"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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Crushes, flirting, and dating are a key aspect of teens' lives. While these nascent relationships often end almost as quickly as they begin, they play a significant role in how teens see themselves and others. Because MySpace is a hangout space for teenagers, aspects of their flirtation with and dismissal of potential partners takes place on the site. Given the public nature of these expressions, we can get a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of teen love. Furthermore, we can examine how technology supports pre-existing practices while complicating other aspects of relationship management. Not all of what takes place is pretty - the language, norms, and attitudes of teens can be shocking to adults, but they are a very real component of teen communication. In this fieldnote, i document one example of how love and breakups appear online.
When I met Michael (17) and Amy (16), they were together. Their relationship was also visible on both of their profiles. Amy wrote about how Michael "has my heart" and Michael's profile photo was of the couple embracing. His About Me section began with "I love my girlfriend AMY." They were in each other's Top 8 and they performed their love throughout the comments. A week later, Michael's profile proclaimed "I hate my stupid bitch ex girlfriend." His headline had also been changed to: "Michael is no longer fucking with stupid bitches." The photos were gone, the friendship deleted, and the comments erased. Amy had also obliterated the relationship thoughout her profile. He was removed from her friend list and the list of guys she called heroes. What appeared in the place of his name was "boyfriend" with a link to a new boy: Scott.
While Michael had written Amy into his bio, Scott proclaimed his love for Amy even louder. He had changed his name on his profile: "Scott + Amy" and his profile photo depicted the happy couple smooching. He had written two blogs: "I have fallen in love with Amy" and "Rawr! Amy is Awesome" Upon inspection, one contained a love poem written about Amy and the other contained a prose version of his feelings; Amy responded to these blogs with comments professing her love and other friends added approving words. Loving messages from the new couple peppered each other's profile. Scott wrote "I Love You" 200 times on Amy's profile, followed by "here is the translation... i love you too baby.."
Interestingly, the next few comments on Amy's page came from friends, asking "what happened with you and Michael?" She responded to these by posting to each friend's comment section with some variation of "alotta bullshit." Third party references to Michael littered Amy's comments section but Michael himself was no longer present. Amy's new love had usurped him.
While relationship drama is not restricted to teenagers, the performative nature of teens' relationships tends to make this drama quite visible. One advantage of having a girlfriend/boyfriend is that it is personally validating. In a relationship, many people feel as though they are desirable and attractive; the rush of a new relationship can be invigorating. This feeling of self-worth offers people an incentive to seek out partners.
Relationships are often discussed as intimate affairs, but society also encourages people to make the fact of their relationship public. Western rituals around weddings - the public ceremony, the visible ring, the newspaper announcement - showcase how serious relationships become public expressions. Yet, even before a relationship reaches that level of seriousness, people make their relationships publicly visible. This practices has numerous advantages. First off, by making a relationship public, people can signal to other single individuals that they are taken (and so is their partner). This wards off potential suitors but it also encourages outsiders to validate their worthiness. More importantly, as Hannah Arendt notes, "the presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves" (1). Through the public performance of a relationship, the individuals in the relationship can gain security and confidence in the significance of their togetherness.
Western society regularly pushes people to couple up and make their relationships public. Consider Valentine's Day. For many, this is an extremely stressful holiday because it's an institutionalized way of saying that single people are less worthy than those who have paired up. During this day above all others, the streets are filled with couples arm-in-arm engaged in public displays of affection ("PDA"). While the wine and fancy dinners are primarily an adult activity, Valentine's Day is just as salient in high schools as it is on the streets. Mr. C, a young math teacher in Oakland, California was shocked to find that the ratio of balloons to students exceeded one (2). Candy, presents, stuffed animals, cards, and the like pervaded the school, making it utterly impossible to teach. Who had received what gifts from whom mattered far more than geometry.
For teenagers, the performance of a relationship has an additional axis. Many teens have little mobility or freedom to actually go on dates. Quite often, teenage relationships consist entirely of mediated conversations (phone, IM, MySpace), school interactions, and the discussion of the relationship amidst one's peers in both public and private settings. The rare opportunity to meet up with one's girlfriend/boyfriend is treasured and for many teens, it is worth risking getting into trouble just to be able to connect with that person in meatspace. While physical interactions are deeply desired, they are typically quite rare. Likewise, while the 1950s Hollywood image of teen dating involves soda shops, drive-in movie theaters, and other public encounters, this is not available to many teens. Although the mall and move theater are still desired outtings for teen couples, many have far greater access to networked publics like MySpace than they do to unmediated publics. Thus, it's natural that the primary plumage display takes place in these forums.
The properties of networked publics - primarily persistence - extend the reach of relationship performances. If posted on a MySpace profile, verbalized adoration can be read by all of that person's friends. Perhaps this perceived magnification of audience increases the "realness" of the relationship? Or perhaps it simply increases the likelihood of being validated for being with an attractive partner. Relationships are filled with public commentary about love and adoration. While adults often mark "in a relationship" and leave it at that, teens are far more likely to fill their profiles with odes to the one that they adore.
Teens are aware of how these expressions are witnessed by those around them. Consider, for example, the comments section. Teens recognize that what they write in a comment is visible to all of that person's friends. This prompts loving significant others to publicly display their affection in a digital form, full of candy-coated words. On the flip side, because teens have the ability to voice their perspective to the broader peer group, there is a great incentive to make certain that one's view is understood without the he said/she said dynamics. By breaking up through MySpace comments, the heartbreaker is attempting to assert their view for everyone else to see so that they cannot be accused of saying something else in private, different from what they believe that they did say.
Of course, while digital expressions are persistent, they can be obliterated in a matter of clicks by a heartbroken lover. By deleting a significant other from one's friend list, all of the comments evaporate. Every loving message disappears off of the page of both partners, along with every negative comment. Is the goal of deletion to remove the memory of the now ex? Is it effective? The traces of these relationships remain, often because of the comments of third parties who reference the now ex.
When relationships end, it is customary to avoid the now ex for at least a period of time. Co-presence in school is to be ignored, phone calls are not to be returned, and events where the other one is likely to appear are to be avoided. The networked nature of social network sites makes it difficult to uphold this separation. While it is easy to block the ex from one's own page, they are likely to appear in the comments section of mutual friends. Mutual friends are often the complicating factor during a breakup, prompting an all-too-problematic view that these friends must choose sides. Such a choice can easily be viewed on MySpace because the mutual friend cannot actually maintain both connections if a nasty breakup requires that s/he choose sides.
Relationships are a regular part of teen life. The activities around flirting, dating, and breaking up take place wherever teens spend time and teens adapt these practices for the technologies and environments in which they spend the bulk of their time. Because networked publics provide a space for teens to gather and share their lives, it is not surprising that the intimate acts that must be made visible take place here. While the online publicness of teen relationships horrifies many adults, it is central to most teens.
(1) Arendt, Hannah. 1998. _The Human Condition_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2nd Edition).
(2) Mr. C. "St. Valentine's Radio." _Understanding_ (blog). February 14, 2007. http://understanding.mindtangle.net/?p=187