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Tom Baxter

As conduits for drama, social media follow different paths

By Tom Baxter

One of the significant cultural dividing lines these days is that between those who think of Mark Zuckerberg as a bright young guy and those who look upon him as a rich old dude.

This was born out recently by a Pew Research Center study which showed that teenagers are increasingly turning from Facebook toward Twitter and other sites with “fewer adults, fewer parents and just simply less complexity,” according to Amanda Lenhart, one of the authors of the study.

“Facebook just really seems to have more drama,” said Jaime Esquivel, a Virginia teen quoted in an AP story about the survey.

I may not think of “drama” in quite the same way as this high school junior, but I can certainly relate. As a journalist, a lot of people friend me on Facebook just to read me, and I de-friend only in the most extreme circumstances, so I see a wide slice of Facebook life. Believe me, it gets pretty wild out there at times.

Last week, one FB friend confessed to running around on his girlfriend, who he named in his post, including intimate details of her personal life along with his own soul-bearing. I’ve seen siblings fall to fighting over whether one should have posted a picture of their dying mother. There’s one guy who appears to have assumed a fictional persona somewhere between James Bond and that guy in the Mexican beer commercial, posting fantastic accounts of his globe-trotting exploits. It’s hard to tell from the comments his other friends make, whether they’re playing along or really believe him.

And that’s just the purely personal drama. The daily spew of political and religious drama that I see is voluminous.

It’s harder to pack as much drama into the 140 characters you’re confined to in Twitter, but as anyone who follows the Macon-based blogger and radio talker Erick Erickson should know, it can be done.

Erickson has become a master at infuriating liberals, as he did with a Twitter post shortly after the tornado in Moore, Okla., in which he wondered whether anyone had told President Obama about it yet. (For the unpoliticized, that was a jab at the claim Obama was out of the loop in the recent cycle of scandals that have plagued his administration.) That kind of quick punch invariably sets off a cycle of taunts and counter-taunts (he dutifully retweets every insult that’s hurled at him) which pretty quickly devolves into talk of medieval torture and eternal damnation.

But as a conduit for drama, the way in which Twitter’s social network is structured is even more important that its severe compression of verbiage. Facebook is like a neighborhood in which everyone can see their neighbor’s back yards. True, you can hide friends from your news feed without defriending them (kind of like drawing your curtains), but that defeats the purpose of the design.

Twitter is more like a school of fish. You don’t “friend,” you “follow,” and the relationship doesn’t have to be reciprocal. You have only as much drama as you choose; fascination, not interaction, is the driver.

I don’t really know everybody on Facebook, but I usually have some idea who they are and why they friended me. Often on Twitter, I have no idea why I’m being followed. Conversely, I’ve friended family, real friends and associates, but I don’t know most of those I follow on Twitter. They’re like people who might catch my eye on the street. I follow an Australian writer whose work I admire, whose Twitter posts make no more sense to me than if they were spoken in a thick Australian accent. After a while, some of my followers may quit following me, and I may get tired of trying to decipher the Australian and drop her from my list, but that’s okay. There’s no drama.

Grayson Daughters, a social media maven and mother of a teen, has a somewhat different take on the social media preferences of teenagers than the Pew researchers. She says kids in her daughter’s age group consider Twitter the province of “old fogies like me,” and are trending toward even newer outlets like Instagram (the photo-sharing service that even the old fogies are catching on to), Vine (six-second videos), Wanelo (for “want, need, love,” a shopping network) and SnapChat (instant messages which disappear after 10 seconds, to the frustration of parents).

As for drama, “There’s drama inherent whenever teens gather. Hardly matters if they’re on Twitter, in a car, at school, on Facebook, etcetera,” she says.

“I think Facebook is just a little too ‘needy’ for them. In that it requires some cultivating of one’s garden there. Work, in other words. They hate having to ‘work’ a social anything. Quick ‘n down ‘n dirty is what they’re after.”

One day those same kids may be on Facebook looking at their second-grade class pictures, as I was last week (Shout out to Paul Beam for a great post). People change, and in our day, so do their networks.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.



  1. SpaceyG May 28, 2013 9:57 am

    Erick’s like the freakin’ plague. I can never escape his toxic presence. Why does he have to be sited in this post too? Ugh.Report


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