Kids These Days: Desires of Next Gen Social Media Users

An article in Social Media Today talks about what teens are looking for in social media platforms—notably, potential for anonymity and less social pressure.

Many are unhappy with social pressures of some platforms:

According to the Pew research Center, 39% of teens on social media say they feel pressure to post content that will be popular and get lots of comments or likes, and 40% report feeling pressure to post only content that makes them look good to others.

These and other pressures have led to the rise of “micro-communities.”

Users are able to create bonds and friendships with other people from all over the globe, without the same pressures as traditional follower-based social media sites. The majority of these contextual communities do not put an emphasis on the importance of creating an online personality.

Tumblr, for example, is a blog community that launched in 2007 and since has gained 420 million users through underground popularity amongst teens as the “anti-social media.” Teens create alternative Tumblr aliases for themselves and then personalize their blog pages to reflect their interests, thoughts, and fantasies. From this, they can build a following based solely on their personal tastes and creative ideas, as opposed to a stream of photo-shopped selfies with pop lyrics as captions. Most of the time, these followers form online friendships where anonymous bloggers develop relationships through mutual appreciation of one another’s tastes and ideas.

The figures speak for themselves. According to research by NextAdvisor, 61 percent of teenagers cite Tumblr as their favorite social media site, ahead of Facebook.

Online communities put less pressure on users to share information about themselves. Many users don’t even use a photo of themselves, and the focus is on chatting and sharing experiences rather than posting constant life updates and photos. As a result, many users feel more comfortable, and are able to create real bonds as part of an online community where people don’t judge them based on their appearance or the number of friends or followers they have.

As one young person stated during a Pew Research Center focus group: “I like Tumblr because I don’t have to present a specific or false image of myself and I don’t have to interact with people I don’t necessarily want to talk to.”

The article also cites the potential for remaining anonymous as another draw, and focuses on Reddit being big among teens.

So teens want anonymity and less social pressure. That means marketers will have to adjust right?

Sort-of.

Don’t get too nervous — anonymous platforms have risen and died in the past, or they have become one of many social platforms people use.

If I remember correctly, it was Ask.fm that my classmates used in high school around 2010 to cyberbully each other. If not, it was something like it. People posed questions to each other anonymously—some random, some intended to hurt feelings. Within a few weeks, people pretty much stopped using it because it made us all sad. There was a similar social media site people also used to post anonymous statements about each other, the name of which I can’t remember. As you can guess, it went about as well.

Lately, largely anonymous anti-Semitic weirdos on 4chan have taken pleasure in bullying me when I’m critical of their #1 bae, Donald Trump. 4chan and other similar sites are known for that kind of thing.

But it’s not all bad…

Anonymous social media users aren’t always cowardly, angry weirdos.

I also have friends who use apps like Yik Yak, Secret, and Whisper for fun, to see what secrets people are sharing, and the content is rarely malicious. Usually it’s really funny! Those same friends also have Facebooks, Twitters, Snapchats, etc. None (of whom I’m aware) use the anonymous apps for cyberbullying.

Furthermore, some people have jobs that prevent them from posting certain things online, so they use the cover of anonymity. Other times they’re posting deeply personal information on mental or physical health support boards and might not want that information associated with their real name, but want the information Googleable to people whom it may help. There are tons of understandable and innocuous reasons someone may want to remain anonymous online.

Anonymous social has found its place

All this means that anonymous social has been tried before, is nothing new, and isn’t going to be part of a Facebook/Twitter overhaul. Anonymous social and regular social exist in different spheres, and serve different purposes.

Social media geared towards non-anonymous people (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.) has unique value for users.

If all Twitter users were anonymous, it probably wouldn’t be great for breaking news, because you couldn’t know for sure the source was credible. Of course if you build a friendship with a user, you could come to know whether or not they are credible. But if you then re-shared a piece of breaking news from that person, your users wouldn’t know whether or not they’re credible. There’s a value to not being anonymous, particularly when it comes to affirming or building wide-spread credibility, and that matters for breaking news, among other things.

That doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be valuable for people who choose to remain anonymous. Plenty of people do not tweet — including Supreme Court justices—but follow Twitter for breaking news, insight, and other things Twitter provides. Maybe a higher percentage of the next generation of social media users will post less and observe more.

In a similar way, you also probably aren’t going to share pictures of your baby with anonymous online users. You are, however, going to share them with people you actually know on Facebook and Instagram.

OK, so anonymous social and non-anonymous social exist in different spheres. What about social media pressure?

Maybe that’s how things begin to change.

As mentioned above, teens dislike social media pressure to post “only content that makes them look good to others,” which often means photoshopped selfies, bikini pics, #humblebrags, statuses about how amazing your life is (#blessed), etc.

Numerous studies have confirmed that social media can make people sad. [emphasis added.]

“Scientists from the University of Innsbrook in Austria have found that — even if you don’t realize it — removing social media from your life may increase your level of happiness because you aren’t constantly comparing someone’s highlights to your lowlights.

Right now, everyone can say “I’ll stop posting photoshopped bikini selfies,” but nobody will know if you actually stop photoshopping it. And I mean that last pic of you at the beach was TOO CUTE, how can you not share it right? It’s just one… but that other one was like perfect too… and Jessica posted a few so I can too…

In other words, it’s easier said than done. Nothing is actually stopping you from posting photos, and it turns into something sort of like a prisoner’s dilemma: Everyone is better off if nobody does it, but there’s incentive to do it, and incentive for you to be the first or only to do it (because of decreased competition).

Nobody is going to stop posting those kinds of things, and posting those things is not inherently evil. It becomes bad, however, when we as humans decide we need to compare ourselves and our lives against the lives of others. In this case, usually against the best of the lives of others, as we as humans post on our Facebook walls. We wish we had others’ slim bodies, expensive cars, happy families, hoards of friends, etc.

The simplest solution would be for us all to stop seeing it in that light, stop comparing the worst of our lives against the best of others’, and just be happy for the good in others’ lives. But that’s really, and understandably, difficult, particularly if we aspire to having better lives.

Another solution is hiding metrics

Some people don’t mind all these posts, but what really gets to them is seeing Jessica’s bikini pic with 127 likes, and their own bikini pic with just 3.

Plus, in many ways, a high-like count is the internet version of “everybody’s doing it.” When lots of people engage with a Facebook post, and you see that lots of people like/share/whatever it, it makes you think there must be something really good about it. You’ll give it a second look, if not like or share because all your friends are.

Snapchat has a role in solving that dilemma. On Snapchat, you’re not usually anonymous, you’re connecting with people you know, but you don’t know how many people like others’ photos.

It’s possible that one solution to keeping the next generation happy on social media means removing the public “like” count on Facebook posts, or similar metrics on other platforms, so only the user who posted something knows who and how many “liked” it. The same could be said of “friend” count. When I was in high school, people talked among close friends of how they wanted the most Facebook friends possible, and even added people they barely knew from class, or weren’t even sure they knew, just to increase their friend count.

What this all means for brands

Anonymous social—

*I’d like to preface this with noting that the brands themselves should not post anonymously—because that would be really creepy—but they should post, stating openly who they are, within anonymous internet communities.

There is value for some brands on anonymous social—maybe people running a drug trial to treat a medical condition post that they’re looking for participants in a group of anonymous people who talk about the condition. Or maybe a store selling cat shirts posts in an anonymous group of people who love cat gifs. This should always be done when both the anonymous user and the brand can benefit. Don’t post in a breast cancer support group about a diabetes drug trial, and also don’t post in the group about your shoe store. That will probably annoy everyone.

Participating as a member of a chat group can also be labor-intensive, so it will be worth it for some companies, but definitely not for others.

Tumblr is a nice happy medium (in both senses of the phrase). It allows you to connect your brand to its relevant micro-communities a little more easily, and if your brand has widely-appealing content, your content can really flourish. Its users also care more about quality of content than authority, which is helpful for newer brands.

Other platforms are trickier. Reddit, for example, has a lot of rules that make promoting your brand really difficult. And your brand should never be on 4chan.

Non-anonymous social without the metrics—

I’ll just focus on Facebook as the example here, and one can extrapolate how it can apply to other platforms.

So let’s say Facebook removes the like count. It will bring more honest engagement, and you’ll like and share posts when you want to—not when all your friends do. That will also mean brands will have to compete harder for your interaction, and “viral” would occur very differently. But it could cause real complications for brands, and thus not be worth it for Facebook.

Only time will tell

These solutions aren’t perfect, and there are many other factors I haven’t mentioned here. Of course, only time will tell if teens continue to feel this way, and what platforms they decide they like best.

But it’s worth it for social media platforms and brands to take the next generation of users and its desires into account. Consider thinking of ways to make users not feel as though they are competing with each other, but coexisting. When it makes sense to do so, consider allowing users to remain anonymous.

But it may be a breath of fresh air to know that the generation many worry is self-absorbed and obsessed with appearances—may not want to be.

Head digital media @RSI & policy fellow: Occupational licensing reform, SCOTUS, §230, social media regulation. Also in @FedSocRTP. Sewing📍#PeakBagger🏔

Head digital media @RSI & policy fellow: Occupational licensing reform, SCOTUS, §230, social media regulation. Also in @FedSocRTP. Sewing📍#PeakBagger🏔