some thoughts on 2007 (advertising, bullying, and mobile)

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by: danah boyd

I love the idea of "social network fatigue." I can see the Prozac ad now:

Are you tired of your friends? Does reciprocity get you down? Do you dream of blockmodels? Are you afraid of the big bad structural holes? Don’t worry… we can help!

OK… i admit, that was far more for my own entertainment than for yours. But seriously, the concept of "social network fatigue" boggles my mind. I realize that the prediction is really "Users will tire of large-scale, portal-style social network sites like MySpace and Facebook in 2007" but the framing of it as "social network fatigue" reveals the inherent problem in this prediction. Users aren’t going to tire of their friends but they will tire of problematic social spaces that make hanging out with friends difficult.

Now, i’m not one to enjoy spouting predictions (notice discomfort in recent press interview) but i have to say that i agree with 80% of Fred Stutzman’s predictions. Social network sites as we know it are not the end-all-be-all. They will fade and other services will recognize the value in adding social features to their site. Social network structures will become as ubiquitous as search or profiles. They will be a given, either explicitly ("are you my friend?") or implicitly (your phone contact list). That said, i think there are going to be some blood baths next year and i’m not looking forward to them.

For me, the question is: "are teenagers tiring of the highly-visible social network sites?" and the answer is both yes and no. The level of emotional enthusiasm i hear has dramatically faded over the last six months. It’s taken for granted that it’s the way to reach people, but folks have seen the pros and cons and are no longer slurping it up without thinking. The perceived presence of people who hold power over teens (parents, teachers, etc.) and those who want to prey on them (marketers, pedophiles, etc.) has done unbelievable damage in general teen perception. I’m astounded by how many teens i’m running into who are "scared" to go on MySpace because they’ve been told horror stories by everyone. It doesn’t matter that the stories they repeat back to me are inaccurate – it’s clear that mainstream news coverage had a huge role in shaping social network sites in 2006. I want to scream every time a teen tells me the story of the two alexes or about how Dateline "proved" that predators are going to stalk them. (Instead, i listen patiently and politely.)

More significantly, MySpace has turned into a massive zit full of marketing puss. Most teens don’t mind advertising but when things look more like spam than advertising, you’re in deep shit. Every PR organization and marketing arm is leeching onto MySpace like a blood thirsty vampire. Problem is that vampires kill their prey. Teens who wanna hang with friends are mostly protecting themselves by privatizing their profile (more cuz of the marketing predators than the sexual ones) but this quickly loses the luster, particularly when it’s fundamentally hard to do what you want to communicate with your friends. (Simple things like friend management and better messaging tools would go a long way.) I’m very worried about how, unregulated, spamming and over-advertising will kill even the coolest social hangouts. I keep wondering what the regulation solution will have to be. (Is it law or code cuz it ain’t gonna be market or social norms?)

I believe that teenagers are the reason that mobile will happen sooner than we think. I don’t believe that the first explosion will be US-based. I am very hopeful about Blyk because i think that they stand a very decent chance of getting cluster effects working. (Note: the anti-corporate voice in me screams in horror at the idea of a free mobile service built on ads but there’s no one i trust more in mobile than Marko Ahtisaari. I have much respect for the whole team and i think that a free phone will be extremely popular so long as they get a few things right.) I think that mobile social network-driven systems will look very different than web-based ones but the fundamentals of "friends" and "messages" and some form of presence-conveying "profile" will be core to the system.

What worries me most is that my gut says that 2007 will involve far too many hyper-visible examples of bad-teen-behavior. You think Nicole and Paris’ fight is public? Wait until every teen in America videotapes their cat-scratching, hair-pulling, nut-kicking, all-out brawls and uploads them to YouTube. Those who hold power over teens are primed to obsessively stalk their behaviors and i don’t think it’s gonna be pretty. Forget dirty laundry, we’re talking a full inversion of the house. (Personally, i can’t wait until kids start videotaping their parents’ fights or otherwise disrupting the power dynamics – that’s going to make things super messy. ::shudder::)

I think 2007 is going to be spent working through issues of public life and privacy mixed together complicated power dynamics between generations and between producers and consumers. We’re going to see legal battles, big corporate power plays (a.k.a. "bullying"), and media panic coverage meant to distract us from Iraq. We’re going to see a disgusting increase in consumer advertising that will aim to saturate everything possible. (This is what you get for getting "old media" and "old business" online finally.) Personally, when i turn up the futurism dial, i wanna hide under a rock in 2007. Of course, it shall be interesting and i won’t be able to resist peeking.

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