Alex Steer

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Why teens are leaving Facebook (it's not privacy)

540 words

For several weeks, the tech press have been talking about what people who spend a lot of time working on social media data have known for several months: that teenagers are using Facebook less.

The spike of interest in this story was driven by Facebook's recent admission that daily active usage by teens has fallen.

Today's Guardian adds some necessary extra detail to the picture:

Their gradual exodus to messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat and KakaoTalk boils down to Facebook becoming a victim of its own success... Facebook is no longer a place for uninhibited status updates about pub antics, but an obligatory communication tool that younger people maintain because everyone else does. All the fun stuff is happening elsewhere. On their mobiles.

This is exactly what all the recent data I've seen is suggesting. There's no particular destination to which teens are moving away from Facebook, but a long tail (or medium-sized tail, anyway) of mobile messaging apps.

The question is: why are they moving?

And the answer we keep hearing in the press is: privacy. It must be, surely? Teens must be moving because Facebook feels too exposed, now their parents and teachers and would-be employers are on it, right?

That's not what I'm seeing. Though you can always find some vox pops of teens worrying about over-exposure, some of the data points suggest exactly the opposite.

First of all, teens are already skilled at managing their privacy on Facebook. (There's some more detailed anthropological research on this that I'll post when I dig it out...)

Second, one of the big winners from the move away from Facebook is Twitter. Many teens are using Facebook as a short-form messaging app, predominantly using the service to @-message each other rather than to broadcast. A very different behaviour from its other big user base of tech-savvy late-20s and 30-somethings. All of this chat activity happens in public, but this does not seem to deter its teenage users.

So don't assume its privacy. Everything I'm seeing suggests that teens are switching to apps that offer greater focus and speed - that do one thing well, and very fast, on mobile devices. This is corroborated by some recent Pew survey data which finds that teens find Facebook burdensome rather than exciting to use.

In other words: it's not that Facebook is too open. It's that it's too slow.

Facebook is still not optimised for nearly continuous use, which is how a lot of teens communicate with each other. For all that we (poor old grown-ups) talk about always-on social media channels, teens are testing that definition to the limit, and finding that Facebook just isn't always-on enough.

Well, I feel old. And so, more alarmingly, does Facebook's display-driven advertising model.

# Alex Steer (10/11/2013)