By: Kirk Douglas
When you think about your social network of choice, what comes to mind? For many, particularly in my age range (mid-30’s or so) It is probably most common that we think of social networks as Facebook and Twitter, common properties associated with the term.
But if you ask the same question to those born a decade or more recently than myself, you might find them talking about very different things. Instagram (not so new anymore), Snapchat, Vine and Periscope for example are increasingly popular ways for young people to connect. Peach, a new app offering a unique set of tools for sending all kinds of content has whipped up quite a storm online over the last few weeks, proving that yet another new way to communicate can garner attention.
These newer services are not only up-and-coming adaptations in the social scope of Internet tools, but they are also perhaps less targeted at adults in my age group. For example, various online studies have shown folks in their 30’s or older tend to be more adverse to change and less willing to break old habits at the cost of trying something new. In this case, specifically social apps and online services. There have been many reports of children and teens actually preferring to avoid common services like Facebook to retain some privacy from parents and mentors by choosing networks their families are not using. Furthermore, I’d also argue that there might even be a lack of understanding among some of these newer products among adults, creating a sort of ‘digital divide’ if you will between generations.
I myself am guilty of understanding the concepts of some newer social apps but not necessarily aligning with their usefulness. Take Snapchat for example – the service is quite blatantly ephemeral in nature. You take a photo, choose how long (in seconds) the recipient has to view it and it’s off and gone once you hit ‘send’. For anyone trying to harvest that image or video still, if a screenshot is taken, it is then reported to the sender which carries with it the unspoken side effect of discouraging screen captures.
It’s not a full-proof system and there’s been many apps and services designed to thwart the disappearing nature of Snapchat content, though many systems have been taken down or remain undiscovered by regular users of the service. In general, I think it is safe to say the effects of these work-arounds have been very limited and haven’t really made a dent in the core product that makes Snapchat the ‘in the moment’ success that it is.
There have been many articles and studies on the topic of waning interest among teens in services like Facebook in favor of services like snapchat. Pew Research, one of many companies to post such findings has reported that there is some truth to this although it is a much slower change than some eye-catching articles might have you believe.
Pew’s 2015 “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview” points to teen usage (13-17 in age) of Facebook is at 71%, that’s 6% lower than in 2013, when a similar annual study showed (2012) results pegged at 77%. Meanwhile, Twitter and snapchat are on the rise.
All of this begs the question around what’s so unique or attractive about the ephemeral nature of said services like Snapchat. After all, other [fairly] recent and common services like Instagram and Vine for example, don’t leverage disappearing content as a staple. Teens use them, but not in the same way as Snapchat according to the above mentioned studies.
My theory on why this might be the case, is simple. Think back to your teenage years. When I think of mine, I think of a time where the Internet was new and shiny, fun and interesting, seemingly limitless and full of possibility. But when I think of any digital ‘paper trail’ of my actions it really didn’t exist aside from email communications. Sure, there was MySpace at the turn of the century and we downloaded plenty of pirated music, mostly because we could, but their wasn’t a sort of singular social experience that spanned across generation lines like Facebook does today. There was nothing pinning down my whereabouts in a photo, no geolocation tags and no knowing who I was with without my very intentionally using the Internet to tell a specific person about it.
We could be kids and do all sorts of things online, mostly because the lot of us knew more than the average adult about the Internet in those days. Today however, is quite different. Kids growing up must feel an incredible amount of pressure around every aspect of their social being; and this hinges on ‘social’ in the online world. We hear horror stories about online attacks and bullying, kids relentlessly teased or mocked on social sites and as a result, these behaviors sometimes incite sad tragedies.
As an adult, it’s easy to see children with an iron grip on a smartphone as spoiled or not requiring such technology. But in their world, the iPhone or Android phone of choice is as much a requirement as a marble notebook or calculator would have been for me in 1990. They live and die by these devices and they are as much a look into their peer relationships as they are a window to the web.
Adults my senior aren’t always so savvy, but generally speaking there are a lot of grown individuals who have learned how to use the Internet for basic communications. There are also an awful lot of people around my age who grew up with the Internet and have grown with it, having an even better understanding.
This leaves little privacy for an increasingly public set of social online systems like Facebook. If I were a child and wanted to post something I didn’t want a parent to see, I can’t say I’d be looking to Facebook to fulfill that requirement. In fact, it makes sense that would probably be the first place I’d avoid.
Even as an adult, one who is quite free with my personal opinions, I understand the value of curating what others are allowed to know about me. There are some things you’d share with your closest friends that you just wouldn’t want Aunt Julie in Ohio knowing about. It makes sense that young adults would also be keen to this.
Why post something that your parents might see as questionable or considered ‘private’ to Facebook when you can send your goofy image or curse-laden text in a snapchat or SMS?
Knowing that privacy is important for us adults also means we have to understand that like it or not, teens will seek the same on the devices and services they use therein. The slow-growing popularity of Snapchat then begins to make more sense.
What if teens are onto something?
Snapchat isn’t the only way to do these things. We saw Chatroulette explode overnight among adults and teens just a few years ago. And then there is Periscope, another recent app that allows users to stream live anything of their choosing in an ephemeral feed that is only retained online for a maximum of 24 hours after broadcast, with the user having the ability to remove the option to replay.
As a user of Facebook, I can attest to the service feeling less and less personally relevant as time goes on. My experience and opinion is that with the continued growth of the service, marketing of goods and services and ‘viral’ content constantly being re-shared, it feels less and less like its about my friends and more and more like its about what Facebook wants me to see. For me, the service has begun to feel less like its social and more like a news feed. As a grown man, my interactions with it haven’t quite diminished but it is surely feeling lackluster.
In the grand scheme of all things socially common on the Internet, it is not out of the question to wonder if our behavior might dramatically change over time. I’m not so bold as to call for the death of Facebook or anything, but it is not out of the question to wonder if it might eventually morph into something more private and personal as we might seek more ‘in-the-moment’ experiences with our friends and loved ones.
Like it or not, it feels a bit like ephemeral networks could really catch on over the long-term. If they are here to stay, it will be interesting to see where people both young and old choose to communicate a decade or so from now. Texting is the new calling and Snapchat, or something like it, could be the next Facebook.
I say this cautiously as I still don’t use it (Snapchat), though theorizing on trends makes its value proposition a bit more understandable. The question time will have to answer is if it’s value outweighs that of today’s most prominent social players.
What if the Internet itself becomes merely a structural backbone in a way similar to how banking institutions have relied so long on mainframes? What if the web simply facilitates our interactions with one another like quickly dissipating micro-transactions that float out into the ether never to be seen again? What if our social feeds are held close to our vests, with the privacy of an SMS thread in our phones today, but with only the last 10 messages showing?
These questions I ask, as an onlooker who sees clearly that privacy concerns are becoming more and more commonplace in public discussion, not just for teens but all of us. I have to wonder if there’s an ephemeral social experience on the horizon and if that is something we might actually want.