teenagers, personality shedding, and the desire to start over

followed a couple links today from an email to a post (which was also worth reading, about the difference between multi-tasking and ‘continuous partial attention’) to this fascinating post about teenagers and their tendancy to shed online personalities and start over.

January 01, 2007
ephemeral profiles (cuz losing passwords is common amongst teens)
Sara created a MySpace using an email address that she made specifically for that purpose. After vacation, she couldn’t remember her MySpace password (or her email password). She created a new MySpace page using a new throwaway email address. When i asked her if she was irritated that she had to do this after investing time in the previous profile, she said, “nah.. I had too many Friends that I didn’t know anyways.”
This snippet from my fieldnotes depicts an attitude that i keep hearing from teens that completely contradicts adult norms. Many teens are content (if not happy) to start over with most of their accounts in most places. Forgot your IM password? Sign up again. Forgot your email address? Create a new one. Forgot your login? Time for a change.

While adult bloggers talk about building an identity through extended blogging, i keep finding teens who got locked out of Xanga and responded by making another Xanga (or a Blogger or a LiveJournal). They have expressions scattered across numerous services with numerous handles. Some teens chew through IM handles like candy; their nicks are things like “o-so-funny” rather than the first name, last name standard that seems to pervade professional worlds. It’s not seen as something to build an extensive identity around, but something to use to talk to friends in the moment.

Teens are not dreaming of portability (like so many adults i meet). They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles. (Part of this could be that they have a lot more time on their hands.) The idea of taking MySpace material to Facebook when they transition is completely foreign. They’re going to a new site, they want to start over.

While this feeling of ephemerality is not universal amongst teens, it’s far more prevalent than you’d ever see in adult culture and it has some significant implications for design:

Focusing on “lock-in” will fail with these teens – they don’t care if they lose track of something they put hours into building.
Teens are not looking for universal anything; that’s far too much of a burden if losing track of things is the norm.
Paying for an account can help truly engaged teens remember their accounts (i haven’t found any teen who permanently lost their MMO login) but it can also be a strong deterrent for those accustomed to starting over.
The numbers that people cite concerning accounts created are astoundingly inaccurate and are worthless for talking about usage or unique participants. (added tx to a comment by Rich)
I should note that i don’t think that the answer is “help teens remember passwords.” I actually think that this tendency to shed is advantageous in the way that we shed clothes every year because the “old me” is no longer relevant. Technology is a bit too obsessed with remembering; there’s a lot of value in forgetting.

Of course, i do expect everything to change with the mobile. While i don’t expect teens to care about number portability (like their parents), losing a phone is a far more expensive proposition than losing a login (although it seems to be just as common amongst teens). I expect there to be a lot less turnover when accounts are tied to a phone. It’ll be interesting to see if strong identity is loved or hated.

One thought on “teenagers, personality shedding, and the desire to start over”

  1. I’m not so sure it has to do with love/hate of portability or strong ID. Teens are not necessarily the opposite of adults, they just view and use the internet differently. My impression is that being present to others online is more important to emerging generations of users than being at a fixed point on the web. Profiles, names, layouts… they’re all quickly changed and reflect whatever the user may be feeling at the time. From conversations with teenagers about this, I’m not convinced that users’ identities extend to their online personnas nearly as much as those of us who are older and have crossed over into the internet from other, more static identities.

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