Forget Facebook: why teens are turning to other social apps
24th Nov 2013 | 13:01
Selfies, Snapchat and the problem with parents
In early November, it was announced that photo sharing service Snapchat had turned down a Facebook buyout worth a staggering $3 billion. Many observers thought that $3 billion was an incredible sum and a massive overvaluation of the social service. But many more had a simpler question: what the hell was Snapchat?
Snapchat is what Facebook used to be: the hip young kid on the block. As Facebook's early adopters age, their offspring increasingly want social spaces of their own.
Facebook famously began as a college social network, but these days it caters for an older age group. The biggest growth in usage is among salt-and-pepper-haired baby boomers, and the early adopters have long since grown up, settled down and filled everybody's News Feeds with photos of their kids.
Teens are still important to Facebook. ComScore reckons around one-fifth of Facebook's British users are aged between 15 to 24, while the Pew American Life Project reports that 77% of online teens use the site.
But it seems that Facebook may be becoming less important to teens who may have profiles but who do their networking elsewhere.
Facebook's getting older
In October, Facebook's Chief Financial Officer reported that Facebook was seeing a significant decline in the daily usage of its younger teen users - a remark that gave investors a heart attack.
Piper Jaffray's semi-annual survey of teens would have given them a few more. A year ago 42% of teens told researchers that Facebook was their most important social network; six months ago that had fallen to 33%, and now it's 23%.
Teens are still networking, it's just that increasingly they don't do it where their parents, all their peers and the odd potential employer can see them.
While the grown-ups share baby photos, inspirational quotes and urban myths on Facebook, younger users are waxing lyrical on WhatsApp, kicking back on Kik and sharing selfies on Snapchat.
That's partly because for many teens, Facebook missed the mobile boat. Teens are a phone-first demographic, not PC-first like their parents, and apps such as Snapchat work brilliantly on mobile.
Facebook has since filled the gaps, first with its blatant Snapchat clone Poke in late 2012 and more recently with the updates to its standalone Facebook Messenger app. But by the time Facebook decided to take on Snapchat the newer service already had a huge audience. It shared its billionth photo in November 2012.
Snapchat is often characterised as the social network for sexting, but the appeal is more nuanced than that. The promise that what you post won't hang around forever (more or less) or fall into the wrong hands encourages fast, funny and quickly-forgotten sharing of what you're doing, thinking or watching right now.
Ephemeral sharing isn't the only attraction. Parents and older relatives don't use it. Pew Internet found that while 26% of under-30s used Snapchat, the numbers of over-30s were negligible - and until recently it's largely flown under the radar, so there was little danger of parents attempting to connect with or follow their children on it.
As a result Snapchat has seen explosive growth, and in November it reported daily sharing of more than 400 million images.
That's more than Facebook and Instagram combined, and the average Snapchat user now sends more snaps than SMS.
That's impressive, but it's nothing compared to WhatsApp. By June of this year it was processing 27 billion messages a day.
It's the most popular messaging app in the UK, and it has more than 350 million monthly active users worldwide: that's bigger than Twitter (232 million monthly active users) and more than one-quarter of Facebook.
WeChat is doing big numbers too: while its audience is largely in China, it now has more than 100 million registered user accounts from outside China.
WhatsApp's appeal is simple: it does everything important (individual and group messaging, photo and video sharing and location sharing) really well, without ads, and for a very reasonable fee. For example you can currently get the app for free and you'll pay $0.99 a year thereafter.
If you're thinking "Facebook does all of that, and it doesn't cost anything" you're right but Facebook also does everything else.
It's bogged down in the aforementioned baby photos, people Like-ing things to try and win competitions, endless game invites, things you saw online last week, all kinds of irrelevant content and lots of ads. By comparison Snapchat and WhatsApp are much more focused and less ad-heavy: they do what you want and don't do what you don't.
Doing it for the kids
Snapchat and WhatsApp aren't the only services with large teen appeal. Twitter usage is increasing among teen users, Instagram's doing well too, and negative newspaper coverage of Ask.fm doesn't appear to have done it any harm.
Teens are using Skype, Vine and Tumblr, Pinterest, Pheed and Instagram, with newer services such as diary.com hoping to capture some of this notoriously fickle demographic too.
The services that are doing well tend to fall into three categories: chat, creation and curation. Chat is self-explanatory; creation is posting stuff you've made yourself, whether that's a bathroom selfie or an Instagrammed burger; and curation is posting stuff that others have made, such as when you reblog a Tumblr image or retweet on Twitter.
Creation and curation are increasingly important. Pew reports that 54% of adult internet users are involved in online creation (up from 46% the previous year) and that 47% take part in curation, up from 41% the previous year.
Is Facebook fading?
It's important to keep all of this in perspective, though. Facebook has 1.19 billion active users and it's continuing to grow. However, its sheer scale means that even a tiny percentage of its user base represents an enormous number of people, and the more mature it becomes the more teenage users will want to use something else.
If you can tempt even a fraction of Facebook's teen users to spend time in your mobile app instead, you've got a nice little business.
The kind of business that can afford to turn down $3 billion dollars.