Teenagers are the compulsive mojo that keeps tech companies relevant. They Snapchat, Facebook, Tweet, Tumbl, and Instagram like nothing else in the universe—If a social media company doesn’t have a cadre of teens using it constantly, it’s a bacterial infection not a viral hit. They are the first people to use new technology and if it pleases them, they have the power to pull networks, apps, and products from obscurity and throw them into mainstream parlance. Teens are the ultimate arbiters of success online. As judge and jury they are legion, and they are obsessive.
But they’re also teensy-weensy-funsy-folk who hate algebra, grumble at their parents, love their friends soooo much, and can’t wait for prom. They are completely aware of their influence. And their decision to damn a product to obscurity isn’t malicious; it’s more of a casual “whatever” before they move onto something else that doesn’t bore them. Millions of dollars of financial value for companies hinges on the capriciousness of teenagers, and this has some adults scared.
In 2011, David Thorpe proposed on Twitter “Your twitter feed isn’t complete unless you follow a random teen and just enjoy their little teen life,” followed by the cutesy #FollowATeen hashtag. Thorpe later explained “If you get below the surface, Twitter is like 99% teens who are mad at their moms and think English class is total bullshit (and don’t even get me started about Keighlinn, who is being a TOTAL bitch). It’s a lot of fun to find a random one and casually keep tabs on their stupid teen life. It’s not a stalky thing, it’s just about tuning in to the weird secret worldwide teenosphere and seeing what’s up with today’s youth.” The #FollowATeen sensation recently took off in April 2013 and thousands of people took to Twitter to report to their own followers about the goings-on in their teen’s life.
It doesn’t matter if Thorpe thinks kids have “stupid teen” lives though. They’re using social media in critical mass and investors are watching with eager eyes and greedy pocketbooks.
Even old Internet companies want teens to like them. Yahoo recently acquired popular teen social network Tumblr for $1.1 billion dollars in an attempt to bring Tumblr’s young audience to Yahoo’s powerful advertisers. The site, which is full of angsty teenage tastemakers, is a homeworld of GIFs, obsession, running jokes, and techno-cultural renaissance where people can create, define, destroy, and recreate who they are with the ease of clicking a few buttons.
The teen audience can make or break a business. We’re all at their mercy. It doesn’t help that their opinions and tastes change rapidly.
In a Pew Research Center study released May 21, 2013, researchers looked to see how teens use social media and if they have any concern for data privacy. Facebook maintained its crown as the most-used social network by teens, but teens aren’t as eager about it as they were previously. 94 percent of American teenagers use Facebook but according to Pew, their sentiment is mostly negative. “If you are on Facebook, you see a lot of drama,” one 15-year-old told Pew. Even if they’re on Facebook and checking it regularly, some teens aren’t sure why. “I’ll wake up in the morning and go on Facebook just … because. It’s not like I want to or I don’t. I just go on it. I’m, like, forced to. I don’t know why. I need to. Facebook takes up my whole life,” a 14-year-old named Casey told the Huffington Post.
As teens’ interest wanders away from Facebook, their preferences build and destroy other tech empires. Pew’s data shows teen sentiment to a myriad of other networks:
Snapchat: “It’s really great. I have to admit, it’s better because I could pick the most embarrassing photo, and know that they’ll see it for 10 seconds, and then I’m done.” “It’s just kind of fun. Because it’s like texting, but you get to use your face as the emoticon instead of an actual emoticon.”
Tumblr: “I like Tumblr because I don’t have to present a specific or false image of myself and I don’t have to interact with people I don’t necessarily want to talk to.”
Twitter: “Like, sometimes you just like express your feelings [on Twitter]. Like you feel like yourself.”),
Instagram: “On Instagram you can delete the comment really easily, and you don’t have to live with it, kind of. Whereas Facebook, if they say something mean, it hurts more. I don’t know why it does. And also [Instagram] it’s not public, so people tend to not come off so mean. Because all they really want is for people [to] like their photos.”
Texting: “Texting is always the backup for any social media.”
Teenagers are mixing their social networks to come up with the perfect concoction for expressing themselves online.
But even though many teens say “Facebook’s dead,” they simply can’t get away from it. Facebook is like high school: while horrible, it’s simply inescapable. It has become the common ground for all teens to meet on, and the result is an impersonal playground of one-upmanship void of real personality and detested by all but the über popular. As Casey told the Huffington Post, “If you don’t get 100 ‘likes,’ you make other people share it so you get 100. “Or else you just get upset. Everyone wants to get the most ‘likes.’ It’s like a popularity contest.”
But there’s one significant way Facebook is unlike high school: it’s on day and night, it doesn’t take holidays or weekends, it’s a popularity contest that never stops.
Unfortunately, like most popularity contests, almost everybody is constantly losing. Despite teens’ strong desire for social media fame and hundreds of likes, the typical teen has 300 Facebook friends and 79 Twitter followers. Only the top users have enough influence to amass hundreds of likes on their mirror selfies. Which is likely why many users dislike Facebook so much—it’s hard to stand out and be an Internet celebrity within the big blue walls. “Teens who used sites like Twitter and Instagram reported feeling like they could better express themselves on these platforms, where they felt freed from the social expectations and constraints of Facebook. Some teens may migrate their activity and attention to other sites to escape the drama and pressure,” says the Pew report.
While it’s good to know teens have found other places online to express themselves, the demands of a constantly connected life have some serious consequences. “If I’m not watching TV, I’m on my phone. If I’m not on my phone, I’m on my computer. If I’m not doing any of those things, what am I supposed to do?” 14-year-old Casey told the Huffington Post. The prospect of a life void of substance isn’t really a new concept for angst-filled teenagers. But when existence ends with their iPhone, it’s hard not to see the trouble brewing.
One of the great premises of the Internet is the democratization of information. With a free flow of data, a more connected and immersive community can exist. But for many teens, the connectedness takes precedent over the information being shared. Some groups of friends will use group chat to talk to each other constantly. Casey said she’d text until midnight then pick it up again at 7 am when she woke up, then continue until midnight without pause. Daily repetition of constant communication about teen things: “Is the bus there?” “Would it be weird if I wore my Hunters [rainboots]?” “What are you wearing?” “Can I still wear leggings?”
Those who don’t have a phone with the ability to group chat are quickly ostracized from the crew. Regarding one of her friends who didn’t have an iPhone, Casey said “She wasn’t in the group chat, so we stopped being friends with her. Not because we didn’t like her, but we just weren’t in contact with her.”
It seems teens are technologically obsessed to terrifying ends, but this isn’t a horror story. In response to the #FollowATeen craze, where a bunch of adults essentially called teens dumb, Tavi Gevinson, celebrity teen blogger and founder ofRookie Mag took to Twitter to start #FollowAnAdult, a campaign to expose how equally lame the adults who were chastising teens are. This brings up an essential point: the tool is independent of message. This is to say teens will use social media to talk about what they know, i.e. teen life. Adults will use the same medium to talk about their bosses, jobs, and other constituents of adult life. And when these teens become adults, the nature of their messages will change. This particular group of teenagers, born between the mid 1990s and 2000, is so formidable because they have been using advanced communication technology their whole lives.
These teens will grow up and soon take jobs, have kids, buy homes, and inform policy. At that point, their hyper-connectivity will pay off. Their advantage is an entire generation is being raised with universal communication at the core of their lives. Chatting about the status of the school bus now prepares them for a future of free-flowing information. As adults they will have a deeply internalized knack for constant communication and strong beliefs in the universality of knowledge. Perhaps they don’t know it now, but the habits of teenagers are rapidly changing not only the Internet, but also the process of growing up and the future of existence. I can’t help but think it’s for the better.