Among young people’s online activities, a significant portion involves social networking and communication. The additional social space afforded by the Internet has extended the way young people relate to their surrounding world. This study examined how young people adapt to the networked digital space. Semistructured interviews with adolescents (twelve to eighteen years old) in South Korea and Australia revealed that new norms of social interaction are constantly created and negotiated. First, online participants carefully curate what can be seen and what should be hidden from others. Knowing the global and permanent nature of digital traces, users are mindful of what they post and how they interact online. Second, the continuous presence online results in rapid cycles of interactions, pressuring network members to respond immediately. Online interactions are quickly replaced by new ones, creating a sense of ephemerality. Third, there is a close tethering of the online to the offline world. Young people constantly engage in multiple and simultaneous online social interactions while dipping in and out of their physical realities. The tension between permanency and ephemerality leads online participants to question the authenticity of the partial reality that is depicted online and adds complexity to the norms of social interaction. Fear of missing out (FOMO) existed in both groups of adolescents and was reflected in how frequently they engaged in online interactions.
Communication technologies have been developed to enhance people’s ordinary, unaided senses, extending their ability to communicate with those at a distance. Not only are we separated from one another geographically, but memory fades with time, creating a need to store information externally. Pigeon messengers, telegrams, videos, and print media reflect how people yearn to overcome spatial and temporal limits. As with previous technologies, the Internet has revolutionalized how people store and share information, changing their perception of time and space. Media and communication technologies mediate the nature of how time is experienced (Keightley 2013).
Young people increasingly spend time online engaging in various activities. About 82 percent of Australian teenagers use the Internet regularly, and about one-third are using at least three devices (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2016). Among teens 14–17 years old, 91 percent have a mobile phone (Roy Morgan Research 2016). The situation is similar in Korea, where all 10- to 19-year-olds use the Internet (Korea Internet and Security Agency 2016) and 90 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds use social media (Nielsen 2016). Studies on young people’s use of the Internet and social media suggest that these tools can be a vehicle for strengthening social relationships among peers (Livingstone and Lievrouw 2002). Connectedness enabled by the Internet is mediated by the social environment surrounding young people. Social support from peers enriches adolescents’ Internet connectedness (Jung et al. 2005). However, there are few studies on cultural differences in young people’s social networking and online activities, due to the complexity of the topic, as well as the difficulties in getting access to groups in different cultures. Among the few studies, some indicate that there are differences in how people relate to one another online, depending on culture. According to Sun Sun Lim and Iccha Basnyat’s (2016) study, in the Asian context, the presentation of self in the online space has been linked to the traditional societal norms of keeping “face.” Self-presentation online is a reflection of creating, controlling, and managing online identities to maintain the desired persona of the individual. Another study found that American students have larger and looser networks with a greater portion of weak ties, whereas Korean students have smaller, denser networks with an even ratio of strong and weak ties (Choi et al. 2011). These studies show that information and communication technologies are not merely objects but are affected by existing social relationships and culture.
When new communication technologies are introduced, people negotiate the new and old modes of communication practices. New possibilities are not always compatible with the existing norms of social interaction. Technology affordance, a concept evolved from James Gibson’s (1979) affordances theory, is useful when examining how people, within limits, use technologies. People make use of technologies differently within the boundary created by affordances (Hutchby 2001). This implies an interaction between technology and perception. Andrew Schrock (2015: 1232) differentiates communicative affordances and defines them as the “interaction between subjective perceptions of utility and objective qualities of the technology that alter communicative practices or habits.”
This concept shifts the notion of functions and usage of the medium to the interaction between the interface and the perception of how it can be used. It is the affordances that set the boundaries of usage, as Schrock (2015: 1230) observes: “Individuals might creatively interpret affordances by perceiving different uses, but they do not create affordances in the act of perception.” The potential of uses is activated by people who use technology, and the technology alters the way people communicate (Vitak and Ellison 2013). As such, smartphones and social media created a new possibility: people could engage in instant communication with their online networks enabled by the continuous access to the device. Portability, locatability, multimediality (practices of using multimedia. including text, audio, images, etc.), and availability are some of the affordances of mobile devices as described by Schrock (2015).
Digital devices have become a tool to store memories, which a person can access instantaneously. The Internet has revolutionized the remembering exercise, where anything can be accessed in real time and the preservation of information is almost eternal. By some accounts, easy storage, retrieval, and distribution have fundamentally changed the practices of forgetting: it has become very costly and difficult to forget, whereas remembering is now inexpensive and easy (Mayer-Schönberger 2011). This is problematic when, knowingly or unknowingly, Internet users leave digital traces through their online participation. The permanency of recording daily interactions does not resonate with the existing norms of face-to-face social situations wherein people are used to the here-and-now type of communication, in other words, ephemeral interactions. Parts of what happen in a face-to-face situation are stored in a person’s memory, but it is understood by individuals that events will eventually be forgotten. Now, with digital devices and online platforms, interactions can be permanently stored, regardless of whether users wish to remember them or not.
Another way of looking at how digital technologies are changing people’s memories is acknowledging that what is recorded is not the full account of what actually happened. Rather, digital memories are constructed based on what was recorded via the available digital tools. Digital memory is dependent on situated articulations of devices, systems, conventions, and practices. Memories of people can be retrieved by others, producing data about oneself that is unpredictable (Hand 2016). Digital memory objects are constantly changeable since their presence and absence are not stabilized in space but subject to continual algorithmic classification and reordering (Schwarz 2014). Such objects are classified and reordered through metadata tags in these environments, which are always in process rather than fixed and are created by cultures of connectivity, where perspectives and experiences are mediated by social media (Van Dijck 2011). Even though digital traces are permanent, digital memories are fluid and reconfigurable. How memories are presented within contexts is subject to negotiation in network environments (Hand 2016). People’s relation to the past is redistributed in a new memory ecology that is constructed through the networks.
More important, what is remembered is not a person’s account of an event. Digital memories are collective in nature. The traditional sense of collective memory is based on the assumption that the person and collective are separate entities that are “associated through technological mechanisms, such as media, and through social institutions, such as archives” (Van Dijck 2011: 402). However, memories that are formed online are structured by digital networks and not solely by the person. Private lives become increasingly visible in a vast public archive of everyday life in the digital sphere. For an individual, “it is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable” (Latour 2007: 2).
Hoskins (2011a) uses the term connective turn to describe the transition from a scarcity to a postscarcity culture that is made possible by the abundance, pervasiveness, and accessibility of communication networks. The abundance of digital technologies has made memories “in motion,” where objects and experiences are constantly diffused through the online space (Hoskins 2011b). Memory is a merge of individual and collective, private and public, past and future memories. This new way of constructing memories is a challenge for Internet users because this is changing how they perceive of their self-identities. Memories and the meaning of our experiences interact to form a coherent image. Memories that are consistent with self-image are reinforced, and what does not matter is easily forgotten. Due to digital media that can record communications, online activities, movements, and bodily functions, people are presented with a challenge to maintain this consistent sense of self through personal narratives (Burkell 2016). A consistent story is made possible by forgetting. As Jacquelyn Burkell describes, “forgetting is as crucial to identity as is remembering” (18).
Online digital tools absorb vast amounts of data and represent it through various shapes and colors. It is increasingly difficult to differentiate fad from facts, or rumor from information (Latour 2007). People are aware of how information and images can be distorted and misrepresented in the online world. They also know that permanent digital traces are not representative of what actually happened. Only by carefully filtering what is to be stored online can people gain control of what will be remembered. The curation of self partly reflects this need to have a consistent identity. But at the same time, the online identity is a partial depiction of the self. What is shown online is already limited to a persona that is presentable to the public. This type of privacy allows an individual to retain some control over one’s information, which gives the space to redefine oneself (Mayer-Schönberger 2011). “The scale to draw is not one going from the virtual to the real, but a scale of increasing traceability. The stunning innovation is that every click of every move of every avatar in every game may be gathered in a data bank and submitted to a second-degree data-mining operation” (Latour 2007: 2).
The concept of time has changed in modern society to a mobile and liquid form that negates space. It is, then, the end of the “linear, irreversible, measurable, predictable time” (Castells 2010: 463). The tension between permanency and ephemerality in the digital space is captured when people engage in online interaction. For example, instant messaging services are intentionally ephemeral, simulating a fleeting moment in time. To participate in the rapid cycle of online interactions, the participant needs to assume that the discourse will pass and be forgotten as the past—regardless of how each interaction leaves traces. Permanent storage of digital traces is a threat to this social norm because digital remembering negates time and jeopardizes our ability to make rational decisions, with the abundance of information that can be presented. This is in contrast to how the mind operates where the record of the past triggers memories, but only selectively. “Recall is retrieving from a corpus of memories that is ever changing and which is reconstructed by our mind to take into account subsequent experiences, preference, and biases” (Mayer-Schönberger 2011: 118).
This study examined how young people negotiated their social positions in offline and online spaces and how those two realities were interrelated. The Internet and mobile devices enable individuals to expand their social networks, both on- and offline. One way of thinking through this development is in terms of “networked individualism,” a new social operating system that places the individual as a central node around which the boundaries of close-knit social groups are formed. Through new networking technologies tied to the individual, people can connect to a diverse range of networks and maintain their social ties (Rainie and Wellman 2012).
In this article, I use the term people instead of users when referring to users of technology and the Internet in order to thread the individual with the concept of memory. Memory is central to personhood and cannot be limited to the boundaries of technology (Meese et al. 2015; Kenning and Treadaway 2018). I focused on young people, in particular, as they have featured in many studies of technology recently (e.g., Choi et al. 2011). I examine how the tension between the permanency of digital traces and the transient nature of social interaction with peers is dealt with among young people in their everyday lives. In doing so, I compare the different ways of negotiating online and offline interactions in Australia and Korea. Both countries are similar with regard to the penetration of Internet and digital media. However, there are differences in the daily routines of adolescents, as well as cultural differences. By comparing the two countries, we can acquire a better understanding of how people participate online, negotiate, and interact with one another given the affordances of the technology.
Research Questions and Methodology
The following research questions were set up:
How are the temporal characteristics negotiated when young people engage in social interactions?
What is the relationship between online and offline social interactions?
What are the similarities and differences between Australian and Korean adolescents in their understanding and uses of social media for social networking?
Semi-structured interviews with adolescents (N = 31) were undertaken in Canberra, Australia (February–June 2014), and in Seoul, Korea (June 2014). The Australian sample consisted of 17 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 years (10 females and 7 males). The Korean sample was 14 in total, with an age range of 14 to 16 years (10 females and 4 males). Some of the interviews were conducted in small groups.
All interviews were recorded and transcribed with the consent of the participants. Prior to starting the interviews, participants were informed of the confidentiality of their responses and the voluntary nature of participation. Participants were given an equivalent of a gift voucher for AU$30. The project was approved by the Human Research Ethics Committee at the author’s institution. In this article, pseudonyms are used in place of real names to ensure the anonymity of the participants.
While the sample size was small, the recruitment process involved careful consideration. Using a constructivist grounded theory approach (Breckenridge and Jones 2009), this study aimed to discover “theory from data systematically obtained from social research” (Glaser and Strauss 1967: 2). This involved continuously comparing the data collected and recruiting participants accordingly. Sampling decisions were made throughout the data collection process.
At first, youth groups at church and community organizations were used as initial recruitment sites, aiming for early teens (thirteen to fifteen years of age). Then as the research team analyzed the initial set of interviews, a need to include older teens was identified. Friendship cliques and groups seemed to peak at fourteen to fifteen years of age, and in the late teens their social networks shifted from structured group-based to more dyadic and individualized activities. At this stage, among the Australian participants, the snowball sampling method was adopted by asking interviewees for referrals. To understand the dynamics within groups, friends of the interviewees, who went to the same school, were interviewed subsequently. In case of the Korean participants, recruitment of older teenagers was not feasible.1 The middle school students (thirteen to fifteen years of age) provided sufficient information, however, for the purposes of comparing the two countries’ adolescents. Theoretical sampling in practice is often elusive (Breckenridge and Jones 2009). Accordingly, during the data collection and analyses process, the interviewer attempted to give voice to the participants by not leading with questions but by threading the discussion using the participants’ cues, ensuring their perspectives were understood.
Three Themes Surrounding Permanency and Ephemerality
During the inductive process of qualitatively identifying the main topics, a recurring theme based on temporal cycles and the spatial environment of social activities emerged from the data. The three key concepts that emerged around the perception of time and the differences between the online and offline realities are “curated,” “vanishing,” and “tethered.” These themes repeatedly appeared in interviews when discussing what participants regarded as acceptable norms of online behavior. The questions asked were mainly about the participants’ friendships, social circles, and group activities on and off campus. Therefore, communication tools (face-to-face, phone, Internet) emerged as important elements of discussion. Participants were self-reflective and fully aware of these different modes of communication.
Both Korean and Australian youths in the study actively used the Internet and social media. However, their patterns of use were somewhat different. Most of the Korean participants used Facebook infrequently, preferring KakaoTalk, KakaoStory, and SMS as their main methods of communicating with friends. Their conversations online were mainly an extension of their daily interactions at school and after-school activities. Most friends on social media were those they met on a daily basis. They migrated to and from different platforms, where they had most friends. The main platforms of use changed over time and were considered fluid. For example, June (KR 16) started to use Facebook because her friends were using it. She now uses KakaoStory and KakaoTalk less than she used to.
KakaoTalk and KakaoStory are social media platforms developed by a Korean company for the local Korean market to appeal to people who wish to communicate within their close-knit group by way of messaging as well as sharing information and content with a wider group. The difference between these platforms and more open platforms such as Facebook is that friends and groups are based on existing offline networks, using the phone contacts already stored on the device. Facebook, on the other hand, is more open in the sense that there are various methods of “friending” someone. Friends can be from existing contacts, but people can also get algorithmic recommendations from friends of friends or even receive location- or hobby-based recommendations.
Australian adolescents were mostly using Facebook and Snapchat as their main methods of communicating online with friends. A few did not use social media at all and relied on texting on their phones to contact friends. Arnold (AU 13) did not think he was missing out because he was not using Facebook. “I know the dangers of Facebook and I know the plus sides, but none of my friends use Facebook anyway so I don’t see the point.” The choice of platforms largely depended on what their friends were using.
A previous study indicates that Korean adolescents use the Internet mainly to communicate with friends, whereas Australians have a more diverse range of uses (Park and Na 2015). This can partly be explained by how their days are structured around school and home lives. Typical Korean adolescents do not have sufficient free time to browse the Internet or spend much time with their friends and family after school. They use their mobile phones to access the Internet quickly, mostly to communicate with others, usually while on the move, such as when using public transport, sitting in a car, or outside home or school. In contrast, Australian adolescents spend more time online on their home computers, using a variety of content, and have more face-to-face contact time with friends and family.
While the patterns of engaging with social media were different between the two countries’ adolescents, their perceptions of the online world were very similar in nature. Through the interviews, three distinct characteristics of the participants’ online social interactions were identified. The first—curated—is an awareness of the different atmosphere of online reality, that it is only a sliver of a person’s life that is curated. The second characteristic—vanishing—arises from the temporal nature of online interaction and that interactions are bound to time. Temporality on social media is crucial. If someone is not present online at the time of the conversation, he or she can easily be forgotten. Ephemeral online interaction has shifted the temporal nature of social interaction to an emphasis on immediate, current, and transient conversations. Time is expedited on the Internet. This pressured participants to engage in continuous interactions, due to the fear of missing out (FOMO). The third characteristic—tethered—is that the online world is an extension of the offline world. People overcome temporal and spatial limits by trying to extend their existence online. Digital technologies enable people to manage multiple social networks without having to be present offline all the time. Participants used online platforms to anchor their offline social relationships and did not separate the two worlds. These new patterns of behavior are young people’s responses to the changing dynamics of social interaction. The permanent nature of digital traces and the universality of the Internet are shifting how people interact with one another.
Young people’s response to the open and permanent nature of the online space was to curate their online activities. Curation is selectively depicting oneself by assembling, managing, and presenting certain parts of the life with a goal of appealing to the target audience on social media. Young people carefully deliberated on the images and texts they posted on social media. They targeted the curation to assimilate with the group identities, mostly abiding with group norms with the aim to fit in and belong.
Digital information and content can be easily stored, copied, and shared through the Internet and digital devices. Once shared online, information can be seen and relayed by others. This global nature of the Internet makes it complex for people when they try to manage the information they create and share online. Knowing this, adolescents carefully curated what could be seen and what should be hidden, depending on the context of the social interaction. Young people were aware of the permanency of the digital traces they left online and the potential for them to be shared rapidly and widely.
People have confronted mortality by adopting dualism: the embodiment of body and spirit within the person. It can be argued that religions are established around reducing the uncertainty of an afterlife, so that people can live forever in a form of spirit after the mortal body is dead. Masato Fukushima (2015) takes the concept of two bodies in one and applies this to digital afterlives and virtual immortality. He uses Ernst Kantorowicz’s analogy of the king having two bodies, contrasting the mortal and immortal form of identity with this analogy: “The natural body of the king is his physical, mortal body, which will vanish in due course. Yet the other body, the political body of the king, does not die and lives eternally even after the king’s death” (306). These two bodies are unified. Digital traces are like the eternal body that exists forever. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger (2011) wrote about the role of forgetting and remembering in the digital age and how the future has a chilling effect on what people do in the present. Forgetting has played a central role in decision making in history. The ability to store memories forever deprives people of a fundamental capacity—to act in the present. Externalizing memory has enabled humankind to remember through generations and across time and has altered the processes of remembering.
The affordances of digital technologies allow people to store memories efficiently and permanently, and people devise strategies to adapt their social interactions through this new space. To fully understand the meaning of online social interaction, we need to examine how the affordances of technology are intertwined with people’s social behavior (Hutchby 2001). People, when communicating face to face with others, do not anticipate that the conversation will be saved permanently or shared with others later. The problem with online interactions is that personal communication can become a public record, and the communicator does not always have control over what can be accessed and what is forgotten. In this study, teens were aware of the permanency of the digital traces and their potential to be shared with others. “Yeah, I reckon if someone does something really stupid online and everyone knows about it, then it is quite easy to track down the name and get all the details of that person and really get them in trouble” (Andrew, AU 13).
Teens acknowledged the wider and more undifferentiated audiences they could reach via social media compared to their offline interactions. One way to deal with this openness was to filter what they shared online. Curating what could be seen online was how they coped with their lack of control:
[The online world] I think it would reflect a part of you, but not, but just a miniscule part of you. . . . You can say things that you don’t actually mean online. . . . I guess, like, the online world also hides parts of you as well, as well as showing parts of you. . . . What you decide to post online is just a preview. . . . It’s only part of your life. . . . . You get to choose what you want to show. (Jackie, AU 16)
The potential for storing permanently online created a pressure to always look good among peers and become selective in what they disclosed. Bree (AU 13) was skeptical of what she saw online. “[On Facebook] if you don’t get a lot of likes it makes it look really sad, like no-one really cares. The likes are a huge thing about it. . . . It’s just all about how you look” (Bree, AU 13). They associated a personal comfort level with what was collectively acceptable. For example, Nicole (AU 18) had to get “150 likes for a photo. . . . There’s a comfort level. If you [get] less you kind of feel bad about yourself.” The partiality of what they showed and saw online induced criticism about the selectivity of the reality online. “I think there’s a quality to posting things online that’s very pretentious in a way. . . . Like, oh, I’m having the time of my life, but you couldn’t be because you’re posting it so much about it. How could you be doing anything at the time? . . . It’s a virtual world . . . not the real thing” (Nicole, AU 18).
When online people became wary of the curated reality because it did not feel genuine.
Sometimes people can abuse [the freedom online]. Sometimes people, when they express themselves online, they sometimes just talk about stuff that doesn’t even matter. It’s like when you’re playing a song on your guitar and you drop your pick and it all goes terrible. It’s like, no one cares. Why are you posting about this? . . . It’s just to cause drama and just make people feel on edge and stuff. . . . That’s why I never post on Facebook or anything because I know that, honestly, no one really does care. (Bree, AU 13)
In online space it was easy to hide or falsify identities. “Online, people post what they’re doing . . . but you can’t see what they’re doing. Just like giving them a little bit of information about your life without them having to be there and seeing exactly what you’re doing” (Christine, AU 15). Jeff (AU 15) described how they were “not really seeing them in person so it’s a lot easier to get away with things that you’d never be able . . . that you wouldn’t do in real life.” For example, Justine noted how
one of my friends, when she writes her blog posts . . . sounds a little bit more pretentious. Another one of my friends sounds really weird and whimsical and sentimental when she writes hers. . . . They’re quite different from . . . a little more exaggerated than they are in real life. . . . Maybe that’s the way that they want to be seen. Or maybe it’s the way they really are. . . . It’s complete hyperbole. It’s totally exaggerated. (Justine, AU 17).
Similarly, among Korean youth, the ability to understand social cues was regarded to be critical in the online space and often a cause of social exclusion by peers (Yana, KR 15). It was more important to observe basic etiquette such as replying to messages in online space compared to offline interaction where rules were more flexible (Sally, KR 15). As Hannah (KR 15) described, “You have to pay more attention when you are chatting online.” This was because online communication left traces that built up a person’s reputation in the digital space.
The upside of online curating was that adolescents could experiment with personalities and identities in a way that is hard to do in the offline world. “One girl in particular who I know is really shy, like, I’ve hardly ever heard her talk, and then online she’s everywhere commenting on everyone’s status and all” (Christine, AU 15). Jeff said he was a different person online: “I like to think of myself as a prankster and a jokester. . . . Online I’m a lot more caring and passionate about my friends than I am actually offline” (Jeff, AU 15). Jean (AU 14) found it easier to be herself online because she feels free to make her own choices. Bree (Au 13) thought it was “cool” to have a loose connection with followers on Instagram, not necessarily knowing them or building friendships but just to have a new kind of connection with people. People could behave more freely because “no one’s watching. . . . Some people will just send a whole lot of random letters and they wouldn’t do that in real life. . . . I think it is easier for people to be more free and expressive online” (Andrew, AU 13). People can also be more “expressive in their emotions because you don’t see them face to face” (Hannah, KR 15). The perception that what was revealed online was not the “true self” but was instead a sliver of that self that is intentionally curated by the person gave adolescents a sense of control over the permanency and nondifferentiation of the digital space. Hayley (KR 15) thought that it added flexibility and people were freer because of that.
Presenting an idealized version of their lives was more common among the Australian youth, partly because of their preferred platforms—Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Korean youth used social media platforms primarily to communicate and were more focused on inventing and understanding the rules of social interaction within the peer group. For example, participants talked about how emoticons convey an important aspect in online interaction. If people were not adept at using emoticons, it could limit the conversations they can have online. “When my parents talk in person they are really nice, but when they text, they don’t really express any emotions through emoticons, so it seems cold. They write scant texts with one or two words, so it seems colder” (Harry, KR 16). One way of maintaining relationships online was by using the “like” function. “If you don’t ‘like’ their post, they might feel offended. They know you have seen it and some friends are sensitive about that. I comment frequently for those types of friends” (Hannah, KR 15). Some were mindful of what they regarded as online etiquette. Harry (KR, 16) stated: “Commenting on posts is important because it fulfills the function of communicating and maintaining social relationships.”
The second characteristic of adolescents’ online social activities can be described as ephemerality, in other words, something that vanishes quickly. Online conversations that manifest in social media platforms have a rapid cycle where new posts constantly emerge. People respond to posts by liking, sharing, or commenting. People are not physically colocated in this virtual environment, and the only way to exert existence is by leaving these digital traces. Digital traces are quickly replaced by new ones, so the accelerated cycle of leaving traces and vanishing repeats itself. Because of FOMO, participants felt they had to constantly make their mark.
Social interaction that occurs online simulates the ephemerality of face-to-face interaction. To simulate the existing social norms, social media platforms are presented in such a way that the past is hidden by current posts. New posts are presented in the online space, and participants focus on the present. News feeds on Facebook are constantly updated, and Snapchat stories disappear after viewing. In their study, Bayer et al. (2016) examined the ephemerality of Snapchat by taking an ecological approach to user experiences. Snapchat is a social medium that gives the user more control over audiences by managing temporality in communicating. Messages appear to only those whom the sender intends to receive them, and a receipt is delivered back to the sender. Once viewed, the message is not available anymore, creating a sense of real-time interaction. This “real-timeness” is enabled by the portability that mobile devices afford. Platforms like Snapchat are designed to mimic the norms of pre-Internet social interaction.
While digital technologies can store and remember everything, this does not mean that people will retrieve all memories uniformly. Remembering is a constructive endeavor—people do not remember accurate facts; rather, they reconstruct the past based on their imperfect memory and the context in which the memories are retrieved. Remembering is also a sharing activity. “Sharing is key to keeping memories alive” (Mayer-Schönberger 2011: 27). This constructive element of memory can also be applied in the digital era. When retrieving, the photo or text in question is placed within a certain context, and the information is contextualized. As the information accumulates, it gets harder to comprehend the vast volume of content. Only through careful searching or organizing can relevant information be retrieved. A new type of selective memory, based on search terms, emerges with the abundance of data. Even though digital data is permanently stored, people cannot always access all the information. In many cases, people have to search for information using keywords. The search results are only a part of the information, which is heavily driven by algorithms. Digital traces exist, but they are not always accessible.
Time is a construct that is influenced by the medium that people use to communicate. Media technologies create a sense of time. Diaries, clocks, and calendars, for example, keep track of time and help people remember upcoming events. Live broadcasts mark seasons or times of day (Kaun and Stiernstedt 2014). Different media have different affordances of temporality. Temporal affordances of communication technologies are negotiated by users through reception and use (Keightley 2013). Nicola Green’s (2002) study of social uses of mobile technologies shows how uses are firmly connected to the existing time-based social practices. Manuel Castells (2000: 13) asserts that “timeless time is defined by the use of new information/communication technologies in a relentless effort to annihilate time.” Time is constructed in accordance with the changes in communication technologies. Speed is one of the important elements of late modernity with regard to temporality. Communication technologies in the contemporary era transcend time and space (Keightley 2013). The need for people to have continuity and immediacy expedites the temporal cycle of online social interactions.
Continuous access to the online world was important to the adolescents interviewed because it was their portal to the outside world. “I think it’s quite important if you’re at home and something bad with your family happens and you have to get it off your chest and talk to someone. I think it’s good to have that communication online. So you can just talk to someone immediately about it” (Christine, AU 15). To Christine, immediacy was a crucial component in social interaction online: “I guess these days people are more impatient, so they like to talk about it straight away, right after it happens, which is why it’s easier.”
The immediacy of social interactions online and the rapid cycle of what was discussed among peers reinforced the peer group dynamics that were generated by FOMO. Being “visible” online was an important factor that determined membership in a group. When interacting online, if a participant didn’t speak up in time, you didn’t exist. “We tend not to invite those [to chat rooms] who stay silent” (Sally, KR 15). This was also the case among Australian youth. Jackie (AU 16) checked her phone frequently to “scroll [my Facebook]. . . . I kind of feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t check it every day.” “I get up in the morning and I check my phone straight away to see if there’s anything from the previous night. . . . It’s about fitting in. . . . It’s kind of like this obligation to keep up with social media” (Nicole, AU 18).
Existence online was confirmed by the digital traces. Checking in on various social media platforms was a form of confirming their identities among their peers. The Korean participants’ main platform of use was KakaoTalk. They used this mainly to communicate with friends, either one to one or by participating in group chat rooms. Although they engaged in frequent interaction, this did not necessarily mean that they were conversing or delivering messages to each other. The act of typing something in chat rooms or messaging friends was a form of “checking in.” For example, teens would check their phone first thing in the morning. They did not want to miss out on anything that might have happened overnight. Judy (KR 15) messages “in the morning to meet friends on the way to school . . . and when I go to hakwon (after-school institutes). I ask when they will come on KaS [KakaoStory].” Yana (KR 15) checked KakaoStory before going to school, after school, and before bed. Those who could not participate in the class group chat site called Bantok may have felt left out. Not missing out on news at school is critical among Korean adolescents. Owning a smartphone was an important part of school life particularly among Korean teens. Through smartphones, they could engage in social media instantaneously. This was also the case among Australian teens. Nicole was tethered to her device all the time. “I would say it’s [her phone] definitely a factor that distracts me . . . like always checking my phone. . . . It’s something that’s always lurking so it’s hard to control yourself” (Nicole, AU 18).
Within the context of online interactions, digital traces were ephemeral, and these cycles of ephemerality confirmed people’s existence and identities. Participants felt the pressure to engage in interactions continuously to mark their existence. “You feel the need to contact them on a daily basis, and just, like, to maintain the friendship by commenting on their photos. . . . I guess individuals who they don’t have a phone, they would feel kind of left out. It’s one click away. You just can do anything really quickly” (Nicole, AU 18).
Social interaction online could easily be forgotten. “Something mean will get said [online] . . . but then the next day everything will be okay” (Chloe, AU 14). When online, the temporal factor became more important compared to space. Activities were based on the constructed time online where online participants met and shared a location through social media platforms. Despite the permanent nature of digital traces, online social interactions were ephemeral and were quickly replaced by new interactions. What happened online was easily forgotten and ignored. The contradictory nature of digital traces being permanent and, at the same time, ephemeral added complexity to the ways in which young people explored social relationships and boundaries of social interaction.
Due to the way they were used, online communication platforms reflected characteristics of oral communication. The orality of digital texts is achieved through various techniques manifested in emoticons and Internet slang. In this way, social media platforms simulate transient verbal communication (Soffer 2016).
The third characteristic was the tethering of online to offline realities. Knowing the ephemerality and curation of online activities, young people anchored their digital lives in their offline worlds to confirm reality. Tethering was the behavior of linking what happened online to the offline world to make sense.
For teens, the online and offline world coexisted organically. Online activities gained meaning when connected to their offline lives. They constantly engaged in multiple and simultaneous online social interactions while dipping in and out of the offline space. Social media were used as tools for managing their peer networks in a fluid and flexible manner. By managing time and space via these tools, they gained control over their routines, relationships, and everyday lives.
At home, multiple devices were integrated into domestic life. Media technologies are an “aggregation and integration of a suite of technologies in the home” (Nansen et al. 2009: 185). With mobile devices, the integration was expanded into public spaces, where devices were “always with” the person throughout the day (Park 2013). This “integration” is discussed by Emily Keightley (2013: 63), who asserts that “the structural integrity of public and private domains of experience is increasingly called into question by mobile and digital technologies that routinely traverse these boundaries.”
Most teens using smartphones and social media were constantly tethered to their device, while engaging in multiple and simultaneous social interactions. Digital traces made it possible to reside in multiple online spaces, transcending time limitations. However, it was hard for someone to control the spaces. Permanency and nondifferentiation created a new kind of conflict. “Sometimes Facebook causes fights in a relationship. . . . One time when I went on my boyfriend’s Facebook, I was looking through his photos. I found photos of him with a beer bottle and with another girl. . . . It just goes to show you that you can really misinterpret things online without the context” (Justine, AU 17). Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2014: 1056) define this situation as “context collapse,” where social media users can feel a loss of control when trying to manage discrete social worlds that, at the same time, coexist with each other. Instead of controlling, teens tended to use social stenography or encryption to target a narrow audience among the vastly available audience on social media. In the terms of Marwick and boyd: “Teenagers attempt to simultaneously participate in the networked publics that are foundational to their peer groups while maintaining a degree of privacy. Simply put, they are trying to be in public without always being public” (1052). This applied to their private lives as well. They were in need of constant contact with their peers. Those who had been actively engaging in online activities acquired the skills to manage and maintain their social worlds both online and offline. This was possible because “many teenagers conceptualise privacy as an ability to control their situation, including their environment, how they are perceived, and the information that they share” (1056).
To teens, genuine reality was based in the offline world because online appearances could be forged and only reveal a curated reality. “Well, in real life if you do something lots of times it would normally stay as a personality, but you can’t really change that because of what . . . you don’t know how your friends are going to react. Online you could change that personality and make it so that it makes you look maybe better, or sound better at least” (Arnold, AU 13). In contrast, the offline world was real for them. “The offline world has a bigger impact on life because it’s real life and you can’t change it” (Andrew, AU 13). In most cases, adolescents preferred face-to-face interaction. “When online, you can’t see anything except for what is posted, so you have to think carefully what the person really meant and that’s hard. When offline you can see the person’s expression and I like that” (Hannah, KR 15). June (KR 16) preferred to do some things offline because “when online you can hide your feelings but [offline] you can see the facial expressions, so it feels more comfortable.” Jean (KR 14) said, “You feel like you belong when you talk face-to-face.”
Face-to-face interaction was more influential according to Jean (KR 14). Although Sue (KR 15) spent a lot of time on KakaoTalk talking to her friends, she still thought “offline is more important” and that the online and offline worlds were separate. Online and offline lives were closely intertwined. “[Online conversations] from the previous night continue at school the next day” and that impacted on the relationship with friends because “you can say things online that you can’t offline” (Sally, KR 15). The reason online interaction on social media was important because it was linked to the offline world. “It’s important because you can communicate things like what to bring to school, when to meet and to ask for favors” (Harry, KR 16). Online and offline worlds are separate but connected. However, in many cases the weight was on the offline world. Ella (KR 14) feels “more connected face-to-face because you can see friend’s responses immediately.”
Participants spent most of their time at school. Therefore, offline networks constituted the core of their social lives. It was rare that they would meet someone online, for example, through games, and then become friends offline as well. Most of them felt a stronger sense of attachment and belonging to their offline cliques or friendship networks.
The new social space afforded by the Internet has expanded young people’s boundaries of social interactions. The added space created new social networks and norms. The interviews with young people in Australia and Korea revealed commonalities as well as differences in online interactions and their perceptions of appropriate online behavior. Thinking through and learning the new rules of online social interaction, participants in this study were equipped with and recognized the necessary skills to thrive in the new social environment. The need to carefully curate what to reveal to their social networks was amplified in the online space. Knowing that digital traces could be retrieved in the future, young people were more careful in conducting certain activities online compared to offline space. The way young people dealt with the dissonance between the permanency of digital traces and the ephemeral nature of online interactions that simulate social situations that occur face to face was to constantly update their interactions online and, as a result, expedite the temporal cycle of conversations. The differences in the temporal and spatial characteristics of the online and offline worlds created tension between the two, and to make sense of it, participants often anchored their reality in the offline world, attaching more meaning to the happenings in their offline reality. This indicates some awareness of the affordances of the platforms they were using, as well as some consistency in what the different platforms they used afforded.
However, differences between the Australian and Korean adolescents should be noted. First of all, the choice of their social media platforms was distinct. In general, Facebook (83 percent) is the most used social media among Australian adolescents (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2013), while KakaoStory was used by 86.8 percent of Korean adolescents (National Youth Policy Institute 2014). This was largely reflected by the participants of this study. KakaoStory appeals to those who wish to maintain closed and tight-knit social groups, whereas Facebook offers open networks. As a messaging app, KakaoTalk provides people with more private conversation functions by default, in contrast to Facebook’s default for public messaging. As noted previously, KakaoStory networks are usually based on mobile contacts, implying that in most cases these were existing relationships established offline. Facebook’s friending system differs somewhat, with more diverse ways of becoming friends, in many cases not based on existing contacts.
The Australians in this study made use of the group messaging function in order to differentiate subgroups within their online networks. In this way they carefully crafted the public (Warner 2002) for individual messages. In addition, Australian teens emphasized curation on social media. That is, they were conscious of the multiple publics converging on their posts and scripted them accordingly. Korean teens repeatedly mentioned FOMO as a driver of online participation. This is similar to another study that found Australians preferred to use social media in group activities and Koreans engaged in social monitoring through social media (Lee et al. 2016). Australians were more conscious of how digital traces could distort their true identities, and this also caused them to carefully curate what they presented online. Australians tended to focus on the projection of self and how they performed as a person to wider networks. For them posting and commenting activities were not dyadic interactions but a public message delivered to their loose networks. Group chat rooms were used for specific purposes, such as discussing a party, but were mainly transient, meaning they were formed and dissipated quickly. Koreans focused more on fitting in among their social media networks by participating actively and routinely within the platforms. They were more focused on the connection between the self and the members within a group. Closed group activities allowed Koreans to be less concerned with curation of self but to be more sensitized toward giving and receiving gestural responses to the members (Frosh 2015). The content mattered less than the fact that they were constantly commenting, liking, and responding to others. In this way, their posting and commenting activities confirmed the membership of a tight-knit group. The curation that occurred here had more to do with responding and replying to friends’ online activities regardless of their true feelings or opinions.
While some of these differences can be ascribed to technological affordances of the social media platforms, cultural differences also played a role. For example, although KakaoStory affords the curation of individual groups and therefore the publics converging on individual messages, distinct norms persisted concerning how posts were responded to. In the terms of Michele Gelfand et al. (2011), Korea is a typical restraint culture whereas Australia can be viewed as an indulgent culture, in which there is less strict conformance to collectivist social norms. In these terms, Korea was ranked fifth and Australia twenty-fourth among the thirty-three countries compared. In a restraint society, individuals are suppressed in their needs and regulated by group social norms. Furthermore, Korea has a long history of a collectivist culture based on Confucian values. Korean modes of consumption still depend on neo-Confucian norms of conformity, which have been called the “neo-Confucian habitus” in consumer culture (Kim 2003). There has also been a negative portrayal of overconsumption and commercially driven mobile culture among youth in Korea (Yoon 2006). In contrast, Australians value an individual’s freedom and autonomy (Gelfand et al. 2011). As discussed above, these cultural values were in part reflected in the choice of platforms and the way young people used the tools to communicate and relate to others.
Another sociocultural factor, the structure of the daily lives of adolescents, must also be taken into consideration. The emphasis on mobile phones among Korean adolescents is a reflection of the cultural values of emphasizing groups and others. According to a comparative study of Korean and Australian youth, there was a contrasting difference between the after-school activities of the two countries’ adolescents. The average number of extracurricular activities after school was higher among Koreans. When we examine the type of activities, Koreans had a much higher average number of academic subjects engaged in (math, English/Korean, second language, social studies, science, and writing; mean = 2.12), whereas the average of Australians was 0.8 subjects. On the other hand, Koreans engaged in only 0.05 subjects related to art, sports, or music, whereas the average of Australians in those subjects was 1.22. The type of activities indicates the different contexts of the two countries. Australians mainly participate in sports, music, or art for after-school activities, whereas Koreans mainly focus on academic subjects such as math and science (Park and Na 2015).
Even though the choice of platforms differed, the rules that governed online interactions were similar in nature. FOMO existed in both groups of adolescents and was reflected in how frequently they engaged in online interactions. Participation in online space within the cycle of a post before it vanished was a critical motivation for participating. Being visible was an important part of online group membership, and this pressure resulted in expediting the online interaction cycles and sensitizing participants to temporality. Knowing that postings would be overridden with new ones made time a sensitive issue when participating online. New postings quickly replaced old ones, which were buried and forgotten. FOMO drove rapid and ephemeral participation within the networks in which all participants engaged. Participants constantly checked in to confirm their identities because if they were not visible on social media they could be easily forgotten.
The limits of people’s memories were acknowledged by the continuous updating of posts online. People live in a shorter cycle of events in which online interactions are easily forgotten. For this reason, young people regarded face-to-face interaction as crucial to maintaining their social connections. While the offline networks served as an anchor to their social lives, online existence was regarded to be very important as well. The participants reflected on how important it was to acquire the skills to switch between the two worlds in order to thrive in a digitalized society. Physical spaces allow people to be colocated without having to interact. In online spaces, people share a location only by leaving digital traces (Park 2013). It is only when people make a digital mark that they exist online. This duality enabled teens to selectively reveal what was to be seen by others. They curated what was to be posted online, knowing that digital traces could be retrieved later and could be distributed widely. Sometimes they were skeptical of the partiality that online communication brought but at other times hopeful about the potential of openness. Participants in the study oscillated between valuing permanency and ephemerality. This is comparable with Fatimah Awan and David Gauntlett’s (2013) study, which emphasized that online activities are not simply a replica or reinforcement of the offline world but, rather, an exercise in deepening relationships. However, young people also acknowledged the partiality of an online world that is mainly generated by the curation of online activities.
“The mixing of times in the media, within the same channel of communication and at the choice of the viewer, interactor, creates a temporal collage, where not only genres are mixed, but their timing becomes synchronous in a flat horizon, with no beginning, no end, no sequence” (Castells 2010: 492). The Internet has changed how young people learn to interact socially. Young people acquire skills and learn norms of online behavior through use, experience, and interactions with one another. They devise strategies and rules for social behavior among peers to adjust to the online environments that afford new ways of interacting socially. In particular, the permanency of digital traces and the difficulty in differentiating audiences created tension between the existing and new ways of interacting socially. Through in-depth interviews with Australian and Korean adolescents, this study uncovered how peer group dynamics play a crucial role in developing, adjusting, and modifying what participants understand to be “appropriate” behavior. FOMO, coupled with the nature of online networks, has changed the perception of temporality in social interactions. This perception draws on an idea of continual presence that recasts people’s perpetual presence and awareness.
Digital technology has enabled permanency in memories that is unprecedented. This potential manifests in different ways by how people engage with the technology. In this case study of young people’s use of social media within their social networks, it is confirmed that this permanency of digital technology leads to curated uses, where people can intentionally choose to emphasize or deemphasize a particular aspect of their lives when sharing with others. Young people were cautious about revealing their true self online knowing about the permanency of digital traces. They curated their online identities to manage and control the social interaction that occurred online. On the other hand, awareness of the ephemerality of online interactions led them to leave marks in social discourse so that they would not be forgotten by their peers. This tension between being noticed and being wary of permanency expedited the temporal cycle of social interactions and shifted the focus to the present in their online engagement.
Whether or not cultural differences were reflected in their choice of platforms was not the main focus of the study, but it was clear that the two countries’ adolescents had a strong preference for the type of social media platform they used to engage in social interaction. Koreans primarily used a closed platform—KakaoTalk or KakaoStory—where most of the friends in the platform were identified through existing acquaintances by way of mobile phone contact lists. These are designed to migrate offline networks into the online space and afford a closed structure. Australians primarily used a more open platform—Facebook or Instagram—where the connections are not entirely based on offline contacts and where the degree of privacy is varied. People belonged to multiple loose networks, which were not usually identified as closed groups.
The combination of consumer culture and neo-Confucian social norms of conformity (Kim 2003), as well as the long day of staying in the same space with over thirty classmates, explains the differences in the perception of the networks. In this study, cultural values were not investigated and deserve further inquiry in future studies. How the hybridity of traditional social norms and consumerism plays out in the online world among young people will strengthen our understanding of youth in the digital age.
More broadly, and returning to the research questions posed, this study has shown how different social media platforms are consistent in how they shape young people’s conception of temporality and, in a related way, how they are embodied online in different sociocultural contexts. This study also reveals how young people’s projections of their own presence and interactions with others, first, are highly conscious achievements and, second, require constant care and attention, or curation. Although they still regarded their physical embodiment as the locus for their identities and interactions, they were highly dependent on social media platforms to support relations with and memories of interactions with others. Thus, central to their being a “young person” were not only the social media platforms affording the ongoing construction of their identities but also the memories that were mediated through these same platforms. Although different sociocultural groups’ use of particular platforms for mediating these memories through digital traces was consistent, exactly how their relations with others were maintained through, for example, the configuration of groups and therefore publics and the norms of their interactions differed. I therefore suggest it is difficult to generalize conceptions of all young people’s engagement through social media platforms, in the terms of particular kinds of social relations such as networked individualism (Rainie and Wellman 2012). For even if a social media platform may afford social relations being configured in certain ways, this study has shown that young people are adept at reconfiguring social relations according to persistent sociocultural norms.
An earlier version of this article was presented at the “Homo Sapiens, Mortality and the Internet in Contemporary Asia” conference (14–15 March 2016) Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore). I thank the participants at the workshop, anonymous reviewers, and the guest editors of this journal for the constructive feedback.
The main challenge of recruiting older teenagers in Korea was that most high school students attend after-school private tutoring institutions (called hakwon), which left very little free time to engage in any nonacademic activities, including participating in interviews. Both the limited time and the mentality of not wasting time on any nonacademic activities were main obstacles.