By Anne Collier
A radio station asked me to comment on news “reports” asking if Facebook’s becoming uncool to teens. They offer anecdotal “evidence” such as Marketwatch.com‘s “one summer-job applicant who uses an alias on Facebook to maintain some distance from prospective employers on Wall Street.” Is this evidence (and is this “applicant” even a teenager)? It doesn’t even mention what an Los Angeles Times article offers us as evidence, but it does point to FB’s recent initial public offering and current share price, which is more a sign of how global markets are (like the companies themselves) adjusting to the business models of user-driven media, and it does link to the Times piece, so let’s look at that. The Times points to FB’s flattened US growth and the fact that 80% of the site’s users are outside the US. Again, this is evidence of teens’ social media practices? The US-based flattening has been happening for some time and most likely merely indicates market saturation. [The overseas growth has been gradually eclipsing indigenous social network sites in many countries, EU Kids Online’s researchers have shown me, which probably has a lot to do with a desire for the upward mobility and participatory power of interest to people, especially young people in every country on the planet (see this about Brazil).]
The Times also points to teens checking out Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media services. But there is no evidence that checking out or even joining newer services means abandonment of older ones. Just like us adults, kids sample new products and services. And Facebook is really a social utility, with a vast array of options, use cases, and products in its space – not the same as more specialized, interest-specific social media products, so we’re not really talking about an either-or proposition here. Young people also have a multi-layered, individualistic, and situational approach to media and technology. Different situations and types of conversations call for different devices and services. It’s pretty hard to make huge generalizations about everybody’s or even teens’ social media use because it’s wholly embedded in everyday life, which is lived very individually! So here’s my prediction: Because of Facebook’s own safety efforts for youth and the extraordinary public attention to them it continues to enjoy (which obviously helps to keep it working hard on safety!), Facebook just may over time become children’s first portal into social media (after cellphones, of course, but that’s another story, and FB’s mobile too).
Disclosure: I serve as co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Google, and other Internet companies.