Teens unfriending Facebook, flitting to Twitter

"On Twitter," says Brendan DeVoue, 18, "you don't worry as much about what you're posting. It's a lot less self-restrictive." There's no expectation (as on Facebook) to use first and last names. After much vetting of creative potential user names, DeVoue chose @DEVOUEted.
"On Twitter," says Brendan DeVoue, 18, "you don't worry as much about what you're posting. It's a lot less self-restrictive." There's no expectation (as on Facebook) to use first and last names. After much vetting of creative potential user names, DeVoue chose @DEVOUEted.
Posted: November 14, 2013

The last status update that Brendan DeVoue posted to his Facebook profile was a birthday greeting to his older brother. That was more than two months ago - an eternity in social-media time.

The King of Prussia 18-year-old, though, has been sharing plenty online with his friends over at Twitter, the telegraphic platform that limits posts to 140 characters. DeVoue tweets about high school, soccer, and random life observations (I get cranky when I'm sick) multiple times a day. He also shares Vines, six-second-or-less looping videos. In the two years since he joined, he has accumulated 9,427 tweets at last count.

For him and many other teens, the migration from Facebook to Twitter stems from seeking less "drama" - no getting caught up in comment orgies - and fewer parents lurking, or worse, embarrassing the progeny. (An online support group, "Oh Crap, My Parents Joined Facebook," gives clues.)

"On Twitter, you don't worry as much about what you're posting," DeVoue says. "It's a lot less self-restrictive. . . . My parents don't use Twitter. They don't know what it is."

Where Facebook once was considered the social-media must-have among the younger set, Twitter is now booming as a destination for teens, according to a spring report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project titled "Teens, Social Media, and Privacy." It found that 24 percent of online teenagers use Twitter, up from 16 percent in 2011, and that teens outpace adults on the platform.

While the vast majority of online teens (94 percent) maintain Facebook profiles, growth over the same period was essentially flat, and anecdotally, teens say the site is losing its cool. Facebook acknowledged as much in a quarterly earnings call last month. An October report from the investment firm Piper Jaffray found in a survey of 8,600 teens that Twitter (26 percent) surpassed Facebook (23 percent) as a favorite social-media service, a first in the project's history.

"Facebook looks like your grandpa's digital media," says Timothy Burke, a professor of history at Swarthmore College who studies popular culture. "On Facebook, when you post that picture of yourself at that weekend party, you know the odds are pretty good that your dad is going to see it."

Social media "nomadness," as Burke calls it, is fueled in large part by how novel - read hip - the new channel of communication appears, especially among teens. The more known, especially among parents, the less privileged it appears.

"Younger users want to keep moving to stay ahead of the crowd," he says. At the moment, that whippersnapper Twitter, with its much-anticipated IPO offering last week, is the beneficiary, though no one expects that to last forever as the masses inevitably join the tweetfest.

Waiting in the wings are photo- and video-sharing networks such as Instagram (owned by Facebook) and apps such as Snapchat, which allows users to send pictures - snaps - that disappear from the device within 10 seconds. Whisper, another rapidly growing app, lets users anonymously post secrets in the form of text superimposed on a picture.

For a generation bombarded with warnings to take care over what they post, lest those status updates come back to haunt (a Facebook search isn't uncommon among job recruiters), Twitter and these other platforms seem to offer a welcome reprieve.

"Twitter is simpler, more free of drama," says senior researcher Amanda Lenhart, director of teens and technology at the Pew Research Center and one of the report's authors. "Information goes past you like a waterfall. It's not a real-name space. You can hide behind different Twitter handles."

Twitter's culture encourages anonymity. Twitter users take pride in creative handles, with no expectation (like on Facebook) to use legal first and last names. After much vetting of potential user names, DeVoue settled on @DEVOUEted.

Of course, fake profiles also abound, including two for the pet boa constrictor (@SwarthmoreSnake and @Swarthmoreboa) on the loose earlier this year, or @SistineSeagull, the bird sitting on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel when the world was waiting for word on the next pope.

Twitter also appears more intimate, with users accumulating smaller social networks. The median Twitter network of followers is only 79, compared with 300 friends on Facebook, the Pew report found.

Teen focus groups lamented the need to put forth a perfect image on Facebook, a persona that meets the approval of Grandma as well as a gaggle of teen friends. "Facebook forces us to default to one particular way of being, one presentation," Lenhart says. "That's really hard to manage."

On Twitter, no one expects a reply (or like) for a tweet, though retweets are sweet. That fits the site's ethos of impermanence rather than a pile-on of snarky comments. "Most people tweet into the wind," Burke says. "Your attention is more sporadic, less back-and-forth conversation."

In other words, Twitter allows teens to be more themselves.

"Twitter is more personal, my friends," says Ainsley Parrish, 19, a history and pre-law sophomore at Swarthmore who tweets @Ainz61 (her nickname and field hockey number). "I definitely feel I can say what I want on Twitter. On Facebook, my family's on it."

The short posts also reduce the chance of embarrassment, and the faster, breaking-news speed at which information flows promotes a sense of flying under the public radar, Lenhart says, at least for nonfamous people. After all, followers are unlikely to even see all of a friend's posts because of the sheer volume of tweets; their output has more of a ticker-tape feel.

Angela Corbo, an assistant professor of communications studies at Widener University, has witnessed the ever-shorter modes of communication among her media informatics students.

"The benefit of Twitter is that they get the headline, whether it's a news outlet or a friend," she says. "They like that they feel informed. But the sense of reciprocity is lost."

Interpersonal skills, she fears, are on the decline. Corbo says her students report texting friends in the same dorm about dinner plans rather than walking down the stairs and asking them face-to-face.

Lenhart, however, is not worried about the popularity of Twitter and its ilk. "Young adults and teens spend six to eight hours interacting with peers at school and sports," she says. Social media "is an escape for them. It's an outlet, another place for them to be."

For Raleigh Kibort, 18, Twitter was initially a source of national and celebrity breaking news. Soon, though, she noticed that all her friends preferred Twitter to Facebook.

"Anything I feel is witty or relevant, I put on Twitter," says Kibort, a communications freshman at American University in Washington who no longer posts Facebook status updates.

Find her @Theraleighlama. (Get it?)

"People on Twitter just want to get stuff out there," she says. "I like that more than people needing to feel superior by getting a hundred likes on Facebook."



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