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There’s a whole category of social-science fallacy that revolves around extrapolating from one or two cases, so we should be careful not to read too much into a recent Medium post by 19-year-old Andrew Watts about how he and his friends use various social-media platforms. That said, however, it’s still fascinating to look at how differently his age group approaches some of the services we older folks take for granted.
Probably the least surprising point in Watts’ post is that teens have virtually no interest in using Facebook whatsoever — but almost all of them still have an account anyway, because it’s the only way to keep in touch with certain people. He describes it as:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Something we all got in middle school because it was cool but now is seen as an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave.”[/blockquote]
This fits with other descriptions of how younger users approach Facebook, including a number who have described the social network to me as filling the same kind of annoying niche as email does for many older users: It’s something they have to use, but they take no joy in doing so. Gigaom writer Eliza Kern once described it as being like the cable company.
Instagram is number one
What I found interesting about the Facebook section, however, is that Watts and his friends still use the site, but only parts of it — so they use Messenger because everyone has it, and they use Groups because they are easier to scan quickly and don’t get all screwed up by the Facebook algorithm the way the main newsfeed does. And Facebook is kind of identity central when it comes to figuring out who someone is:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Facebook is often the jumping-off point for many people to try to find you online, simply because everyone around us has it. If I met you one time at some party, I’m not going to try to check Twitter or Instagram to find out who you are. Instead, many opt for the ease of Facebook and the powerful search functionality that gives you results of people who you actually have a chance of knowing.”[/blockquote]
When it comes to services they love, Instagram is the top of the list, and this fits with my own experience interviewing teenagers, including friends of my daughters. Anyone who thinks that Instagram is just about sharing crappy filtered photos is missing the boat, I think — it is a full-fledged social network, with people carrying on conversations in the comments and using hashtags to find content. And Watts says part of what his friends like is that the network feels more intimate than Facebook:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”I’m not terrified whenever I like something on Instagram that it will show up in someone’s Newsfeed and they’ll either screenshot that I liked it or reference it later [and] I am not as pressured to follow someone back on Instagram, meaning my feed is normally comprised of content I actually want to see.”[/blockquote]
Snapchat and Tumblr
A close second on the list when it comes to most-used social app is Snapchat, which recently closed a financing round that values the company at a staggering $10 billion. Watts reinforces the argument I and others have made about the value of “ephemeral” services like Snapchat when he says that one of the reasons he and his friends use it so much is that there is a lot less social pressure around their content:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”There aren’t likes you have to worry about or comments—it’s all taken away. Snapchat has a lot less social pressure attached to it compared to every other popular social media network out there. This is what makes it so addicting and liberating. If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it.”[/blockquote]
One service that doesn’t get a lot of attention from outside the teenaged set — especially since it was acquired by Yahoo, which for many industry-watchers is the same as falling off the face of the earth — is Tumblr. Watts says the platform is popular with many of his friends because it allows for the posting and sharing of all kinds of content, without tying that content to someone’s real identity.
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Tumblr is like a secret society that everyone is in, but no one talks about. Tumblr is where you are your true self and surround yourself (through who you follow) with people who have similar interests. It’s often seen as a “judgment-free zone” where, due to the lack of identity on the site, you can really be who you want to be. The only Tumblr URLs I know of people in real life are my close friends and vice versa.”[/blockquote]
I can confirm that the private nature of Tumblr is a big part of the reason why one of my twenty-something daughters is addicted to it, more than any other social service including Snapchat. For her, any content she consumes — including TV shows, movies, books, etc. — comes to her through her Tumblr dashboard, because the community of friends that she has made there is talking about it and sharing it.
Yik Yak and Twitter
Interestingly, Twitter seems to be just as much of a niche network in Watts’ circle as it is everywhere else: he says that “a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter” and that apart from a small group of people at every school who “use it very religiously,” almost no one is on the platform (in my house, our younger daughter uses it a lot — and in fact runs several accounts — and the older one pays almost no attention to it).
The other social network that is popular and growing in Watts’ network of friends is Yik Yak, which is a location-based sharing platform that our Carmel DeAmicis has written about a number of times. Watts says that part of the appeal with Yik Yak is also the anonymity and lack of social pressure that comes with networks that are tied more closely to someone’s real-world identity. Yik Yak is addictive, he says:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Because it focuses solely on the content of your posts — there are no followers, no profiles, nothing. Whatever is funny/relevant is at the top and everything else is at the bottom, whether Kanye West is the one who is writing it or some random kid who never talks in class.”[/blockquote]
Whether Watts’ experiences or those of his friends can be extrapolated to a worldwide market is debatable — he is 19 and a student at the University of Texas in Austin, so not all of his behavior is going to apply to younger or non-university users. But still, there is plenty of meat in his descriptions for anyone interested in social media and its evolution. If I worked at Twitter or Facebook I would make it required reading.
Note: Please see the follow-up to this post, based on some criticisms from sociologist danah boyd.