There is so much good insight in Andrew Watts' recent blog entry about social media, and it's straight from the trenches. Andrew is a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas at Austin, so his take on the topic is authentic and eye-opening. He summarizes the entire social media landscape in one example:

If I could break down a party for you in social media terms, here’s how it would pan out:

  • You post yourself getting ready for the party, going to the party, having fun at the party, leaving at the end of the party, and waking up the morning after the party on Snapchat.
  • On Facebook you post the cute, posed pictures you took with your friends at the party with a few candids (definitely no alcohol in these photos).
  • On Instagram you pick the cutest one of the bunch to post to your network.

Although Andrew is in college, his description of his experience and that of his friends matches what we're hearing from middle and high school kids.

To me, the most insightful moment was his description of the pressure of social media and the yearning for real connection:

On no other social network (besides Twitter possibly) is it acceptable [to] post an “I’m soooo bored” photo besides Snapchat. There aren't likes you have to worry about or comments—it’s all taken away. Snapchat has a lot less social pressure attached to it compared to every other popular social media network out there. This is what makes it so addicting and liberating. If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I'll delete it. Snapchat isn't like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.

19-year-old Andrew Watts

Really let that sink in for a bit—if a post isn't liked in 15 minutes he deletes it (something we've heard from many kids).

Adolescence is a time of trying to find your place, and for many there's a constant worry of not fitting in. A lot of social media platforms give you the illusion of being able to directly measure how your friends view you for every social interaction, feeding that desire to know whether you fit in or not. Of course that can cause crippling anxiety.

This is also where the interests of the social media companies are the least aligned with what kids want and what many of us, as parents, want for our kids. All of those likes and comments are measured by social networks under the broad term of engagement, and they explicitly design their systems to pressure users into more and more engagement. And the stakes are very high for these companies if they fail to increase engagement—for example, Twitter's stock price has been pushed down and downgraded by some analysts over this very issue.

But ultimately I think Andrew's description provides real hope. He wants to show his real self to his friends. He wants real connection rather than presenting a carefully crafted persona. One of the most surprising conclusions from all of our user research is how prevalent the desire for genuine interaction is, and how Snapchat—one of the social networks parents fear most—actually provides one of the best venues for that kind of connection. It's partially the fact that the pictures and messages disappear, freeing kids from worrying how they'll look in the future. It's partially what Andrew describes—the lack of comments and likes. And finally, it's because the core of how Snapchat works is a push to get kids to talk privately and one-on-one rather than in front of a big, online group.

Snapchat certainly isn't a perfect answer to kids finding an online space for real friendship, but let's hope that other social networks see and copy some of the good about Snapchat.

For some great insight into other social networks, read Andrew's complete blog post.