Teens Don’t Use Twitter (Why Should They?)

A 15-year-old boy wrote a report for Morgan Stanley on the social media usage of himself and his friends. For the financial firm founded in 1935, the report was worthy of presentation at last week’s Allen & Company Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. Initially, the press seemed to be reporting the discovery of the Holy Grail by an unwitting child.

Then the media turned cold. The most common reactions appearing to be, “So what?” and “Is this stuff really true?” As Corante’s Suw Charman-Anderson put it, “both Morgan Stanley and the media seem to be treating it as if Robson has Spoken The One Great Truth.” (“The plural of anecdote is not data,” Corante, 13 July 2009).

So Robson and his friends are but a tiny sampling of social media users. But the report still shouldn’t be ignored. Robson belongs to everyone’s favorite demographic. Businesses would really like to know what he thinks, or more importantly, what he knows. The report was a fresh look at a familiar, if cynical, observation: the Internet encourages its young users to be at best, social butterflies and stingy consumers, and at worst, lazy readers and music thieves.

Robson’s set doesn’t care about Twitter, doesn’t want to pay for music, goes to the movies no matter what’s showing, and doesn’t really read newspapers because they “cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text while they could watch the news summarised on the internet or on TV,” he said. (The Guardian reprinted his report here.)

For businesses, the obvious but still harrowing observation Robson made for “elderly media moguls…fret[ting] over their business models,” as Silicon Alley Insider describes the conference attendees, is that “tomorrow’s consumers are using more and more media but are unwilling to pay for it” (“15-Year-Old Analyst Trashes TV, Newspapers, Radio, And…Twitter,” Henry Blodget, Silicon Alley Insider, 13 July 2009).

The real revelation is the sensible and irreverent things Robson says about our media darling, Twitter. It may be “growing in popularity among younger people,” according to a recent study (“Inside Twitter,” Sysomos, June 2009), but it’s largely a grown-up affair for people who have expensive smartphone plans and spend a lot of time marketing, networking, reporting and curating. As Robson put it, the teens who sign up for Twitter realize that “no one is viewing their profile, so their ‘tweets’ are pointless.” The question is: why don’t more of them put in the time, the way they did with Facebook?

One reason is that they don’t yet see the value of Twitter as we adults have fashioned it: a rapid ticker of interesting links, breaking news, and networking opportunities; they aren’t old enough to. Teen entrepreneurs, such as the shoe-collecting blogger Jane Aldridge, who runs Sea Of Shoes, are making forays onto Twitter, but they are tentative. (Her first tweet was “Hey guys, I need help with this!,” and she has since updated twice.)

The second reason teens aren’t rushing to Twitter follows the first: the site is “aimed at adults”, Robson observes, calling the UK’s most famous Twitter user, Stephen Fry, “not particularly cool” (“Teen who doesn’t tweet reveals how he became top dog in the City,” The Evening Standard, 14 July 2009). No doubt Aldridge, because she is a mini-mogul, was told by older people that she just had to join Twitter.

But where and how does a regular teenager start to feel that they are a part of this new world? How does anyone? Helpful sites like Mashable are there, well SEO’d and ready to be found. But there is no teenage initiative. Teenagers are right to remain skeptical. Facebook was targeted at college kids and trickled down to teens before it trickled up to adults. Robson said teens are all over social networking sites, but the only site he mentions by name is Facebook. Sure, teens might be embarrassed and annoyed that the Stephen Frys of the world (including their parents) are now on Facebook, but it was the teens’ site first.

Perhaps educators and parents should be grateful that teens haven’t yet migrated to Twitter. It’s an imperfect system that moves too fast. Valuable time is spent learning how to use, tweak, and customize Twitter, gain followers, gain friends, and actually benefit from the tidbits and links that are tweeted.

And what exactly are the benefits? That the Internet now looms largest (and larger than ever) in our lives? Social media is more of a conduit to more media than it is a conduit to socialization. It is a feed and a factory of information, but it churns out high page views, rapid click-throughs, and infinite little doses glugged back like a rainbow cocktail of drugs. Is this how we want young people to consume information?

When teens do use the Internet “as a source of information for a variety of topics,” as Robson put it, they turn to Google. Google is still our compass, no matter which social media vessel we ride. But as Bob Batchelor wrote on this site earlier this month, Google “never” provides “answers”. Google provides “facts” and “information”, he says, but unfortunately they can be confused for one another, especially by younger eyes (“Google and the End of Wisdom,” PopMatters, 10 July 2009).

Teenagers like Robson and his friends are very active Internet users. They listen to music, socialize, play video games, and watch videos and movies. Yes, they seek out information on the Internet, but only because they’re already online. Batchelor is even more cynical: “I would guess that we have students graduating with honors who have barely cracked a book in over four years,” he writes. What are these students finding in place of books? If they’re seeking information other than their friends’ latest Facebook wall posts and status updates, they’re finding it on sites that are largely unaware of their presence, and unaware of how they are interpreting and using the information provided.

We know this is problematic, but instead of looking for ways to fix the problem, the media and most businesses and startups who think about the Internet are thinking about- that is to say, obsessing over- social media. The evidence suggests that there are few organizations out there concerned about making the Internet more educational; if they are, they’re being drowned out. (Imagine how Wikipedia would change if its motto was “Doing it for Young Minds”.)

Twitter may inspire love, hate, fatigue, and A.D.D., but its story is actually promising: it didn’t set out to be the information parkway that it is today. It started as a mobile, ever-changing collection of “away messages”. The people transformed it into a mobile, ever-changing online media exhibition and ombudsman. The trouble is, there’s a party in full swing on Twitter, but over at Google, there’s a pandemic that needs our attention.