especially their conception of
‘friends’ and the provision of privacy settings, as has been examined here.
Teenagers were found to work with a subtle classification of ‘friends’, graded
in terms of intimacy, which is poorly matched by the notion of ‘public’ and
‘private’ designed into social networking sites.While it is teenagers’ desire for
subtle gradation in levels of intimacy (rather than a desire for publicity or
exhibitionism) that guides teenagers’ approach to privacy online, it is
suggested that in this regard they struggle in terms of internet literacy,
impeded in turn by the affordances of the social networking sites.
For those focused on identity as display, online risks may arise from their
willing, sometimes naïve, self-display of personal information to a wide circle
of contacts, not all of whom are close friends or sometimes even
remembered. For those focused on identity as connection, online risks may
arise from their very confidence that they can know, judge and trust the
people with whom they are intimate, as well as from the possibility of being
neglected or excluded from the peer group. Also, risks may arise from the
teenagers’ limited internet literacy combined with confusing or poorly
designed site settings, leaving them unclear regarding their control over who
can see what about them. Each of these risks may affect adversely only a
minority, but they render public policy measures (improved site design,
internet literacy, parental guidance, etc.) appropriate.
Finally, it is worth noting that, rather than compromise their privacy too
far, many of those interviewed chose to express their more personal
experiences (as defined by them, not by adult society) using other modes of
communication, online or offline. Danielle’s unhappy friend, noted earlier,
seems more the exception than the rule, and most of the teenagers
interviewed were clear that they use social networking sites for only part, not
all, of their social relations. For example, Ellie uses MSN for private
conversations with her best friends and, like many others, for flirting. Nina,
Daphne and most others talk to their best friends face-to-face or via MSN. If
upset, Joshua turns to neither phone, internet nor even a friend, but rather
listens to loud rock music in his room.As Sophie explains:
When you’re moody, MySpace isn’t really the best thing to go on … you can’t
really get across emotions on there because you’re writing. It’s good for making
arrangements and stuff, but it’s not good if you want a proper chat.
In other words, although to exist online one must write oneself, and one’s
friendships and community, into being (boyd, 2006; Sundén, 2003), this does not mean one must include every aspect of oneself. Deciding what not to say
about oneself online is, for many teenagers, an agentic act to protect their
identity and their spaces of intimacy.
Thanks to the Research Council of Norway for funding the Mediatized Stories: Mediation
Perspectives On Digital Storytelling Among Youth of which this project is part. I also thank
David Brake, Shenja van der Graaf, Angela Jones, Ellen Helsper, Maria Kyriakidou, Annie
Mullins,Toshie Takahashi, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier
version of this article. Last, thanks to the teenagers who participated in this project.