Book review

The young and the digital: What migration to social-networking sites, games, and anytime, anywhere media means for our future, by S. Craig Watkins

Melanie E. S. Kohnen

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Facebook; Fan communities; Fandom; Gaming; MySpace; Race; Social media; World of Warcraft

Kohnen, Melanie E. S. 2011. The Young and the Digital: What Migration to Social-Networking Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future, by S. Craig Watkins [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 8.

S. Craig Watkins. The young and the digital: What migration to social-networking sites, games, and anytime, anywhere media means for our future. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. Paperback, $18 (272p) ISBN 978-0807006160.

[1] In The Young and the Digital, S. Craig Watkins examines young people's use of social media, especially Facebook, MySpace, and World of Warcraft. This focus on the place of online communities and social networks in contemporary culture makes The Young and the Digital a useful resource for scholars interested in fan communities, even though Watkins doesn't directly address fandom. The central argument of The Young and the Digital will certainly resonate with fan studies scholars: Watkins challenges the idea that increasing use of social media leads to social isolation. Instead, he argues, teenagers and college-age adults go online to maintain existing relationships with their peers. A multiyear study of social media use among young people provides compelling evidence to back up Watkins's claim. Indeed, Watkins's vivid description and analysis of research participants' social media usage constitutes one of the most successful aspects of The Young and the Digital.

[2] The Young and the Digital consists of nine chapters and a conclusion. The chapters fall into two broad categories: first, an examination of how Facebook, MySpace, and World of Warcraft shape young people's everyday life and relationships, and second, an analysis of how social media use challenges traditional ideas about education. The book concludes with a chapter that highlights the crucial part social media played in the campaign and election of Barack Obama. The appendix provides an overview of the study that forms the basis of the book, including information about surveys, long-form interviews, and range of participants. The book addresses a popular audience, which makes it a useful text in the undergraduate classroom. The Young and the Digital works well as an introductory text for many key issues surrounding social media, including privacy and ownership of information, and the formation of race, gender, and class identities in digital media.

[3] While Watkins make a compelling case for the value of online social networks that mirror off-line relationships, such as Facebook, he neglects to engage with online communities that draw a distinct line between online and off-line relationships, as many fandom communities do. Indeed, it seems that Watkins is, at best, ambivalent about the value of communities and relationships that exist primarily online. This oversight is both disconcerting and useful, because it demonstrates how research methods and objects of study shape scholarly investments and conclusions. The absence of an engagement with fan communities and practices in The Young and the Digital can serve as inspiration to fan studies scholars—an encouragement to look beyond one's own scholarly scope of interest to recognize the diverse use of digital media in contemporary culture.

[4] Scholars researching online communities and participatory culture will find Watkins's analysis of Facebook, MySpace and World of Warcraft (in chapters 1, 3, 4, and 5) most useful. In these chapters, Watkins lays out his argument about the ways in which social media strengthen already existing relationships among young people. With the help of numerous examples and quotes from long-form interviews, Watkins dismantles the persistent idea that participation in online communities necessarily leads to social isolation. The exact opposite is happening, Watkins argues: social media extend and complement off-line relationships.

[5] Watkins tackles the contrast between perceptions and practices of social media use most overtly in chapter 3, "The Very Well Connected." At numerous points, he makes statements like the following: "While it is common to describe young people as more comfortable in front of a screen rather than a real person, we simply do not see enough evidence to substantiate that claim…Our findings are consistent with those of other researchers: young people use the Web as a tool to engage and maintain real-world friendship and connections" (60). While most of the evidence supporting Watkins's claim that social media strengthen young people's connections with one another stems from interviews and surveys, he also includes compelling historical evidence. He compares the spread of social media to the introduction of the telephone into American households. Watkins convincingly demonstrates that anxieties about social media—loss of face-to-face interaction, for example—also surfaced when the telephone was still a new medium of communication. Watkins's historical contextualization of social media calls attention to the usefulness of linking contemporary and historical debates of media usage. For fan studies scholars, this model of looking to the past could help to connect current anxieties around fandom to long-standing patterns of concerns about female authorship, creativity, and engagement with media.

[6] Watkins also examines the racial and class differences that shape how young people use and imagine social media. As a key example, Watkins focuses on white college students' migration from MySpace to Facebook between 2004 and 2007. While MySpace used to be the most popular social networking site among high school and college students, Facebook gained popularity among young people because they perceived Facebook as more exclusive. By examining the language college students use to describe their perception of MySpace versus Facebook, Watkins finds they evaluate the differences between these social media platforms through a "racially colored lens" (99). He explains, "The frequent characterization of MySpace as 'trashy' and 'uneducated' underscores the widespread belief among collegians that MySpace is used chiefly by a community of digital undesirables—black, Latino, and angst-ridden teenagers—people they consistently describe as 'creepy'" (83). The comparison of young people's perception of MySpace and Facebook allows Watkins to challenge another Internet myth, namely, the idea that race, gender, class, and other markers of social identity don't matter online. In contrast to that perception, Watkins demonstrates these markers absolutely matter online: young people, especially white college students, maintain "digital gates" around their online spaces. The idea of "digital gates" might also be useful for fan studies scholars who study hierarchies within fan communities. Perhaps most importantly, Watkins's insights challenge the idea that fandom is for fun, and thus unrelated to the social divisions that shape both real life and the media texts with which fans interact.

[7] Throughout these chapters, one type of online community formation remains absent from Watkins's considerations: communities consisting of people who do not know or socialize with one another in their off-line lives. There are multiple possible reasons for this absence: perhaps the participants in Watkins's study didn't engage in those kinds of online communities in significant numbers; there is already a significant body of scholarship examining these types of communities, especially regarding online fandom; and a focus on Facebook and MySpace allows Watkins to drive home his point about the nonalienating effect of those social networks because of the overlap of online and off-line relationships. If Watkins did not encounter fandom communities on Facebook and MySpace, a question (and possibility for further scholarly research) arises around this absence: do the networks and address constructed by Facebook and MySpace not sync with the needs and interests of fan communities? Conversely, one might want to investigate what kinds of overlaps exist between the use of digital media among fans and more mainstream users.

[8] Other chapters, especially the chapter on World of Warcraft and on Internet addiction, suggest Watkins doesn't ascribe as much value to online-only relationships and communities. While Watkins concedes that social bonding and intense relationships are possible among players in virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, he ultimately deigns those relationships as temporary and fleeting. He also underlines that young people are most interested in online social networks that connect them to already existing friends, and only have a "lukewarm" interest in other virtual worlds and communities. At the end of his chapter on World of Warcraft, Watkins concludes, "For the majority of young people, the computer-mediated world is about being with real people rather than virtual personas, friends rather than strangers" (131). While this statement supports his earlier argument about the way in which social networks such as Facebook strengthen bonds among young people, it also implies that online-only communities don't consist of real people and real friendships.

[9] The chapter on Internet addiction allows Watkins's ambivalence about online-only communities to emerge to its fullest extent. Discussing the possibility of "Internet addiction" as a social and psychological phenomenon, Watkins only imagines two possibilities for online relationships that don't overlap closely with off-line relationships: either a detrimental engagement in which people are addicted to online worlds because they need to escape their miserable off-line lives, or a supposedly balanced engagement in which people recognize the value of off-line relationships and thus keep their online engagement to what Watkins considers a healthy degree (and possibly include friends or partners in their online explorations). The possibility of having close online ties without jeopardizing off-line relationships or neglecting school and work obligations does not seem to occur to Watkins. Considering how staunchly Watkins rejects the idea that online social networks lead to social isolation, Watkins's failure to recognize the intimate and lasting connections that can form in online-only communities is disappointing.

[10] Despite its shortcomings, The Young and the Digital offers a compelling picture of the many ways in which young people interact with digital media. The simultaneously wide and limited scope of the book demonstrates that the cultural practices and communities forming around digital media are plentiful and scattered, but that scholarship of digital cultures is often compartmentalized. In addition to providing a nuanced study of one culture, The Young and the Digital also serves as inspiration to draw connections among seemingly disconnected or contradictory aspects of online communities and interactions.