Meet 15-year old New Jersey twins, M. and L., who surprised me with their love of Tumblr and their well developed understanding of privacy settings.

Let’s start with Tumblr. 13-17 year olds only make up 17% of Tumblr users, 18-34 year olds lead the way here. Tumblr is a micro-publishing blog—sort of like Twitter meets Facebook, sort of—and has a fraction of a user base as Facebook, though it seems like that’s the case with every other website these days. I was surprised that both girls listed Tumblr right next to Facebook as the social networking site they actively use  (M. also uses Twitter, while L. still has a MySpace page but “no one really uses that anymore.”)

I love talking to young people because they have a knack at opening up little worlds I had no idea existed. This is not often the case when talking to adults about social media, whom are often either following, or consciously choosing not to follow, the cyber herd. Their answers can feel predictable; there can be a sense that their opinions are formed by popular news and media that they have consumed about the technologies, less of an opinion from actually, openly, using and experiencing the social site. This isn’t often the case with younger people, who are more prolific in use and are leading the way in how we are using and living with these technologies. Which is pretty cool, if you think about it, pretty Louis and Clark-esq.

M. told me she liked Tumblr because, “I like looking at all the pictures, memes and gifts people post. I also like to post things about my problems and my life to people that don’t actually know me so it’s not weird/awkward.”

I love the idea of putting a thought or an idea into a place where people have the possibility to see it—to see you—but nothing more than that. It’s like putting a message in a bottle. In thinking about social media and how we are “evolving” our daily routines, ways of interacting with one another, and social norms I continue to come back to Erving Goffman’s 1961 sociological book, “The Presentation of Self Online.” Goffman believed that we acted two ways; the way we acted in “public,” by that I mean in front of others, and the ways we acted privately, in front of no one.

Goffman’s “dramaturgical analysis” observed that when a person comes into contact with other people that person will try to control the impression that others might make of her or him while at the same time trying to figure out the other person(s) s/he is interacting with, while also actively avoiding being embarrassed or embarrassing others.

The reverse of this is when people are “off stage,” or in private. This is when the person can be themselves and get rid of their role or identity they have to carry around in society. For M. and L. this is being an American teenager. I remember this feeling when I was a teenager as the action of walking into my bedroom and closing the door behind me, and that heavy sense of relief that came with it.

But now there is this whole other element thrown into the mix. Where kids can decide the sort of Public that they share their feelings and ideas. It’s no longer the choice of whether to write it in my diary or tell my friends. By this I mean, do I write it in my diary = private. Do I tell friends = public. Now there are layers and layers of publics that are very difficult to understand- that are nearly impossible to imagine a boundary around. (The diary thing actually brings me to a question I wished I asked M. and L., do they maintain diaries? I’d like to focus on this in the future, if and how diaries are being maintained in the wave of social networking sites. Is there anything left to share only with ourselves; not a variation of visible/mostly-invisible-but-still-public Public?)

M. is actively aware of which Publics she chooses to share information. She is also believes that there are some Publics where sharing is OK and there are other Publics where it’s not socially acceptable. She writes: “I do think people can say too much about themselves. Not on Twitter or Tumblr but definitely on Facebook. I don’t want to see people talking about their boyfriends/girlfriends or what they did every second of the day.”

I wonder if her separation of Twitter and Tumblr from Facebook is because for her Twitter and Tumblr are more anonymous or because their status posts aren’t as sticky? Twitter and Tumblr feels like a reel constantly streaming with updates, whereas Facebook feels a little more like it traps you in some people’s minds- and those minds can be weird. Still, I find the distinction of sharing things in one place OK, while another place not OK interesting. And wonder whether that is more heavily based on the architecture of the site or the audience within the site, or a combination of both?

Both M. and L. believe social networking sites make the world both better and worse. L. explains: “Social networking sites are just like everything else, there are good and bad outcomes. Yes, they’re probably very distracting from school and work, but most students would do fine with or without these sites. There are also ways they make the world better. You can know what’s happening with family/friends that live far away or keep in touch with a childhood friend.”  Both girls also agree that they think they will always use a social networking site. “I’m pretty much addicted,” admits M.

I was impressed with their understanding of privacy settings. When asked if people can put too much information online L. explained: “I don’t think people put too much information on their profiles. It doesn’t really matter what the information is, but who can see it. If you set your profile to private and only let a certain group of people see it, then it’s not a problem what people say about themselves.” In other words, you stay aware of your public. What is missing is the idea that people can so easy share what you put online to people outside of your controlled public, but that’s another story.

The notion of actively being in control of your public, or just the same, of actively not being in control of a public; releasing your thoughts out into a more anonymous audience for the freedom which that allows, shows an  understanding of not just producing and digesting a mass amount content, but of considering where exactly that content is going. It’s a lot to consider when, as a teenager, you already have a lot of work to do thinking about who you are in the first place.

Want to know two people who are not in M. and L.’s publics? Their parents, who I have been told, are allowed on Facebook, only as long as they don’t friend M. or L.

Update: Neither M. or L. maintain a diary.