If you're over 20, you don't get social. (But this kid can teach you)

By Michael Carney , written on January 7, 2015

From The News Desk

Ask any founder or VC about the most important demographic for social products and you’ll invariably hear, "teens and young adults." Not only are these users the most engaged, but they’re also the most difficult to reach and fickle once you do.

The challenge is that getting into the psyche of today’s digital natives can be an incredibly difficult task for anyone, be they an investor or an entrepreneur, born in an era before ubiquitous home internet, let alone mobile broadband. Research and analytics firms can paint a high-level picture of usage patterns, but understanding the thinking and motivations behind these usage decisions tends to be little more than guesswork.

Over at Backchannel, a Medium-owned technology publication, 19-year-old UT Austin student Andrew Watts provides one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful views into the mind of sub-millennial social media users I’ve ever seen. For anyone interested in the topic, the entire post deserves a thoughtful read.

There are a few overall takeaways worth mentioning before discussing Watt’s thoughts on each individual platform. The common themes that weave throughout his analysis include – unsurprisingly – a desire for freedom from parental oversight and future employer scrutiny, and high value placed on high levels of engagement or interaction. At one point, Watt mentions, “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,” before adding that Snapchat offers a reprieve from this sort of pressure and the filtered storytelling that it encourages.

Lastly, ease of constructing a social network represents a mixed bag in Watt’s eyes. While he criticizes both Twitter and Instagram for their poor search functionality and the difficulty of finding one’s real friends, the anonymity offered by Tumblr is seen as a positive. For Yik Yak, the fact that the platform is dependent on the local density of one’s contacts is seen as both a positive and a negative.

Below are some additional interesting takeaways from Watt’s detailed assessment of each of the most popular social platforms:

  • Facebook: “It’s dead to us. Facebook is 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. It’s weird and can even be annoying to have Facebook at times. That being said, if you don't have Facebook, that’s even more weird and annoying.” Watts adds that his peers find Facebook Groups to be among the most useful and least complicated aspects of the platform, while Messenger is gaining momentum as a means of communicating with people whose phone numbers you’re not comfortable requesting (a limitation of other address book-based social networks like WhatsApp and SnapChat). .
  • Instagram: “Instagram is by far the most used social media outlet for my age group. Please note the verbiage there- it is the most used social media outlet. Meaning, although the most people are on Facebook, we actually post stuff on Instagram.” Watts explains that Instagram lacks much of the social pressure found on Facebook, including the need to follow people back. Also, the lack of newsfeed curation, the relative lack of parents, the lack of links, the infrequency of posts, the limited appearance of advertising, and overall high quality of content are all seen as positives. Finally, the high levels of engagement seen on Instagram photos relative to their Facebook counterparts is a large part of what makes the platform a winner. .
  • Twitter: “To be honest, a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter. There is always a core group at every school that uses it very religiously to tweet and another group that uses it to simply watch or retweet, but besides that many don't use it. It also isn't extremely easy to find friends on the site and many just use it to complain about school in a setting where their parents/family members (not necessarily employers) are likely not to see it.” Watts adds that Twitter’s public nature leaves most of his pears hesitant to “be [themselves] and not have it follow you around when you're trying to land a job,” making it similar in that regard to Facebook. .
  • Snapchat: “Snapchat is quickly becoming the most used social media network, especially with the advent of My Story. ... Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity. Without the constant social pressure of a follower count or Facebook friends, I am not constantly having these random people shoved in front of me. Instead, Snapchat is a somewhat intimate network of friends who I don't care if they see me at a party having fun. ... 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.” Watt says that his peers harbor some doubts about Snapchat’s security measures and whether the company actually deletes photos off its servers as it claims. That said, he adds that teens don’t care. “We aren't sending pictures of our Social Security Cards here, we're sending selfies and photos with us having 5 chins.” That and, judging by the countless Snaps ending up online, photos without much clothing. .
  • Tumblr: “Tumblr is a place to follow/be followed by a bunch of random strangers, yet not have your identity be attached to it. 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 “judgement-free zone” where, due to the lack of identity on the site, you can really be who you want to be.” Watts praises Tumblr as a place to post content without fear of parental oversight or even unwanted peer judgement. Also, the high levels of engagement via reblogging and liking make the platform rewarding, in Watt’s eyes, as does the ability to curate one’s feed and meet others around the world with similar interests. .
  • Yik Yak: “It has gotten to be so addicting because it focuses solely on the content of your posts- there are no followers, no profiles, nothing. It is just 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.” As one of the newest entrants to the social landscape, many Millennials and Gen-Xers likely have less understanding of Yik Yak than the other platforms on Watt’s list. He explains that “everyone” uses Yik Yak while on campus, including before class, during class, and after class. He adds that while Yik Yak is often compared to Secret due to their shared anonymous nature, usage and discussion of Secret is entirely absent from his peer group. Yik Yak’s tendency to go quiet during holidays, due to its location dependence, is seen as a negative for the platform. .
  • Medium: “What Medium does right is the 'recommend' function. This is unseen on Wordpress (besides the typical website sharing buttons) and is really what makes Medium a community, not just a bunch of individual sites. Having a simple 'Follow' system also makes it so that you come back to Medium even if you aren’t looking to write a blog.” It’s rare to hear Medium discussed as a social network, but as Watts points out, the focus on community and recommendations separates the blogging platform from competitors like WordPress. Watts concedes that WordPress and Tumblr are still more popular choices for teen blogging, but adds that in his experience anyone who tries the platform “never turn[s] back.”
Watts groups several other platforms into the also-ran category, dismissing them either as necessary but not interesting (LinkedIn), niche (Pinterest), a joke (Kik), and fading (WhatsApp). The lone “other” that he has much positive to say about is GroupMe, which he calls “by far the most used group messaging application in college.” Then again, by relegating it to the final platform mentioned on his already exhaustive list, the fact that GroupMe is useful and enjoyable seemingly is not enough to make it a true contender for category dominance.

For any adults looking to assemble the above descriptions into a single, coherent narrative, Watts hypothesizes his use of social media around a single party, writing:

  • You post yourself getting ready for the party, going to the party, having fun at the party, the end of the party, and the morning after the party on Snapchat.
  • On Facebook you post the cute, posed pictures you took with your friends at the party with a few candids (definitely no alcohol in these photos).
  • On Instagram you pick the cutest one of the bunch to post to your network.
The rest of the platforms, it seems, barely register. And, prevailing wisdom says that if a social platform doesn’t register for teens, it’s only a matter of time before it is rendered irrelevant for the rest of the population.

It may be a step too far to say that because teens don’t get Twitter or Pinterest (or Houzz, for that matter), these platforms don’t matter. There’s an argument to be made that the respective use cases for each of these platforms are life-stage specific. Sure fashionable teens could use Pinterest to assemble look books, but decorating and crafting is unlikely to grab their attention. And, anyone who remembers their teenage years recalls the general ambivalence to news and broader current events, topics that dominate much of Twitter’s mainstream usage. But by the same token, taking a closer look at the abject failure of Google+ and the relaunch of MySpace (music) would likely reveal that these Web-centric platforms never registered among the all-important teen audience.

Teens may be fickle, and they may be superficial, but they are also trendsetters that can offer a glimpse into the future. They were the first to demand and later adopt anonymity and ephemerality in social platforms. And, not surprisingly, this audience has been the quickest to adopt mobile and touch-centric user interfaces like those popularized by Tinder and Snapchat.

Discount Watts and his peers’ perspectives at your own peril. If ignoring history dooms one to repeating it, ignoring the preferences of the influential teen audience is the quickest way to be rendered history.