Differences between electronic identity stabilization of young adults and teens

Social media researcher danah boyd recently wrote that her research has revealed that many American teenagers “are not dreaming of portability…. They are happy to make new accounts on new sites; they enjoy building out profiles.” In other words, when they lose their account information, forget their password, or move on to a new service, they’re happy to start over and rebuild their “identity.” (boyd is quick to note, however, that this readiness to recreate one’s identity is very different from the notion of creating or maintaining multiple discrete identities i.e. one AIM screenname for your friends and family, a gmail account for your professional contacts, and a Facebook account for your college friends). boyd also shares some philosophical musings on what we “adults” can learn from these teens but let’s focus on identity and teens’ apparent willingness to change and start over. Let’s assume this observed trend of carefree electronic identity uptake and discard holds true for a large segment of the American teen population.

Do traditional college students exhibit this same behavior? In my experience, no. College students definitely exhibit many similar behaviors for many of the same reasons – developing and discovering their self-identity – but not this particular one. (Excellent overviews of identity development in traditional college students can be found in the standard references “Education and Identity” by Arthur W. Chickering and Linda Reisser and “How College Affects Students” by Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini.)

Assuming that is true and this behavior differs between teenagers and young adults (i.e. traditional college students), why? I offer a few hypotheses:

  1. Logistical and technical issues and concerns begin to try to “lock students down” to readily-identifiable, consistent, and up-to-date identities, locations, and addresses. Within the sphere of “official” or institution-supported services, there are many examples. Despite the fact that most students enter college with multiple e-mail addresses and about half of entering freshmen prefer an e-mail provider other than their institution, nearly all 4-year institutions continue to provide “universal student e-mail.” Although some services such as e-mail forwarding allow students to maintain changing, off-campus accounts and identities many systems and services can not. It should be obvious that for students to use services such as course management systems (a service about which many students are “overwhelmingly positive”), students must have and maintain stable accounts.
  2. As noted in “Education and Identity,” “stability and integration” are key concepts in identity development for traditional undergraduate college students. More specifically, for upper-level students “a higher level of personal organization and integration is also required for the transition from college to the adult world.” In other words, for one to be successful, most people find it necessary to stop losing and forgetting information. Sounds like common sense to me…
  3. (I have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) For the average person, attending college offers the chance to immensely expand one’s social network. This is partially an artifact of age (the longer one lives the more people one meets) but it’s also inherent in moving into a new environment with many new people. As one’s social network grows it simply becomes less practical to change contact information or visible identity (unless you’re explicitly trying to change or shrink your network). Again, please note that this differs from the deliberate maintenance of multiple identities.
  4. (I also have no supporting evidence for this hypothesis) Similar to the previous hypothesis, one tends to accumulate more physical and logical “things” related to one’s public identity as one grows older. In the electronic world, those things may include photographs, graphics, webpage links, quotes, lists of “favorites,” and, critical to most social networking sites, visible links to other social contacts (typically labeled “friends” but we all know that label lacks nuance). Unless one intends to start a new identity, moving all (or enough) of that information to a new location takes time, effort, and, in some cases, technical skill and knowledge. And some of those things can not be easily moved or moved at all, particularly one’s social network (“friends”). While that may be seen as an advantage for someone wanting to “start over” (which is often the case for those who, like many teenagers, are intentionally experimenting with their identity) for many people it’s a huge disincentive to move to a new location/service/etc.

On the one hand, we know that identity development is a gradual process. I am by no means suggesting that when one steps foot onto campus for freshman orientation the habits and practices of youth are left lying outside the gate like old clothes; that is contrary to experience and research. However, I do suggest that several factors conspire to make this particular transition rather swift as compared to many other transitions one experiences as a young adult. Not only are there significant technical and logistical pressures that slow or halt one’s rapid uptake and discard of electronic identities but maturation tends to lead to identity stabilization in an almost tautological manner.