The Social Paradox of Social Network Sites

On: September 30, 2009
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About Harro Heijboer
In 2008 I graduated from Rotterdam University of Applied Science, after a course in Communication and Multimedia Design. In 2009 I finished the pre-master Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam and currently I'm a master student Media and Culture with special interest in Copyright, Net Neutrality and Software Studies. Beside my very active schedule as a student I'm working as an independent freelance new media producer, specialized in technical web applications, and 2 days a week I'm appointed as Community Manager for a medium sized hardware producer in Rotterdam. In my spare time I'm politically active for the Socialist Party in The Netherlands on all kind of subjects and on the Internet as independent voice against Copyright and pro Net Neutrality.


When I was young, although with 26 years of age I’m not old, so let’s say; when I was younger, most of the time when I wasn’t in school I was playing with my friends on the streets. Playing street football (soccer for our American friends), organizing all kind of crazy clubs, building tree houses in the woods behind my house or simply avoiding to much sun by hanging in the shadow with my friends. I think I managed to maintain this until I was 18 years old or so, after that I was just hanging around with my friends; talking, walking and just having fun.

Nobody had any problems with us hanging around or walking through a street. Sure, I misbehaved sometimes, but the neighbors just called my parents or in some cases the police, but most of the time I got off with a firm lecture or a punishment from my parents. In our contemporary society this as changed dramatically. Youth that is hanging around in city centers, shopping malls or even football courts are nowadays being labeled as small criminals. When misbehaving the police is called and in most cases they instantly get a fine (at least that is how the policy is in the city where I live; Rotterdam). In some streets or popular places for youth, like shopping malls, it is prohibited for them to gather with more than 3 friends. Mosquito’s, a device that is making a very high frequency noise, needs to make sure that youth is moving to other locations in the city.

Youth is no longer welcome on the streets, especially in larger cities in the Netherlands. They are ‘encouraged’ with all kind of measurements to stay indoors. “Teens are increasingly monitored and many have been pressured out of public spaces such as streets, parks, malls, and libraries” (Buckingham in Boyd 2008). In my view our Youth has been degraded to second class citizens.

It’s no news that, because of this, Teens are seeking for a new social places, and that social media are functioning as one of these new social places. Danah Boyd (2008) describes how Social Networking Sites are being used as new places to ‘hang out’ and socially interact with people they know from school or sport clubs. In ‘Mobile Phones, Japanese Youth, and the Re-Placement of Social Contact’, Mizuko Ito (2005) points out to us how the Japanese Youth is using mobile phones to work around the system. How they manage to have social interaction through social media with their friends while being enclosed by institutional limitations. According to Danah Boyd, social media are used to extend Teens social network. “Social Media mirror, magnify, and extend everyday social worlds” (Boyd, 2008). I would like to argue that SNSs are not extending social interaction but are replacing social interaction. Not in a way that friends online are different but in a way that offline social places have been replaced by digital social places.

The consequence of this is that social control at these places is almost gone. Parents don’t have a clue what their teens are doing online. Cyberbullying, child grooming and Internet addiction are just a few examples of incidents that occur on social network sites. Even though it is just a very small percentage of the Teens that actually experience these practices it is being addressed as a problem that is larger than that of offline social places. New political policy is being made or is already made to prevent these practices from happening. Even though it is a good initiative to prevent negative influences to penetrate social network sites, it is being done with the idea that social network sites are something bad. Policy is made with the idea that social network sites are not the place for Teens to be. Again our Youth is being ‘encouraged’ not to go there.

This is the social paradox of social network sites. On the one hand policy is preventing Teens to handout on streets, in shopping malls or sport courts which forces them to find another social place to ‘handout’, on the other hand are Social Network Sites being submerged in a bath of negative approaches, trying to prevent Teens from exposing themselves on these social places.

My statement about this is not based on some random thoughts. We have seen it before, at least in the Netherlands. Teens are being driven away from social places, starting their own. For a while, especially in small town in the Netherlands, teens started to form groups around sheds. Sheds standing in the middle of farmland where they could hang out without interference. Lack of social control on these places lead these Teens to turn these sheds into full-service bars. They started drinking until some started to pass out and went into a coma. ‘Coma-Drinking’ (coma zuipen) is a word in Dutch language that has been deducted from these incidents. Policy and new control needs to prevent this from happening. In some cases these sheds have been removed, which led the teens to search for a new social place.

I do not want to reduce the social network sites as only a place where teens go because they are no longer welcome in offline social places. I do however question how social network sites would have looked like if we would not have these social problems with teens? Personally I would like to see social network sites as an extension of our normal social place and our social interaction. However, with current development in society and our way of looking at teens I can only conclude that one reason for using social network sites is as an escape from offline social places.

I wonder what this has as effect for the future. Are these new generations going to have online dating instead of offline dating? Are they going to have cybersex when they are ready for it or will offline social contact still be possible? I’m not arguing that this is right or wrong, but what we do need to think about is what we want as a society. Do we want our kids to have such a future or do we wish them to have the same development and cultivation like we had? When are we going to treat the next generation as the next generation instead of something that stands in the way of social development of our society? Social network sites are popular because they don’t judge their members. When are we, as a society, going to learn from social network sites?

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