There has been much interest in, and discussion of, a report written by a 15 year old Morgan Stanley intern regarding the perceived lack of Twitter usage by teens. I saw a link on Twitter to an article about this topic first thing Monday morning, and it grabbed my attention for three reasons:
- I have a 15 year old son who doesn’t twitter (nor do his friends)
- the topic came up and was discussed in an unconference session at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference last month
- I had a discussion on this topic even more recently with some peers from the knowledge management community
After casually researching and thinking more about the topic, it is clear that there is evidence supporting the notion that teens have not embraced Twitter. To wit:
- A FriendFeed conversation started by Robert Scoble (@scobelizer) on the reason why his 15 year old son believes teens don’t twitter.
- “people seem to think teens hate twitter…, but the converse is actually true. but it’s not everyone…probably 10-15% at most.” (Source: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/06/11/twitter_is_for.html)
However, there is other evidence that suggests that teens are beginning to use Twitter, but, perhaps, more slowly and differently than older users. Here are a couple of examples:
- “Twitter is for parents (though I think that’s changing).” (Source: http://blog.monicaobrien.com/why-high-schoolers-leave-facebook/)
- As of June 2009, 31% of all Twitter users that disclosed their age are age 15-19 (Source: http://www.sysomos.com/insidetwitter/)
- “Hey now, I’m 16 and Twitter totally rules over Facebook for me. Twitter’s for discussing news; Facebook’s for your personal life.” (Source: http://friendfeed.com/scobleizer/0f884774/my-15-year-old-son-patrick-on-why-teens-don-t-use)
Either way, too many pundits are making sweeping generalizations about age and technology usage. I am not a firm believer in generational technology usage patterns, such as Gen Y is more likely to use social software than Baby Boomers, because I do not fit neatly into the pattern associated with my generation by advocates of those demographic patterns. I am a Boomer, but my online behavior is much more in sync with the Gen Y profile, if you buy into the common wisdom regarding generational differences.
So rather than continuing to look for root causes of generational differences in Twitter uptake, I decided to seek a common theme that cuts across the age demographic. Here is what I found:
People register for, and use, the social networking service on which the most members of the their community/tribe/clique are located. They will continue to use that service, and disregard others, until the privacy of their group is compromised or the tribal signal begins to be drowned out by irrelevant noise. When either of those disruptions occurs, leaders of the group will migrate to a smaller (and usually newer) social networking service and the other members will eventually follow, abandoning the previously used service.
Evidence suggests that teens have lost the privacy that they enjoyed for so long on Facebook, now that their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents of close friends, teachers, coaches, and so on have begun to dominate the service:
- “Then Facebook became necessary for university life and keeping in touch with high school friends, which eventually progressed to my siblings, some aunts, cousins, girls from my soccer team, and random people I met at a party.” (Source: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/06/11/twitter_is_for.html)
- “Just when all the grown ups started figuring out Facebook, college and high school users have declined in absolute number by 20% and 15% respectively in a mere six months, according to estimates Facebook provides to advertisers that were archived for tracking by an outside firm. Facebook users aged 55 and over have skyrocketed from under 1 million to nearly six million in the same time period. There are more Facebook users over 55 years old today than there are high school students using the site.” (Source: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/facebooks_own_estimates_show_youth_flight_from_sit.php)
Other evidence indicates that the signal to noise ratio has deteriorated to the point where teens can no longer use Facebook for focused communication:
- “My Facebook looks like that mess in the picture. It is utterly ridiculous. The spam is another issue. It seems Twitter is taking strides to limit the noise.” (Source: http://blog.monicaobrien.com/why-high-schoolers-leave-facebook/)
- “Students don’t want to be seen as spammers. They are hesitant to share on Facebook, even when they like something.” (Source: http://blog.monicaobrien.com/why-high-schoolers-leave-facebook/)
However, the migratory behavior displayed by teens leaving Facebook and moving to Twitter is not exclusive to their age group:
- “I don’t think that it’s just teens. Certainly I’ve felt for years that I end up moving from network to network to keep the SIZE of that network and how public it is at my control.” (Source: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/06/11/twitter_is_for.html)
Others see a parallel between this migratory behavior and the way terrorists and other activist groups use collaboration and communication tools:
- “Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences.” (Source: Page 8 of http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/mobile.pdf)
- “Oddly enough, this is quite similar to the way many (self-described) jihadists use Twitter. They make protected accounts & sub-accounts in mini-circles. Many don’t trust Twitter that much, and still use IM heavily, changing accounts frequently.” (Source: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/06/11/twitter_is_for.html).
In nature, herds of animals, flocks of birds, and schools of fish migrate from one habitat to another when certain specific conditions signal that it is time to move on. People appear to be no different, at least when it comes to social networking services. Age has little, if anything at all, to do with migratory behavior, whether the moving species is human, animal, bird, or fish.