Why Twitter Hasn’t Cracked the Teen Market

I started this post back in February 2008 and left it for a while. I was never quite able to finish it — and it didn’t seem overly important. But in light of the recent problems with Twitter and the emergence of the shiny new Plurk, I thought I would resurrect this post and look again at the future, potential and challenges for services such as Twitter, Plurk, Jaiku and Pownce.

Nature and the MachineI remember how Twitter sped into my consciousness. It was like a freight train with a big Web 2.0 emblazoned on the locomotive. Hanging out the windows of the carriages were the smiling avatars of my marketing and social media friends. All were smiling and waving, beckoning me to climb aboard. It seemed like a no-brainer … and, in fact, it was. There was very little thought process involved — I climbed aboard because all my friends were already there.

As I explored Twitter, I started seeing my friends discussions. I realised that there were conversations going on that I wanted to be part of, that I at least wanted to LISTEN to. So I would begin to “follow” others. That meant that Twitter would notify them of my intention to eavesdrop or contribute to their discussions, and in effect this served as a virtual introduction. My pre-existing connection to others had opened the door for me.

This made me rethink my approach to Facebook and to LinkedIn. As you can probably see, up the top of my website is a badge that links to my LinkedIn profile. If you click it and want to add me to your network I don’t generally decline (in fact, I don’t think that I have ever). I am a little more selective about Facebook where I do feel that I need to know a little about you before “friending” you. But why? What was this all about … and how did it relate to Twitter?

Gradually I realised that the folks on Twitter were a whole lot less guarded about their discussions than they may be about their profiles on Facebook. And the same applied to me. That meant that it was completely acceptable to “follow” a stranger on Twitter — and in the process it opened up my personal social graph to a flood of chaos and random encounters. It felt a little dangerous … but at the heart of it was the clear understanding of my role as a creator of content. Twitter was providing the space and as a dutiful “one percenter”, I was filling it with the best content that I could muster in 140 characters. So were my one percenter colleagues. We had an unspoken contract with Twitter — and it was symbiotic — we soon needed each other, desperately.

Digging around in Twitter, however, it was clear that the user base was mature — or should I say “adult”. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, because I expected Twitter to be a walk up natural service for teens — and Andy Beal seemed to think the same in this interesting post. But for my money, the reason that teens have not been attracted to Twitter is fundamental. Surprisingly it is not about the COMMUNITY … it’s about the INTENTION.

Twitter has been able to build a community around its technology. It started with a tech friendly audience at SXSW and grew from there. It was successful at positioning itself as an APPLICATION. That meant that we were overtly aware of Twitter as a piece of enabling technology — we knew and understood that this would entail ups, downs, failures and disappointments. We were viewing Twitter as a technology — we were co-creating the Twitter community. As David Cushman says, “It is built for communities of purpose to form in a networked conversation-driven way, not for an audience to consume what they are creating”.

But such a position is anathema to a teenage audience. For them, the very act of connecting is, in itself, a creation of value. The resulting relationships and the experience that they engender is of intrinsic importance to a generation world-wise and weary of “markets”, “brands” and the emptiness of promises. There is little surprise then, that Twitter holds no appeal.

Plurk, however, is different from its core. The Plurk team view their mission as a service. They want to go “Beyond FUBU” — beyond the for us, by us mantra that permeates many start-ups. Now, whether this is true or not, it certainly appeals to Generation Y. And it seems to be something that is also tweaking the ears of an expectant Twitter community. After the recent outage furore and poor communication all round, perhaps the adults in the Twitter community are waking up to a new level of expectation and maturity — technology as service. And this may be the very reason that Plurk (or its successor) wins out long term. It is not about the technology or even the utility. It’s about the service and the experience — something the kids got long ago.

12 thoughts on “Why Twitter Hasn’t Cracked the Teen Market

  1. Roo … I admit to being surprised by some of Twitter’s blog updates … esp the ones about pizza etc. It appeared, to me at least, that they considered themselves as a technology first and a community enabler second. This was on top of the fiasco around their terms of service change and the way they dealt with the harrassment issues faced by Ariel Waldman. For a web 2.0 company that should understand the importance of community and communication, they were clearly lacking — and worse, unwilling to hold their hands up.
    Perhaps I just expected more 😉

  2. You have definitely made an interesting observation here.
    I looked at Plurk’s site and FAQs and Mission page and such, but I still have one question: What about Plurk in the end is actually different from Twitter?
    Is the fact that they state in their mission statement that they are a service verses intentional technology making it into the end user’s brain and actually changing the demographic?
    Maybe it’s because I’m a webworker that I see the actual functionality and not the intentions. I look at the way the “service” is structure and go “Okay, that’s just a Twitter look-alike.”
    Perhaps you’re right in that the MySpace generation is more likely to go with the younger/prettier face and less of a applicational come-on.

  3. Really, I don’t expect Plurk to catch on with my generation any time soon. We don’t read policies, FAQs, etc. – it’s about two things: the community and the technology.
    Technology is what drives the early adopters. And really, Plurk’s technology isn’t any different from Twitter. It’s not even significantly different from Facebook’s status updates.
    Community is the driving factor for my generation: we want to be where our friends are. That’s why *everyone* switches from MySpace to Facebook at roughly the same time (around 9th grade now). Sure, we knew Facebook was out there and was better than MySpace. But we don’t switch till there’s a critical mass (read: high school students) worthy of our attention.
    As it is, Plurk has absolutely no mass to it. And the tech isn’t different enough to pull along switchers only on its merits.

  4. Arthus nails it for me with this:
    “Community is the driving factor for my generation: we want to be where our friends are.”
    I don’t think that is unique to a generation though. We all want to be where our friend are – or the people we want to associate with are. Always have.
    And this is why I’ve not Plurked yet. Everyone I want to keep track of is doing what Plurk does on Twitter or Facebook or a blog already. Why do I also need to follow/friend them at Plurk now?
    I think it’s interesting how so many are attacking Plurk – especially those who have been on Twitter for some time. Why bother? So Plurk’s not for you. Great. But others might like it and get into it where something about Twitter has kept them away.
    I also find it mildly amusing that there are many in the “2.0 crowd” who jump to join every new beta/site/community/app out there, even if it wasn’t intended for them. In doing this, there’s a good chance they’ll keep away most of those the “thing” might have been intended for.
    For example, let’s say that Plurk was intended for teens. When they come to check it out and see a bunch of grown-up 2.0-ers all over it, are they really going to want to jump on board? Last time I checked, teens aren’t big fans of hanging out in the same places as adults. Why would that behavior be any different online?
    One last thing… the best technology is invisible. Most don’t really care what Twitter or Plurk is built on so long as it works. While Twitter has stumbled a bit lately, there are many who have put a lot of time and effort into their Twitter accounts. So long as the hiccups fade away pretty quickly, I think Twitter will survive just fine.
    Good stuff. Glad you decided to post it.

  5. for me, twitter (and plurk, pounce, etc) are about the ‘behavior’, not the service or application.
    to your point, the idea of opening up and being less guarded is something that twitter enables, but not something that it owns. IMO, it makes it easier to participate in a community. less barriers, less commitment, less effort. and the reason why i think this is because my behavior changed after i found twitter. never before had i visited forums on a regular basis or been a member of a truly active community. yet, i am truly engaged in twitter on a regular basis.
    so when does twitter (or some other option) become more widely accepted by the early/late majority? it is when the behavior of micro-blogging (for lack of a better descriptor) starts to integrate into their lives. for example, i have started to see a much higher usage among my facebook friends of its twitter-like update tool. within a familiar environment like facebook, i think we will start to see micro-blogging take hold and start to change behavior. once users become more comfortable with this form of expression/communication (similar to the progression from email to IM) we will start to see the shift that Arthus describes.

  6. a quick follow-up to Paul’s comment – you’re point about Twitter users “attacking” Plurk made me think as to why i am concerned every time i see someone i follow on twitter mention something positive about Plurk… and that is b/c my community is on twitter. and if people in that community start to migrate to Plurk, i will either lose “touch” with them or be forced to change the environment in which i connect with them. which the latter, for me, would be a huge hassle due to the effort it would most likely take to re-assemble that community somewhere else.
    we’re not talking about going from yahoo mail to gmail, or even Yahoo Messenger to AIM. this is much heavier lifting. now wait… that’s interesting. will we start to see a tool/service that will allow for a single 140-like submission to be posted ur community on twitter, plurk, pownce and jaiku at once similar to the way Meebo & Trillian work for IM? this has to exist already. i’m sure i just missed @whoever’s link to it 2 months ago : )

  7. It is interesting, Mack Collier (@MackCollier)/www.theviralgarden.com finds that everytime he mention Plurk on Twitter, he loses “followers”.

Comments are closed.