The Young and the Digital: Interview with S. Craig Watkins, Part III

Wednesday, March 02, 2011 at 3:43 pm


This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed University of Texas at Austin Professor S. Craig Watkins on subjects including his research, social media in different contexts, the participation gap, and the quality and consequences of young people’s media engagement. Here, in Part III of the interview, he discusses his thoughts on social media trends and youth engagement with social media in the future.

Listen to the full interview here:


How would you characterize social networks in the future? As they relate to individuals of different backgrounds or gender?

I think in the future, social networks, and we are seeing evidence of this now — particularly if we think about online social networks, social networks that are maintained via platforms like Facebook or Tumblr or some other platform that is on the horizon if it’s not here already — that they will evolve into very complex systems. It will be interesting to see at what point people begin to prefer social networks that enable them to exercise a finer degree of control over their networks.
What I mean by that is, for example, I was just having a conversation with a friend yesterday and he was saying why he didn’t like Facebook, or why he didn’t appreciate the fact that Facebook didn’t allow him to maintain the kinds of distinctions in his network that he appreciated and thought were important. For example, maybe his colleagues at work and the conversations he shares with them may be very unique or specific to that situation. Then there’s family. Then there may be friends he does a lot of recreational or social activities with. So it seems to me that at some point in the very near future people will be looking for social networks that allow them to really begin to manage, with a greater degree of precision, the different sub-networks that make up their larger social networks. That’s not only about privacy; it’s about complexity, the complexity of us as individuals, the different relationships we develop, the meaningful kinds of relationships and networks that make up our total selves, our total lives. And, to what degree will online tools and platforms be able to recognize that complexity?
How do you see trends of communication changing for young people?
…I never make the mistake of thinking that I totally get it, or that I totally understand young people and their motivation and their engagement with technology, because it is always in such a constant state of flux. I preface anything that I may say with that. But I do think it’s clear that what will be interesting, in terms of the youth population, is what I like to refer to as “trickle-down technology” and the ways in which particularly mobile media, and to some degree social media, are now trickling down to younger and younger children.
It wasn’t that long ago when the idea of a middle schooler owning his or her own mobile phone was kind of a stretch, where most parents couldn’t wrap their head around that idea. Now, that is increasingly a fairly common experience in a growing number of households around this country. What we’re really beginning to see now is even younger and younger children below the middle school ages are beginning to request, demand, and ask for their own mobile devices — maybe it’s an iPod, in some cases maybe it’s a phone. In terms of youth and communication, clearly everything will pivot around mobile: their lives will pivot around mobile; their modes of communication will be mediated via mobile technologies.
What I’m really intrigued by is the degree to which the age of adoption begins to get younger and younger. I can imagine in the very near future where kids in second, third, and fourth grade, for example, will have their own mobile phones. They already have their own mobile gaming platforms, their own mobile gaming and music devices; and you can expect that, in a very near, short period, even young children’s lives will be completely saturated with mobile media, applications, technologies, and modes of communication in ways that, just a few short years ago, would have been almost impossible for us to have imagined.
Special thanks
We’d like to extend a special thanks to Professor S. Craig Watkins for taking the time to talk with us.