We’ve all seen it and we all hate it. And by “we” I’ll go out on a limb and say pretty much anyone over 30. There they are, a group of teens hanging out, but somehow not hanging out. In fact the only thing they all seem to be sharing (besides proximity), is an appalling taste in fashion and significantly strengthened thumbs. So what gives? Do they portend the end of social cohesion, manners, and dare I say it, society as we know it?
Not so much.
They do however represent what will probably be the greatest generation gap like…ever. Why? Because they’re actually thinking and processing information differently than most of us. In the grand scheme of things imagine, if you will, a chart of the learning and communication process since the time of Og who one day figured out that sharpening the end of a stick was far more effective at bringing home the bacon than say, poking the enraged, carnivorous hog. Og then taught that skill to his kids, who taught it to theirs. Short of occasionally being bludgeoned into somnolence by someone wanting to show off his or her PowerPoint skills, the “Og” method of linear communication has mostly held true. But neither Og nor us (his unwitting acolytes) ever bargained for Steve Jobs, Google, Facebook and Twitter. Collectively, those entities have taken the roiling cauldron of data unleashed on us in 1992 by the world’s first web browser, Mosaic, and made it all so horribly intuitive.
What does this mean for those of us who still prefer wearing a watch on our wrists? Not much. There’s no real need to embrace any of the social media trends currently holding court in today’s ether (unless of course you have something to sell – a topic for another time). What it does mean for those being inculcated with it today is entirely different. Let’s go back to our group of teens.
They don’t seem to be talking to each other much less aware of their immediate surroundings. But in fact, studies show they are. The Digital Youth Project (the largest and most comprehensive study of young peoples’ internet use ever undertaken in the US) is a three-year ethnograph of kids’ online usage. In a nutshell, the stuff we believe they’re not doing (communicating effectively, building healthy relationships, etc.) they are in fact doing. But here’s the kicker, it’s only possible within a framework of hanging out, messing around and geeking out in that etherworld. That is to say, (quoting the author, Cory Doctorow) “all the ‘time-wasting’ social stuff kids do online is key to their explorations and education.”
To wit, this terrifyingly brave new world seems to be providing today’s kids with previously unimagined avenues for extending their social worlds, learning capabilities, and ultimately, their independence.
The research, by the way, is available to download in a succinct two-page summary , and a 55-page white paper. There’s also a full-length book called (no surprise) Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.
So the next time you see a gaggle of teens texting to their heart’s content, fear not – it doesn’t represent the end of society as you know it (bad fashion never having killed anyone); it does however represent something far more extraordinary - a whole new beginning.