Is Facebook Losing Its Cool? Some Teens Think So

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Baret Steed is tired of Facebook. She’s had an account since she was 13, but isn’t a fan of the fact that the social network now includes not only her friends, but also her parents, aunts, and uncles. “It’s almost like they’re the only ones on there,” she says. “All your relatives are constantly commenting on your stuff. I appreciate the gesture and wanting to keep up with my life, but it’s kind of annoying.”

Steed, 15, is at an age where social media is high on her priority list. She spends about six hours a day on various social sites and apps, but an increasing amount of that time is being ceded to platforms like Instagram (which Facebook owns), Tumblr, and Twitter.

And she’s not alone. In an unscientific survey of about 40 of Steed’s classmates at Briarwood Christian High School in Birmingham, Ala., only eight of the students listed Facebook as their most-used social network. For eleven of them, it didn’t rank in the top three (Instagram was by far the most popular). Other, more formal surveys have found that Tumblr might actually be the teen social network of choice now. In fact, Facebook itself even acknowledged the challenge of keeping teens engaged in its annual 10-K report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in February. In a list of the risk factors that could affect the company’s future success, Facebook stated:

“We believe that some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook. For example, we believe that some of our users have reduced their engagement with Facebook in favor of increased engagement with other products and services such as Instagram. In the event that our users increasingly engage with other products and services, we may experience a decline in user engagement and our business could be harmed.”

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Steed and her teenage companions haven’t given up Facebook entirely, but the world’s biggest social network is now just one of an assortment of social apps they use on their smart phones instead of the nexus of their social media activity. “Twitter’s all statuses, Instagram’s all pictures,” says Hamp Briley, a 16-year-old student at Briarwood. “People like to do more specific things like that instead of being on just Facebook.”

It’s these more specialized apps, typically with a visual twist, that seem poised to hook even more teens in 2013. Snapchat, a photo messaging service that destroys sent images moments after they are received, is shuttling about 60 million pictures between phones per day, mostly from teenagers. Pheed, a Twitter-meets-Instagram-meets-YouTube hybrid social network that originally attracted creative types when it launched last fall, added a million new users in February, partially because teenagers started tweeting about how awesome it was. Now some app developers, like the creators of the photo app Albumatic, are even corralling teenagers into focus groups to find out what this fickle demographic might like next.

“There’s a change in the social media landscape,” says Pheed CEO O.D. Kobo. “No young people want to open up their timeline and read a novel. It’s not quick enough. The younger demographic today is much more [into] multimedia.”

Of course, Facebook isn’t just going to cede younger eyeballs to more visual competitors. The acquisition of Instagram, still a favorite among youngsters who don’t even know of Facebook’s involvement, is looking smarter by the day. That platform recently exceeded 100 million users. Meanwhile the company dutifully rolls out competitors to other apps that might infringe on their turf, like the Snapchat clone Facebook Poke. Thursday the company announced an overhaul of its News Feed to make photos and videos more prominent, which is a big selling point for teens.

“Facebook really wants to be in front of those teens so that when they do enter the working world, and they are spending money, they’re going to pick Facebook as one of their technology providers,” says Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies at Gartner. 

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Overall, Facebook continues to grow globally, with the number of users now well past one billion and daily active users increasing 28% in 2012 to 618 million. “We are gratified that more than 1 billion people, including enormous numbers of young people, are using Facebook to connect and share,” a spokesman said in a statement. Still, a growing number of people—particularly younger users— are pledging to cut back time spent on the social network in 2013, according to a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The company declined to disclose whether usage among teenagers is increasing or decreasing overall.

What Facebook is creating today, a vast social web across the Internet and the world, is different from the private networks it offered teens in years past. The site’s goals are now more ambitious than serving up Wall posts and Honesty Boxes, but they also might be less relevant to people whose worlds don’t extend much further than the halls of their high schools. 

Other sites, like the microblogging site Tumblr, offer more opportunity for creative expression with less prying parental eyes. “The reason we like it so much is because not everyone has one,” Steed says of Tumblr, which is very popular among girls at her high school. “You can almost disguise yourself. Not everyone’s on there, not everyone’s stalking you.” Snapchat, meanwhile, offers spontaneity and instant gratification, though one student said it’s more of a game than a legitimate Facebook alternative.

The half dozen teens interviewed for this story viewed Facebook as a utility, good for organizing study sessions through groups or formally documenting a big event like the Homecoming dance with a photo album. Such uses don’t necessitate constantly refreshing your News Feed, which could become a problem for a company whose business model depends on users logging lots of hours and seeing lots of ads.

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The good news for Facebook, though, is that a utility is something to which people regularly return. The teens all agreed that once they entered their 20s, their Facebook usage would likely increase. “Facebook right now is boring because you see everyone at school, but after you get to college you want to know what everyone’s up to and what they’re doing,” Briley says. “Us in high school might be saying it’s kind of dying. But we’ll start using it more once people we know go to different parts of life.”