Youth Vs Adults: Strong Ties/Weak Networks

The kids are all about social media. They’re publishing content, streaming video and Twittering wildly. Right?

Wrong.

Just as social media practitioners use and view these tools differently to the general population, we need to remember that young people use these tools differently to us. They’re informed about the tools but while they’re highly active online, we we can’t just assume that “social media tools” are the way to reach them.

Young people ≠ adults

This weekend I attended the inaugural PodCamp London in southern Ontario where Jonathan Kochis ran a fascinating session on Youth, Social Media and the Web, running through some key research around the ways young people use social media. 

A few key points of difference between young people and adults:

  • 88 per cent of teens have participated in online social activity, however their use is driven by friendship and existing connections.
  • Many adults use social media tools to organize events; to build their networks; to promote themselves or their work. Teens don’t care about any of those uses.
  • Teens skew towards MySpace and Facebook. Tools like LinkedIn (business networking) and Twitter skew much older.
  • Young people can see Twitter as Facebook’s news feed with most of the features stripped out. As a result, few teens use it.
  • Tools like LinkedIn and Twitter require an investment in time to gain gratification (establishing a network, creating value for others, delayed rewards). Meanwhile, teens look for instant gratification.

Talking with Jonathan and others after the session, I reflected that much of the difference in perspective, along with these other factors, comes down to the nature of our networks.

Professional adults (successful ones, anyway) look to build their networks. They’re constantly meeting new people, learning, and sharing knowledge. We develop new connections all the time, but many of these are loose – passing meetings at a conference, conversations at parties, conversations over coffee or dinner. Over time we work to make some become stronger, but most remain loose. We have what I call “thin networks.”

Young people, meanwhile, don’t care about developing a “network.” They care about their friends – what they are doing, where they are, what they’re planning to do at the weekend. They have a small network, built on existing relationships and full of strong ties.

Twitter ≠ Facebook

This may explain why Twitter skews much older than Facebook.

Of course, Facebook started with the university crowd which explains part of the younger skew, but it also allows more in-depth connection with people. You can see everything your friends are doing – the events they’re attending, the photos they’re posting, the videos they’re watching and the people they’re talking to.

Twitter, meanwhile, is much more transitory. Conversations come and go, as do connections (it’s much easier to follow someone on Twitter than to add a friend on Facebook). It’s very top-level and, on the surface, one-dimensional (just short messages; no multimedia aside from links to it). For people with small networks who are already closely connected to their friends, Twitter doesn’t (currently) solve a problem. 

This isn’t a bad thing. What’s more, it’s certainly not a universal picture – there are certainly plenty of young people using Twitter. However, in general, I think it’s a useful reminder for us that “we” are not “they” and we can’t generalize our use of social media tools to the broader population.

So what?

Why should public relations pros and marketers care about this?

Because it has a clear and important effect on our communications programs. Twitter may be taking over the world, but only in some demographics. Meanwhile, if you’re trying to reach young people through Twitter or through an approach relying on volume of connections rather than quality of connections, you may be disappointed.

What other differences do you see between young peoples’ and adults’ use of social media?

(Side note: congratulations to Bill, Will, Titus and everyone else involved in PodCamp London. Great job, guys)

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  • I think one of your opening lines hit the note for me – “we can’t just assume that “social media tools” are the way to reach them”. If you’ve ever heard ‘young people’ talk about media, it becomes apparent that they would never call facebook or twitter a “tool”. The younger the demo, the more that these sites which we speak about so strategically and intensely for hours on end, are just a part of their day. We never would’ve called a newspaper a tool growing up, because it was always just there. The internet is fragmenting and re-fragmenting the number of media channels available to us. As it happens, the more we think about younger audiences in terms of the “tools” they interact with, the more we lose touch with them on a personal level. They’re people, not “users”.

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  • Dave – You bring up some great points regarding how to successfully market and promote anything through social media to both an adult audience and a youth audience. You’re spot one when you say that you can’t really try to reach youth through a heavy volume of connections. Most teens will not understand nor appreciate that it takes years to establish long-term personal and professional networks, and those networks take time and effort to build up and maintain.

    What is going to work for teens is a social media approach that values quality of connections, like you mention, but also one, in my opinion, that takes into account many teens’ need for multi-dimensional stimulus. This may be why Twitter is skewing toward an older crowd and why Facebook and MySpace have young demographics. Without that ability to view two or three (or more) different multimedia platforms at once through one single social media application (such as you can do through Facebook), a teens’ opinion of Twitter or some other more one-dimensional social media application may be that it is just a way to connect with others but has little relevancy or use for anything else.

  • Great post Dave. I love the “we” are not “they” reference – makes perfect sense. I had a chat with a client today about the differences between social networks from a ‘teens vs. adults perspective’; the weak ties/strong ties comparison really helps explain the core contrast.

  • Great article! How do you explain teens love of Text Messaging? It’s very much like Twitter.

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  • This is really gud article,when u comapred youth v/s adults ,all adults are from youth,so they realize the mistakes which they did in their past so they change their way of approach when they become old enough,so everything come by experience.

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  • Loved the post.

    How do marketers leverage this info? They must understand the profile(s) of their clients, specifically…how they interact/participate with social networks. Overlay the Business objectives…to Listen, Talk, Embrace, Energize or Support and you create a winning formula. Companies & Marketers can’t simply make decisions based on macro level trends regarding demographics. Each brand has a variety of clients. Each Social network has a variety of participants. Odds are a % of everyone’s clients are participating in each social network.

    Some networks deliver better results with some objectives vs. others. Facebook is a great community to Embrace advocates & Energize fans via non-intrusive/participation-based ads. Whereas Twitter is a powerful community for Listening & Monitoring your brand, Talking about your company & Supporting those in need. I have yet to see brands leverage Twitter to Embrace & Energize. Perhaps because – as you say Dave – it is “transitory”

    Ultimately, it is about achieving the desired objectives to drive the Client Experience Index higher while promoting Advocates & moving Detractors up the ladder.

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  • Sue Dixon

    Perhaps we should think of Twitter as less of a conversation medium than and more of an instant update medium. As conversations go, 140 characters blasted to the world could be seen as pretty thin. But as an instant update tool, it’s fantastic– if, of course, you can access Twitter on your cellphone.

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