image: snapchat logo

Are young people the best gauge of early adoption?

Enrique Dans
Nov 19, 2013 · 4 min read

Snapchat’s recent rejection of a $3 billion acquisition by Facebook has opened an interesting debate between Farhad Manjoo of The Wall Street Journal and Matthew Ingram of GigaOM on the issue of whether young people can be considered a trustworthy indicator of future uptake tendencies.

Manjoo says that just because young people are moving over in a big way to Snapchat doesn’t mean that the rest of us will: in reality, very few of the services that we use on a mass basis these days were initially taken up by that segment. The idea that young people set trends that adults then pick up on is a myth, and that Facebook and Snapchat’s obsession with the youth market, and the former’s mammoth offer for the latter makes no sense.

Matthew Ingram argues the opposite, saying that young people are more open to experimentation, innovation, and early adoption than adults, and that when they have not led trends it has been due to factors such as price or because they do not fit their needs. There is no point in thinking that young people will lead the way in adopting products such as LinkedIn: until it recently launched a student service, there was no fit with the youth demographic; the same applies to the iPhone, because few young people can afford the $600 starting price.

Leaving these barriers to one side, young people’s attitudes can be seen as an indicator of take up tendencies, and Facebook is right to be concerned that they are abandoning it for Snapchat. Even more when its efforts to reverse the trend by launching a similar service have miserably failed.

Zuckerberg’s recent initiatives show that he is more in line with Ingram’s thinking than Manjoo’s, and that he believes the youth segment is the one to watch. Jeff Bezos’ comment in the light of his purchase of Ingram’s employer, The Washington Post, is succint:

“All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s.”

Nevertheless, the market seems to give greater credence to Ingram: ever since Facebook began to detect a decline in its youth segment its share value has begun to wobble. When the young lose interest in your product, it’s not a good sign. Aside from this, which seems pretty much common sense, should we assume that the service they are abandoning you for will necessarily be taken up by the rest of the population, or is it simply a tendency that can be covered by some other service, or even ignored, or matched by take up by another demographic?

In other words, does anybody seriously think that we are all about to go over to start sending messages and photos that disappear after a few seconds?

Nobody would deny that young people have led the way in setting many trends. In my own case, I have for many years used my daughter and her friends as an early detection system, although a certain amount of common sense has to be used in interpreting such an indicator. In the case of Snapchat, it still hasn’t crossed the Atlantic, and has a minimal presence in Europe, so my daughter and her entourage are not the best barometer. Being distanced from the dynamics of take up makes it very hard to get an idea of the prospects for Snapchat, but my gut feeling is that Ingram is probably closer to the money on this one than Manjoo.

At the same time, I would have to say that Facebook fatigue is something that many users, myself included, have been suffering from for some time.

In a recent article, Quartz gave three reasons why Evan Spiegel, the 23-year-old co-founder of Snapchat, might have rejected Facebook’s offer: one, because if Facebook could do it, why shouldn’t he? Two, if Twitter can do it, why shouldn’t he? Three… because he is completely nuts and he doesn’t care. Is he crazy and made a terrible mistake rejecting the offer, or is he waiting for Snapchat’s moment of glory, mass take up, and the development of an as-yet inexistent business model that will take Spiegel into realms of undreamed wealth?

Or will Snapchat be a case of ephemeral adoption restricted to a specific demographic, to be replaced later on by another fad thought to be the next big thing? And what if young people are not simply indicating a preference for a specific tool, but something bigger, a trend perhaps toward ephemeral, no-consequences tools? Everything seems to indicate that whatever happens to an apparently insignificant tool can teach those of us who study early adoption a great deal…

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

    Enrique Dans

    Written by

    Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

    Enrique Dans

    On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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