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Watkins, S. C. (2009). The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Beacon Press.

October 21, 2010

The Young and the Digital deals with the ways in which new media formats have become intrinsic to the lives of today’s youth: a generation that literally doesn’t know what a world without computers and internet looks like. Watkins’ account of young people’s fascinating digital lives brings to the forefront something that we have discussed at length in previous classes: the fact that technology by itself doesn’t do anything. Indeed, as Watkins demonstrates through several examples and interview testimonials, young people use (new communications) technology as means to attain specific ends. However, in so doing, the technology often becomes the ‘end’ in itself.

Below is a summary of chapters 4 and 7, followed by my observations, and then some points for class discussion.

Chapter 4 – Digital Gates: How Race and Class Distinctions are Shaping the Digital World

The basic argument in this chapter was that social class is likely a significant determinant of whether young people are likely to use MySpace or Facebook for social networking. This is contrary to the commonly held utopian view that one’s race, gender, and SES cease to matter in the virtual realm. If anything, as this chapter indicates, our online presence is usually punctuated by the realities of our offline lives – including racial tensions, class boundaries, social stereotypes, and gendered identities. This chapter cited a lot of past research that revealed numerous interesting facts about social networking trends among the youth:

  1. In a survey, 84% of white students said they use Facebook most often among all social networking sites (SES). In comparison, Latino students were more likely to use MySpace. 80% of African American students use Facebook as do 84% of Asian students.
  2. Women use SNS more than men.
  3. Students whose parents are well educated are more likely to use Facebook than MySpace.

Additionally, Watkins’ interviews with high school and college students indicated that students are distrustful of MySpace but view Facebook extremely favorably. Below is a summary of the MySpace vs. Facebook debate, based on what respondents had to say:

  • MySpace is crowded, creepy, trashy, fake, open, crazy, immature, and uneducated.
  • Facebook is selective, private, mature, clean, trustworthy, college oriented, and simple.
  • Contrary to the belief that young people love customizable interfaces, most respondents actually found MySpace’s ultra-customizable features rather annoying, defining it as unsophisticated as compared to Facebook’s “pretty, simple, and classy” interface.
  • Respondents indicated a strong desire for privacy. They do want to be watched all time, but only by the people they allow into their social network. And, in most cases, these people are similar to them in terms of race, religion, nationality and class. “Others” are not welcome, or at best, are treated with apprehension and uncertainty.
  • There’s a consistent need for homogeneity, much like the posh gated communities that have recently become so popular across the US.
  • A lot more homophilic bonding is taking place on SNS than bridging (connecting with people who are culturally different), and youngsters value bonding capital more than bridging capital.
  • There’s as much disdain for MySpace as there is for the people who use MySpace. Most students think MySpace is used by “digital undesirables”: Blacks, Latinos, and ‘emo’ kids. Words like “hood”, “bling”, “crack”, and “ghetto” are frequently associated with MySpace, indicating the highly racialized terms in which youngsters think of MySpace, probably without even realizing it.

In conclusion, although SNS are changing the way the youngsters connect with others, they’re not really changing the nature of these connections.

Chapter 7: Now! Fast Entertainment and Multitasking in an Always-On World

For the young and the digital, entertainment at their fingertips is not a luxury – it’s a necessity they have come to expect. And, like fast food, fast entertainment is cheap, ubiquitous, affordable, but not always ‘healthy’. Watkins argues that “one of the most intriguing paradoxes of today’s digital media environment is that we consume more and less at the same time.” It’s true!!! As researchers have shown, we have shifted from a culture that desires instant gratification to one that wants constant gratification. In part, Watkins argues, this desire stems from the need to not miss anything. This has resulted in a paradigmatic shift in the way we use and experience media content. Even a few years ago, we ventured OUT to buy cassettes, music CDs, books, games, and movie DVDs to enjoy them at home. But now we have come to expect these media AT HOME on our mobile devices so we can enjoy them “on the go” – whenever, wherever.

Multitasking was the focus of this chapter. However, what we call multitasking, Gen Y calls “life”. They do not know of a world people only do one thing at a time and according to them, multitasking is the only way to be efficient. As Watkins contends, “among college students, using one media almost always means interacting with other media too.” However, medical and psychological research has consistently demonstrated that our brains are not designed to process multiple sources of information at the same time. Ironically, therefore, while students think they are being more efficient, they are actually falling prey to the modern epidemic of “continuous partial attention” (pg. 168) that usually has less than desirable manifestations in terms of productivity and concentration, and makes people learn less. Click here for an interesting UCLA study about multitasking and here for opinions from several experts.


Overall, Watkins’ arguments made a LOT of sense to me. Specifically, I appreciate the fact that he didn’t buy into the paranoid “moral panic” discourse of new media making soulless, asocial shells out of the youth. Instead, I found his arguments in these chapters to be thoughtful, well substantiated, provocative, and balanced. He also acknowledges the numerous shades of grey that emerge whenever we talk about new media/communication technologies and users’ engagement with them. Digital innovation, just like everything else, can be put to good and bad uses and I think this enhances the necessity of “new media literacy” manifold. Children are more tech-savvy than their parents today and they will find a way to access social media no matter what. In these circumstances, I think educational programs that highlight media literacy will help the youth use these new media formats effectively and safely.

Questions for discussion

  1. There’s much hysteria that people use new media in ways that make them unsocial or asocial. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the argument that people use new media in order to become excessively social. If one were to think outside of this binary, one would realize that most people around us do not belong in either camp – they fall somewhere in between. Does this mean that the wireless generation is using technology to multitask successfully and meaningfully, contrary to what psychologists would have us believe? In other words, in real life, is “continuous partial attention” really a problem? My students manage to take good lecture notes, even as they text, Facebook, check their email, and browse the net, AND they do well on pop quizzes! How do they do it?
  2. Watkins argues that social networks “do not appear to be radically altering the personal bonds and connections that young people make.” What significance does this have vis-à-vis our own engagement with emergent media platforms and self-actualization? To what “new” ends are we using new media? Or have the ends remained the same; just the way of getting to them have been made faster and more convenient, thanks to technology?

And now for some cool videos:


One Comment leave one →
  1. allitravis permalink*
    October 26, 2010 9:57 pm

    I really liked Chapter 4. It was kind of funny and interesting to see how a lot of the judgements or ways that people view social networks fall in line with my own feelings (Facebook versus myspace for instance). I also found it interesting that, like you said, although SNS are changing the way the youngsters connect with others, they’re not really changing the nature of these connections. You would think that with the ability to communicate so broadly with whomever we want, the nature of our social horizons and networks would broaden.

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