People Are Acting Like People and That’s Bad for Facebook and Twitter

5269295051_31a102e6ae_m_facebookI’m sure you’ve all seen the news that has spread across the internet and social media recently. Teens are not using Twitter and Facebook, they’ve moved on to other social networks.

Well, I did see one article that tried to explain why they are spending their time on other networks, and it’s not just because Mom and Dad are on Facebook, therefore it’s uncool. Turns out it’s because in the end, teens interact online the same way that people have always interacted offline.

Today, however, the newest data increasingly support the idea that young people are actually transitioning out of using what we might term broadcast social media—like Facebook and Twitter—and switching instead to using narrowcast tools—like Messenger or Snapchat. Instead of posting generic and sanitized updates for all to see, they are sharing their transient goofy selfies and blow-by-blow descriptions of class with only their closest friends.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? The first generation of social networks were about going public, taking your ideas, your messages, and getting them out to the world. Turns out, they probably worked a little too well, thus the criticism about tweeting what you had for lunch when no one cares. That was always a straw man argument though, because while new users, especially younger ones, tended to overshare too many details, eventually most settled into a nice routine of sharing publicly certain details, while remaining private about other areas.

Sort of like how we’ve always developed socially. Some things we wanted to share with anyone, other things were only for smaller groups. Think about the things you’d tell people at work, versus at home, versus your truly closest friends. Different social circles for different levels of sharing. This is how people have interacted for generations!

Facebook, Twitter, et al. were not designed for that. If anything, their business model relies on people sharing publicly as much as possible, so they make that easy. They’ve tried to tack on some tools to allow for small group communication, lists, groups, etc. but the tools do seem tacked on as opposed to native. It’s no surprise that the generation that grew up using social media without even thinking about it, is only spending a limited amount of time “in public”, and more time using social networks that allow them to interact privately. Like any of us, teens want to interact publicly some of the time, and they want to stay within their closed social circle at other times. That means moving between platforms, and means they are spending less time scrolling through Facebook or Twitter timelines.

Speaking personally, the way teens are behaving online is actually pretty smart. Many people have trouble believing this about me, but I’m actually a pretty private person as well. Sure, I take advantage of the public forums of blogging and social media, but the information I share there is for public consumption. There are lots of things that are shared with a much smaller group of people, and that group changes depending on what I’m sharing. I might not be a Snapchat or Whatsapp user, but you can bet I make use of one on one communication tools, group communication tools, and plain old in person conversations.

So, good for the teens for understanding the basic levels of group communication. How they communicate might look different than the rest of us, but when you break down what they are doing, it’s not that different. They just have more online tools to do what the rest of us do in other ways.

Unfortunately for Twitter and Facebook, they are going to have to adjust their expectations of just how much people are willing to share in public. There’s still a place for the public square of those tools, but it’s not the place they envisioned, where all sharing takes place on their network. Shareholders might not want to hear that though.

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