Carol Phillips, a “tweep” of mine and marketing professor at Notre Dame University, recently wrote an article describing an alledged failure of the popular social medium Twitter to offer real value to the Millenial Generation also known as Generation Y. The article, which focuses largely on a comparison of the two news-making social networks of the moment, Twitter and Facebook, largely argues that for Millenials:
“Facebook functions as a general organizing tool, much as Outlook does for me. Facebook is her calendar, contact book, and primary messaging platform. Any communication gaps are filled by GoogleTalk, text messaging, and if all else fails, dialing. Twitter adds nothing meaningful to this mix — especially since [their] friends don’t use it.”
As evidence of this the article posits that “data has consistently shown 18-24 year olds lagging in Twitter adoption” (apparently citing a study by the Participatory Marketing Network (PMN)) and then follows up with a number of theories on why this might be the case, including “the Theory of Millennial Narcissism” and “Twitter offers little opportunity for ’self-branding,’” as well as a theory that “Millennials aren’t accustomed to making online friends.”
My first disagreement with this argument starts with the evidence. While it does appear that the study does include findings about the 18-24 year old age group, and supports the 22% adoption rate for Twitter claimed within the article, the PMN study makes no attempt to gauge or compare that finding with adoption rates for other age groups. Twitter, a three year old company whose major growth began just a year ago, is a baby in the social media world and is clearly still within the early adopter phase despite attempts to move beyond it, and therefore an adoption rate of 22% is actually quite high. In fact, as recently as February of this year Pew Internet Researchpublished findings directly opposing the findings of the PMN study stating
“Twitter and similar services have been most avidly embraced by young adults. Nearly one in five (19%) online adults ages 18 and 24 have ever used Twitter and its ilk, as have 20% of online adults 25 to 34.”
While this does not support any claim that Twitter has become common place among younger audiences, it does adequately counter the argument that somehow the Millenial generation has refused to utilize it.
The second major problem with this argument is the idea that the existence of Facebook really negates any need for Twitter, that “Twitter adds nothing meaningful to this mix” given the extensive feature offerings of Facebook. Quoting an intern with CNN, Phillips adds
“Twitter’s microblogging platform is what many Gen Y’s may describe as “like Facebook, but just the status update.” What is the point of that?”
This is a failed understanding, in my opinion, of the very different roles of Facebook and Twitter play in the information age. Facebook was designed to maintain already existing relationships by connecting the user with friends the user knows from specific social areas such as the workplace, school or geographical local. While Facebook has embraced “the stream” in its latest redesign of it’s homepage, seemingly bringing it into competition with Twitter, it provides more barriers to shared information than Twitter does by focusing on pre-existing social circles. Twitter, on the other hand, is designed to provide a stream of information which is distributed, quite importantly, free of the necessity of previously existing social interaction of any kind. Twitter, due to the ease with which you can develop new connections through “following”, is not, primarily, a social platform but a broadcast platform that allows direct social interaction. So I would agree with Phillips’ argument that Twitter does not serve the role of reinforcing specified and pre-existing social networks well, however, it would seem that is an intention of its design far more than a flaw.
The real question at the center of this, and the many articles written on the subject, is: does Twitter play a necessary, and therefore lasting, role in the future of web-based communication? While Phillips has stated that “[Millenials] have no need for broadcast/outreach” media such as Twitter, it does not seem to be backed up by facts. In another study of basic internet usage by Pew Internet Research it is found that the Millenials are more likely to “get news” online than they are to “participate in a social network” by 74% to 67%, a sign that consumption of news broadcast online is actually higher than that of social network usage. “Watching videos” is also higher in the activities list than “participation in a social network” by 72% to 67%.
Broadcast media, I would argue, plays to a core function of civil society: the role of gathering, aggregating and sharing information. Paul Lazarsfeld, in among the first empirical studies ever conducted on the subject, hypothesized what he called the “Two Step Flow Theory” which outlined information distribution in relation to electoral and political behavior. This theory posits that there are, indeed, two steps to information distribution in a community.
Twitter, I would argue, plays the role of formalizing the “opinion leader” in a community. This role, which is increasingly common in a world of ever mounting information overload, is that of the aggregator that bridges the gap between mass media outlets and individuals. Indeed, given the tools available today, in many ways the opinion leader has far higher abilities to broadcast messages and information than ever before in the history of human communications with publishing tools such as blogs and community outreach tools such as social networks.
Finally, whether or not Twitter is the exact tool that provides it, I would simply argue that Twitter plays a role that is not at all new, and not at all useless, in human civilization. To the contrary it plays among the oldest and most necessary roles in our civilization, aggregating and sharing information and human knowledge, and does it extraordinarily well. Whether Twitter is the main player of this role going forward is impossible to know but as a tool it has added an incredibly important ripple to the history of human communication.