Poking the Bear: The "Misreporting Tech Trends" Drinking Game, brought to you by the NY Times Twitter Coverage

Earlier this month, two of the smartest people I know (and smart because they actually do their homework--like... you know... real research), danah boyd and Fred Stutzman did a good job casting a lot of doubt on the numbers used to support the "teens don't tweet" meme.  That didn't stop Claire Cain Miller from digging it up again. 

If you work for the New York Times (and you expect that paper to be a viable entity in the future), your content, it's quality, insight, analysis, etc. has to be better than everything else that's out there.  So when a NY Times tech story comes out, and it's at least three weeks behind where everyone else's head is at, full of inaccurate assumptions passed over as common knowledge, it really needs to get called out.  It's nothing personal against Ms. Miller.  I'm sure she's a lovely person, but she missed the mark here with this article.

So badly, in fact, that while I don't drink myself, I think it might be a fun game to do a shot every time there's a ridiculous assertion made about social media or just overall poor analysis of tech trends in her recent article "Who’s Driving Twitter’s Popularity? Not Teens". 

Ready... go:

"Kristen Nagy, an 18-year-old from Sparta, N.J., sends and receives 500 text messages a day. But she never uses Twitter, even though it publishes similar snippets of conversations and observations.

“I just think it’s weird and I don’t feel like everyone needs to know what I’m doing every second of my life,” she said.

DRINK!  So she doesn't feel like everyone needs to know what she's doing every second of her life, but according to a recent Nielsen study, Ms. Nagy exchanges more than 6 times as many text messages as the average teen--a report covered in the NY Times itself this year.  The average teen only texts back and forth 80 times--so while she many not feel like *everyone* needs to know what she's doing every second, it seems like *almost everyone* might be a better answer.  So, not only is she not the "average" teen, but she's also a bit hypocritical for saying that people don't need to know what she's doing all the time when she's texting like that.

 

"Her reluctance to use Twitter, a feeling shared by others in her age group..."

DRINK! This is so typical of MSM's reporting of tech trends.  Let's take one user and a nice lead quote and generalize a whole trend out of them.  So one Jersey Girl is reluctant to use twitter, and that's a "feeling shared by others in her age group. 

Here's a different example, for illustrative purposes:  "Bob is a teen and doesn't like black people, a feeling shared by others in his age group."  Are there other teens who have an issue with black people?  Sure... and funny enough a few of them are actually black--but by no means would I position that as representative of the entire teenage population. 

 

"Just 11 percent of its users are aged 12 to 17, according to comScore..."

DRINK! "Just..."  And what's that number supposed to be?  Well, let's start with the fact that teens make up less than 10% of the overall population of the United States.  Now throw in that, according to Nielen, somewhere around 60% of teens send text messages to friends or send messages through social networking sites.  So, as danah pointed out in her article, that means that if around 11 percent of Twitter users are 12-17, teens are actually way overrepresented on Twitter.  Comparatively, according to Quantcast, only 1% of the users on the NYTimes are teens. 

 

"That success has shattered a widely held belief that young people lead the way to popularizing innovations. "

DRINK!  Innovations are driven by the markets they're intended for.  At price points in the hundreds of dollars, many innovations are driven by non-teens...  like the Kindle or smartphones.  Teens didn't drive the growth in getting e-mail on your phone because they're not as focused on e-mail as business professionals are, nor are they as finacially capable of buying smartphones.  Blogging didn't become mainstream because of teens either.  The 2004 election is when the blogging tipping point came, and clearly that wasn't a bunch of political teens getting into the fray. 

Do teens drive fashion trends?  Perhaps.  Music?  Perhaps...  but I don't think there's anyone out there with a tech innovation thinking, "This is a tech product... we need to get teens using this right away!"  Imagine if the Garmin folks thought that.

 

“The traditional early-adopter model would say that teenagers or college students are really important to adoption,” said Andrew Lipsman, director of industry analysis at comScore. Teenagers, after all, drove the early growth of the social networks Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.

DRINK!  The early growth of Facebook among teens and college students came from the fact that YOU COULD ONLY GET ON IT WITH A .EDU E-MAIL ADDRESS!!  It wasn't as if teens just disproportionately flocked to it--they were the only people allowed in!  To position teens as critical to the growth of Facebook is like saying that people with drivers licenses are responsible for most car accidents--it's by definition, not a trend derived from any kind of intelligent analysis of the data.  Note that this wasn't part of Andrew's quote--it was the reporter's attempt to pass off factually incorrect "common knowledge" as a trend. 

Ms. Miller is wrong about Friendster, too.  Friendster's early adopters weren't teens--they were 20 somethings, as danah boyd points out:

"When Friendster launched, it was quickly inhabited by populations who had good reasons to connect with each other. By and large, the early adopters were living in a region different from their hometown (or living in their hometown post-college and cranky about it). Finding "lost" friends was a fun game - people wanted to connect... Friendster's early adopters were 20-somethings....   Friendster launched at a time when the economy was slow and many web-minded 20-somethings were slacking at menial jobs that they didn't care about (particularly in the SF region where people were only coming out of post-bust depression); many web-minded folks were happy to spend hours futzing online."

That makes sense to anyone who had a Friendster account.  I got my invite to it sometime in 2003, when I was 24.  Few of the students that have taught over the last few years, who average 8-10 years younger than me, ever had an account on Friendster.  It was clearly not populated by many teens when it first came out. 

 

"Twitter’s success represents a new model for Internet success."

DRINK!  Again, Twitter didn't prove this.  See AOL (bought by families looking to get online), any e-commerce site, like Amazon, eBay, casual gaming sites (whose usage is driven by stay at home moms), LinkedIn, HuffingtonPost, Flickr...   In fact, other than MySpace, what top sites were actually driven by early adopter teens that aren't otherwise specifically targeted to teens?  While I'm thinking about it, was Google itself a hot new trend driven by teens that eventually bubbled up to the mainstream?  I'm pretty sure it wasn't.

Then, Ms. Miller goes on to write for a couple of paragraphs about how, "The notion that children are essential to a new technology’s success has proved to be largely a myth."  She goes on to list LinkedIn, GPS devices, Youtube...

Wait...  all these counterexamples...  the same ones I wrote about...  Then... if it isn't a big deal whether or not teens use Twitter, than what the heck is this story even about??

 

"Its growth has instead come from adults who might not have used other social sites before Twitter, said Jeremiah Owyang, an industry analyst studying social media."

DRINK!  Seriously?  How much does Owyang get for speaking gigs these days?  He can't seriously believe this.  If he does, I have a bridge to sell him.  With over 250 million Facebook users, it's really hard to believe that the majority of Twitter's growth is coming from people who haven't used any social sites before. 

Everyone who has never used MySpace or Facebook or Friendster who just starting using Twitter as their first social network please raise their hand. 

[crickets]

 

"Wendy Grazier, a mother in Arkansas, said her two teenaged daughters thought Twitter was “lame,” yet they asked her to follow teenage pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift on Twitter so she could report back on what the celebrities wrote. Why won’t they deign to do it themselves? “It seems more, like, professional, and not something that a teenager would do,” said 16-year-old Miranda Grazier. “I think I might join when I’m older.”"

DRINK! Yeah, because it's really just a bunch of professionals who are twitter about their Sweet Sixteens.  One mom in Arkansas has two daughters who think Twitter is lame and too professional, and now that's what the New York Times puts forth as the generalized opinion of all teens.  Maybe Claire should have interviewed 14 year old Melik Yuksel, who has 34,397 more followers than she does.  His last tweet?

"I can't legally drive yet. :o"

 

"Perhaps Twitter’s experience will encourage Web start-ups to take a more realistic view of who uses the Web and go after a broader audience, Ms. Forte said. “Older populations are a smart thing to be thinking about, as opposed to eternally going after the 15- through 19-year-olds,” she said."

DRINK! I'm sorry, but what startup is mistakenly going after 15-19 year olds on the web that doesn't have a teen site?  Having worked in VC, you never hear investors going, "Well, you know how it goes... they tried to crack the teen market first and when that didn't work, it was all over--same old story.

Next time, don't ask an expert on teens and social networks for advice on startup marketing.  If anything, most websites are mistakenly going after geek crowds on Techcrunch when it might actually be teens or other mainstream users that could benefit. 

So what did we learn here? 

Teens are supposedly not using Twitter, even though they actually are, in disproportionate numbers, and it doesn't matter if they are or aren't because mainstream websites aren't usually driven by teens--except with sites like Friendster, which wasn't true anyway.  Riiiight. 

DRINK!