Observing my four siblings’ social media use

Me and my subjects back in the day

Here are some facts to start with.

  • WHEN: late December 2015
  • WHERE: small rural Pennsylvania town (though not our hometown)
  • WHO: my parents, two younger brothers (aged 23 and 19), two younger sisters (aged 22 and 20)
  • WHY: family time!

My siblings all use social media, are in college or just graduated, and were born in the 90’s. They also reside in different places most of the time and therefore their friend groups are also geographically scattered (Pennsylvania/SF Bay Area, Boston/Korea, Amherst/SF Bay Area, and Los Angeles/SF Bay Area). They have different interests, different majors, and different lives.

You could say that our sense of unity boils down to two eminent pop culture artifacts: Harry Potter and Calvin & Hobbes. Everything else is up for debate, but don’t mess with the sanctity of these beloved works of art in our midst.

So here in the household I suddenly had four unwitting participants in my own little social study. Huzzah! Some marketers would kill for this opportunity.

Here are some observations I made:

  • The two sisters tend to use more channels, post more often, and tend to care more about the artistic quality of their posts. They’re also way more popular than I am, racking up 100+ likes on Facebook/Instagram posts. How do they even know so many people?
  • The two brothers don’t have Instagram accounts and mostly use Facebook, sometimes Snapchat. The older one is funny and politically motivated, the younger one is more cynical and low-key.
  • Snapchat. is. constant. More than twice I saw myself on one of their Snapchat stories after the fact, completely unaware that I’d been filmed.
  • None of my siblings used Twitter. My guess is that it’s because it’s text-based and not heavily image-based like the other channels are. Also, it’s not where their friends are.

Here’s how I unwittingly changed while living with them for a week:

  • I used Snapchat way more. Granted, there was not much to do within a 40-mile radius, so this is understandable. But why Snapchat?
  • I appreciated Snapchat way more. It means you don’t have to look perfect in each snapshot. It means you can be silly and sing horribly off-key and still not care about shooting the footage off into the wide world.
  • I posted more on Instagram, too. Sure, there are more photo ops during the holidays. But it also helped that my siblings were willing to be in the photos. Not everyone my age is, surprisingly enough. (I’m 25, just to be clear — not exactly ancient.)
  • I used all of my 2GB data allowance for the month. This never happens otherwise! Partly, it was because the house internet wasn’t very fast and I couldn’t wait a few minutes to upload my sweet sweet Instagram photos. But partly, it was the sheer volume of Snaps I was sending off.

Takeaways for user/market researchers out there:

  • You need to observe young people in the wild to get a sense for how aggressive their phone usage is. Like, watch them in their natural habitats and see how many times they whip out their phones and how many channels they’re using each time. Watch how many people they interact with each time. They will send a Snap, upload a Story, text a couple friends, check their Facebook feed + Like a couple posts, edit a photo, compose a clever caption, and post the photo to Instagram/Facebook before you can blink.
  • This, of course, doesn’t mean they all behave the same way. There was a fairly substantial range in behavior even within my small sample size.
  • Most seem to be on multiple social media channels, but not all the channels. Traction for smaller social media startups is difficult — I know I stopped using Yik Yak quickly, and none of my siblings used anything other than Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat on a regular basis.

As a designer, I find it’s always nice to be exposed behaviors different from my own. Although my “research” wasn’t exactly scientific, it had the benefit of being totally authentic. I was just spending time with my family, who did what they normally do without feeling self-conscious about it. No self-reporting bias here. It was also much longer than most user research sessions you would have, so it revealed more long-term behavior patterns.

Thanks, brothers and sisters.