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Contextual Communities: Why Young People are Straying from Traditional Social Media in Search of More Authentic Connections

For many, Facebook and other leading social media sites offer a means of passing extra time, or keeping in contact with friends near and far; however, for many teenagers, they are a source of stress and anxiety. Experts state that the “rose-tinted” image which many people portray of themselves on social media, with filtered selfies and commentaries about social events, parties and all round good times, can have a negative effect on many people who don't view their own lives in the same light, compounding a sense of loneliness and a feeling of being different.

As a result, many young people are turning away from traditional social media platforms and seeking less superficial online communities that allow them to develop relationships, give and receive advice and share experiences and opinions with other youngsters around the world. In this article we will look at the reasons that many young people feel pressured by leading social media platforms, before arguing that contextual communities offer a safe haven for youngsters without the added pressure of network-based social media sites.

 

The dark side of social media

Network-based social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are based on friends and followers.

Mahogany Clayton argues in her Huffington Post article that these network-based social media sites have created a society in which people live for the approval of others rather than themselves. According to the Pew research Center, 39% of teens on social media say they feel pressure to post content that will be popular and get lots of comments or likes, and 40% report feeling pressure to post only content that makes them look good to others.

The issue was publically raised by Australian model Essena O’Neil, who made a stand against social media manipulation, and deleted more than 2000 photos from her Instagram account which she felt “served no real purpose other than self-promotion”

O’Neil spoke freely with the media about the emotional turmoil that is caused by the pressure to maintain a flawless social media image to grow a high follower count on leading social media sites. She told the Guardian “I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.”

On the other side of the screen, the omnipresent pressure of maintaining their social media personality and gathering more and more friends, matched with a constant bombardment of selfies, photos and updates from contacts which are often molded to portray a perfect, fun and active social life, can cause feeling of jealousy, insignificance and loneliness amongst young people who don't view their lives in the same way.

According to a 2012 study by the nonprofit, Anxiety UK, Facebook can feed anxiety and insecurity amongst teens and adults alike. During the survey, 50% of respondents stated that social media had changed their lives, and half of those said it was for the worse, typically as a result of feeling inadequate in comparison to their peers after viewing the “rose-tinted” portrayal of the way others live.

 

From subcultures to sub-reddits. The rise of micro-communities

In generations past, subcultures based around music and style of dress, such as skaters, goths, or punks, offered young people a sense of community and comradery. But, in recent years, many of these groups seem to have disappeared. Alexis Petridis from The Guardian argues that youth behavior and the prevalence of subcultures has been “radically altered by the advent of the internet: that we now live in a world where teenagers are more interested in constructing an identity online than they are in making an outward show of their allegiances and interests.”

In the same way as youths may have spent their time within a certain “subculture” or group in the past, many young people today are flocking towards contextual online communities where they can chat and interact with groups of people who share similar interests with them. These groups normally come in the form of online forums or online bulletin boards based around a certain topic. For example, there are forums around rock music, anime, cosplay or popular video games, but many are more general chat forums where users can open discussions about whatever they please.

Users are able to create bonds and friendships with other people from all over the globe, without the same pressures as traditional follower-based social media sites. The majority of these contextual communities do not put an emphasis on the importance of creating an online personality.

Tumblr, for example, is a blog community that launched in 2007 and since has gained 420 million users through underground popularity amongst teens as the “anti-social media.” Teens create alternative Tumblr aliases for themselves and then personalize their blog pages to reflect their interests, thoughts, and fantasies. From this, they can build a following based solely on their personal tastes and creative ideas, as opposed to a stream of photo-shopped selfies with pop lyrics as captions. Most of the time, these followers form online friendships where anonymous bloggers develop relationships through mutual appreciation of one another’s tastes and ideas.

The figures speak for themselves. According to research by NextAdvisor, 61 percent of teenagers cite Tumblr as their favorite social media site, ahead of Facebook.  

Online communities put less pressure on users to share information about themselves. Many users don't even use a photo of themselves, and the focus is on chatting and sharing experiences rather than posting constant life updates and photos. As a result, many users feel more comfortable, and are able to create real bonds as part of an online community where people don't judge them based on their appearance or the number of friends or followers they have.

As one young person stated during a Pew Research Center focus group: “I like Tumblr because I don’t have to present a specific or false image of myself and I don’t have to interact with people I don’t necessarily want to talk to.”

Another key pull factor for teens who don't like being pushed into the social media limelight, is the level of anonymity offered by many online communities. Forums such as Yahoo Groups and Disqus offer a safe space where users can share and contribute without having to use their own names, instead using a created alias. Users can open threads about whatever they want to talk about, however obscure or zany, so users don't need to feel embarrassed of being judged or branded as a “nerd” or “weirdo” for posting about computer games, manga comics or personal issues as they may do on Facebook or traditional social media.

The most successful example of these micro-communities is Reddit, an online community which now has more than 234M monthly visitors worldwide. As part of Reddit, users can join the conversation on sub-reddits - micro-communities based around a topic - and chat and exchange ideas from behind the safety net of their alias. The anonymity of the alias allows users to be candid and open about their feelings on a range of topics, which they might not express their opinions about under their own name. AskReddit- a forum where people can discuss risque or personal topics with the wider community- is one of the most popular subreddits and a Digital Trends study shows that controversial topics for subreddits garner the highest interaction rate.

When used responsibly, contextual communities offer an escape route that is less stressful, demanding and intrusive than traditional social networks. However, as with most enjoyable things, they should be consumed within reason, or users face the risk of addiction and negative effects on other aspects of their lives. Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer argues that technology has a positive effect on young people because it allows them to be connected to both their real life and digital friends around the clock. It doesn't matter if it’s 4am, you can't sleep, and are super stressed for an exam the next day. The chances are that someone on the online community will be awake and wanting to chat. Just make sure you don’t stay up chatting online and miss your exam in the real world the next day! 

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