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It’s not a mirror, it’s a window

The various social tools that young people use come with their own rules and etiquette, much of which is lost on the unsuspecting adults that use them in much more functional ways. Instagram is for photo sharing, right? So it would seem reasonable to share a lot of pictures, right? Wrong.

Conor Dougherty, App Makers Reach Out to the Teenager on Mobile

To manage their identities in and obligations to this world in their pockets, they adhere to rules that have somehow been absorbed and adopted by their peers. For instance, that afternoon, since nothing particularly special happened, Lucy posted a few videos to Snapchat — including a clip of me interviewing her — but nothing on Instagram.

Why the distinction? Because Instagram is special, Leila explained. On Snapchat, where messages disappear, you can be less selective because there is a lower bar for quality. On Instagram, you have to be careful not to clog your friends’ feeds with a barrage of low-quality pictures that might annoy them.

They also regularly delete their Instagram photos so that their profiles never have more than a handful at a time. For comparison, I’m a medium-level Instagram user and have several hundred. They reacted to this information as if it were the smell of warm garbage.

“I have zero right now,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, ’cause I’m like, ‘Oh wait, I look stupid in this one,’ ” Leila said.

Some of Leila’s rules for Instagram include never posting more than one photo a week, avoiding photo filters (too fake) and hashtags (too desperate). She tries to find a timely occasion to post — such as National Watermelon Day — and is so concerned about having the right caption that she keeps a running list of ideas on her iPhone. Neither girl had any such rules for Facebook, because they hardly use it.

App makers fear this kind of juggling the way TV networks fear DVRs. Each time someone leaves one app for another, there is a chance that user will never come back. And since apps make money only when users are plugged in and absorbing ads, the number of monthly users is less important than how many users they get each day — and how long they stay.

Key takeaway — the designers/product folks at social tools companies have to remain very very close to their target constituencies, and learn what’s actually motivating use, and what is a barrier: the trends and bends.

In this piece, Michael Jones (formerly of Userplane, AOL, and MySpace), the founder of Wishbone, a service targeting teenagers, discovered in a focus group that a core premise was completely wrong. The teenage women wanted to receive almost every notification possible, like when another user answered a poll they had created. They weren’t motivated by a desire to minimize notifications, which Jones and team had expected.

Get close to the usage patterns, or you are just looking in the mirror.

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Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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