Facebook and the trouble with teens
A while ago, Danah Boyd posted what I thought was a fascinating look at how an 18-year-old she knows was using Facebook and Twitter. According to him, “fb [Facebook] is everybody.” Since all your friends (and your so-called-friends, and people you don’t really know that well, and people who you don’t like that much) are on Facebook, the teens that he knows end up using Twitter to make private groups, with locked updates, to chat and share things online. This way, they can stay connected with a smaller group and not have to share things with the ever-increasing everybody-ness of Facebook.
Now Facebook and RWW are reporting some numbers that show high school and college students are dropping like flies, while mom-and-pop-types are joining up in droves. I suppose we’ve all known about the older demographic growth for a while but the drop off of younger users is new, and, one can only imagine for the ad-driven business, alarming.
These numbers coincide with Facebook’s recent push for increased publicity of status messages and posted items. They are pushing hard for users to become more public, even in the face of losing their younger users, who, according to Boyd’s isolated case anyway, seem to be seeking a way to be more private. With Mom and Dad (or Grandma) friending you on Facebook, and your status being made public by the powers-that-be, I can’t think of an easier recipe for discouraging young users from continuing their presence on Facebook.
The Mashable post linked above makes a salient point: Facebook’s core demographic “fell in love with Facebook because it helped them better connect with friends, not with strangers.” And for me, this point holds as well. I remarked upon reading Boyd’s post that had had an opposite experience with Facebook and Twitter than her teen friend had. Since my Twitter feed is open, Twitter, for me, is everybody. Facebook is only for those who I approve.
Even if that is the case for me, we don’t need another Twitter, just like we don’t need a myriad of other services to replicate one another. What we do need is to encourage the creation of safe spaces for teens to interact with one another online without the fear of being “watched” and without having to break their backs to feel a reasonable sense of privacy.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, though, so it will be interesting to see how Facebook’s demographics and user satisfaction surveys stand up to these latest developments, and whether a thoughtful consideration of teen users (and their information behavior) will be lost in the shuffle.