The appeal of inclusivity vs. exclusivity in social media

beardTwo articles caught my attention this week. One of which you may have already read and the other, you probably haven’t. They both examined the individual appeal of different social networks.

The in-crowd

The first was an erudite and informative piece by a 13-year-old girl named Ruby Karp. Writing for Mashable, Ruby looked at the reasons why Facebook was becoming less popular amongst her friends in New York.

Although I do have a Facebook, none of my other friends do. My friends just thought it was a waste of time. I decided to get a Facebook just to see what it was all about. I soon discovered that Facebook is useless without friends

She revealed that Instragram, Snapchat and Twitter were all more popular at her school, adding: “We want what’s trending, and if Facebook isn’t “trending,” teens won’t care.”

The article has been shared more than 38,000 times and it’s the reaction to it which interested me.

Not surprisingly, tweets focused on the headline and the fact “none of [her] friends use Facebook”.

Typifying the response, one person sharing the article said that “facebook isn’t that popular with teen says teenager”, while CEO of Likeable Media, Carrie Karpen, tweeted:

However, the number of teens using Facebook is something we can quantify. We don’t need to rely on the observations of one person.

A recent study by Pew found that 77% of 12- to 17-year-olds were on the site. This compared to 24% on Twitter and just 11% are on Instragram.

While Ruby’s comments may be indicative of Facebook use declining amongst teens (something we could further contextualise through time spent on the site), her circle of urban friends certainly don’t appear to be representative of the typical American teenager.

The fact so many of those sharing the article chose the anecdote over the data highlights our natural preference for a story over facts. It also highlights how in thrall we are to the authentic: Pew’s study pales alongside a ‘real-life’ teen sharing what she and her friends do.

The least informative part of the story (her friends are not on Facebook) is something we’re able to accurately measure elsewhere but this was largely ignored; thereby detracting from the interesting things she had to say about why she no longer likes using the site.

As Sara Watson, a fellow at Havard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said to me on Twitter:

‘A neat little package for the contents of your brain’

The second piece focused on what it’s like to be “famous” on Tumblr. In the process it revealed part of the unique appeal of the site and why so many younger people are turning to it for a different kind of social media experience.

I was looking for something that didn’t necessarily involve so much emotional outpour about being mad at my mom or how much I loved my high school sweetheart, etc. A friend told me about Tumblr, it seemed cool. It’s like a neat little package for the contents of your brain/daily life/art work that doesn’t read so much like a diary

A further draw of Tumblr is that it is much harder to find and identify who individual users are; contrasting sharply with Facebook, where real names are a requirement.

Whereas Ruby said she likes to use websites all her friends are on, Tumblr users favour the blogging network because their friends aren’t there (or are difficult to find).

This doesn’t necessarily mean people feel freer to share whatever they want, however.

“Most internet presences would rather be seen as ‘quirky’ and ‘hilarious’ than ‘beautiful’ and ‘provocative.’ It is simply safer….part of the internet experience is assuming a critical audience. If there were no critical audience, everyone would act genuine at all times.”

In part, this relates to the greater tendency to use real names on Facebook, in contrast to the relative anonymity of Tumblr. While this forms part of the appeal of Tumblr, the online disinhibition effect becomes more pronounced when someone is deemed to be growing in popularity and inevitably becomes more of a target as a result.

Finally, I’ve written before about the validation we experience through likes and re-tweets (and the risks this encourages us to take) but, in an interesting twist on this, one female user of the site talked about her reaction to receiving likes from the ‘wrong’ people.

Sometimes the ‘likes’ I get on Facebook and Tumblr do the opposite of making me feel validated. If the people who ‘like’ the photo are uncool in my eyes, I feel misunderstood and frustrated. I wonder, why would this photo appeal to this person? Did I miss the mark and accidentally create something approachable?

We tend to think of social media as being about reaching as many people as possible and, as Ruby says, “Facebook is useless without friends“.

However, it’s important to remember that exclusivity can be just as important in attracting people to a social network too.

A website can be just as appealing without your friends as with.

(image courtesy of our new social media coder, and resident photographer, Paloma Medina)