Are Teenage Customers "Hiding" on Twitter?



Brian Cantor
02/01/2012

As Facebook was rising through the ranks, one of its significant competitive advantages was clear as day: by qualifying membership based on verifiable factors like education, Facebook enabled users to "digitize" their real life social networks. Instead of dealing with non-stop job offers from "adult film directors," thousands of users who somehow look like the exact same "scene girl" and constant spam from subpar indie rock groups on MySpace, users would be interacting with real friends, real family members and real past, present and potential classmates.

Now a heavily-adopted cultural fixture, Facebook has literally become an extension of the university dorm or the high school cafeteria. Girls learn whether their crushes are still dating that pesky girlfriend. College graduates gush to friends when they have received a job offer. All users share photos and videos commemorating the perhaps-better-left-forgotten drunken weekend escapades. It, quite simply, has become an integral part—if not the most important part—in dictating how young individuals communicate with peers.

This reality of Facebook, that of its power to reinforce real-life, "human" connections, has obviously been the ticket to its unrivaled success. It is a reality that made MySpace look silly and obsolete and one that makes Google’s "Google Plus" network seem empty.

But could this social landscape inherent to Facebook also be responsible for driving customers away?

That is a conclusion being put forth by research at Microsoft and the Pew Institute, who cite teen interest in privacy as one of the reasons Twitter is continually gaining ground with existing, or presumed-potential Facebook loyalists.

When referring to the idea of marketers and third parties gaining access to customer data, privacy concern is nothing new for Facebook. But the kind of privacy being addressed here—that which makes Twitter a more desirable social network for some young users—is a flavor that runs counter to the very notion of Facebook (and maybe even social media in general): a yearning to express thoughts privately.

As Facebook has grown, its extending real-life relationships to the online world has become self-defeating. While qualifiers like actual friendship, education and hometown avoided the pitfalls of "creepy," "stranger" networks like MySpace, they also helped make Facebook a legitimate part of the social experience. Users now can typically figure out whether their classmates, friends, coworkers and family members are on the network, and once that identification is made, a "friendship" is inevitable.

Consequently, users are suddenly part of a social network massively larger than their real-life network of friends (but still consisting of people who will make real-life judgments), and the conversations and photos teens would share with close friends are now likely to be broadcast to the entire school, all "friends of friends" and even parents and grandparents. It is as if a student had to spend the entire school day—and night—hooked up to a microphone that broadcast all of his thoughts and encounters to everyone who "sort of" knows him.

Both the Twitter company and the Twitter community are significantly more relaxed when it comes to user presentation—save for celebrities who want to espouse their "verified" status, Twitter users need not reveal their real names, photos, workplaces and schools and can thus make it likely that they will only be found by those who "know where to look."

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According to Microsoft Research researcher Alice Marwick, one teen research subject declared, "Facebook is like shouting into a crowd. Twitter is like speaking into a room."

The sentiment is laced heavily with hyperbole—it is not as if Facebook dialogue is really THAT public—but it does speak to the increased value teens are seeing on Twitter.

Long appealing to some teenagers due to the heavy celebrity focus—even if their followings are technically larger on Facebook, most high-profile celebrities use Twitter as their primary fan communication platform—the network is growing due to its ability to step out of the spotlight and not have every thought scrutinized by friends, family, high school arch-nemeses and coworkers.

"I love twitter, it's the only thing I have to myself ... cause my parents don't have one," Tweeted Britteny Praznik, 17.

Pew Research has pegged Twitter involvement for the 12-17 and 18-29 demographics at higher than 16%, which speaks to its growing prominence for young users. And though that growth will naturally mean that teens’ friends will also join the network, the "tabula rasa" nature of a less popular medium means users can recreate the rules.

Whereas one is generally "wrong" for blocking classmates or hiding his statuses from friends on Facebook, Twitter has not yet made it a sin to make ones Tweets "private" to approved Followers. Nor has it rendered it taboo to post without revealing every personal detail about oneself to everyone he possibly knows.

And many teens like that privacy, if not outright anonymity, which allows them to vent about politics, share anonymous frustration about friends and classmates, send love notes to Justin Bieber and gush over "Gossip Girl" without revealing their guilty pleasures and polarizing viewpoints to their real-life circles.

And yet, for all the privacy value identified by the Pew and Microsoft research, there still exists an inescapable question over whether it satisfies the core "social" element of Facebook.

When I attended a guest CS50 lecture and then met with (and interviewed) Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University several years ago, an underlying theme of his approach for Facebook was to use the channel to create a strong, palpable touch point that expands real, human relationships.

All of the aforementioned "benefits" of Twitter serve the purpose of providing a specific avenue for sharing thoughts and being associated with content and sentiment rather than human identity, but if the goal is not to necessarily represent oneself as oneself to the people involved in one’s life, the channel will not totally account for the very reason social media—and networks like Facebook—became so important in society.

And from a branding standpoint, while Twitter can provide macro-level insight and an ability to quickly, inexpensively engage and market to customers, if its future success will not hinge on a greater closeness to real life, it will not render Facebook—and more niche networks and communities—as irrelevant when it comes to understanding the true makeup of existing customers and existing haters.

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