Practically all Estonian schoolchildren, aged 11 to 18, use the Internet: in our sample, 99% of the students spend at least some time on their typical days online.
We studied the frequency of being engaged in 33 different Internet activities, a selection of which is aligned in Table 1 according to the popularity of the activity (based on the proportion of students who are engaged in the activity at least several times a year or sometimes).
Table 1. Engagement in different Internet activities among 6th to 11th grade students in Estonia, 2007 (%)
|Place in the chart||Activity||Is engaged in||Is often engaged in|
|1||Communicates via the messenger||96.8||89.4|
|2||Downloads music, films||94.4||72.5|
|3||Discusses school-related topics with peers and friends||93.0||69.1|
|5||Uses search engines||91.7||73.8|
|6||Asks for or gives advice and help regarding homework||91.5||58.0|
|7||Uploads photos, pictures||87.9||41.9|
|8||Reads comments accompanying news||82.2||16.8|
|9||Visits Internet forums||74.4||52.9|
|12||Downloads study materials, term papers||73.0||12.2|
|15||Uses the SNS Rate.ee||70.0||57.3|
|18||Uploads other materials||62.3||23.7|
|20||Comments on forum topics||61.4||19.6|
|21||Updates information or photos on one's Rate.ee profile||59.9||10.8|
|23||Poses topics in forums||49.9||8.8|
|24||Makes co-operation projects with others||45.6||9.4|
|25||Comments on news||43.1||3.4|
|27||Uploads term papers or other homework-related materials||42.5||5.5|
|30||Uploads one's own stories and poems||24.0||4.7|
|31||Comments on blog postings||23.5||2.2|
|32||Updates one's homepage||18.0||6.4|
|33||Adds postings to one's blog||15.5||5.5|
One can find the activities related to communication, entertainment, and searching for information at the top of the chart. The most popular activity and also the one the youngsters are most often engaged in, is communicating via the MSN messenger. It should also be noted that discussing school-related matters with one's friends and peers or asking for as well as giving advice and help regarding homework are very popular and frequent Internet activities among the youngsters.
Downloading audiovisual materials (music and films) from the Internet is very popular among the students. Downloading study materials and term papers is less often used; however, the opportunity is seized by a considerable number of respondents (73%). Also, the students themselves often create audiovisual texts in order to publish them on the Internet: 88% of the youngsters upload photos and pictures and 62% upload videos. Texts are less often uploaded (43% of the students upload term papers and other kind of homework, and 24% of the youngsters upload one's own poems or stories).
In general, content1 creation practices in more structured technological interfaces where users can only fill in forms, add comments, etc. are much more widespread than the practices, which would require and enable young Internet users to employ greater skills and freedom. The majority of students are at least “sometimes” engaged in content creation in forums, SNS Rate.ee2 and news portals; whereas only 18% of the students “sometimes” update their homepage and 16% “sometimes” add blog postings. Furthermore, even smaller numbers of students are engaged in these two practices “once or twice a week”.
In the following, we discuss creative online practices in a greater detail, including students' attitudes and experiences regarding some content creation activities.
In the SNS Rate.ee, people can upload photos and fill in textual parts of their profiles in order to receive social feedback from other users. That type of content creation is practiced by 60% of the students. Rate.ee also provides the users with additional opportunities such as keeping a blog, chatting in forums, and joining different “clubs” (i.e., communities). One of the most popular forms of communicating in the environment is leaving comments to each other's profiles, which is considered important by 34% of the profile owners and not important by 66%. Thus, while communication with peers is an important aspect of young people's engagement in social networking sites, social feedback expressing peer group norms and expectations is not recognized as highly relevant. This disregard may also be considered a self-defense mechanism, as negative and flaming comments are not uncommon.
We asked also about the reasons why a particular photo is chosen for the profile. The prevalent reason, picked by 68% of the profile owners, is looking good on the photo; furthermore, 53% choose the photo because it has been taken in a beautiful location. Aesthetical characteristics of the photo and depiction of one's personality are also important reasons for choosing a photo for the profile (cf. Siibak, in press). At the same time, a number of respondents say that they do not upload any photos of themselves. We interpret this as resistance to a predominant trend of the peer culture in the social networking site. Thus, not all norms of the online community are duly conformed to, indicating the functioning of agency also in a more structured online environment.
Belonging to SNS clubs has also a variety of reasons. Most importantly, young people consider belonging to such communities as a form of self-expression and identity construction–as a possibility to “show what I am” (43%). Secondly, clubs are seen as forums for discussions (37%) and getting advice (23%). The third group of reasons is related to networking and a sense of belonging to a community. However, not all users of Rate.ee are members of clubs; instead, their presence in the SNS is mostly passive and referential–more by name than by actual engagement.
Online forums are very popular among Estonian students: 61% comment on the topics raised by others and 50% pose new topics for discussion. Similarly to SNS clubs, students' experiences with and reasons for participating in forums are more related to information and knowledge retrieval and usability, and less to social belonging and friendship. For instance, a vast majority of students who visit online forums agree that it is comfortable to search information on sensitive topics (78%) and other participants in forums add to their knowledge (79%). Additionally, 66% agree that forums provide information that can be used in everyday life. Anonymity is another crucial aspect of forum discussions: Only 14% of students claim to use their real name, 58% use mostly the same nickname, and 21% change nicknames or post anonymously. Although only 33% of forum users agree that they trust anonymous postings, 72% consider the possibility to write anonymously liberating. This suggests that students consider online forums as valuable resources for both information retrieval and self-expression, and the “cloak of anonymity” helps young Internet users to discuss sensitive topics.
Estonia has a lively newspaper commenting culture. The young generation participates in this actively: 82% of the students read comments on online news at least sometimes and 43% comment news, demonstrating that at least in this area, user-generated content has found its place next to the institutionally provided content. Most of the students (71%) believe that the value of comments is in the discussion and debate they initiate while 41% agree that comments help them to understand the news better. The youngsters' attitudes towards online comments are rather normative: 59% of the students agree that comments should be more strictly regulated, and 64% claim to think thoroughly upon a comment before posting it. Still, 21% of the students agree that one may post a comment without delving into the content of the news story.
In contrast to online forums and news commenting where students enjoy anonymous participation, young bloggers prefer publicity and frankness: 75% of the students' blogs are publicly accessible, 81% blog under their real name, 60% do not conceal their age, and 28% even tell where they live. The social aspects of creativity, indeed, come into play also in technically less constraining environments such as blogs. Young self-publishers take their audience into account: 74% agree that they have to bear in mind the fact that many other people may read their blog, 68% reply to the comments on their postings, and 36% consider a great number of readers important when blogging. Still, a fairly high level of the author's control over the agenda is discernible through the fact that 43% of the young bloggers have chosen a certain topic area to write about.
When it comes to the content of personal homepages, students seem to be most keen on visuals: 59% of homepage owners publish photos taken by themselves and 50% upload photos taken by others. The popularity of video (48%) and audio files (56%) indicates that personal homepages are truly multimodal media for students. The importance of social connectedness in homepage creation is visible through a frequent use of links to other sites (52%).
The analysis of creative practices in five different environments indicated that they perform different functions related to information retrieval, communication with peers, self-expression, and identity construction. Creativity in these different online environments is, indeed, related to a variety of social aspects and considerations. Regardless of the limitations of quantitative survey data, we could detect both the trends of conforming to the norms of peer culture and instances of resistance to it.
Reasons for Being or not Being Engaged in Creative Online Activities
The reasons for participating in the more structured content creation environments differ from the motives for practicing those activities, which allow more individual freedom. The motives that have a distinctly social focus prevail among the reasons for creating a profile in the SNS (67% of the profile owners were influenced by their friends' already having the profiles and 55% wanted to find new friends and acquaintances).
In the answers to open-ended questions, young people also mentioned novelty and curiosity as the reasons for creating a profile in Rate.ee. Quite a few people saw the SNS portal as a way to communicate with friends. Interestingly, several respondents said that they initially made the profile “Just so” or out of boredom showing that the media hype around the portal might have generated enough interest and social pressure to check out the phenomenon.
The reasons for keeping a blog, however, emanate from the need to be original and different from others (82% of the bloggers keep a blog in order to express their opinion, 73% want to offer their readers something original, 70% love writing, and only 26% follow the example of other bloggers). This suggests that online environments having less rigid forms and technological constraints are more attractive to the young people who are more inclined to expressing their creativity and agency.
The most often mentioned reason for students who do not have a profile in the SNS Rate.ee is the lack of interest in such portals (57%), while 37% said that they were principally opposed to social networking sites. That kind of opposition is also reflected in the open-ended answers where young people mostly reckoned that Rate.ee “sucks,”“is pointless,” or just boring. Quite a few respondents also stressed their opposition to Rate.ee, in particular: they had profiles in other environments (mostly in Orkut.com). Students also indicated that they had “outgrown” Rate.ee, stressing that the portal stands for “mass hypnosis and idiot culture” or “Rate.ee is not life!” In the context of the society where about two-thirds of the youth population have a profile in the SNS Rate.ee, nonparticipation in that environment can also be regarded as a form of alternative self-expression.
The main self-reported reason for not being engaged in creative online activities that allow more individual and creative freedom (such as blogging and making one's homepage) is lack of need: 84% of the students who do not have a blog and 79% of the students who do not have a homepage mentioned that reason (Figure 2). Having no time for these activities was also named by quite a few respondents: 38% and 43%, respectively. Having no content to upload or not enough skills were less often named as the reasons for not being engaged in these content creation practices. Still, as could be expected, the lack of necessary skills was named as a reason for not having a homepage more often than in case of not keeping a blog.
Figure 2. The reasons for not keeping a blog or making a homepage among 6th- to 11th-grade students in Estonia, 2007 (%).
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Lack of skills was also reflected in the open answers: Quite a few students admitted that they did not know what blogs are: “I don't know quite well what this stands for.” In case of homepage creation, alongside with a typical answer “Couldn't be bothered to,” some ideas of perfectionism were expressed: “My IT skills aren't good enough to make a good homepage, but I don't see any point in making just another website.” Some respondents pointed out that they did not see any point in writing a blog, however, they still liked to read them. A few young people did not see a point in making their lives public. For these students blogs represented, first and foremost, individual diaries published online, rather than channels for participating in the community and the cultural or political public sphere.
The Forum-Centered Type
The largest group, consisting of just over 28% of the students, ranks the fourth in terms of the activeness in producing online content; the index mean in this cluster exceeds, similarly to the previous three types, the sample average (Table 2). Compared to the previously described types, the members of this cluster create content in the more structured online environments: in forums and news portals. The type is especially active in online forums, which is why we named it “Forum-centered”. Still, the average activeness in posing topics for discussions in forums or commenting on forum topics posed by others is somewhat lower than the forum-related activity of the members belonging to the two most active content creation types (the Versatile, blog-centered type, and the Homepage-centered type). The students belonging to the Forum-centered type are more active than the average in commenting news, though, again, they are not as active as the versatile content creators. The members of the Forum-centered type are considerably more passive than the average in the blogosphere, in making homepages, and in using the SNS Rate.ee (Figure 3).
Relations with Skills, Internet Usage and Attitudes
Table 3 describes the types of content creators according to their members' self-evaluated skills, time spent on the Internet and attitudes towards the language and content of the Internet. The shaded cells in Table 3 stand for the higher means than the sample average, forming interesting patters. The results show that three of the four most active types of content creators–the Versatile, blog-centered type; the Homepage centered type; and the Forum-centered type–stand out in their self-evaluated computer and Internet skills as well as the knowledge of English. Furthermore, the Homepage-centered online content creators regard their skills in all of the three categories higher compared to the rest of the students. Among the Homepage-centered type, there is the highest proportion (96%) of those who claim that they can mostly manage all by themselves, that is, without the help of others, when using the computer or the Internet. An analogous tendency holds in case of the time spent on the Internet. The results can be explained by the fact that active engagement in online content creation requires adequate computer and Internet skills. Furthermore, technical proficiency is especially important while making homepages. It can be assumed that extensive and versatile Internet usage both requires as well as develops the knowledge of English: For instance, the students engaged in making homepages have largely learned the necessary skills either by themselves, by trial and error (78%), or by reading manuals from the Internet or books (70%), which often means becoming acquainted with materials in English.
Table 3. Description of the types of content creators regarding skills, Internet usage and attitudes (means)
| ||Versatile, blog-centered||Homepage centered||SNS-centered||Forum-centered||News comments centered||Indifferent||All respondents|
|Self-evaluated computer skills (max 5)||4.21||4.48||3.99||4.16||4.00||3.83||4.06|
|Self-evaluated Internet skills (max 4)||3.33||3.68||3.24||3.39||3.14||3.10||3.27|
|Self-evaluated English language skills (max 3)||2.37||2.42||2.14||2.36||2.20||2.21||2.28|
|Time spent on the Internet (max 4)||3.18||3.21||2.69||2.76||2.48||2.49||2.74|
|Time spent in Rate.ee (max 4)||1.21||0.60||1.53||0.68||0.90||0.66||0.86|
|Using the correct written language on the Internet (max 3)||2.08||2.21||1.83||2.07||1.94||1.94||2.00|
|Agrees with the need for stricter regulations for online commenting (max 4)||2.87||3.07||2.75||2.97||2.66||2.71||2.83|
The linearity of correlations between the activeness in creating content online and computer and Internet skills, the knowledge of English, and the time spent on the Internet is most deviated by the SNS-centered type. Self-evaluated technical skills and the time spent on the Internet of the students belonging to the SNS-centered type are a bit lower than the sample average, and their self-assessment of the English language skills is lower than that of all the other types. Smaller technical skills and the knowledge of English may originate from the specific Internet usage: participating in their favorite online environment Rate.ee does obviously not require as good computer, Internet or foreign language skills as, for example, making a homepage does. The fact that youngsters belonging to the SNS-centered type spend on average less time on the Internet than the youngsters belonging to the other active types of content creators do, indicates that the Internet usage among this type is quite one-sided. Furthermore, 41% of the members of the SNS-centered type visit Rate.ee several times a day and 29% do it almost every day. The News comments centered type also seems to be quite one-sided in their activities as the members of this type spend quite a lot of time in Rate.ee and their average time spent on the Internet is rather limited. The versatile, blog-centered content creators, however, spend on average more time in Rate.ee as well as in other online environments.
All four more active types of content creators, except for the SNS-centered type, are stricter and more normative than the sample average in their attitudes regarding the language and content of the Internet (that is, they tend to use the correct written language on the Internet and agree with the need for stricter regulations for online commenting). The attitudes of the youngsters belonging to the Homepage centered type are the strictest of all. Participation in the online environments that require greater creativity and credibility (such as blogs, homepages, and forums) obviously entails responsible behavior towards linguistic correctness of one's own postings as well as the content of online comments in general, both of which probably contribute to forming the respective attitudes. The youngsters belonging to the SNS-centered type are the least demanding about the netspeak. As anticipated, the students belonging to the News comments centered type are least likely to agree with the stricter regulations for online comments.