My Parents Joined Facebook: Personalized Clubhouses and Divergent Social Norms Online

Black text on a white background reads “Oh Crap. My Parents Joined Facebook.” Below, in all caps: “Congratulations! Your parents just joined Facebook. Your life is officially over.” The site is myparentsjoinedfacebook.com, a collaborative portfolio of social doom. In the grand instatradition of thematic tumblelogs (see: ThisIsWhyYou’reFat, Scanwiches), MyParentsJoinedFacebook isn’t so much website as permutations on a sentiment. Every new screengrab conveys chagrin, disdain, and bewilderment at the impressive range of collisions between the incongruous ways digital natives and adults use Facebook.

But really, it’s not about Facebook. It’s about an exclusive clubhouse becoming something else. The interactions documented on MyParentsJoinedFacebook are comical because the parents so clearly don’t get the implicit social ruleset that Facebook’s original target audience of young people takes for granted. But the comedy also serves to delineate young people as insiders and adults as outsiders to the world of Facebook. MyParentsJoinedFacebook reserves special scorn, in fact, for outsiders who try and fail to gain inside knowledge. A screengrab from a site called Facebook for Parents is captioned “This site doesn’t get it ;)”. “Getting it,” of course, is the last thing that the voice of the site wants parents to do—for one thing, their material would dry up instantly!

The appeal of Facebook is that “everyone’s” on it; for many, the site becomes a utility instead of a destination. (Many of my friends, for instance, use it as a glorified cell phone directory rather than a site of major activity.) But “everyone” being on it creates pitfalls, as well. Adults, whose newsfeeds are populated by the status updates and freshly-posted photographs of close friends, distant acquaintances, and long-lost high school classmates, learn “how to use Facebook” by seeing how others in their peer group use it. If a young person or adult takes a chance on “friending” someone from a different peer group, culture clash is almost inevitable. The way that person uses Facebook seems like the exception rather than the norm, because norms are calibrated to peer groups that exist on the real-world social graph.

That Facebook could sustain multiple cultures at once seems, at first, curious. But Facebook has always been grounded in the real-world social graph. From the example of our peers, we learn how to navigate the world. The issue with Facebook is that it’s an enormous world masquerading as a clubhouse. For each individual user, the space feels like a clubhouse: full of your friends, absent your enemies. In reality, though, all of these personalized clubhouses are just different configurations of data. They’re not walled off from each other at all. So adults can be on Facebook and it feels like their place—after all, it’s populated by all the people they know!—and young people can be on it and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it’s theirs.

Today, while writing this post, danah boyd posted an article that asks, “is Facebook for old people?” Using her field research among teenagers in Atlanta as a starting point, danah explores the possibility that the success or failure of interactions between adults and young people on Facebook might depend on socioeconomic status. “One argument made about the differences between teens from wealthy and poor environments,” she writes, “is that wealthy teens are much more likely to integrate with adults than teens from poorer backgrounds.”

The problem with adults being on Facebook is that, in the real world, they’re the rule enforcers. They determine the rulesets that matter. Not for coolness; for survival, approval, advancement. When adults “get on Facebook” and proceed to treat it like their own personal clubhouse, interactions between adults and young people often falter. In a previous post, danah answers a number of questions about how to navigate that faltering space. But the reason it’s a difficult space at all is because on Facebook, everybody’s an insider in their own personal configuration of the social world; anyone who deviates too drastically from the norms of that personalized world emerges as an outsider. In comparing divergent rulesets for social interaction online, we can learn a great deal about what the real world might look like if everyone did have a personalized clubhouse. It might not be a world we’d like to live in, but online, it’s increasingly one we spend a great deal of time in.