Logging out? Why young people love to hate Facebook

Young people can be both ambivalent and positive about Facebook, often at the same time, contrary to conventional wisdom. shutterstock

Researchers, journalists writing about research, and young people themselves have been writing about the perceived decline of Facebook for a while now. Young people are leaving Facebook in droves; Facebook is no longer hip with the kids; Facebook is dead.

As 19-year-old Andrew Watts described it, Facebook is:

… an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.

The great tension in Watts’ account of his own use of Facebook – which, as social media researcher danah boyd has already pointed out, appears to be a privileged one – is that while Facebook is dead, it’s also essential to have.

If you don’t have Facebook, that’s even more weird and annoying.

While it might no longer be “cool”, young people still use Facebook. It is still very much at the heart of the social web, even if new forms of social media are emerging around it. According to one of the authors’ (Ariadne’s) research, more than 90% of 16-29-year-olds are on Facebook.

So why do young Facebook users love to hate it, even when it’s part of their everyday lives?

The parental gaze

Facebook is not “cool” because it is now widely used by parents and other adults, who – perhaps unwittingly, perhaps very deliberately – subject young users to the “familial gaze”. It makes sense that young people will want space for socialising and hanging out free of adult supervision and control.

This is certainly not new, but social media does complicate our understanding of presence. Presenting an “appropriate” version of oneself online, where multiple audiences and contexts are collapsed into a singular “performative medium”, is complicated.

In one of the authors’ (Brady’s) previous research on when and why young Australian social media users moved from MySpace to Facebook, he found a group of participants in his qualitative sample who were still using MySpace back in 2010, two years after Facebook had overtaken it as the dominant social network site in Australia. One 16-year-old male participant explained:

… because I have family and stuff on there, I make sure I filter what I put on Facebook. I don’t want aunties seeing some things. It could be completely different to what I actually meant. So I’ll leave that for MySpace. Facebook I’m a bit more conservative.

In other words, some of what is shared with friends online relies on a pre-existing context, like in-jokes or references only friends would understand. For people outside that context – parents, aunties, teachers and basically anyone outside his network – the actual meanings behind disclosures were at risk of being decontextualised on Facebook.

Yet, for other young people, maintaining familial networks on Facebook is crucial, and not something to be avoided. For another of Brady’s participants, a 15-year-old female, Facebook served as an important link to her sisters after the death of her father. She explains why she started using Facebook:

My dad passed away … I got my boyfriend … and I sort of just became more family-oriented. I moved onto Facebook where they all were. I don’t live with most of my sisters.

In Brady’s current research on sustained Facebook use among twentysomethings, participants have also described the growing importance of using Facebook to stay in touch with family as they undertake rites of passage like moving out of home, entering into further education and employment, travel and building families of their own.

And yet, these positive stories about connectivity often run alongside and in tension with ambivalent accounts of Facebook being banal and a waste of time. Facebook isn’t just about friends and family though.

Facebook and civic life

It is clear that Facebook is important for young people to remain connected to their social networks; they continue to make use of its functionality.

Ariadne’s research found that Facebook is also a place for young people’s civic participation. Those actively involved in organisations or causes use Facebook to have political discussion, share information and organise events.

Facebook’s functionality means it is easily used in these contexts, often replacing traditional means of activist communication such as group meetings, postering and email lists. One young political party activist said:

… these days, you assume that everyone has social media as a given. That’s your go-to mechanism.

A young GLBTI activist said:

There’s no other way to invite 100 people to an event at once apart from Facebook. And also to remind me where I need to be at what time, it’s very useful.

Despite the ubiquity of Facebook and the usefulness of its simple organising affordances, many young activists in Ariadne’s project also felt unease and ambivalence about such things as the credibility of information shared and the erosion of opportunities for in-person political debate and action.

Today, political protests such as 2014’s March in March are organised on social media sites like Facebook. AAP/Peter Boyle

In Ariadne’s current project, online discussion groups and surveys of ordinary young people highlighted that most relied on Facebook for information about political news, but they were reluctant to share their opinions or post comments. When asked why, many were concerned about disagreements or being wrong. Others believed that social media needed to be kept as purely a social space, not a political one.

Our young participants were also very aware of who their Facebook audience was, expressing similar reservations to Brady’s research participants about the presence of family who may be more disapproving than their friends. For example, one young male said:

I do care who can see my opinions because even though I might have my own opinions about an issue, I don’t want to look bad in front of, let’s say, my aunts that I’ve friended on Facebook if they had an opposite opinion. I probably wouldn’t respond if I agreed or disagreed unless I’m close to that person.

Importantly, this post led to a lengthy discussion among four participants on how they actively used privacy settings to control who saw what they said on politics, and that Facebook was better than in-person conversations because you could post links to where information was from. One young woman pointed out:

Often, when there is a disagreement when face-to-face, I have to simply wonder where they’re getting their data or if they’re just making it up because it sounds good to go with the point they’re making.

Most young people use Facebook but they do not all view it in the same way. As boyd has cogently pointed out, often the views of the economically and technically privileged are given prominence.

In Ariadne’s data, politically engaged young people who were not from a privileged background were the most optimistic about using Facebook for politics. It is their voices in the conversation quoted above.

Social media and diversification

Facebook is just one piece in a broader social media landscape, which includes Reddit, Snapchat, Tumblr and Instagram. Each form of social media comes with its own set of affordances and audiences. But no matter what the platform, we need to be wary of all-encompassing generalisations in understanding young people’s use of social media in their familial and civic lives.

Instead, we should seek to focus on diversity in experiences. Young people can be both ambivalent and positive about Facebook (often at the same time), pointing out its wide array of uses.

At least for now, Facebook will continue to be the site young people love to hate, but can’t easily leave behind.