The Digital Nomads

I have been trying to pin down exactly where social media use is happening. As much as I complain about it (and there’s lots to complain about), Facebook is where the majority of my generation is. Twitter too, though to a lesser extent. But as both a concerned parent as well as someone who works in the social media mobile app development space, I am trying to understand where things are headed. So, where is the next generation?

Photo of Instagram Profile Page on the Web

The answer is fascinating. Looking at the teenagers in my household (sample size of 1), we’ve had an interesting shift over the last year. Before his 13th birthday (almost a year ago) he begged us for a Facebook account. As I have written previously we were not going to let him have one until his 13th birthday. Well, said birthday rolled around and he had no interest in Facebook at all. At that time, all his friends were on Google+ and using it and Google+ Hangouts was The Thing. A few months later, he finally got interested in a Facebook account again and we got him set up. For a little while, Facebook was all the rage. And then the digital nomads moved on again and found new hunting grounds. Last I checked (a few days ago), they were using a combination of Tumblr, Skype, Instagram, YouTube, and plain old SMS. I’m sure if I looked tomorrow, it will have changed again. Meanwhile, friends of ours out in Seattle report that their son (slightly older) uses Facebook almost exclusively. However, that is, in large part, because the teens at his school have figured out that creating closed groups to talk about various classes is a great way to help each other out with homework, catch people up who were out sick, share notes, and more.

I attended a meeting for a parents group at my son’s school last night. The topic was the current state of social media use among the middle school and high school students and I went to see if what they were seeing echoes what I’ve been seeing. They are, mostly. Among the middle school students (including my son), Instagram and SnapChat are the most important apps in use. In the high school, it is the same list but Twitter is in generally heavy use as well. Few are using Facebook anymore. It is perceived as being for old people (that’s their parents).

My view, colored by having just finished a wonderful book called Genghis Khan And the Making of the Modern World, is that teens today are nomads, like the Mongols. While the old people (their parents) live in the big cities (Facebook and… well, Facebook), they are out on the plains moving from location to location, following the good hunting. They’ll set up shop on a few social media apps and stay there for a time. At some point, something new will come along or enough of their friends will have moved off for some or other reason, and they will pull up the tent stakes and head on to new things. Essentially, they are wherever is convenient at the given moment. It is wherever their friends are. It is wherever they can get together effectively and have a good time. In short, they’re all over the place.

And that makes a certain kind of sense. The adults came of age either before any of these apps existed (even before the web existed) and Facebook was the first real place where we could find all of our friends and virtually hang out (it could be argued that MySpace or even Friendster were but neither existed when the critical mass was reached). We have the inertia of everyone being there knowing that moving to a new system only works if they come with us, which is not likely. Teens, however, have none of that. They flit from app to app, hanging out with whoever is there at any given moment, making new friends, finding their current friends, and then moving on when something new comes along. It will be interesting to see if they settle down in their generation’s version of a Facebook (or, of course, on Facebook itself) when they get older or if this is the pattern of things to come.

The biggest challenge of any parent in this day and age is keeping up with their teenagers. I feel like I am joining a new service every other week or so. Just today, I joined ask.fm (go ahead, ask me a question, I’ve not had time to use it yet) because I saw that my son had (and only because he posted about it on Instagram, and I only knew about that because I set up an If This Than That rule that emails me every time he posts something to Instagram. You following all of this?) And, in a strange way, I find I am becoming a bit of a digital nomad myself as I try to keep up with my son and where he roams online.

Welcome!

Teenager using cell phone in church
Teenager using cell phone in church, Photo by the author.

Welcome to Navigating the Waters. The idea behind this site came from many discussions I have had with quite a few people (especially my wife) about… well, everything. I wanted a place to collect my writing and thinking about these many subjects. They seem disparate but at their heart they deal with modernity, with understanding our lives in this digital, online world. These subjects include:

  • Growing up Online: Kids today are growing up connected in ways my generation never was. With that comes new challenges and new ways to try to understand the world. As a parent, I think about this daily and have found a lot of other parents struggle with this. I am hoping that together we can make sense of all of this. Or at least commiserate together!
  • Full Access: Ten years ago, I was a pioneer in accessible web design. Back then, using CSS to separate layout from content was a new thing and few people were doing it. At the time, I was designing and building websites for the Federal Government, which are required to be accessible to comply with Section 508, part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the idea of this type of design was nothing short of radical. My instructions were to create two sites, one graphical, the other text-only. I had to sell the idea that a single site could serve the needs of all users. Today this is standard (and yet still not widely done). Moving beyond just websites, I am interested in the concept of full access for everyone regardless of device or method of access. And moving beyond that still, I am interested in full access to the online world for everyone regardless of economic status. In other words, how can we get full participation by everyone?
  • Leadership: I have been managing individuals and teams for over twenty years. For the last seven, or so, I’ve been involved with youth leadership (mainly Cub and Boy Scouts but in other contexts as well). I am very interested in what makes a good leader and how we can grow our future leaders. I want to examine what makes a good leader and how those skills can be taught.
  • Project Management: This is more of a sub-case of leadership but it is also fundamentally different in that, in addition to managing people, it is also about managing resources and time. I have learned a lot in my many years in this role (regardless of the many titles I have held, it all really does come down to this almost every time) and want to share what I know and learn what I do not.
  • Miscellany: These bucket is a catch-all for things that don’t neatly fit into the other categories as well as meta-posts (like this one).

I had the idea for this blog and I sat down to explain it to my wife. I said, I need to find a good name for all of this. I need to find a good thing to call these various, disparate thoughts that are, essentially, my figuring out how to understand how our world is changing. “It’s all about navigating the waters. I just don’t know what to call it.” She said, “How about ‘Navigating the Waters?’” I blinked, checked the domain registry to see if it was even available. Five minutes later, this was born.

I have no doubt that whatever begins from the seeds I am planting today may not look anything like what I have detailed above. But it’s a start. I hope that you will join me on this journey and contribute your thoughts. Comments will be open on all posts for two weeks (so discussions are bounded) and all opinions are welcome. I will be culling anything that is nasty or belligerent. Disagree with civility, respond with respect. And if that gets too difficult to manage, we’ll figure something else out. But I figure this should be something we can explore together. That’s the theory, anyway. The plan is to do one major post a week and any number of smaller posts (links, etc.) as needed or as I discover things worth sharing.

Well, that’s enough of an intro. It’ll be fun to look back at it in a few years and see how prescient or how naive I was. But until then, let’s plough ahead!

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