Social Networks and Youth in Central America

Social NetworksSocial Networks have moved from being a buzzword, to an essential element of global pop culture. Social Networks are online platforms that provide users with spaces to upload and share information with others on the network. They can be accessed by a series of devices, such as computers, gaming systems, cell phones, and other mobile devices. One key aspect of Social Networks is that the value of the site is amplified as users join and share more information. This phenomenon is explained by Metcalf’s Law, formulated by Bob Metcalf, founder of 3Com and inventor of Ethernet technology. Metcalf’s Law calculates that, “The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system (n²).” This pooling of information has a powerful effect, allowing users to exchange information rapidly, communicating with thousands of people every day.

In Social Networks the average user has access to social publishing software, where they can share their likes, interests, and share news with other friends. A Social Network is also a site for activist discourse, as functions such as message boards and groups allow users to collaborate in new ways. What is revolutionary about this new form of communication is that each user acts as a newscast to their friends and the wider audience of the Internet. When applied to mobile social networks, this gives youth the power to broadcast their concerns right from the palm of their hands. Many Social Network websites have added mobile capabilities to help make their sites more accessible.

Usually users share a variety of data ranging from music, photos, videos, bookmarks, as well as personal information, from likes, dislikes, to status updates on what the user is doing that very second. Some networks specialize in one area, like Flickr.com for photos, YouTube.com for video, and Last.fm for music; yet many of these networks combine a variety of data to allow maximum interactivity for their users. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Hi5, Orkut and TakingITGlobal provide users with a mishmash of these services, all catering to different populations. By using social networks, youth can share information on local and global issues that are valuable to them. TakingITGlobal.org is a perfect platform for youth from around the world, as it brings youth leaders together to share thoughts, articles, poems, pictures, and other forms of media. Social Network sites facilitate transnational communication, which can unite youth across borders to fight transnationally for social and environmental change.

Social Networks

From India to Brazil, youth, artists, musicians, businesses, politicians, and NGOs are embracing these new technologies in order to interact with other users, share information and reach new audiences. Globally Social Networking sites are more popular than ever among youth. According to Microsoft and MSN Advertising’s joint global research study MSN/MTV Circuits of Cool, “Young people are generally aware of social networks – only 18% of those are yet to use them or have never heard of these sites.” Youth choose with whom to share their information, and many youth use their spaces as platforms for social change. They say that the personal is political, and this rings true in the new Web 2.0. Much easier than creating a website, Social Networks allow users to generate their own personal content and connect with each other. Users define exactly what they want to chat about, see, and hear. This is different than traditional media such as radio, television, and print (Burnett & Marshall, 2003). Instead of the television network creating the content, it is the users themselves who have ultimate control. As well, users have the ability to interact with other users content, giving comments, ratings, and similar contributions.

Global Social Networks

In Latin America youth are enthusiastically embracing Social Networking websites, much like the rest of the globe. In 2007, the number of social network users in five major Latin American countries more than doubled (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico). During the same period, Latin Americans residing in the United States also increased their participation in social networks by 48%. On average, Latin Americans spend 375 minutes per user per month on social networking sites, as opposed to 249 minutes in USA. One of the world’s largest communities of social network users is Brazilian youth, who on average have 239 people in their online network of friends (Circuits of Cool – Booklet). While Brazilian youth are attracted to Google’s Orkut, Central American youth more commonly connect through the site Hi5. According to TechCrunch:

hi5

…Hi5 is now ranked as the 11th most popular site online above Facebook at 13th. If you’ve never heard of the site though, there is a reason; most of Hi5’s traffic doesn’t come from the United States. Hi5 is the No. 1 ranking site online in Portugal, Ecuador, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala, and ranks at No 2 in Jamaica, Honduras and The Dominican Republic.

Ranking of Costa Rican SitesIn Costa Rica Hi5 is the rated the 3rd most visited site by Alexa. This shows what a central function online social networks play for Costa Rican youth.

While the majority of Central American youth are using Hi5, Panamanian youth are the exception to the rule, whom, like their Canadian counterparts, have flocked in large numbers to Facebook, with 72,413 Panamanian users at the time of writing (check hyperlink for updated number). As Facebook becomes more and more popular, it is evident that the trends will shift as to what social networking platform youth are using, but the overall trend of social networks will live on for many more years in a number of incarnations.

no tlc

Social Networks provide youth the opportunity to share their thoughts, ideas, and lives in a number of formats. For example, on Hi5 Costa Rican youth use the group’s function to discuss local and world issues. The controversial recent legislation to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Tratado de Libre Comercio – TLC) has caused much online discourse. Youth across the country have joined forces to oppose TLC, and their resistance has taken on grassroots communication strategies such as demonstrations, graffiti, blogs, videos and online forums. A search for groups on Hi5 containing the words “No TLC” brings up 189 results. Each individual group features discussion boards with hundreds of members and messages. The top result was “di No al TLC” (Say no to TLC), which has 1369 members and 2689 topics. Costa Rican youth use the forum to post events, announce new media campaigns, and discuss what is at stake. As of April 2008, the most recent messages include a Feria on Global Warming, an anarchist convention, and the announcement of a radio show against TLC.

On top of TLC, Hi5 has served as a platform for animal rights groups. Many youth use these groups as a news source. For example there have been many outcries on both Hi5 and Facebook against the Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas’s show in Managua, Nicaragua, “Exhibit No. 1.” The artist used a street dog in the art installation, placing the dog at one end of the gallery tied up, and food at the other end out of reach. The dog starved to death, causing outrage from animal rights activists around the world. Through the medium of Social Network groups and blogs, youth activists were able to post photos of the cruelty exposing the artist and causing international uproar. Doriam Diaz from La Nacion reports:

The Costa Rican artist Guillermo Vargas, better known as Habacuc, is surrounded in a big controversy because of the death of a street dog in Exhibit No. 1 in an art show that took place last August in Managua (Nicaragua). Defenders of animals in Costa Rica learned of his work through a blog yesterday and accused him of cruelty. As part of his presentation, the artist showed the viewer a street dog, weak, sick and hungry tied in the corner of the room. He captured the animal in a poor district of Managua. The dog died after a day at the exhibition, as was confirmed to The Nation Marta Leonor Gonzalez, editor of the cultural supplement of La Prensa in Nicaragua. The exhibition also included the phrase, written with dog food, “You are what you read”; As well as an audio with the Sandinista anthem backwards, photos and a burner, which burned 175 rocks of crack cocaine and an ounce of marijuana. Habacuc said yesterday that his work was a tribute to Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan who died after being attacked by two Rottweilers in a workshop in Carthage.

Cases of animal and human rights abuse might go undetected by the mainstream media, but young activists have found a way to virally spread information to their peers with the same interests, thus also attracting the attention of the larger media networks like La Nación.

Similarly, on Facebook Panamanian youth are demonstrating similar trends.  Unfortunately, internet access in Panama is only accesible to 9% of the population, compared to 30% of Costa Ricans. As well, out of all Panamanian internet users it is estimated that 7% have access through the countries InfoPlazas, publically accesible telecentres located across the country (except for the Kuna Yala region).  There is no doubt that Panama is  dedicated to closing the digital divide, yet it is the free market forces, combined with 7% rate of extreme poverty that keeps the majority Panamanians from having access. In total, over half of Panamanian internet users are actively using Facebook, and while their numbers are smaller than Costa Rica, they make up for it in activity.

Panamanian youth use social networks in a similar fashion to their Costa Rican counterparts.  The main rhelm of political activity has its axis in the groups section, where youth form alliances for a variety of different political causes from the Environment to Feminism.  On the right you can see a sample of one users groups, as an example of how Panamanian youth use the groups function of Facebook to build alliances across the country.  Youth also use Facebook to publicly denounce government corruption.  For example, one group is titled “No entiendo cómo la gente puede apoyar a Martinelli” (I don’t understand how people can support Martinelli), denouncing political candidates for the upcoming elections.  Other groups explain  the merits of feminism, with fresh graphics and youth-friendly terminology.  While groups function almost like Brownie-like “badges” for the personal profiles of youth, youth have discovered different applications in order to more creatively display their political affiliations and beliefs.

Badges, function similarly to logos, as youth use them to communicate their values to their other friends, and convert them to causes.  In a sense, Facebook and other similar social network sites turn youth into semi-celebrities, as other youth flock to their profiles to exchange gossip and keep in touch.  Much like celebrities on the covers of magazines, the youth display their most flattering pictures, but also parade their interests.  NGOs often use celebrities to reach youth with sexual health campaigns and messages about preserving the environment, yet youth have already adapted to this celebrity culture and figured out a way for them to include themselves in it.  Part of this includes joining onto the celebrity trend of asserting ones political beliefs, and using the media as a tool for social change. While Facebook is less customizable than Hi5, youth have used a variety of different third-party applications in order to flaunt their political beliefs.

It is evident from the above digital media ethnographies that Central American youth are active in using Citizen Media to project their beliefs, using social networks as a way of broadcasting their opinions to their friends and larger societies.

More and more, the media that everyday youth produce is having an influence on the way that we perceive our world.

While some NGOs spend their money on expensive celebrity-based “peer education” campaigns, much can be said of the power of actual peers who are already engaged in social marketing as independent youth activists.  Social networks are becoming increasingly popular in Central America, and as new mobile friendly sites are constructed, youth who don’t necessarily have access to a computer may be offered alternative forms of engaging with their peers through mobile phones.  The potential for social networks as a site for social change is enormous, and further exploration is needed to explore effective ways of turning dialog into solid action.