A few months ago, my fifteen-year-old sister told me that Snapchat was going to be the next Instagram. Many months before that she told me that Instagram was being used by her peers as much as Facebook. Both times I snickered.
Learning from past mistakes, I took some time over the holiday break to ask my sister many, many questions about how she and her friends are using technology. Below I’ve shared some of the more interesting observations about Instragram, Facebook, Instant Messaging, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, and FaceTime. I hope you’ll find them as informative, surprising, and humbling as I did.
Looking at her Instagram feed, I noticed that the vast majority of photos were of people – not beautiful views, objects, or experiences. This is in stark contrast to what the people I follow on Instagram take photos of, and very analogous to the photos that appear in my Facebook Newsfeed.
My takeaway: Facebook was smart to buy Instagram.
She mentioned that she tries to visit Facebook as infrequently as possible. “It’s addicting,” she bemoaned, “you end up getting lost in it and I don’t like that.” I found this perspective interesting. Facebook is clearly doing a good job delivering relevant content, yet its users (at least this one) feel poorly when they use the service. Related, she mentioned that she only visits Facebook after her Instagram Feed updates have been exhausted.
My takeaway: Facebook may have an irreversibly bad brand.
While much of my childhood was spent instant messaging, on AIM and then Facebook Chat, my sister says she and her friends rarely IM with each other. “When you go on Facebook Chat the people you don’t want to talk to are always the ones who immediately chat with you.”
Most of my sister’s friends’ post-school communication takes place on iOS apps, such as iMessage and Snapchat. Though she did say that they use Facebook Message fairly often, as a way to asynchronously send each other notes (in other words, email for adolescents).
My takeaway: I wonder if a Facebook email product could take a significant share of the market, from Gmail and Yahoo, once my sister’s demographic reaches college (where almost all of my social and academic communication was via email). My sister couldn’t even remember her Gmail password when I recently sent her something, that’s how infrequently she uses email right now. That’s bound to change soon.
My sister maintains that Snapchat is up there with Instagram, in terms of usage amongst her peers. Her exemplary use case was a moment that she captured in the airport of a funny looking man who was snoozing in an awkward position. It’s the type of thing that you want to share with somebody, but it’s insignificance would make it awkward in a text or status update. “It’s a way to connect with friends when you don’t really have anything to say.” Or in my words, if traditional messaging is functional — communicating for a purpose; “What time do you want to meet for the movie?” — Snapchat is the opposite, whatever that is.
My takeaway: Snapchat is a communication tool, seriously.
Surprisingly, I found my sister’s insights on Tumblr most interesting.
First off, she described Tumblr as a photo service: “It’s photos only.” I mean, she knew that it supported text posts — after I cried, “You know it’s a blogging platform, right?!” — but couldn’t remember a time when she saw anything but a photo in her Dashboard.
Second, despite knowing many active Tumblr users, she said she didn’t know anyone who actually posted on the service. Rather she said the majority of her friends merely consumed content, with a tiny minority reblogging stuff that reflected who they wanted to be (more on that later).
Third, she said most of her friends stopped using the service once they reached high school: “Tumblr is mostly middle schoolers. Especially hipsters. They just reblog stuff.” (Note: we’re from Santa Monica and my sister would be considered “hipster” by Northeast standards.)
Finally, whereas Instagram is a place you follow “celebrities and bands,” she mentioned that on Tumblr her friends follow people who they aspire to be. Cobra Snake was her quintessential example of the type of Tumblr user that is idolized on the service. These “idols” are the ones who post most of the content (photos) on Tumblr, content that is then reblogged by kids who aspire to be what the photos represent.
My takeaway: I can’t get over the “middle schoolers use it” comment, especially since they use Tumblr as an identity tool. That’s exactly how my friends and I used Myspace in middle school, and we too abandoned it (for Facebook) once we reached high school. So in middle school you care a lot about your personal presentation (themes and cultural images on your Myspace or Tumblr page), but once you reach high school you care more about the people you present yourself with (photos on Facebook and Instagram)? Maybe I’m reading into this too much. Maybe not.
She had almost nothing to say about Twitter because she didn’t know anyone in high school that used it. “Nobody uses it. I know you love it but I don’t get it. I mean, I guess a a few kids use it but they’re all the ones who won’t shut up in class, who always think they have something important to say.” (Note: that was me in high school, unfortunately.)
For me, Twitter is predominantly a link discovery service — admittedly, that is a simplified view, but it’s helpful for these purposes — so I followed-up on her Twitter comments by asking where she discovers links. “What do you mean?” She couldn’t even understand what I was asking. I rephrased the question: “What links do you read? What sites do they come from? What blogs?”
I don’t read links. I don’t read blogs. I don’t know. You mean like funny videos on Facebook? Sometimes people post funny links there. But I’m not really interested in anything yet, like you are.
She didn’t know what BuzzFeed was, and doesn’t visit fashion blogs! (Of course, the older brother thinks that would be a given.) I was floored.
My takeaway: this actually seems like a huge opportunity for Twitter. Kids my sister’s age are driving the growth of Instagram and Snapchat, yet (anecdotally) they’re barely using Twitter. If the company can figure out how to better appeal to younger demographics, there’s a massive growth opportunity there. Especially since I don’t buy that my sister isn’t into links. I just don’t think she stumbles across the right ones.
The Next Big Thing
Unfortunately, my sister couldn’t name the next Instagram or Snapchat, though she did tell me about an idea that she swore all of her friends would use if one of my “entrepreneur friends” built it: a FaceTime-esque app that’s free.
Apparently, high schoolers love FaceTime (blows my mind) but it’s too expensive to use frequently. Instead of SMS, some of her friends use Kik (or one of the apps in that category) to save money on phone bills, and they desperately want a similar app for FaceTime. Serendipitously, Jenna Wortham made a prediction that’s in line with my sister’s stated need:
…the same impulse that made Chatroulette a viral hit, and something that Apple has tried to capture with FaceTime, Google with its Hangouts, even Color’s ill-fated last and final iteration. It’s enough to make me think that the real real-time social Web is coming, in one form or another.
Though I can’t relate, I know my sister would agree.
My takeaway: I’m getting old.
[UPDATE: to clarify, the carrier charges — from Verizon, et al. — make FaceTime “expensive.”]