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Is Facebook Losing Teenage Users A Big Deal?

One of the most overplayed concepts in technology is the significance of the teen demographic. The mainstream media loves the conceit that all teenagers are writing code and hacking databases while everyone over the age of 18 fumbles over their iPhone and struggles to send an email from their spyware laden PC. Unfortunately, that’s not at all true. There’s a tendency to overreact to the fact that the current crop of teenagers are the first to ‘grow up’ with ubiquitous Internet access and technology. This can produce funny moments of generational disconnect–like explaining to youngsters how I’d have to sit in front of the TV with the VCR ready in order to record Sonic Youth and Front 242 videos–but doesn’t mean that teens are all tech savants.

A variation on the above theme suggests that teen behaviors involving technology, computers, digital media, etc. are somehow significant at divining the future of the entire digital world. While trends do sometime start with teens and bubble up to the adult world (MySpace, Tumblr) it’s not always the case. Teenagers are still teenagers and have the same type of interests and issues that they have for generations–even if they do have more technology than their predecessors. In fact, one of the latest iterations of the ‘digital divide’ involves concern over teenagers ‘wasting time’ online.

The significance of teenage use of technology has been dramatically blown out of proportion in the hand wringing over Facebook’s declining importance among the under 18 demographic. Facebook losing teenage users has been one of the biggest stories surrounding the company this year. There’s been plenty of media coverage about this with many either explicitly or implicitly suggesting that this portents eventual doom for Mark Zuckerburg’s company.

IT’S ONLY TEENAGE WASTELAND:

Fast Company had their own ‘Facebook losing teenage users’ article today and channeled Gertrude Stein by calling them ‘Facebook’s Lost Generation of Teens‘. It was one of those articles in which a few anecdotal observations are awkwardly extrapolated to a much larger trend. In this case the writer went to Jamaica High School in Queens to talk to teenagers firsthand. Much is made about how Jamaica High represents the sweet spot of the teen demographic (average family income around $50,000) but there’s little to suggest that this is true–in addition to the obvious urban and regional bias the school is only 3% white. You can make a decent case that the broad strokes of teenage behavior are similar across cultural boundaries even if the specific behaviors are different but aside from the income levels there’s little about Jamaica High that suggests a microcosm of the country as a whole.

Nothing really wrong with the article itself which consists of ‘teen on the street’ interviews about their social media habits and why Facebook is no longer ‘cool’. At the outset of the article we’re promised a ‘big reveal’ of what this all represents other than the obvious fact that Facebook is now ‘mainstream’. The eventual revelation might not be as big of a disappointment as the WWE’s infamous ‘Gobbledy Gooker’ blow off but is definitely underwhelming:

But Miller, and even folks at Facebook, are focused on data that captures a very specific action: leaving. The Hillcrest High teens weren’t leaving; they were simply indifferent. And they weren’t over it because of their parents and teachers. Big surveys with lots of data points are great for describing trends, but they can’t possibly get to all the reasons why people do the things they do, much less why the most mysterious and impenetrable type of person–a teen–does what he or she does. The reason for indifference was far more complex, individual, and due to the proliferation of better, more exact tools for communication.

The article suggests this as at least partial motivation for Facebook’s move into ‘single purpose apps’. The other reason cited for Facebook losing teenage users–high school is essentially a ‘social network’ already so they don’t need social media to keep up with classmates:

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski is not a teen. He might just be the exact opposite of a teen, which is a professor at Harvard Business School. Nonetheless, he and Brandi Jacobsen would have a lot to talk about, because they agree on many things, particularly regarding Facebook and what it can and cannot do. In a new book called A Social Strategy: How We Profit from Social Media, Piskorski analyzed many datasets from many companies, Facebook included. The big insight he takes from looking at Facebook’s data is that, the more friends a user has, the less active he or she is. As people amass friends, the type of content they post becomes more generic, less personal (which explains Facebook’s sudden embrace of news media). The problem isn’t that parents, siblings, and teachers are on Facebook. It’s not even that everyone is on Facebook. It’s that Facebook makes it too easy to suddenly be someone’s “friend.” In high school, you know who your friends are: They’re right there. Or as Piskorski told me, “Of course teenagers hate Facebook and find it useless. In high school, you see your friends everyday!”

THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT:

So does any of this matter for Facebook? Probably not. Their user base continues to grow, they’re diversifying into the aforementioned ‘single use apps’ (eg: Instagram) and as Facebook becomes less ‘cool’ among teens it becomes more ‘mainstream’ and ubiquitous. One underreported fact in all of the ‘Facebook losing teenagers’ reporting is the fact that they’ve *always* represented the smallest percentage of their user base. In 2011 13-17 year olds represented 8.9% of Facebook users, while in 2014 that’s shrunk to 5.4%. As Facebook has lost their ‘cool’ among teens they’ve been adding millions of older users who actually have discretionary income making them more attractive to advertisers which represents a lot of the company’s revenue.

The suggestion that this group of teenagers is a ‘lost generation’ is also off base. Part of being a teenager is rejecting things that are considered mainstream and ‘safe’ by adults. This phase eventually ends as teens transition into the adult world. If it didn’t countless other ‘uncool’ businesses would have disappeared generations ago. Facebook might be unattractive to teenagers for this reason but once they’re out of high school and no longer ‘see their friends everyday’ it represents the best platform to keep up with the various relationships in life. Like it or not, Facebook is the current de facto social network and in many ways is becoming as essential as email. The teens that are ‘indifferent’ to Facebook now will be back when their social circle becomes fragmented and their peer group starts to get married, have kids, etc.

Facebook will continue to face the same challenges of any big company–growing a customer base, finding and maintaining revenue streams and keeping up with the rapid changes in technology and how users engage with the service. And in an ever evolving digital world there’s always the chance that a new competitor will come along and do what Facebook does, only better. One thing they don’t need to worry about is teenagers who will eventually become adults.

UPDATE: The mainstream media has often conflated the ‘Facebook losing teenage users’ story with a Princeton University study released earlier this year that predicted Facebook would lose 80% of their users by 2017. GigaOm eviscerated the Princeton Study but much of the media reported this without any due diligence. A couple of sources went with the headline that Facebook was ‘on the verge’ of losing 80% of their users.

About James Murphy

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