There has been chatter of late about how teen interest in the big blue of social media is waning. Younger upstarts, we hear, like Instagram (which is owned by FB) and Whatsapp (also owned by the big F) are taking up increasing real estate in the heads of our youth. Of course, most of this chatter was posted on Facebook. Ironic, no?
I don’t buy it. I’m not going to ride in the FB funeral procession just yet. There is an established chain of events that tends to apply, broadly, to new communication technologies. This progression has generally led to the death of older, weaker technologies and younger ones rise up in their place. I don’t believe Facebook will follow that pattern. Here are four reasons why:
Toddlers don’t adopt technology, they are born into it. If there is one thing that sets the last two generations apart, it is that they are true digital natives. They probably haven’t developed enough strength in their hands to put pen to paper for longer than a couple of minutes. Most of them would have had their first touch screen experience before the age of three (earlier if their parents are too tired to create offline entertainment). By the time they hit eight or nine, these kids have email addresses, online communities and secret handshakes. They will be looking for platforms to communicate and share on. Facebook isn’t one of them, because you have to be 13 to join the world’s most populous social space.
By the time they hit their teens, they would have already established the protocols for online interaction, and they don’t include Facebook. That comes later.
Teen online and offline networks are the same. If you drew up a Venn diagram of the people that teens interacted with online and offline, the overlap would be almost absolute. The interactions they have on their mobile devices are continuations of the face to face discourse from couple of hours ago. They segregate their conversations online along the same lines of social demarcation as in their offline circles.
(Quick digression: my one criticism of the Facebook experience, is how difficult it is to set up and manage groups, something that IM services like Whatsapp and Line do very well. )
Facebook doesn’t lend itself to continued conversation (yes, FB Messenger can do everything that other IM and image sharing platforms do, but because our teens didn’t have access to it when it was needed, it’s not really part of their consideration set), and it isn’t as fun.
Teens don’t really measure life’s milestones. Young people are all about the here and now. How they’re feeling, what they’re eating, or what inane (or insane) new trend they’re participating in. They don’t, in short, bulk upload or talk about how they’ve achieved significant milestones.
This changes when they graduate high school—a lot. Graduating is the first in a number of milestones that young people will experience over their next 10 years or so. Getting accepted to a university, backpacking through somewhere unpronounceable, falling in love, falling out of love, graduating university, big purchases, marriage, holidays that they can’t afford, jobs, promotions, babies. The list goes on. These are things that people like to talk about, to brag, if you will. And this is where everyone other than Facebook starts to fall behind. The transition from teenagehood (that really needs to become a word) to adulthood is Facebook’s moment of glory.
Everything changes when you stop being a teen. Here is where the fallacy of predicting Facebook’s demise really starts to show. Yes, young people are fascinated by the online space at a very young age. Yes, their online and IRL lives are heavily interconnected and yes, they talk about the day to day rather than the auspicious. “Grownups” are the opposite. Online interaction is a necessity rather than a diversion. There are a lot more responsibilities that need to be factored into the day. They have moved away, either physically or emotionally from their original contemporaries. If they keep in touch, it is through broadcast announcements and a sense of guilty nostalgia. And if they are going to communicate something online, it’s far more likely to be something significant (and brag worthy) as opposed to something trivial.
The decline in Facebook usage by teens is a direct consequence of two factors: increased choice and the relevance of that choice to life stage. Instant messaging and limited functionality life logging are what teens need when they are teens. I will use SMS to demonstrate my point. Back in 1997, the short messaging service protocol was introduced in Egypt, where I was living at the time. As you can imagine, with the limited internet connectivity in the country, the teens, of which I was one, truly made this medium their own, using texts to circumvent the possibility of the ‘rents overhearing conversations. Texts amongst teens were up while calls were down. The frequency of texts surpassed that of calls, despite the fact that messaging cost money and a city to city call was free. Nearly two decades on, I find myself more inclined to block off a 10 minute slot for a call with someone rather than engage in a message exchange. I no longer have the time or patience to deal with frequent distractions. I used to prefer push, now I like pull for my news, and I now prefer to push my information when I have time as opposed to having it pulled from me through incessant and ad hoc IM exchanges.
Despite all this, some people will still argue that the disillusionment with Facebook is the same fate that Hi5 and Myspace suffered in decades past. I think they are wrong—those platforms were usurped by something bigger and shinier, and there is nothing bigger or shinier right now than Facebook. It’s not that it’s too big to fail; it’s that too many brands have invested too much in Facebook to allow it to. I foresee a new wave of FB marketing strategies that focus on bringing people onto the platform, finding ways to get them to drag their friends along and keeping them there. The advent of awful phrases such as “social CRM” and “Social Commerce” is just a torch bearer for what is to come.
And finally, to those who think that part of the reason that Facebook is losing favor with teens because their parents use the channel, I say, give it a couple of years. Let’s see how many of these teens end up turning into their parents. That never happens, right?