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Social Media in 2020 and Beyond

If you’re one of those people who don’t get all the fuss over Twitter and YouTube, hoping they’ll simply go away, you may not want to read the results of a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

If, on the other hand, you’re an eager participant in these social media outlets, or aspire to Tweet or join Facebook yourself, but fear that time has passed you by, the survey being released Friday should set your mind at ease.

And if you’re somewhere in between — intrigued but not sure about the long-term wisdom of sharing personal thoughts and preferences on the World Wide Web — you are likely to come away with a new appreciation of the deep roots these online sharing tools have already sprouted in the habits of the Millennial generation and of the folks who study Internet technology.

In the survey of 895 “tech experts” and “highly engaged internet” users, two-thirds responded that today’s millennials will continue, as they grow older, to “disclose a great deal of personal information” in order to stay connected, and to “take advantage of social, economic and political opportunities.”

Janna Anderson, associate professor at Elon and director of the Imagining the Internet Center, told me the idea for the survey grew out of informal debates underway lately over whether young people are likely to continue their extensive use of social networks, or to outgrow them. The consensus view of those who answered the online survey is that “digital natives” who have already adopted communications patterns involving social networking and other social technology tools will hold fast to them, as these young people grow older, have families, and rise in income level.

But I found the survey report as valuable for the scores of individual comments it cites, as it is for its overall conclusions.

Anderson – who teaches communications and is an active user of Twitter and Facebook herself — said it was to be expected that the the sample of those who responded, would tilt in favor of assuming the younger generation will stay connected. She acknowledged the point of the survey is to encourage discussion … and illuminate issues if possible.

For example, some respondents expressed concern over a “digital divide” – separating technology haves from have not’s. But she quoted a professor at the University of Toronto, Barry Wellman, who commented, “‘Everyone is a socialist at 20 and a capitalist at 50. Didn’t George Bernard Shaw say that? Now, everyone is an information socialist at 20 and an information capitalist at 50.'”

Other survey participants raised privacy issues: Benjamin Mordechai Ben-Baruch, senior market intelligence consultant and applied sociologist, predicted “increasing discrepancies between countries in terms of privacy laws and the protection of privacy. Advertisers and corporations will want people to provide their personal information … states will want to collect as much personal information as possible in order to more efficiently control populations.”

And this one, about the millennials: “Unless Generation Y has a collective privacy-related epiphany, they will continue to happily trade it for convenience,” noted Gervase Markham, a programmer for the Mozilla Foundation.

I also found this comment from Rebecca MacKinnon, at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University: “Just as Gen Xers and Baby Boomers have changed the way they share information over time, so will Gen Y. Nothing is going to stand still. Social networking is in its infancy and people are certainly learning some lessons about what happens when you share too much information with the world.”

MacKinnon adds: “…by 2020 in developed Western countries, the online and offline worlds are going to be increasingly blurred and integrated. That means that social norms from the online world will impact offline social norms, and offline social norms, rules and laws, will move more deeply into cyberspace as well. Everything changes everything.”

More than a survey, the findings add up to an extended, thoughtful conversation about technology and tools that are changing lives in the blink of an eye.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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