v22 #4 Little Red Herrings: A “Wall” by Any Other Name Remains Equally Insipid?

by Mark Y. Herring (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University) herringm@winthrop.edu

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For those who keep up with such things, it now appears that the whole social network craze is, well, a little forced, postured, and otherwise created out of thin air. It’s not unlike the so-called “HPOA Girl” who quit her job using a dry-erase board and caused an Internet sensation. Jay Leno, Steven Colbert, “Good Morning America,” et al, all wanted her on board. Everyone shook their heads in a knowing way: we hear you sister, and we wish we had done that. We all discovered that it was all postured from the beginning by a Website known for its antics (http://www.TheChive.com). Then came the news that Wikipedia really was trying to fix its quality issues; but amid all that work, many young people didn’t really believe it to be that reliable anyway. “Our goal,” said co-founder Jimmy Wales in an Ad Tech conference in November last year, “is to make Wikipedia as high-quality as possible. Britannica or better quality is the goal,” he said. While the online encyclopedia is much better than it was, it still has “issues.” So much so, that in May of this year, it began to look to experts for contributions by teaming up with universities. Openness is not the enemy of quality, of course, but it may make it harder to achieve without the intervention of those who know what they’re talking about.

Pew informed us early this (http://bit.ly/cQdgi3) year that “kids” don’t blog anymore, and it’s likely they never did. Only 14% of tweens and teens (12-17 years of age) still blog, down from 25% just four years ago. Apparently blogging is an “old person’s” task. The same Pew study points out that young people may well be “sick” of Twitter, and as for Facebook, they all have one but just aren’t that much into it anymore. Add to all this, the datum that the so-called “online generation” really isn’t as savvy as we thought. The “digitals natives” are not necessarily techsavvy. The tech-savvy folks are 30-something, not 20 something. Digital natives are more likely to attend the “University of Google” for everything, regardless of its success or lack thereof (http://bit.ly/bvXGIM). While working on another project I ran across some data that might surprise readers about the “age” of the so-called social networking era.

According to Royal Pingdom in a study done earlier this year (http://bit.ly/bPpWOj), it would appear that the average social networking user is a geezer, or she may as well be. In a study of 19 social networking sites, fully one quarter are 35-44, if you stretch that to 55, that age bracket accounts for nearly 45% of all users. And the female pronoun above is not merely for the sake of political correctness: more women than men use social networks.

It doesn’t end there, either. The social network one uses correlates to one’s age. If you have a Bebo account, you’re probably 17 years of age or younger. On the other hand, if you have a Facebook or Twitter account, you are likely to be 35 years of age, or older. The average age of a Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Delicious, LinkedIn or Classmates user is thirty-eight, or older. Put your teeth back in. Members of the last two in the list are likely to be over 44 years of age. I SAID, MEMBERS OF THE LAST … okay, you get the picture. Let me hasten to add that of the 19 social networking-type sites examined in this study, not one site had 18-24 year olds as the dominant age group. Part of that is surely because the age bracket spans 7 years and not 10, as the other bracket snapshots do. But part of it must be because many of those that age are simply not on these sites, and this list contains the most popular ones floating about in cyberspace. I’m not saying that teens are not using these sites. Of course they are. But the sites are predominantly populated by many who have eyes near, at, or over 40.

Yes, yes, I know. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. But it does cause one to ponder the meaning behind the numbers. You’ll note, as did I, that not one of the ages mentioned is likely to be in college. Twentyeight year olds are very likely to be employed … and still living at home. But 40+ year olds really are likely to be in the workforce and living on their own. We hear a great deal these days about reaching out to youth and going where they are. It would appear that where they are isn’t necessarily online. Getting to them may not be as easy as we thought.

It also raises the question of just how effective such sites are for the age group we’re hoping to reach. Many libraries, including the one in which I work, have Facebook and Twitter accounts. In fact, I am, as much as anyone, one of the reasons why we have those accounts. But from recent studies, it appears getting at the age group we want may not be as easy as pointing and clicking. It may also mean that making your library online “hip” is very effective if your students are 35 or older. If they are between the ages of 18 and 22 years of age — the age of most college students — perhaps not so much. It also may have something to say about moving too much of the teaching apparatus to the social networking arena until we are sure those we hope to teach will have found that arena after all. (Maybe they can “Google” us?)

More studies will have to be done and will have to come to the same conclusions as these before I am willing to saw off the social networking limb from the tree of knowledge. Still, it is enough to make me ask one small but seemingly important question:

If social networking users are all geezers (or thereabouts), who are we doing all this for?

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