How youth engage through online social networks is at the core of identity formation among young people

The role of contemporary media, specifically mobile phones and social networking media have proven to be integral in forming identities of South African youth. Specific reference will be made to arguments put forth by Danah Boyd (2008) about ‘networked publics’ in her research on why youth love social network sites and the role networked publics play in teenage social life.

Boyd has specifically observed urban American youth; therefore, research undertaken by Tanja Bosch will be used in light of the South African context. Castells work on mobile youth culture will also be used to discuss social networking media’s effects on youth identity formation and young people’s existing social relations.

This paper will argue in line with Danah Boyd’s argument that ‘how youth engage through social network sites today provides long-lasting insights into identity-formation, status negotiation, and peer-to-peer sociality’ (2008) as this new culture is at the very core of the processes of identity formation among young people (Castells, 2007).

New media has a fundamental role in contemporary society. Information technology has developed dramatically and is now a part of everyday discourse. However, Manuel Castells has noted that unequal internet access is a moving target. Just as soon as the huddled masses have access to a phone-line internet; the global elites have already escaped into a bigger circle of cyberspace (Murdock & Golding, 2005). Therefore, the digital divide causes divides amongst internet access on a regular basis.

While most youth may have access to the internet in some form, for example, via cell phones, or at schools, only the privileged have access to uncapped ADSL. Hence, we can see the difference in how often teenagers are able to access sites like Facebook or MySpace for example. Naturally, this means that teens with frequent access may update their Facebook profile picture and status, participate in quizzes, and lurk on friend’s profiles, whereas teens with limited access may only use Facebook to check up on what’s occurring with peers or their notifications.

Mxit is a South African based instant messaging application that runs on GPRS/3G cellphones with java support. It allows real time chatting in one-on-one conversations or in a chat room at a significantly cheaper rate than SMS messaging (Bosch, 2008). Compared to sites like Facebook, it is way more accessible for South African youth as it a cheap form of two-way communication via mobile phones. Technological goods require regular updating and replacement, therefore this disadvantages groups with limited spending power and cumulatively benefits wealthier groups (Murdock & Golding, 2005).

So we can see the ongoing expenses of a personal computer with internet compared to a mobile phone. Discussions of the digital divide typically emphasise the gaps in access to information technology (Kvasny & Sawyer, 2002) in terms of financial restraints. The digital citizen is key to current conceptions of digital democracy and education, but before accessing these technologies we must first be technologically or digitally literate (Luke, 2002: 178). However, it is important to note that people with learning or physical (dis)abilities are also excluded from participating. Therefore, to a certain extent uneducated youth, technologically or digitally uneducated youth and youth with learning (dis)abilities and youth with physical (dis)abilities are limited or restricted in their participation in social networking realms.

The consolidation of peer groups around shared values and codes of meaning for the members of the group leads to the emergence of a collective identity. Youth culture(s) are signalled by the presence of these codes. For instance, a shared language, as in the practice of texting in wireless communication and in the adoption of new forms of expression in the written language (Castells, 2007). ‘Publics’ are arenas for the formation and enactment of social identities (Boyd, 2008). Each individual’s social world is formed around his/her networks, and evolves with the composition of the network. When a network is common to a number of its members, it becomes a peer group. In other words, networked sociability leads both to an individual-centred network, specific to the individual, and to peer-group formation, when the network becomes the context of behaviour for its participants (Castells, 2007).

Castells identifies the youth as characterised by individuals who desire independence, community and connectivity, personal identity, entertainment and ‘coolness’, and he finds that communication is imperative in the formation and maintenance of young people’s collective identity (Castells, 2007).

Social network sites allow publics to gather and this could consist of all people across all space and time. However, the sites themselves also distinguish between public and private, where public means profiles are publicly visible to all, and private means that is restricted to friends only (Boyd, 2008). Boyd sees networked publics as ‘the spaces and audiences that are bound together through technological networks (i.e. the Internet, mobile networks, etc.). She views networked publics as one type of mediated public; the network mediates the interactions between members of the public (Boyd, 2008).

In unmediated environments, the boundaries and audiences of a given public are constrained by geography and temporal collocation; the audience is restricted to those present in a limited geographical radius at a given time. However, in mediated technologies the potential audience is not as structurally defined and the context and audience is often unknown (Boyd, 2008). For example, one’s Facebook status update is not limited to being viewed only when it appears on a friend’s homepage but can also be viewed days or even weeks later if searched. The ability to conduct an online search changes things between offline occurrences and online occurrences so private matters become public matters over an increased period of time. So without realising, many young people may communicate publicly without realising these implications.

Castells hypothesis is that in mobile communication, there is a youth culture that finds it to be an adequate form of expression and reinforcement (2007). Young people constitute the fastest growing segment of mobile communication users and are therefore imperative in analysing this medium. Mobile communication has diffused relatively quickly among the youth who have embraced this technology with open arms as they are more open to new technology and have the ability to appropriate it for their own uses.

Mobile telephony has now become a sign of self-recognition among this group. For example, we find that teens customise their mobile phones with diamonds, different covers, ringtones and wallpapers. It has been observed that there is a trend within youth culture to personalise behaviour. Within affirming collective identity there is also a strengthening of individual identity (Castells, 2007).

From my own observations with Mxit I have noted that many teens invite and begin socialising with fellow teens that they do not know, via Mxit. This is particularly different to ‘real’ life situations as it is not typical to find teens chatting up strangers as often as they do in an online space. I have also noted that many teens get so engrossed with chatting that they become oblivious to their environments and seem to ‘escape’ into this network environment. This often leads to unsociable behaviour that affects relationships and conversations with and between people in ‘real’ life. So we find that participants are both there (literally) and somewhere else simultaneously.

Social network sites have developed significant cultural resonance in a brief period of time. They form an important part of teen social life as they are a space for teens to write their lives into being using contemporary technological media. Social network sites provide teens with a space to work out identity and status, to make sense of cultural cues, and to negotiate public life. Social network sites are a category of community sites that have profiles, friends, and comments. Most social network sites have privacy features that allow participants to restrict who can see what. Also, most social network sites require approval for two people to be friends (Boyd, 2008).

Since friend connections are publicised, the need to befriend people becomes socially required more so than in ‘real’ life as friends can see who you are friends with. Hence, there is additional pressure on teens to befriend more people in online spaces so as to fit in more in a virtual space. These sites support sociality among pre-existing friends as it provides a way to maintain connections with friends.

In a sense, to merely ‘fit into’ society one has to have (preferably frequent) access to the internet in order to partake in social events, social circles and in order to stay updated. Like Skyler says to her mom, ‘If you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist’ (Boyd, 2008). Hence, we can see the huge emphasis or pressure placed on teenagers to be part of an online community and part of online social networks in order to fit into offline social relations. Because everything is so publicised; relationships with people, comments and profiles, teenagers may reveal more information than they normally would in person. This blurs the boundaries between private and public dichotomies as the private becomes publicly viewable. Public often implies that the audience is unknown and that strangers may bear witness (Boyd, 2008).

Holmes and Russell (1999) state that new interactive and wearable technologies have brought a tectonic change in the formation of adolescent identity. They have found that these new technologies move adolescents away from the sphere of influence of traditional socialisation structures while providing an increasing range of socialising and identification options, thus contributing to the crisis of boundaries (Holmes and Russell, 1999). Young people tend to live with and under the supervision of parents, yet at the same time, their desire for independence and privacy increases. Wireless technology provides a way to resolve this tension between parents and children (Castells, 2007).

It is a cross-cultural fact that teenagers primarily use mobile phones to organise their everyday lives and to maintain social relationships. They do this autonomously, and beyond parental control. Mobile phones allow teens distance from family and a closer connection with friends. It is a source of empowerment for teens. However, the availability of wireless communication technology modifies but does not eliminate the power relations between parents and children. While giving parents the security of a lifeline to their children, wireless phones also provide children with increased levels of privacy and independence (Castells, 2007).

Since youth have very little access to public spaces, they find comfort in virtual spaces like Facebook, Mxit and MySpace. Since there are restrictions to public life for young people it is difficult for young people to be socialised into society. Since social interactions in public life are part of what help youth grow (Boyd, 2008) social networking sites provide a viable alternative for teens to access public spaces.

Teenagers flock to social networking sites as it is ‘the place to be’. It is a space to communicate and to maintain contact with peers. Not being a part of a social network may make one feel marginalised and left out. Teens use mobile phones because they enable new kinds of social contact and also because they are limited in access to adult forms of social organisation. While they may have lots of spare time, they are constantly under the supervision or in the presence of adults; they are also limited in terms of mobility (Castells, 2007). Social networks break down these boundaries for young people as they can access these social spaces at any given time and at any place.

In expressing themselves in online social network environments, teens work through impression management and identity issues. There is much critical social development taking place in these networking environments (Boyd, 2008: 127), perhaps even more so for some teens than unmediated environments. For example, teens who are afraid of publicly expressing themselves due to shyness may find a social networking environment as liberating. However, participants also choose what information to put forward (Boyd, 2008). This makes relationships more tricky as participants can be easier deceived. For example, a paedophile can portray an image of being a young girl or boy for example. Also, digital bodies are fundamentally coarser; making misinterpretations of what someone is saying more prevalent (Boyd, 2008) thus sparking controversy and dispute more so than would occur in face-to-face communication.

In Tanja Bosch’s ethonographic research on the use of Facebook by UCT student, she finds that the main ways in which UCT students use Facebook is for social networking and seeking support from peers; community building on campus, and student activism (Bosch, 2009). While Facebook appears to be fairly widespread on UCT, few students knew of university friends who were not registered on the network (Bosch, 2009). This exemplifies the fact that young people not participating on this network go unnoticed generally. They tend to fall off the radar. The same goes in terms of mobile phones.

The “new digital divide” developing between young people with cellphones and those without is seen in concrete form, as inclusion in social networks is frequently tied to ownership of a means of wireless communication (Castells, 2007). Therefore, not having access to a mobile phone excludes some teens from mediated social networking and thus renders them invisible in this space that has become so fundamental to teen life.

From my own observations I have found that online friendships are very different to offline friendships. For example, I always wish people on their birthdays as Facebook notifies me. However, when I see the very same person on the street, we may even past each other as we just do not have a ‘real’ relationship. Many online friendships do not really transcend into unmediated environments. With social networking sites people have many ‘friends’ but in reality that does not tend to transcend into unmediated environments as people will perhaps only have a few close friends. I find that there is also a greater need to be popular in an online space as it is so publicised. This publicity and visibility magnifies everything, people’s communications, relationships and who they know. Therefore, we find that there is greater pressure for approval and to ‘fit in’ in an online environment.

In face-to-face communication there are certain settings or contexts which dictate the rules of engagement. With online social networking environments there are numerous contexts all blended into one. For example, on an individual’s Facebook he/she will have family members and friends from different segments of their social life. Hence, the rules for engagement are complicated as identity is fluid from one context to the next. Also, in face-to-face communication there are signifiers in conversations such as hand signals, gestures and face expressions.

Mediated environments like MySpace, Mxit and Facebook makes two-way communication complicated in the sense that what is said can be misinterpreted or misunderstood as it is a text without any visual cues. However, diverse social environments help people develop critical social skills because they force individuals to re-evaluate the signals that they take for granted (Boyd, 2008). In this sense, communication technology helps teens to engage in a different way without bodily cues and gestures and yet still maintain healthy relationships.

Despite the fact that every teen that is signed up with an online social network has their own profile on a site like Facebook for example; there are still societal pressures to fit into the status quo. So despite the virtual environment, teens still tend to present themselves in socially appropriate ways so as to ‘fit in’. Because mediated environments allow individuals to signal meaningful cues about themselves, (Boyd, 2008: 128) social interaction in ‘real’ life is affected as important physical cues are not practiced or learnt. Therefore, teens growing up in this era of online networking may face difficulty in ‘real’ life communication and social interaction.

It can be reiterated that ‘how youth engage through social network sites today provides long-lasting insights into identity-formation, status negotiation, and peer-to-peer sociality’ (Boyd, 2008) as this new culture is at the very core of the processes of identity formation among young people (Castells, 2007). Also, despite moral panics and numerous disadvantages in the change in the formation of youth identities due to social networking sites, there are numerous advantages which need to be emphasised as social networking sites are here to stay and have begun to form the basis for social interaction for South African youth. Social networking sites are imperative in youth identity construction and socialisation into society and public life.


  1. Your post is really good providing good information.. I liked it and enjoyed reading it. Keep sharing such important posts.

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