I turned 26 this summer, and have slowly but clearly realized I’ve drifted away from youth internet culture. Only a few years ago I think I knew what the hot new web property was on the street, but despite writing about startups all day I really don’t understand how kids these days are really using Tumblr, Kik, Vine, and Snapchat. Ok, I kinda get it once I see it, but every now and then you bump into a strange corner of Instagram or Tumblr that makes you realize that middle schoolers and high schoolers are living and connecting in a completely different online world than you are. Their masses are building the new social platforms that will define the web in a couple years.
This is summed up by an article on Mashable the other day, entitled “I’m 13 and None of My Friends Use Facebook“. In it, 13 year-old New Yorker Ruby Karp writes how now that they’re old enough to get Facebook, they don’t really want it. “By the time we could have Facebooks, we were already obsessed with Instagram. Facebook was just this thing all our parents seemed to have.”
Compare that to my own personal experience, where I signed up to my Facebook account in 2005 the second I saw I received my university email address.
It’s fascinating for startup followers like myself who are interested in seeing where the next direction social services are going. It’s clear to me the next big online and mobile platforms are going to be built from the youth up (as opposed to Google Plus’s 30 year-old-privacy-nerd downwards approach).
But world building for 13 year olds comes with huge challenges. If you’ve been following the Baltic Startup Watch feed on Twitter, it’s been a crazy week for Latvian-based Ask.FM. The site has grown to be one of the top social networking sites in the world – as of today they claim 70 million users. But with it has come some growing pains, like the majority of their users who fall within the tween and teen demographic.
Most recently in the British headlines Ask.FM has been torn apart after the suicide of 14 year-old Hannah Smith, who received bullying responses to questions posed on the site. On top of the awful PR, sites like Save the Children, Vodaphone, and eBay have since stopped advertising on the site.
The tabloid articles and Ask.fm’s response has just been ugly, with the UK press feeding on the drama of a cute girl’s suicide at the hands of a greedy Eastern European website, and with Ask.fm responding with the fact that 98% of the bullying messages came from Smith’s own IP address, suggesting some cry for attention (a trend he also mentioned in our May interview). That’s not to say there wasn’t also any second-party bullying going on, apparently a 16 year-old in Belgium has confessed to sending bullying messages to Smith as well.
The public back-and-forth feels misplaced, as even a NSA-level awareness isn’t going to preemptively stop bullying on any online platform before the damage is done. Whether it’s Ask.fm, some other site, or the playground, kids will find ways to be assholes to each other online. If you shoot the messenger, they’ll just move to being jerks over email.
So those of you looking to build the next social network with huge and quick adoption numbers, I believe it’s no question you have to start youth-upwards. But to execute any product correctly you have to know and interact with your users. Do you really want to be the lord of the flies?
Top image cc licensed by bootload on Flickr