Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

With teens “over” Facebook, how Social Networks will have to change to survive

It seems that Facebook is coming to terms with the fact that teenagers are fickle and are unlikely to stay interested in anything for long - even Facebook. In their annual report, Facebook admitted that“some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook.”. This, together with anecdotes of teenagers being questioned about their attitude to Facebook, has led the media at least to speculate that teenagers are tossing both their iPhones and social networks into the same category as everything else their parents are involved with.

Facebook at least, has apparently become uncool and boring.

Facebook is so over! http://tapastic.com/episode/2267

The fact that specific social networks should become passe is hardly surprising. Social network sites like MySpace are a testament to how quickly a network can be abandoned and forgotten. There are also an ever increasing number of sites and mobile applications that allow sharing, leading to a corresponding decrease in time spent on any one platform. At the same time, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are trying to find ways of making money which has led to an increase in the amount of content that is pure advertising masquerading as shared content. This has recently been made worse with the announcement) by Facebook of a revamped news feed that will make the page look more like a personalised newspaper or magazine.

For teens at least, social networking sites have never been the primary means of communication. In a Pew Internet study in 2012, 63% of teens used text message to communicate with others on a daily basis compared to only 29% who used social networks to communicate daily with others. 37% of teens surveyed had participated in video chats on platforms like Skype, Google+ and iChat. In other words, teens will employ a range of modes of communication with their friends and will be driven by what peers are doing collectively above any sense of loyalty to a brand. The recent phenomenon of the popularity of photo sharing network, SnapChat is an example of this. Sharing photos that only exist for few seconds before disappearing supports a novel way of using images to communicate that is different to posting photos to Facebook or Instagram. Teens will use SnapChat in preference to the same feature hosted on Facebook.

Ultimately, for a group of teens to change social networks altogether would just be a matter of a collective decision (ironically coordinated on that network) and it could happen overnight.

Social Networks of the Future

In a way, for social networks to survive, they need to be all things to all people and provide a range of communication and sharing options. At the moment, users of social network sites are all treated as being uniform. Even our sharing options usually default to treating everyone on the network as a single group, even though connections will consist of friends, family, acquaintances, work colleagues and strangers. These groups are then a mix of different genders and ages. Although some networks allow a manual sorting of people into categories, very few people would do this and so sharing things that are relevant to even a small number of connected friends is made that much harder. Given that it is a small percentage of people produce the majority of the content and activity on social networks like Facebook, finding relevant and interesting things in a news feed or stream is a challenge.

Social network sites are trying to solve this challenge for advertisers by analysing audiences and deciding what to show to any given individual. This technology is likely to improve over the next 5 - 10 years to the point where relevance is assessed not only by your profile and interests but your actual needs. For normal users, the technology would allow them to have content selected for them and sharing tailored to people who would actually want to see the content. So teenagers posting pictures of drunken parties would automatically hide this content from family - especially parents.

A Personal Data Cloud

Of course, to get the level of sophistication in social networks making these decisions or even suggestions on our behalf, we would have to agree to provide a great deal of private information. This has often been a red flag to privacy advocates who see the benefits being far outweighed by the risks. There is a way around this however where individuals set up a private “personal data cloud” to store all of the information about themselves provided by social networks, apps and websites that they had interacted with. When a software system wants to decide what to do in terms of a person’s social connections, they could then just ask the user’s “personal data cloud” to give them suggestions without revealing anything about the information held in that cloud.

Social networks are likely to remain for the foreseeable future as part of the way in which we interact with others on the Internet. The degree of their relevance however will depend on how sophisticated they can become in filtering content that we consume and send. The technical challenges posed by this is the easy part. It is solving the privacy issue that will be the biggest challenge. This will have to start with giving individuals complete control over that data and when and how it is accessed.

Join the conversation

17 Comments sorted by

  1. Kim Darcy

    Analyst

    What's wrong with email I still ask?

    report
  2. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Apart from no longer being new, I suspect the other problem with FB for teens is that it has been taken over by their parents. Since when is it cool to do the same thing your parents are doing?

    report
  3. Sonia Hines

    Internerd at Queensland University of Technology

    The technology to filter content accurately to groups and individuals already exists and has done since before Facebook ever left Harvard. Livejournal users had the capability to keep all or some content private, to show some things to some friends and not others as far back as 2001. It's paleo tech.

    My personal theory (mostly based on being a rusted-on social networking tragic) is that Facebook is becoming less popular with teenagers because it's being taken over by "old people" and because it's such a stultifying little walled garden. Tumblr on the other hand seems to be growing in leaps and bounds.

    report
    1. Andrew McNicol

      PhD candidate (Media) at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Sonia Hines

      Yes, livejournal! The popular platform launched in 1999 (apparently) that allows much more flexibility in identity performance, doesn't require a binary gender declaration to join, is more than happy for you to use pseudonyms and create multiple accounts to easily separate different aspects of your online identity, and, yes, lets you easily sort reading access by defined groups to control your privacy using a system that does not change every two months. Oh, and it also has a freemium payment model…

      Read more
    2. Sonia Hines

      Internerd at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Andrew McNicol

      Yeah, those of us who've been doing this a long time jumped on Google+ when it started and then went, "Huh? Didn't we already have this?"

      LJ has had its ups and downs, certainly, but in terms of filtering and content management it's streets ahead of what you can do on FB. Which can only mean it's crap because Zuckerberg wants it that way.

      report
  4. Michael Lenehan

    retired

    Wow! I musty have three really uncool daughters - as they are all still right into it. They won't friend me though - so I friended many of their friends and can sort of stalk them that way. I would have read this article all the way through but I felt compelled to update my facebook status half way through. "Wish I had more time to read. hey, did you hear facebook is becoming uncool.."

    report
  5. Andrew McNicol

    PhD candidate (Media) at UNSW Australia

    "Ultimately, for a group of teens to change social networks altogether would just be a matter of a collective decision ... and it could happen overnight."

    Have you read any studies that suggest it does happen this quickly? My feeling is that there is so much tieing users (and their friends) to Facebook that it would take at least a few weeks of altering online practices to wean yourself off the service. Of course, this view comes from regularly hearing people brag about having 500+ friends, and…

    Read more
    1. Les McNamara

      Researcher

      In reply to Andrew McNicol

      "I wonder if it's possible for us to collectively create and adopt something like email that has more social media features - 'Email+'"

      I suppose there was potential for this kind of thing to emerge out of Google Wave and Google Buzz. I've sometimes thought it would be nice to have a "like" button in email - as a kind of optional read receipt.

      report
    2. Sonia Hines

      Internerd at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Andrew McNicol

      Email was the only game in town for social networking back in the 90s, so we had egroups, then yahoo groups (then I think there were google groups but they never really took off) and basically they were the FB pages of their time. If you liked a topic, you joined a group and posted to a mailing list. Social chatter was generally off-topic, so we had OT threads for talking about where you went or what you did.

      Some of them are still around, but it's mostly a wasteland now. And from memory it happened in the space of a year.

      report
    3. Andrew McNicol

      PhD candidate (Media) at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Sonia Hines

      Don't forget instant messaging! I fondly remember using ICQ in the 90s and, while not strictly what we might now call 'social media', it's perhaps closer to David's concept of a 'personal data cloud' in some ways than Facebook currently is.

      Special interest forums were great! It's quite devastating when you hear that old sites go down, though. And Yahoo is a great example of 'who not to trust your data to' - they remove services completely, along with user data, if it's no longer financially feasible. Thankfully, others have taken it upon themselves to archive our shared culture: http://www.archiveteam.org/index.php?title=GeoCities =)

      report
    4. Peter Sommerville

      Scientist & Technologist

      In reply to Sonia Hines

      Some of us Sonia actually used those modems to log onto bulletin boards. My first experience with a modem was in the 70's. it was a acoustic modem, clipped on to a regular telephone. I communicated via teleterminal - basically a line printer with a keyboard, where what you typed and what you received was printed on A3 sprocketed computer paper. The modem operated at 500 baud!.

      Over the next decade we moved slowly up in modem speeds - 1200, 2400, 4800 etc. Compuserve and AOL were dominant networks, offering basic email and numerous bulletin boards.

      The origins of MySpace, Facebook, Google+ etc are in those primitive networks and their primitive software.

      Someone says the young are leaving FB. That is certainly not the case within my family circle. But they are certainly becoming bored with it, particularly because so many oldies are really into it.

      Netstalgia! Sigh!

      report
  6. Hugh Stephens

    logged in via Twitter

    This article is missing a *lot* of content, particularly the difference between a US audience and an Australian one. Just looking at the difference in use (that's use, not 'having a profile') of Google+ indicates that the two populations act vastly differently online.

    In Australia we have very little quality research data about the use of social media by young people and accurate statistics on platform use are rarely provided, and so opinion/commentary like this is rarely able to draw from anything…

    Read more