For many teenagers, Facebook offers a place to gossip and connect with friends, but for young immigrants, it provides something more.
The social networking site has become a hub for discussions between immigrant teens over whether to listen to elders' dating advice, carry on family traditions, or return to their native countries. The conversations provide a real-time glimpse at how young immigrants struggle to establish their own identities.
A new digital archive at the University of Minnesota aims to preserve these exchanges for future historians. The Minnesota 2.0 archive includes dozens of pages of publicly-accessible Facebook writings of first and second generation Somali, Hmong and Mexican immigrants.
In one heated Facebook exchange, Somali youth debated whether they could call themselves Somali if they only spoke English.
"I don't care how long u been in diff country but if u come frm somali family u must speak somali or there is something wrong with u," one person wrote.
Another replied, "I think this is a really sad topic ... It's not my fault I was born and raised in the West like many others ... Wut did Somalia ever give us then? If we go back, we're likely to get shot, so where else to go?"
Donna Gabaccia, the director of the Immigration History Research Center, the organization overseeing the project, said the archive could transform the way historians study the immigrant experience.
"The voices of young people are rarely found in archives," Gabaccia said. "What we have in archives are usually writings by adults. Sometimes you get a diary from a young person, but what we know about the lives of immigrant young people of the past is usually retrospective."
Students working on the project spent months monitoring Facebook "fan" and "group" pages for interesting conversations. Most of the students are either first or second generation immigrants from the communities they studied.
They collected the best pages for inclusion in the new digital archive. Project organizers removed any identifying information from the pages, like photos or last names.
Yuridia Ramirez, one of the students involved in the project, said Facebook provides a relatively safe forum for young immigrants, including those who entered the United States illegally.
"When you're new to a country, you just kind of want to blend in and not have anybody see you," said Ramirez, whose parents were born in Mexico. "Facebook ... allows them to grow in their identity."
For second generation immigrants, the conversation is often light hearted - and revealing. On one popular Hmong page, young people post and reply to questions like, "Have you ever killed a live chicken and prepared it for cooking?"
"Yes of course, for the Hmong New Year," one person replied. "Who hasn't?" asked another.
Others differed. "No. Never. But my mom does," one said. Another found the question somewhat disturbing: "Ewww..um, no. Tyson, pre-package chicken breast."
Young immigrants also use the social networking site to share hopes and dreams. One person wrote that he wants to be the "first Somali player in the NBA." Others shared plans to become accountants, doctors and computer scientists. Many Somali youth expressed frustration with ongoing violence in their East African homeland.
For some, the immigrant experience is bittersweet.
"I miss everything about Somali culture ... the poetry, the songs," one immigrant wrote. "I miss the Somali girls (who) cover their heads with the guntiino ... especially when they wear their best Dirac," the person wrote, referring to traditional Somali dresses and head scarves. "I miss the smell of our Somali (coast) and the fish. All of these things were my favorite about Somalia and much much more."
The project's organizers said that postings like these show that Facebook, often derided as a petty form of communication, has as much value and meaning as traditional historical sources, like diaries and letters. They hope their efforts will spur other archivists to consider similar projects.
"These things are used every day by people," Ramirez said. "It's time for historians to start taking them seriously."