Although networks are still in their infancy, experts think they’re already creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinctions between online and real-world interactions. In fact, today’s young generation largely ignores the difference. Most adults see the Web as a supplement to their daily lives. They tap into information, buy books or send flowers, exchange apartments, or link up with others who share passions for dogs, say, or opera. But for the most part, their social lives remain rooted in the traditional phone call and face-to-face interaction.
The MySpace generation, by contrast, lives comfortably in both worlds at once. Increasingly, America’s middle- and upper-class youth use social networks as virtual community centers, a place to go and sit for a while (sometimes hours). While older folks come and go for a task, Adams and her social circle are just as likely to socialize online as off. This is partly a function of how much more comfortable young people are on the Web: Fully 87% of 12- to 17-year-olds use the Internet, vs. two-thirds of adults, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
In other words, kids are connecting to one another online. And when kids connect, no matter where they do it, they learn, just like we all do. And I’m going to guess that the things they are learning in these networks are more relevant to their lives than what they are learning in school. Not more important, but more relevant.
But here is the problem:
Meanwhile, the phenomenon of these exploding networks has companies clamoring to be a part of the new social landscape. News Corp. (NWS ) Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch has spent $1.3 billion on Web acquisitions so far to better reach this coveted demographic — $580 million alone for the July purchase of MySpace parent Intermix Media. And Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Accel Partners and Redpoint Ventures are pouring millions into Facebook and other social networks. What’s not yet clear is whether this is a dot-com era replay, with established companies and investors sinking huge sums into fast-growth startups with no viable business models. Facebook, barely a year old and run by a 21-year-old student on leave from Harvard, has a staff of 50 and venture capital — but no profits.
Still, consumer companies such as Coke, Apple Computer (AAPL ), and Procter & Gamble (PG ) are making a relatively low-cost bet by experimenting with networks to launch products and to embed their brands in the minds of hard-to-reach teens. So far, no solid format has emerged, partly because youth networks are difficult for companies to tap into. They’re also easy to fall out of favor with: While Coke, Sony (SNE ) Pictures Digital, and Apple have succeeded with MySpace, Buzz-Oven, and other sites, P&G’s attempt to create an independent network around a body spray, for one, has faltered so far.
These networks that kids are creating are prey not only to potential ne’er do wells, they’re prey to marketers who see them as little more than sales opportunities. Don’t think they’re not already infiltrating these networks in covert ways to manipulate the kids into buying their products. That’s a whole ‘nother literacy we need to teach. If this next snip doesn’t really scare you, you’re not paying attention:
What Lawson really likes about Buzz-Oven is how deeply it weaves into teens’ lives. Sure, the network reaches only a small niche. But Buzzers have created an authentic community, and Coke has been welcomed as part of the group. At a recent dinner, founder Holt asked a few Buzzers their opinions about the company. “I don’t know if they care about the music or they just want their name on it, but knowing they’re involved helps,” says Michael Henry, 19. “I know they care; they think what we’re doing is cool,” says Michele Barr, 21. Adds Adams: “They let us do our thing. They don’t censor what we do.”
Oy. Coke cares about me. What about my teachers?