Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
The age-old aphorism wasn’t originally meant to describe teenagers, but it neatly captures a problem the granddaddy of all social networks—Facebook—seems to have. Facebook (FB) has turned in impressive financial numbers lately, and its stock has soared by more than 80% so far this year, to around $48. But company execs alarmed some analysts recently by acknowledging that teenagers are falling out of like with the site that seemed like a phenomenon when teens first discovered it.
In a way, that’s a good problem to have. Many companies covet the cachet (and potential future customers) that come with a high proportion of teenage users. But old folks, no matter how uncool, tend to be the ones with money to spend today. For a while, Facebook had the best of both worlds: A robust teenage audience that kept the vibe young, plus enough oldsters to justify high ad rates and juice profits.
There’s now a lot of competition, however, and Facebook is apparently losing teenage users to trendier networks such as Twitter (TWTR), Snapchat, Instagram (which Facebook owns), Tumblr (owned by Yahoo (YHOO), which published this story), and lesser-known online hideouts. To figure out why, I asked my two teenage kids (who in turn asked a few of their friends), plus a few test subjects recruited through Twitter. Here are the five biggest problems they have with Facebook:
Parents. Apparently they’re ruining everything on Facebook. “If you want to comment on something funny, and you see that somebody’s Mom already commented on it, you don’t want their mom to yell at you,” my 15-year-old son told me. Yeah, that’s a bummer, I consoled him. Many parents, of course, fear their kids will be stalked, bullied or somehow abused via Facebook, so looking over their kids’ digital shoulder is just another way of protecting them. I’m willing to go out on a limb, however, and bet that some parents simply think they’re cooler than they are, and would be crushed to know their teenage kids don’t consider them the best companions, even online. (Click below to hear my son further explain the problem with parents.)
It’s not just parents. My 17-year-old daughter told me about a friend with an aunt who routinely lurks around her niece’s Facebook account. “Every single photo that [my friend] is tagged in, she’ll write a paragraph about how beautiful [my friend] is. I’m just like, ‘okaaaaay….’” my daughter told me. (Listen below to my daughter’s idea for placing an age limit on Facebook users.)
Too much pointless stuff. If you ‘re a forty- or fiftysomething Facebook user and you’re wondering what all that clutter on the site is about, you’re not as out of touch as you think. “Facebook has 100 things on the newsfeed we just don't care about,” one of my daughter’s high-school friends explained. Examples: ceaseless invites to play Farmville or other games you may not be interested in, or prompts to answer "questions about me." Renaud, a 19-year-old Facebook user at McGill University in Montreal, finds that other networks, with far less clutter, are now better at what Facebook used to be good at. “I feel that instantaneous reactions (or what used to be Facebook status) are now more compelling on Twitter, pictures are more fun on Instagram, funny pictures and videos are more tailored for your interests on Tumblr or Vine, and messages on the wall of a friend have been replaced by Snapchat,” he wrote.
Too many ads. Teenagers, not surprisingly, are hip to corporate exploitation. “The biggest problem is the ads,” one of my son’s friends emailed. “Yes, they are needed to make money, but Facebook no longer seems like a social networking site first. It seems like a gold mine for companies to place ads and is straying from its actual purpose.” Particular gripes: Ads that pop up in notifications, and others that scroll down the page right along with the cursor when scanning the newsfeed, as if there’s no escaping them.
It’s vapid. “Everything on Facebook is to gain likes,” another of my daughter’s friends complained. “It’s like a popularity contest. It requires a lot to maintain, like having a good profile picture that will get a lot of likes.” My son said one of his biggest aggravations, after parents, is people—OK, girls--continually asking him to like their status as part of “truth is” requests, whatever those are. “It just fills up your timeline with really stupid stuff,” he said.
Fake friends. In case you’re wondering, adults aren’t the only ones who find it weird to be “friends” with people you’ve never met. A teenager at my son’s school said one of his biggest issues with Facebook is that “it’s normal to be friends with people you don’t know.” One of my daughter’s friends agreed: “I'm friends with people I don't even know on Facebook, so my newsfeed to me is sometimes just pointless,” she said. “I explore the lives of strangers, and it is a complete waste of my time.” Maybe teenagers and their parents aren’t so different after all.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.