Nussbaum: Among Gen-Y, the Facebook Backlash Has Arrived

Who wants 500 friends when you can’t find someone to love?


Last term, a team of Parsons/New School students in my Design-At-The-Edge course designed a letter-writing kiosk for their course project. It was quite brilliant: a one-stop place to buy beautiful papers, envelops and stamps, with examples of emotional what-to-say-in-letters printed right on the paper.  Why, I asked one Gen Yer (they were all women), are you interested in such an archaic means of communication when you have Facebook? Her answer: we all have 500 Friends on Facebook and no one to love. The backlash against Facebook has started.
The thing is, when you are 14 or 15, all you want in life is those 500 Friends. But when you hit 20, 21 22, you begin to want other things–love, personal, a great first job, family, maybe even privacy. The biggest mistake trend-spotters make is confusing generational change with life-cycle change. Much of the projection about the future of Facebook is based on this confusion. What we’re seeing today is the aging of Gen Y as the edge of this huge demographic moves into adulthood. And while Gen Y will keep Facebook as its core generational communication platform (the way my mother still uses the telephone) , what they want from it is starting to drastically change.
What I see from my professorial perch at Parsons is that by the time Gen Yers get to their junior and senior years, they are focussing on two things– their first serious job and their first serious relationship. Let’s deal with employment first. Overwhelmingly, my senior students are angry and appalled at the invasion of their Facebook “private” space by potential employers. They grew up believing social media was their generation’s own special arena and now find it is not. After anger comes their efforts to shut out, narrow and control the images and content on Facebook. Controlled privacy. It’s a life-cycle thing.  Facebook appears to be making matters worse for these older Gen Yers by gathering ever more information on them and their friends and sharing it freelywith the world, especially the corporate world.  Facebook’s business model of monetizing the publicness of people networking appears to be in long-term conflict with the changing life-cycle needs of aging young people on the network.
By the way, my students tell me that their younger sisters and brothers don’t get their older siblings anger or quest for privacy. They’re still in the “Friending” stage, worrying about popularity, building their status, trying to get 500 digital friends, preferring distance, vague and safe relationships to real eyeball-to-eyeball relationships.
Let’s get to the love stuff now. A trip to the Hamptons this summer was pretty shocking. For the first time, the beaches were covered with new families of tattooed mommies and daddies with newborn babies. Gen Y is beginning to breed. People in their 20s are needing to find the “One,” not the “Many,” to do the sex-love-marry/mate-baby thing. Now it may be true that a good percentage of them are meeting their prospective mates first on line but that’s a selective screening process of a few, not a mindless gathering of hundreds. The letter-writing kiosk is a reflection of the need of older Gen Y women to connect on a deeper level to prospective mates to build more serious relationships. They’re not finding that on Facebook.
It may be that Facebook develops into a family-oriented platform of intense communication among a small network of people rather than a place where hundreds of near-strangers occassionally connect. Could be that it becomes a place for multi-generational contact among grandparents, parents, kids–and their various networks. Who knows?
But projecting forward emotional and behavioral assumptions of what people want from Facebook based on the young teenage Zukerberg motivations put on unnerving display in the movie Social Network is probably a mistake. The functionality of social media is changing as the Gen Y generation ages and moves along the life-cycle curve. I can still remember when Boomers hated money. Or at least I think I can remember when they did.

[Top photo by Courtney Carmody]


About the author

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence (HarperBusiness, March 2013). He is "Mentor-In-Residence" at NEW INC, the art/technology incubator of New Museum