They live online. They buy online. They play online. Their power is growing.
The Toadies broke up. It was four years ago, when Amanda Adams was 16. She drove into Dallas from suburban Plano, Tex., on a school night to hear the final two-hour set of the local rock band, which had gone national with a hit 1995 album. "Tears were streaming down my face," she recalls, a slight Texas lilt to her voice. During the long summer that followed, Adams turned to the Web in search of solace, plugging the lead singer’s name into Google repeatedly until finally his new band popped up. She found it on Buzz-Oven.com, a social networking Web site for Dallas teens.
Now that Adams is a junior at the University of North Texas at Denton, she’s online more than ever. It’s 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday, and she has just sweated her way through an online quiz for her advertising management class. (The quiz was "totally out of control," write classmates on a school message board minutes later.) She checks a friend’s blog entry on MySpace.com to find out where a party will be that night. Then she starts an Instant Messenger (IM) conversation about the evening’s plans with a few pals.
At the same time, her boyfriend IMs her a retail store link to see a new PC he just bought, and she starts chatting with him. She’s also postering for the next Buzz-Oven concert by tacking the flier on various friends’ MySpace profiles, and she’s updating her own blog on Xanga.com, another social network she uses mostly to post photos. The TV is set to TBS, which plays a steady stream of reruns like Friends and Seinfeld — Adams has a TV in her bedroom as well as in the living room — but she keeps the volume turned down so she can listen to iTunes over her computer speakers. Simultaneously, she’s chatting with dorm mate Carrie Clark, 20, who’s doing pretty much the same thing from a laptop on her bed.
You have just entered the world of what you might call Generation @. Being online, being a Buzzer, is a way of life for Adams and 3,000-odd Dallas-area youth, just as it is for millions of young Americans across the country. And increasingly, social networks are their medium. As the first cohort to grow up fully wired and technologically fluent, today’s teens and twentysomethings are flocking to Web sites like Buzz-Oven as a way to establish their social identities. Here you can get a fast pass to the hip music scene, which carries a hefty amount of social currency offline. It’s where you go when you need a friend to nurse you through a breakup, a mentor to tutor you on your calculus homework, an address for the party everyone is going to. For a giant brand like Coke, these networks also offer a direct pipeline to the thirsty but fickle youth market.
Preeminent among these virtual hangouts is MySpace.com, whose membership has nearly quadrupled since January alone, to 40 million members. Youngsters log on so obsessively that MySpace ranked No. 15 on the entire U.S. Internet in terms of page hits in October, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. Millions also hang out at other up-and-coming networks such as Facebook.com, which connects college students, and Xanga.com, an agglomeration of shared blogs. A second tier of some 300 smaller sites, such as Buzz-Oven, Classface.com, and Photobucket.com, operate under — and often inside or next to — the larger ones.
Although networks are still in their infancy, experts think they’re already creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinctions between online and real-world interactions. In fact, today’s young generation largely ignores the difference. Most adults see the Web as a supplement to their daily lives. They tap into information, buy books or send flowers, exchange apartments, or link up with others who share passions for dogs, say, or opera. But for the most part, their social lives remain rooted in the traditional phone call and face-to-face interaction.
The MySpace generation, by contrast, lives comfortably in both worlds at once. Increasingly, America’s middle- and upper-class youth use social networks as virtual community centers, a place to go and sit for a while (sometimes hours). While older folks come and go for a task, Adams and her social circle are just as likely to socialize online as off. This is partly a function of how much more comfortable young people are on the Web: Fully 87% of 12- to 17-year-olds use the Internet, vs. two-thirds of adults, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Teens also use many forms of media simultaneously. Fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds average nearly 6 1/2 hours a day watching TV, playing video games, and surfing the Net, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. A quarter of that time, they’re multitasking. The biggest increase: computer use for activities such as social networking, which has soared nearly threefold since 2000, to 1 hour and 22 minutes a day on average.