Redefining Friendship

By: Lydia Kim, Lisa Asai, Courtney Chang, and Kristen Park

The online conversation above may trigger some adolescent memories, as it illustrates a common struggle experienced by many teens and preteens who grew up in the MySpace era — drama that was started or heightened by technology and social media. Even in the context of today’s society, social media plays a significant role in creating drama among family, friends, and peers that starts online and manifests in person. This is an attribute of the role of media in how friendships are formed and developed — a topic that is thoroughly addressed in the book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, otherwise known as HOMAGO. Focusing on the United States, the book provides an academic account of how young people’s use of digital media and networks have become deeply embedded within our everyday lives and how we communicate with friends. This book mainly focuses on the relationship between teens and digital media within different subcategories including work, families, and creative production.

The authors of the book conducted ethnographic research for three years to provide specific examples on how media has become an integral part in the lives of today’s teens growing up in the U.S.. As a group of four students from a Communication course at UC San Diego, we’ll be focusing on the chapter on friendship. From the examples of this chapter, as well as personal examples from our classmates, we’ve been able to identify certain claims made by the book that many students in our class agree with as well as those that we feel are outdated, at least for many of us in the class.

It’s important to note that our class is not an accurate representation of the youth population on which the book is based upon. However, as a collective body, we’ve found that the students in our class share many similar thoughts and experiences. For the most part, our class finds the content of the friendship chapter to be relatable and accurate in regards to our personal experiences with media technologies, but there are certain discrepancies.

We’d like to highlight the importance of the environment in which we were raised and how that changes our dependency on and interaction with media, as well as the developments in technology that have redefined certain norms that may have existed when the book was first published.

It’s evident that many teens use social media as a way to deepen existing friendships as well as to socialize with them. The book mentions how teens are usually restricted and limited to interact with their friends in person due to lack of transportation, lack of public space to socialize and the pressure of surveillance from the adult community. Therefore, teens have started using new media as a way to connect with their friends whenever they want to with unlimited boundaries. Most of our group, as well as the majority of the class, related to this scenario because we realize that we did use social media to stay in touch with our friends and stay in the social loop. However, we have come to the realization that the environment we grew up in holds a strong influence on our participation in social media and technological engagement.

For example, one student in our class grew up in a small town in North Shore of Oahu and didn’t find social media necessary to keep in touch with her friends, since she had access to them in person.

“The local community was filled with like-minded individuals who knew everyone and thrived off of the environment. There was rarely a time you didn’t run into someone you knew or your parents knew.”

She was also constantly moving back and forth between her divorced parents’ homes and actively participating in school activities and sports, so she didn’t have time to develop an interest to maintain a social media presence. She attended a high school in the city where her mother lived, rather than in her hometown, because of the better education system in the city. Her high school friends actively participated in social networking and eventually pressured her to join social media sites. As she wrote,

“I was immersed in this environment not by choice.”

She engaged with her friends quite differently in both environments — one revolving around social networking (the city) and the other revolving around spending time together doing outdoor activities, which she enjoyed a lot more. Even after lots of exposure to the latest technologies and use for social networking with her “town friends,” this medium didn’t act as the core to her social engagement with her friendship groups. It’s not that her small hometown lacked a social media presence, nor did her town friends engaged less in hanging out with friends, but they hung out in different ways because they engaged in different lifestyles. As she noted about her town friends,

“We all had iPhones, duh!”

Her adolescent experience in the small town focused less on media technologies as the source to her social engagement and the ways in which she formed relationships because of the close-knit community she grew up in as an adolescent.

One of the members of our group, Lisa, also didn’t fully experience the purpose of social media as a means to socialize with friend groups just like our other classmate who grew up in Oahu. The chapter doesn’t directly address how significant the influence of the environment was to technological use. She grew up in Japan and had moved to the U.S. right when she started her teen years. Lisa attended a small private elementary and middle school in Japan, where homework assignments didn’t require computers. Technological devices were also not present on campus, with the exception of televisions. Mobile phones and other devices such as digital cameras weren’t allowed to be brought to school. By growing up in a non-digital environment with strict rules, Lisa never had the chance to develop a connection with digital media. After moving to the U.S. in 8th grade, she experienced a technological culture shock in one of her classes because she was required to use a computer for research.

Other students in the class were researching while secretly chatting on Facebook. This was the first moment Lisa ever saw Facebook and she was surprised at how engrossed her entire class was with the website.

“I saw people using Facebook during class, but I had no idea what it was at the time, so I embarrassingly asked the girl sitting next to me. She seemed surprised that I had never heard of Facebook, and explained to me what it was. The girl showed me some of its exciting features and told me to make an account.”

Just as with the classmate from Oahu, Lisa didn’t use social media as her main way of connecting with her friends because her environment allowed her to engage with them in person. It was only after being exposed to technology in high school that they began seeing the use for social media, so their interactions online were mostly obligatory rather than by choice.

In addition to the lack of conversation on the significance of the environment in a teen’s reliance on social media, we feel as though there’s also a need to take into account the technological changes that have taken place since the publication of HOMAGO. One aspect of the chapter that we found to change over time was the idea of meeting strangers online. The book gives an example of how a girl was “labeled as a freak” because she turned to social media to make friends. Creating connections through social media was seen as a taboo subject because the process was seen as dangerous and social media was typically used to turn acquaintances into friendships, not to find friendships with strangers. The individuals who chose to search for connections outside of their peers were usually people who felt isolated and wanted to look beyond their social circles.

The chapter gave an example of how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teens would build relationships with strangers online because they often didn’t have the same resources available in their immediate communities. A student in our class identified with this claim and discussed how he ventured to websites like DowneLink, Adam4Adam, and Grindr to meet other members of the LGBT community in high school. Yet, he was very cautious to not explicitly link his profile to himself and was careful about who he became friends with because of all the social stigmas and dangers associated with meeting people online.

Fast forward a few years and times have changed drastically.

Isolated teens are no longer treated as social pariahs for making friends online because the act of friending strangers has become normal, at least for us. People from all kinds of backgrounds, sexual orientations, and interests now appear to be turning to new applications like Tinder and OkCupid to create connections with strangers through social media.

Despite the rarity of friendships between strangers mentioned in the book, we found that the taboo of meeting and befriending strangers online has become more common and accepted over time and as we have gotten older. From our experience, we know several people who consistently use these applications invented for the sole purpose of bringing strangers together. One such application is Tinder, a social media platform that helps you connect with new and interesting people located in your area to create valuable friendships. This new casual practice of using an application that was created specifically to meet strangers online would come as a shock to our younger selves. Internet friending strangers used to be highly discouraged when we were younger, but it’s becoming more of a norm among our peers as well as our family members that are currently attending high school.

For instance, one of our housemates met her current boyfriend through Tinder. In the context of the book, she would’ve been described as “weird” for making friends online, but the act of meeting strangers is now more accepted and common. HOMAGO does not address the changing culture of meeting strangers online as it was written years before the development of apps like Tinder, so we feel as though the book is outdated in this aspect.

From our experience, the environment we live in significantly impacts our level of participation in the digital world. Through social media, we are able to maintain connections and create new friendships. Overall, we found that most of the social media practices and claims discussed in the friendship chapter were accurate, but it’s important to note the changes that are developing due to changes in technology.

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