WhatsApp with Facebook? The Ramifications of the New Teen Social Media Logic

The teen mass exodus from Facebook has been widely covered in the media (e.g. http://yhoo.it/1bokTvo). It’s real and the numbers don’t lie. Many teens today don’t care much about Facebook – not nearly as much as the teens of 5 years ago, when Facebook got big in Europe.

Also in Switzerland (where I live) many major news outlets covered the fact that teens don’t use Facebook at all or not very actively. According to these stories teens prefer WhatsApp. Especially the group chat option allows more privacy and better selectivity of audiences (context collapse can therefore be vastly avoided in WhatsApp). Next to WhatsApp, which is by far the most popular platform in Switzerland, other mobile applications, such as Instagram or Snapchat, have surmounted Facebook in popularity among teens.

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Let’s have a brief look at the key characteristics of the old and new champion. Facebook is more versatile and powerful than WhatsApp. It has almost everything computer-mediated communication can offer and works on a range of different devices (mobile, tablet, laptop etc.). WhatsApp, on the other hand, is very restricted and optimized for smartphones. That’s at the same time the big strength of WhatsApp: It keeps the user focused, is very easy to use, and has no distractions. Assumedly, it allows for more immediate and direct interaction. Now let’s look at the communicative affordances of the two. Facebook is tailored to semi-public, relatively large audiences – often several hundred “friends”. WhatsApp, by contrast, serves the needs of interpersonal communication or small group conversations.

What does it mean when many teens use WhatsApp instead of Facebook? Is it good or bad? I know, it’s both and it depends but today I want to stress the negative consequences.

  • Facebook is by far the most important social network site among adults. Once teens enter the workplace, start an apprenticeship or go to college, they will be confronted with Facebook over and over again. Having experience in using the platform, having made mistakes early on, having established a network at the time, and feeling comfortable in using Facebook are a big asset in such circumstances.
  • Facebook is the better curation tool. Due to its platform-versatility its less subject to data loss.
  • Facebook is the “more demanding” tool because of the large audiences most users have to manage. In this vein, Facebook is better than WhatsApp for developing “social capital management skills”. In later life, knowing your network and being context-specific and flexible might be very useful. If teens can learn this via Facebook early on it helps them in their adult lives.
  • Facebook offers more in terms of internationality. When teens go on holiday or get to know new people, it’s the better stay-in-contact instrument. It’s much easier to stalk acquaintances and keep informed about their whereabouts without becoming active themselves. Or in other words, Facebook is more information-rich.
  • Summed up, exaggerated a great deal and in the words of the infamous Alexandre Koyré, going from WhatsApp to Facebook is like a step “from the closed world to the infinite universe”. WhatsApp is a closed sphere, restricted to a inner circle of friends. Facebook is big, messy, confusing, overloaded with annoying commercials and bland status updates. It’s become hard if not impossible for many to separate the wheat from the chaff on Facebook. In the end, however, such an infinite universe has much to offer and is more thought-provoking than what happens in the closed WhatsApp world.

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My fear is that WhatsApp – especially in its group chat modus operandi – reinforces existing social structures and is more anti-intellectual and closed-world than Facebook, let alone Twitter (which is itself more stimulating, serendipity-enducing and “intellectual” than Facebook). Teens who acquire Facebook skills early on get more out of these skills later on in their lives than teens who acquire WhatsApp skills. It would be very interesting to check the social background of WhatsApp teens vs. Facebook teens and the developmental paths of both. If it turns out that WhatsApp teens are from lower socio-economic strata, it would be an interesting instance of the second level digital divide – where certain applications can reinforce social inequalities by their afforded communication practices.

In the end, the participatory potential of various social media differs A LOT: WhatsApp is at the lower end of the spectrum, Facebook somewhere in the middle (with a huge standard deviation, though), Twitter at the upper end. Finally, blogs, online communities as well as more collaborative forms of crowdproduction, such as crowdsourced art, occupy the top positions in terms of their participatory involvement. Information and communication technologies are heavily socially loaded. We should start to (empirically) investigate the specific social code and consequences of the new teen social media logic.

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