Teens have always gone where identity isn't

My theory: Teens eschew Facebook and Twitter for Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and other apps not because they're a new, different generation, but because they don't yet have much of an identity to boast of.

March 4, 2013
Jonathan Libov

There's been a lot written recently how teens are using the internet, in particular if they have any interest in Facebook. Generally they're seeking to answer two questions:

  • Do teens use the internet in a qualitatively different way as adults and young adults?

  • Why don't today's teens - the first generation to grow up with an iPhone and NASDAQ-traded social networks - use the world's dominant social platforms, Facebook and Twitter?

The content of these posts tend to focus on which apps teens are using nowadays, with a few comparisons to the social networks today's Facebook and Twitter users used when they were teens (MySpace, Friendster, a college-only Facebook). The Verge jumps the shark on why today's teens are different:

Ultimately, the day of the overshare may have passed, and bragging online isn't as fun as it used to be. "I think that kids just don’t care anymore...They have gotten over the idea of knowing everybody’s life and everybody knowing their lives!"

Yet if you look back at one of the first dominant social platforms, AOL Instant Messenger, it looks a lot like the pseudonymous Tumblr and Snapchat of today in many respects. You used an avatar that was not your face. Your screenname was not indexed and not personally identifiable (mine was Goober1310). The pseudonymity was especially important if you occasionally popped into a sketchy chat room. This empowered you to be someone on AOL that you were not in the school hallways or cafeteria. Sound familiar?

Adam Rifkin on TechCrunch, on pseudonymity in Tumblr:

a large percentage of Tumblr users actually don’t WANT an audience. They do not want to be found, except by a few close friends who they explicitly share one of their tumblogs with.

I used to sign on AOL right after I got home from school. And I used to chat with one of the girls on my bus, who I barely spoke to while on the bus because I had no idea what to say. But online you had the freedom to pause to think of something cool to say, and you didn't have to deal with the anxiety of (acne'd) face-to-face contact. Boy that sure sounds like Whatsapp, or even Snapchat.

If you buy my comparison of AOL Instant Messenger to SnapChat, then there's not much that's qualitatively different among teens today than the teens of the 90's. Would I have used Facebook as a teenager if it had existed in the same form it is today? Hell no!

Teens today just have different tools - iPhones instead of beige Dell desktops.

The identity vacuum

Growing up in an affluent suburb of New York in the late 90's, much of my identity was wrapped up in being a smart kid. But I wanted my peers to know that I was not just smart, but progressive. So I did what any precocious, smartass teenager would do: I put a Ralph Nader bumper sticker on my car.

At the time, my knowledge of what Ralph Nader stood for amounted to: "Corporations...Bad! Environment...Good!". I thought Republicans were conservative jerks, and, in an effort to distinguish myself from peers who might then have supported Al Gore, I went as far left as I could.

But I didn't join Green Party newsgroups on AOL. I didn't proselytize my peers on Instant Messenger about the merits of carbon cap trading. I hardly even understood what these things were. And you can bet that uninformed diatribes on radical progressivism weren't going to get me anywhere with girls, so I didn't really pursue the Nader thing beyond the bumper sticker.

Now let's imagine again that Facebook and Twitter existed back then. Would I have used it to promote my Nader agenda? Of course not. Facebook and Twitter are means for people to shape, extend, and inflate their personal identity; like most teens, I barely had a personal identity to begin with. At an age where what I thought was smart and cool was turning over on a yearly basis, I had nothing that I'd want to exist in posterity on a Social or Interest Graph. My interests and opinions had the consistency of Play-Doh, shaped and re-shaped in ways that I hoped girls and college admissions officers would appreciate.

As for that bumper-sticker, it had about as much impact on the 2000 Election as a reblogged Obama GIF did on Tumblr in 2012.

The future for Facebook and Twitter

So what happens when today's teens grow up into young adults and start to form their own identities? I actually think they'll take up Facebook and Twitter. They may never have the same relationship with the Facebook brand that I do - I remember when Facebook was closed to people without a .edu email address - but they'll eventually need and want to list themselves in the Earth-spanning "public directory" that Facebook has become. On Facebook, as in real-life, those teens will gradually become more comfortable being in the presence of "old people".

Same with Twitter, as those teens become young adults whose interests ossify and their willingness to open and read links increases. Twitter's not for everyone, but I do agree with Josh Miller on Medium that there's a massive growth opportunity for Twitter among today's teens. They may just need to pander to some of the habits carried over from Tumblr, Snapchat and the like.

As for the fact that teens seem so fond of "sexting" and sharing provocative photos, the kinds of things that aren't often done on Facebook and Twitter, there's an easy explanation for that: While teenagers lack opinions, knowledge, self-confidence and personal identity, they're entering their peak years of physical fitness and health. Distasteful as it may be, their physicality is probably the most impressive thing they have to share with one another. As their self-worth and Body Mass Indices simultaneously increase through young adulthood, they'll grow out of the sexting phenomenon.

In the end, I'm not so hasty to think that Facebook and Twitter have irrevocably lost today's teens, nor that Facebook and Twitter need to bend over backwards to capture this demographic. Rather, I think they just need to give a little time to today's teens to grow up.