Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Social Construction of Friendship Among Israeli Youth - English Abstract

Friendship Over the Net: The Social Construction of Friendship Among Israeli Youth in Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC)




Advances in computer technology and computer-mediated communication (CMC) have instigated and enabled significant change in economies, education, lifestyles and social relationships worldwide. New information and communication technologies (ICTs), including instant messaging, chatrooms, newsgroups and cellular phones, are rapidly spreading and being integrated into everyday life. One of the most central agents of these transformations are children and adolescents.


Among youth, mass media activities are dominant and include listening to popular music, chatting on cellular phones, acquiring fashionable artifacts, viewing television, playing computer/video games and surfing the Internet. Surveys indicate that North American youth dedicate nearly half of their waking hours to media activities (Mastronardi, 2003). These new venues of mass media activities, and particularly the Internet, evoke social change and new forms of behavior and relationships for young people.


Youths' friendship relations play a pivotal part in the lives of adolescents (Corsaro,1997; Mannarino,1980; Eisenstadt, 1971 [c1956]); these are currently undergoing major shifts and they require re-examination. This study aims to contribute to this field and discuss the connections between youth, the computer/Internet and the construction of friendships in Israel. The study questions how online relationships are modified among youth in computer-mediated communication? How do the relationships constructed through the Internet affect the modes of youth in Israel? To examine these questions, the research analyzed a group of adolescents who are deeply immersed in the Internet and integrate it into their daily lives.


I argue that within its unsupervised realm, properties of the Internet (i.e. anonymity, interactivity and community-building) are linked with the characteristics of contemporary youth culture (i.e. moratorium, liminality, youthful creativity and modern forms of peer grouping). The convergence evokes the invention of a vibrant symbolic language of youth (e.g. linguistic idioms, emoticons and humorous-iconic representations; Chapter 3); entrepreneurial activities together with new forms of exchange and gift-giving (Chapter 5); as well as the creation of online trust relations that are the features of new adolescent culture (Chapter 4).


To explore the evasive and informal participation of youth in the virtual realm, a specific research strategy needed to be explored (Chapter 2). The research utilized several methods and resources. Its main source was in-depth interviews conducted with 38 adolescents between the ages of 12-21, between 1998-2003. These youngsters were identified as computer "virtuosos" (i.e. youngsters who had attained high levels of expertise in the computer world and maintained an exclusive youth-computer culture). This group served as a "critical case study" group, where by exploring the cultural patterns underlying their everyday practices and symbols I strove to uncover the most salient features of contemporary youth’s technologically-oriented culture. Most of the interviews were conducted face-to-face in the private environment of adolescents’ homes[1], while sitting together at their personal computers. These interviews enabled me to investigate their activities and uncovered their preferred chatrooms, newsgroups, game activities, and more.


Throughout this study, I describe and analyze three major points of youth cultural transformation over the net: - creation of new symbolism, the construction of trust relations and the emergence of youth entrepreneurship (chapters three, four and five, respectively). The first transformation explores the symbolic aspect and the creation of new forms of expression, such as: new patterns of iconography (e.g. avatars, emoticons) or linguistic playfulness (e.g. slang, idioms, metaphors), derived from fantasy science fiction, sports, etc. These symbolic means constitute a distinct meta discourse code, which utilizes the rich resources of the multimedia interface, much in the way that adolescents' dress and musical styles are meta codes that demonstrate cross-clique variations. 


The second theme is the construction of trust, and the ways it is redefined by youth's online relationships (Chapter four). As trust may be defined as “confidence in the reliability of a person or system” (Giddens, 1990)[2], the new means of computer-mediated communication poses a challenge to the formation of trust. In contrast to studies indicating the existence of trust over the net (e.g. the exchange of individual goods, production of public goods, the existence of stable social networks, communities, and effective social norms, see Baym, 2000; Kollock,1999; Parks and Floyd,1996; Raymomd,2001), this study focuses on the ways in which trust is created and maintained over the net. In this study, I aimed to shed light on the Internet’s role and potential for fostering social integration and collective ideals, as well as uncover the ways youth communicate and fraternize in today’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) society. Findings uncovered several tensions and impediments, including: anonymity, the norms of cybernetic interaction, lies, masks and un-credible behavior, discontinued relations, spontaneity and the Israeli public's images of the Internet). The study reveals 5 strategies for the creation and maintenance of online trust: control over anonymity, continuity and perseverance, digital exchange (of experiences, advice and sentiments; "community knowledge" and "digital goods"); the interplay of online lies and masking; 'technological choices for maintaining trust' among youth.


The third theme is the creation of cultural entrepreneurship over the net (Chapter 5). In the sociological tradition, the role of the entrepreneur and his/her interaction with surrounding society has been compared to other roles in society such as the manager, the gambler, the capitalist and even the professional (Peterson,1981; Schumpeter,1957 [c1943]) which emphasize traits, control, specialization, creativity and risk taking. These traits concur with the rapid evolution of ICTs, yet apparently stand in opposition to the structural condition of youth where youngsters are largely controlled by adult culture and are encouraged to perform within institutional boundaries (e.g. school, family, youth movement, army). The question is how are youth socialized (or how do they socialize themselves) to perform in today's technological culture? The study demonstrates how youth's unique social networks and friendship alignments enable experimentation, trial and error, and foster an entrepreneurial culture. This is performed in various activities where adolescents demonstrate high levels of social exchange and management of personal resources, including: collecting, indexing and the constant organization of digital goods such as music files, movies, games or computer programs, as well as creating cultural productions, mobilizing human resources and experiencing with various modes of interchangeable behavior, such as morality (e.g. masking and lying or disclosure and truth telling), expressivity (e.g. support or verbal abuse) or interactive relationships (personal/collective; friendly/collegial).


The following three impact of ICT regarding contemporary youth and friendship relations are discussed in the next section: 

A. Youth Cultures and Risk Society

B. The Profile of Digital Youth

C. Virtual Friendships


A. Youth Cultures and Risk Society:


Literature dealing with the sociology of youth since the early 20th century has focused on the rapid changes in the status of youth, their relations with modernity and their position in conditions of dramatic social change, in education, employment, leisure consumption, etc. (Coleman,1961; Davis, 1999; Eisenstadt, 1971 [c1956];  Friedenberg, 1963; Furlong and Cartmel,1997; Kahane,1997; Miles,2000; Milson,1972; (. In this framework, youth are described as being threatened by the influence of postmodern fragmentation, risk, alienation and globalization. In light of these social threats, “digital youth” may serve as a case study for uncovering the impact of modernity and the technological society, while serving in what Milson (1972:24) referred to as a “frontier society”, where they are constantly standing at the frontier of social change and cultural innovation.


In light of the rapid social and cultural changes in the post modern era, I argue that   informal systems foster trust relations, especially by adapting to contemporary technological innovations[3].  In spite of occasionally anti normative, or even what may be viewed as deviant, expressions over the net (e.g. masking and fibbing, frequent copyright infringements, spreading computer viruses and “spyware” and the  various activities of hackers), I maintain that the social system over the net fosters trust. Trust is achieved through the creation of personalized social networks and a social concept of “online friendship”. In opposition to institutionally-based friendship arenas (at the workplace or school, for example), these associations reinforce the net surfers’ sense of personal freedom of choice. 


The “Net Society” (also regarded as “the information society” or “the digital age”) poses new forms of risks for surfers in general, and “digital youth” in particular. Popular notions of the Internet often stress online deviance (e.g paedophilia, “cyber-crime”, hackers, “crackers” or “phreakers”) as sources of risk. This may be explained in terms of moral panic relating to the position of the Internet in society. However, this can be explained by exploring the structural characteristics of net society as demonstrated in the table below.


Structural Characteristic of “Net Society”
Social Risk
1. Extensive encounter with Technology
Anachronism, social anomie, alienation towards technology (“technophobia”), disorientation
2. Innovation and Rapid Technological Change
3. Enhanced (online) accessibility
4. Self Determined activity (Individualism)
Atomization, social isolation and alienation


The study demonstrates how groups of adolescents created new strategies to control and eventually foster social trust, as well as a sense of meaning, personalization and interpersonal friendliness. This can be viewed in various practices reviewed throughout the study, including digital exchange, personal control of anonymity/disclosure, the creation of digital texts, jokes and playful activities. Through these practices, adolescents transform their computer-based activities into a personalized and humanized social experience. This is achieved by inserting animated elements into the cybernetic realm. The study demonstrates how youngsters transmit meanings from their on- and offline experiences towards the creation of a cultural environment that includes a distinct symbolic array of youth’s most commonly-used metaphors, language and iconography. These means shape the nature of the net and serve to transmit humanistic and communal meanings over cyberspace. For example, the study discusses various ways in which online signs and discourse were interpreted by youngsters as producing humoristic gestures (e.g usage of “absurd” nicknames, avatars depicting monsters or playful idiomatic texts). These symbolic acts foster a sense of unconditional receptiveness of the youthful venues towards their participants and a sense of freedom to participate in this new and vital culture. 


B. The Profile of Digital Youth


In light of (post) modern risk society, I ask what the nature and orientation of "digital youth" is. Findings in this study point to a new form of youthfulness[4] that can be summed up in six distinct characterizations:


1. Extended youthfulness

2. Fluid youthfulness

3. Individuality and the concept of freedom

4. Active Youth

5. The Institutionalization of Virtuosity among Youth

6. Pluralistic youthfulness


1. Extended Youthfulness -


Postman (1986 [c1982]) viewed changes in technology and mass communication as consuming the concept of childhood and transforming the child into a "little man". Accordingly, the Internet can be viewed as an agent for eroding the concept of youthfulness and integrating adolescents into adult culture. In contrast to this assumption, the findings of this study demonstrate an augmentation of youth culture. The study points to the ways youngsters have created a culture of entrepreneurship, characterized by cultural productivity, exchange and practices of collecting digital goods. Even properties that could be identified with the worlds of adults (e.g work ethic, rationality, utilization of scientific-technological principles and practices) are amalgamated with youthful meanings (e.g. humor, playfulness).


2. Diffuse Youthfulness

On the net, one we can point to a change from a homogenic and integrative grouping of youth to a more diverse diffuse, low-density social organization of adolescents. This can be demonstrated in two aspects: online peer groups and online identities.

(a) Online Peer Groups - In modern society, most venues for youth are controlled by adults via members of the family or the community (e.g. schools or religious agents). In contrast, over the net, adult supervision is low. As a result, and due to the anonymity the Internet facilitates, peer groups are to a large extent not defined by class, gender, SES or geographical location. In this new realm, the individual's status is defined by its social virtuosity within the group, degrees of acquaintance and levels of knowledge in the technology and social codes of specific groups. The study demonstrates the ways that participants in observed newsgroups reacted with sympathy, suspicion or rejection towards other participants in accord with these new sets of norms and social criteria. In addition, the size and significance of the peer group varies in net culture. The group itself changes through spontaneous efforts of recruitment, voluntary engagement and disengagement as well as fashion or the dynamics of software production[5].

(b) Online Identities: Playing with identity has been a central theme in the early stages of CMC research (see Bechar-Israeli, 1995; Danet, 1996; Turkle, 1995). However, literature has focused little attention on its place in the lives of youth. Recently, studies incorporated the celebration of youth culture in their virtual identities, particularly in the study of online textual and graphical representation blogging, or the creation of homepages (Abbot, 1998; Chandler & Roberts-Young. 1999; Huffaker and Calvert, 2003;Webb, 2001). Moreover, studies indicate that teenagers stay closer to their offline identities in their online expressions of self than has previously been suggested (Huffaker and Calvert, 2003; for a similar finding among adults in informal virtual settings see Kendall, 2002); however, these studies did little to explain the structural changes in the position of youth and youthfulness in light of their interplay between their online/offline experience.


In this study, I demonstrate how the concept of identity is challenged in cyberspace. In his studies on youth, Erikson (1968) viewed adolescence as a transitional stage towards a stable and integrative formation of identity. In contrast to Erikson's observations, digital youth has created and negotiated a new and distinct identity that deviates from offline identities. Accordingly, collective identities that characterized adolescents offline become vague and irrelevant in cyberspace. Collective adolescent identities in Israel, such as "Shas youth" or "Leftist Socialist youth" ('Young Guard') are hardly recognizable in cyberspace. Rather then being defined as a collective, adolescents in cyberspace are seen according to their individual talents, online achievements and self-adapted representation (e.g. choice of nicknames, avatars). Youngsters often relieve themselves from pressures and expectations of collective identities and expand their social liminality (in Victor Turner's terms see Turner, 1969)-. The creation of personal homepages, blogs and stable representations and identities in newsgroups and games point to a revolution in the form and meanings of youthful identity created by the individual while adhering to the peer group, rather than the collective or primordial culture.


In addition, while research of online identities over the net often emphasized the rich and vivid representations of net surfers, the analysis of adolescents' perspectives of the “other” (in terms of reciprocal exchange or social trust) may contribute to our understanding of youth’s concept of their self-identity in the virtual realm. The study demonstrated how youths' identity was constructed not only by their ability to playfully make over their own virtual representations (as a monster, magician, movie star, etc.) but it also demonstrated how they experienced various kinds of exchange and (as mentioned above) different types of knowledge (e.g. popular culture, scientific-technological or personal-expressive sentiments). The case of digital youth may prove useful for exploring the formation of diffuse, flexible and changeable identities. As the study demonstrates, these identities reflect a search for originality, ingenuity, and innovation.


3. Individuality and the Concept of Freedom


Kahane (1975) points to an inherent conflict between youths and adults with regard to control/autonomy in socializing organizations. Whereas an increase in youth autonomy may lead to delinquent and anti-social behavior, an abundance of adult intervention may jeopardize organizations as an attractive and meaningful socializing agent (Kahane,1975:23-24). Analyzing the Internet as an agent of socialization bears a similar dilemma. In their online activities, adolescents are free, to a large extent, from the parental control and supervision that characterize other socialization institutions. In the Internet one could expect an uncontrollable behavior, sometimes even deviant, as youth are often vilified for mass infringements of intellectual property rights, rises in hacker activity, a major expanse in the distribution and consumption of pornography etc. The rise of a new form of youthful freedom and peer organization comes alongside the risk of deviant social boundaries and taboos.


This study points to the expansion of youth and freedom in online activities[6]. As web savvy technological virtuosos, youngsters select their degree of freedom and manage to avoid their on- and offline gatekeepers. In addition, participants choose periods of their lives when they are active or inactive in various online activities. Accordingly, teens have reported occasional periods of extensive use of a certain online activity (e.g. chat, multiplayer gaming [MMOG or MMO], participating in newsgroups), as well as lengthy intervals of little social activity over the net. This serves as a means for managing their various social relationships online where surfers may expand, terminate, strengthen or weaken their social connections and friendships. These relatively manageable relations stand in opposition to youth's everyday obligations and associations (e.g. the family, school, extra-curricular activities, youth movements).


In addition, activities of freedom have been translated into pragmatic meaning. As observed and analyzed in the chapter dedicated to digital entrepreneurship, youth seek opportunities over the net to experience dialogue, music, narrative writing or gaming while integrating these fields of knowledge into their everyday lives. In this context, youth socialize themselves on the net. This process offers them a way to re-constitute their selves as well as to reconstruct their affiliated virtual groups.


4. Active Youth


Popular notions, echoed by the social sciences, tend to regard youth as being rebellious by nature, and accuse them of forging a hedonistic culture (Brake,1980; Cohen, 1987; Griffin, 1993; Keniston, 1971). Theoretical studies of youth in society are haunted by images of passivity and utter dependence, controlled by adults in general and the various forces that drive society (e.g. economic, political, technological, etc.) (Eisenstadt, 1971 [c1956]; Keniston, 1971; Mannheim, 1964; Postman, 1985). In this study, I claim that over the net youth are active in cultivating creative activity to the degree that the culture of digital youth may be perceived as that of cultural innovators and entrepreneurs. While social trust and friendship serve as a precondition for this development, the study demonstrate how adolescents create tools for social interaction. In the discussion of the symbolic tools of interaction, the study illustrates how youth create virtual resources, systematically collect these assets and are active in the exchange of digital resources (of digital products, professional knowledge, personal experience or semi-monetary exchange[7]). In this manner, youth respond to the dynamic nature of the Internet and develop skills that are suitable to the contingent situations on the net.


5. The Institutionalization of Virtuosity among Youth


In the past, much of the literature suggested that individuals generated changes in technological in general and in the worlds of computers, high-tech and cyberspace in particular (Hafner, 1996; Kaplan,1999; Reid, 1997; Rogers & Larson, 1984; Segaller, 1998). These individuals were often portrayed as young people in informal settings, which often stood in opposition to their contemporary means and norms of training. Classical examples can be seen in the biographies of Galileo, Copernicus, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and others. Weber described how the process of rationality institutionalized science within the confines of universities and  bureaucratic control, and eroded the place of the sole “inventor”, transferring these innovations to academic, economic or military settings. The rise of computers and computer-mediated communication has contributed to a change in the process of the “bureaucratization of science”. In this study, I focus on a sphere that is free from bureaucratic control. In contrast to views that centered upon viewing innovation as being cultivated by individuals or a bureaucratic culture, youth’s net culture demonstrates the rise of a culture of technological virtuosity. These youngsters employ their creative and productive efforts and divert them towards today’s most advanced technological developments. In this sense, hacker activity is most salient as that of technological virtuosos who mark a break with contemporary computer software and even challenge the social and moral order (Nissan,1998; Taylor, 1999). Hacker activity may serve as a case study in this sense, demonstrating a much larger phenomena of youth’s entrepreneurial activism on the net. Youth who are busy collecting, exchanging and the creation of cultural “artifacts” over the net (such as blogs, homepages, movies, animation, prose or pictures) and software (e.g. game “patches” and “cracks” enabling them to reproduce a copy of a desired commercial program, and save money, or to be able to manipulate a computer game).


This new category of youthfulness is unique in several respects: First, from the perspective of the sociology of youth, a change can be observed where the marginal and dependent group (legally, economically and normatively) of adolescents are transformed into a meaningful agent of technology and innovation. Second, in the study of social entrepreneurship, we can view a unique case study where a social category embraces a mode of creation, invention and innovation within the informal setting of the Internet. This is to say, as opposed to the classical modernistic concept which views inventions with extended periods of external training instructed by experts within rigid arrangements (including a structured curriculum and directed by socially acknowledged professionals), we see how an informal system cultivates a culture of creativity.


Rather than viewing the Internet as a chaotic social sphere, it may be viewed as an environment which fosters virtuosity and institutionalization. In this reality, youth engage in the construction of ties and communities, collect virtual artifacts and knowledge, and organize fellowships of learning and debating. In this manner the activity over the net is transformed from a chaotic experience to an organize units of collaboration of meanings.


6. Pluralistic Youthfulness


Anthropological studies of youth adopted Victor Turner’s view of liminality, where youngsters dwell in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness and indeterminacy. According to this view, only after undergoing this process may one enter into new forms of identity and relationships, and rejoin the everyday life of the culture. Accordingly, during childhood and adolescence commitment to primordial identities (e.g. religions, ethnicity, status, etc.) is partial and moratorium is salient. Cyberspace, as a relatively new social environment, enables experimentation and failures. Online, the tension between commitment towards one’s primordial ties and intercultural encounters (harmonious/antagonistic) has diminished and new tensions or forms of communications are established. In this study, we learn how youth’s activities over the net serve as an integrative and bridging platform between different groups. In this reality, youngsters instill a sense of trust between members of different (offline) identities and cultures, while on the individual level, the net opens new mean of self-expression, achievement and empowerment of the self. Let me explain three expressions of the pluralistic youthfulness:


i)            Symbols and Language – The cybernetic experience invites a new mode for language and communication among net surfers. This new language consists of a unique symbolic system with new ways for creating symbols, iconographic representation and verbal articulation. Paradoxically speaking, this new way of expression, distanced from traditional modes of communication, creates a common frame for participants of diverse backgrounds (e.g. different ethnicities, diverse age groups, gender).

ii)            Masks and Anonymity - As demonstrated throughout the study, net surfers are free to reinvent their identities, self-representation and self-disclosure. Youth are free to express and play on forms of racial and historical tension (such as using provocative Nazi symbols for self-representation) or use dispassionate or "neutral" representations that are not identified with any group (including the use of gibberish and nonsense portrayal in their pseudonyms). These masks enhance an environment of moratorium where youths may experience and experiment with a large array of intercultural encounters (e.g. girls/boys, Israeli/foreigner, adolescent/adult), rules and roles with minimal risks or sanctions and without threatening the social system.

iii)            Technological Meritocracy - This study demonstrates how youth, as an important part of online society, fostered an alternative set of criteria for the formation of social status, which is not defined by ascriptive standards. This new system is based on knowledge of specific subject matters (as demonstrated in the case of Israeli basketball fans within the observed newsgroup of "Tsahevet"), and on subjects related to Internet technology, computer software and hardware. For example, the study demonstrates how teen surfers became operators ("ops") and frequent responders in a newsgroup were perceived as its informal leaders. These new forms of linguistic and symbolic expression, the technological meritocracy, masks, anonymity and lies dispersed on the net all demonstrate how youth recreated new standards for prestige within the online peer group. The abundance of situations, activities and means of expression over cyberspace enable youngsters to express their interests and talents, acquire power and prestige and   foster a sense of self worth. Under these conditions, youth cultivated a culture based on an initial sense of equal footing and symmetry as well as a pluralistic encounter that tends to accept rather that reject or ostracize the "other".


In spite of the pluralistic nature of the net, little is known of the effects of this pluralism upon offline settings. For example, are the attitudes of surfers with regard to interracial/ethnic/gender/generational tensions more likely to change due to online experiences and experimentation with alternative roles and identities? This question pertains not only to the online/offline relations, but to the very meaning and impact of informal agencies, beyond the situations and perimeters of their own social frameworks (such as outside a dance club or several years after participating in a youth movement). As stated, the study pointed to a profile of online youthfulness with six distinct characteristics.


C. Virtual Friendship


Social scientists have long criticized modernity, linking it with expressions of social anomie and alienation (Durkheim, 1949; Kasperson, 2000; Tourain, 1995). New technologies, identified with modernity, were often viewed as stimulators of alienation and agents of the ever-growing gap between the individual and society[8]. This is apparent in psychological and psychiatric reasoning (Kraut et. al. 1998; Kuntze et.al, 2002) regarding the Internet. In this discourse participation and virtual activities are often viewed as fostering an impoverishment of various aspects of life that are essential to social development, including interpersonal relations and emotional growth. This research points to a different direction, and analyzes the deconstruction of the meanings of friendship over the Internet.

        In cyberspace, meanings of friendship are reinterpreted and deconstructed; for example, categories such as "anonymous strangers" or "many" are incorporated into the realm of friendship. This transformation bears alternative meanings for surfers, including an expression of the self, socially experimenting with new acquaintances or sharing online experiences (e.g. social exchange, sharing sentiments, gaming). In this sense, online friendships have become innovative social phenomena for observing current culture as well as a new normative pattern of behavior. 

        This reconstruction of online friendship over the net can be seen through concepts such as the "virtual gift", the new symbolic representation in cyberspace, the creation of a diffuse and spontaneous form of friendship, the transference of friendship to the public realm and signified friendship.


Friendship and the Virtual Gift


Since the classical publication of Marcel Mauss, ethnographic studies have discussed the centrality of the gift and personal exchange relations as playing a central role in the social organization of societies. Social exchange is based on the premise of mutual benefits and the assumption that each participant has relative advantages over the others in one or more resources. In comparison, online gifts are different in the nature of the virtual "objects", the modes of exchange and scarcity of the exchanged objects. Exchange consists a symbolic world of information, rather than physical attributes, where it is possible to produce an infinite number of perfect copies of a piece of information such as song files, computer software or animation (Kollock, 1999:221).   In this sense, conventions of evaluating the social prices of goods are reexamined and social behavior regarding gift giving, altruism, and hostility are restructured. Furthermore, as the main commodity over the web is information, an item for which there is no general scarcity or shortage[9]. Under these conditions an alternative and complementary mode of friendship has emerged where adolescents are able to create and maintain their social connections through conveying information and gift giving, without exhausting their own resources. In this sense, gift-giving practices have been expanded over the net and has become a common gesture in youth culture. In this study, four types of exchange were discerned: (1) experiences and sentiments, (2) professional knowledge, (3) digital goods (e.g. songs, pictures, software), (4) “money value”[10]. Youth discard a materialistic view of friendship or assumptions which tie exchange with a generalized value (such as money, according to Simmel). Rather than reducing their virtual activities to its mere utilitarian value, youths’ engagement with social exchange demonstrates a broad conception of the Internet and points to their prominence in its emerging culture.


Signified Friendship


Self-representation over the net differs from that of face-to-face relations. Over the net, the individual is anonymous, which enables social moratorium. By discussing the symbolic and iconographic culture forged by surfers, I demonstrate how nicknames (“nicks”), avatars and linguistic idioms have formed new ways for social representation over the net. The study shows how youth employed the medium to create for themselves the means for expressing their abilities, riginality and initiatives. Adolescents used humoristic, fantastic or macabre means to control social representation and to create a playful-public performance.


Offline, a change in personal appearance in considered dramatic and may challenge cultural norms and taboos. Therefore, changes in conventional signals of identity such as intonation and voice pitch, facial features, body image, non-verbal cues, dress and demeanor may induce negative responses (Danet, 1996). In contrast, on the Internet youngsters experiment with new identities, acquaintances and social experiences with minimal social sanctions. They form meaningful relations with new and old friends, improve their social skills on the net and engage in various personality traits and conflicting social roles (e.g. young/old, popular/marginal, layman/professional, man/woman).


Spontaneous and Diffuse Friendship


 In the age of the Internet, new concepts of "virtual friendship" have emerged which can be characterized by diffusion and spontaneity. In contrast to face-to-face relationships and institutional relations (schools, boarding schools and other traditional organizations), over the net friendship alliances do not require affiliation to a defined and ascribed social group, but rather to the initiatives and virtuosity of the individual (linguistic-rhetorical, technological and/or iconographical). This enables another channel to expand the circles of friendship for adolescents.


Friendship in the Public Sphere


Studies of friendship relations from a socio-historic perspective described a modern separation between the public sphere, which has been perceived as a rationalized and impersonal space, and the private sphere which fosters personal relationships including friendship (Giddens, 1992; Silver, 1990). This study demonstrates how adolescent surfers exchange sentiments and personal expressions and gradually transfer them from the private to the public sphere (and vice versa). Moreover, it has been observed how youth turn to the public sphere to obtain advice, ideas, profess their feelings and experiences, apologize, support others and apply various forms of exchange. Accordingly, intimate communications become a widespread practice among surfers in public environments of the net. Sheltered by anonymity, strangers reveal personal secrets, sentiments and ideas which in the past were reserved for close friends and loved ones. In this sense, the meanings of “friendship” and “the stranger” are often blurred in cyberspace. Often, adolescent interviewees did not know how to define their interlocutors on the Internet and to refer to them as “friend” or “companion” (in Hebrew “Yadid” or “Haver”). Nevertheless, they could account in great detail personal characteristics and anecdotes of people they were in contact with (in newsgroups, on the instant messengers and such). In this sense, we can discern a gap between the concept and consciousness of friendship on the one hand, and adolescents friendship practices on the other.

       New friendship relations forged on the net encounters and acquaintance with the “other”, while enabling an expansion of interpersonal relationships to include the public sphere. In this way, online friendships coincide with other developments that have occurred in contemporary society on television and the electronic media[11] and appropriate sentiments from the private and interpersonal to the public sphere.


* * *


The Internet can be viewed as innovative and has changed the face of relationships, behaviors and youth culture. This rapidly-changing technology has introduced youth to new stimulations, tests and possibilities. This encounter has led to creativity and a vibrant social dynamic among adolescents. In the past, a significant part of social research pointed to the damaging effects of modernity. These studies discussed the alienation between the individual and society and used terms such as “risk society” “social fragmentation” or “globalization” to describe these effects (Beck,1992; Miles, 2000; Wolin,1984).

In this context, two targets were identified to magnify these perceived effect: youth and the new technology. Adolescents were often described as dependent, hedonistic and rebellious (see for example Griffin,1993; Springhall,1986); while the new technology was often depicted as vague, morally ”depraved”, inciting antagonistic relations and distorted relations (Beninger, 1986; Kraut et. al. 1998; Lea et. al. 1992; Young, 1998).

An analysis of the Israeli case of youth’s net culture and their social meanings challenges these assumptions. Young people are born into advanced technology, navigate within its technical abilities and create elaborate systems of meaning which can be transformed to cultural, social and economic resources. In this context, new research which focuses upon “open source software”, “wiki communities”, social movements and cults which are established over the net or even attempts at launching democratic systems in cyberspace, all demonstrate how activity over the net enables an expansion of social reality and cooperation between “strangers” and unexpected participants to create new digital products. Future research should address the potential of youthful activity over the net, and investigate the implications of self socialization on the new cultural developments of youth, the creation of new modes of authority among adolescents which control these futuristic mediums ahead of other social groups.

[1] A few (5) were conducted in other venues including the army or “public areas” (e.g. coffee shop, burger bar)
[2] Among scholars in the social sciences, widespread social trust is viewed as a sign of social solidarity and cohesion and has also been linked to strong economic performance (Fukuyama,1995; Yamagishi and Yamagishi, 1994) and a source for supporting democratic ideals (Muller and Seligson, 1994). In theories of social capital, social trust is both an outcome and a cause of high levels of civic involvement (Putnam, 2000) as well as a constraint on non-normative and "immoral" behavior.
[3] By 'informality' I refer to the code of informality, developed by Kahane (1997) to describe a symbolic and behavioral construct with which individuals or groups strive to maximize what they perceive to be their genuine self-expression.  In his model, Kahane describes informality as an ideal-type order (or organization) and points to eight basic structural components: voluntarism (constraint-free choice); multiplexity (wide range of activities equivalent in social value); symmetry (exchange based on equal distribution of power and therefore on mutually accommodated expectations); dualism (coexistence of contrasting orientations); moratorium (provision of opportunities for experimentation or trial and error with a variety of rules and roles); modularity (interchangeable clusters of activities); expressive-instrumentalism (coexistence of immediate and delayed rewards); and pragmatic symbolism (conversion of symbols into deeds and vice versa). This code relates to other structural codes (formal- bureaucratic, professional or primal; see Kahane, 1988). Accordingly, uncovering the underlying code or codes of behavior among various social venues on the Internet may yield a sociological explanation of its meaning and impact. As stated above, I argue that youth’s digital spaces can be characterized by a dominant code of informality which is more salient than that of most of the well-studied adolescent activities including schools, boarding schools or even youth movements, summer camps or backpacking.
[4] The question of "youthfulness", as originally developed by Berger (1963), refers to the cultural characteristics of youth, rather then a universal-biological attribute.
[5]For example, the computer game "Diablo" was very popular among gamers in the 1990s and the turn of the century, and generated various groups of fans and online discourse. However, a few years later, as new games became popular; many of the original players changed their interests (or position in life as college students, soldiers or participants in the labor force, for example). Hence, the dynamics of gaming culture and industry bears a direct effect of the structure and character of various social groups as well as the content of youth's discourse (in their choice of avatars, nicknames, idioms, etc. in their blogs, newsgroups and websites).
[6]Within the Israeli context, since the 1980s, studies have pointed to a change in the orientation of youth's activities and values, moving from a collective orientation to an individualistic one, which emphasizes personal achievement and self fulfillment (Rapoport et. al. 1995; Shapiro and Herzog, 1984; Lumpsky-Feder, 1985). This bears significance on the concept of free expression and motivations of social action by contemporary youngsters.
[7] This refers to an exchange (either barter or monetary exchange) which is controlled by a unique balance between online norms found among youth (dictating the price range and mode of exchange) and the exterior ("offline") market, as elaborated in the chapter dedicated to cultural entrepreneurship of adolescents over the net.
[8] From the literature in the past 70 years, and the “great dystopias”, well demonstrated in literary accounts such as George Orwell’s “1984”, or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, but also in earlier texts by Thoreau, Hawthorne and others, technological development was perceived as a non human factor by which alienation, and discontent increased and threatened the very existence of the individual and society (Jacoby, 1987) resulting in meaningless life and mechanical relationship. The recent rise of CMC accentuates this threat. In this context, it should be asked to what extent does communication via CMC foster a modular mind "a specific communication mechanism" (Fodor, 1981:37) or proxy simulation with which a human being copes with the complexity of the post modern world.
[9] This characteristic is central as the basis for the new economy, see OECD report, Hedberg,2000.
[10] This pertains to the exchange of goods which bear an “offline value” (e.g. guitar lessons, used computer hardware). Among youth, the value of these exchanged items are derived from negotiation between the offline value of these goods and a semi-barter system among online peers which is based on the virtual community’s resources of trust and fraternity, rather then institutional trust formed by e-commerce.
[11] This refers to radio and television programs that broadcase interviewees that openly profess their personal feelings and anecdotes (see Illouz, 2003).In this sense, the transference to the public sphere demonstrates the deconstruction of the meanings of friendship in contemporary society.