For a few years now I’ve been debating, on and off, quitting Facebook. My reasons are many and not always convincing and, to date, I haven’t followed through on it.
We all know the story – that the now world-dominating social networking site started life catering exclusively to feckless university students with too much time on their hands. In a sense, the temptation to waste one’s life away meticulously documenting that life is one of the reasons I originally found myself yearning to be free of the site’s grasp. Much better, I reasoned, to limit oneself to Twitter, where self-expression only costs a few seconds; or to LinkedIn, where the prize for such virtual narcissism may be a stellar career.
But I never did quit Facebook. I rarely tinker with my online profile these days and, in fact, I rarely interact with the site at all. All my Tweets redirect there, and occasionally some of my Friends reply to one. I’ll sometimes upload the odd photo and, on occasions where I’m feeling out of touch, I’ll log on and poke around to see what my old pals are up to now. Because for me, Facebook is useful for nothing more than keeping a spark of friendship alive with those people I would otherwise maybe have lost contact with. I include in this my many friends and family members overseas, with whom I would love to share my life physically, but cannot due to the constraints of distance. Of course, Facebook is capable of much more than this, but I choose not to use the extra features. Why? Because I’m old.
Now, those of you who are aware that I still get asked for ID every so often in Sainsbury’s Godalming might take exception to that, but what I really mean is, I’m not a kid any more and ever since its earliest days, Facebook has been a site for kids (British readers should note I’m opting for the much wider, American usage of the word ‘kid’, to include teenagers and possibly those in their early twenties. I.e. those trendier than oneself.)
But here’s something interesting – last year I heard from a friend that their teenage daughter had recently quit Facebook. Was it to concentrate on her school work? Was the Printed Word suddenly back in fashion and instead of spending all evening inanely clicking “Like” on things while illuminated by an eerie glow, she was now cozily tucked up in bed devouring the “Twilight” novels? No. The reason was that she had just found another, trendier social network to join.
Of course! I knew as soon as my parents, aunts and uncles (admittedly not my grandparents – yet) started requesting my friendship online that Facebook’s days of coolness were over. Here was a new army of people even older than me – many of whom don’t get hassled for ID in Sainsbury’s – who had discovered that Facebook is actually a useful tool for staying in touch. Maybe then it was the arrival of the older generations which drove away the teens? But isn’t it rather a wrench to move to a different social network? The very reason I can’t quite bring myself to quit the blasted site is precisely because of the investment I’ve made in recreating my real-life network online. If I quit now, I can kiss all those long lost friends goodbye forever.
The answer, I suspect, goes much deeper than mere embarrassment. The reason that “old” people like me fail to understand the actions of teenagers is because the context in which we grew up is totally different from the world they now inhabit. We may all take the internet for granted today, but let’s not forget that for today’s young people, the internet has always existed. Facebook started in 2004 making this year of 2013 its ninth year of operation. Assuming that one can become aware of computing at, say, the age of 5, that means that for those aged 14 or below, Facebook itself has always existed. (And in actual fact those with children will know that computer-literacy begins well before the age of 5.) Certainly, based on Facebook’s own stipulation that members must be at least 13 years of age suggests that everyone aged 22 and under have grown up in a world where they have always had the choice to join the network once old enough to do so.
How many people out there remember a world without SMS? The first commercial SMS was sent in 1992 on the Vodafone UK service, so technically no one aged 21 or under can answer the affirmative to that question. I can’t remember when exactly I sent my first text message, but I do remember it was the word “Hello”, and it was sent from my mother’s 1G mobile to my father’s, probably at immense cost and their intense dismay. I didn’t own my own mobile phone until 1999 – it was a Nokia 6110 and I thought it was simply awesome. I didn’t have any friends to send texts to until the following year.
You see, my reasons for using Facebook are rooted in the norms of my generation – a world in which leaving your childhood community meant a sharp decline in the quality and quantity of contact with that community. The same is true for my parents’ generation – which is why they eventually followed suit and signed up. For today’s kids, however, that world has never existed. They have been able to start building online social networks from day one – not to maintain a lifeline with long-lost acquaintances, but simply to augment their existing, real-life networks. And that’s another way that kids are different – their real-life networks are much more fluid than those of their adult counterparts. Friends one day – enemies the next: some things, at least, never change. The level of investment, not just in social networks but in everything is different for a young person, which is ultimately why they can do things like quit Facebook and start using something completely different – they simply have to tell all their friends at school (or whatever) to do the same and the deed is done – a whole universe moved from one service to another. For you see, the younger generation is not old enough to care about nostalgia, or to feel remorse for dying friendships. What they care about is the here-and-now and they simply want to communicate, in real-time, with their current group of friends.
We should try not to forget that what Facebook is selling is not content – that is provided by the users. Facebook is actually “selling” an application — a tool — for management of that content. If the users find a better tool and if they are able to surmount the barrier to adoption / transition then there’s no reason they shouldn’t migrate to that better tool. Those services which have no subscription fee and which rely on (intrusive…) advertising should be aware that this can act against them when it comes to churn. Whilst users may not consider transferring from an ad-based provider to a subscription-based service, they might well consider transferring to another ad-based provider if it offers sufficient advantage. Once again, it is the younger generation who find the least barrier to transition between social services, because of their lack of baggage, their tech-savviness and the power of the limited and fluid peer-groups they act in.
Those of us working in software and particularly in communications should note well this disjoint in use-cases. As time rolls forwards, and one generation becomes another, will the same assumptions about our user-base hold? Can even the world’s most popular social network rest on its laurels indefinitely? (or for those who think I’m being too melodramatic: are they at least targeting their ads at the right demographics?) Much is being said in mobile services circles about the so-called “Over The Top” (OTT) services, such as “Joyn”, etc. which provide a richer communication experience – for a fee of course. I was always slightly sceptical of this – who needs “richer” communication? But again, I’m thinking like a member of my own generation. If any group ends up fulfilling the network operators’ fantasies of overpriced emoticons flying backwards and forwards across the airwaves, it will be the youth market. I just hope that the operators are targeting the right demographic in their marketing and development.
Which raises an interesting question: what will today’s youth do when they become old? Will they maintain their virtual fluidity – seeing online services merely as interchangeable tools to augment their real lives, or will they become frozen in nostalgia like the rest of us, too scared to press “Delete my Account”?