My teenage nephews’ digital habits

One of my favorite activities as a startup founder is talking to customers or potential customers to understand how I can create something to make their lives easier. Now that I’m not working on anything specific, I’d still like to have some of these conversations and force myself to think about them. I was home in Los Angeles for Lunar New Year celebration, so I decided to casually chat with my 16-year-old twin nephews about their digital habits because every consumer startup seems to be trying to get their attention. I’d love to hear how their experiences compare with the teenagers in your life!

How do my nephews talk with their friends?

They mostly talk to their friends on Snapchat and Instagram. Ever since Instagram copied the stories feature, some of their friends moved over to Instagram, but Snapchat still retained a good amount. “I used to use Snapchat more when I was doing streaks,” is what one of my nephews said. For the uninitiated, here’s a Tweet about Snap streaks.

They also use the default Android Messages (texting), Facebook Messenger, and Discord (but they don’t play games or use the voice chat), depending on whom they’re trying to reach. This doesn’t sound very different from what I do, but it is way less convenient compared to when everyone was on AIM and later, Gchat.

I saw on one of my nephews’ DMs that he takes advantage of groups. One that I saw was called “the Musketeers” and the other one was “key club.” I love that “key club” is being coordinated via group DMs because that’s definitely better than what we used to do without group messaging.

What surprised me was how much phone and FaceTime are being used. If they needed to get in touch with someone, they’d just call or FaceTime them. I assume calling would mean VoIP via any of the messaging apps or calling their actual phone number. My nephew told me that he uses his MacBook mostly to do homework and FaceTime because he doesn’t have an iPhone. This all sounds similar to what I did in high school, minus the FaceTime and VoIP calling, of course. Not having to save phone numbers and being able to FaceTime feels to me like a significant improvement, and from what I hear, talking to friends in-person is totally still a thing, despite the apocalyptic prognostications from the olds.

What about sharing more intimate thoughts?

I remember I had a Xanga and then a LiveJournal to broadcast my teenage angst. I didn’t really bother with limiting who could see my posts (they were public) since discoverability was relatively weak without a full-fledged social graph. I imagine that’s harder to do when you live in the Facebook world.

My nephews told me about “spam accounts” on Instagram (some called it “finstas”), but they professed that they didn’t have one 😏. Apparently some people would create “spam accounts” and only let their closest friends follow and that’s where the real feelings and interests are shared. There’s also a “close friends” feature on both Snap and Instagram that you can use. I knew about this phenomenon but I was skeptical about how much you can actually express on Instagram between feed posts, stories and DMs. Looking at my old LiveJournal posts, I shared a lot. A picture is worth a thousand words but sometimes I wrote more than a thousand. My nephews told me that you can make the texts really small, but still. They also said that sometimes you post something to hint that you’re feeling some kinda way, and the people who care will message you to talk more. Maybe that’s good enough.

How about self-expression?

I remember my Myspace had a music player playing my song of the moment complete with a custom theme and lots of pictures. That was how I tried to express myself. Instagram and Snapchat just seem infinitely better because they’re way more dynamic. Sure, Instagram filters make everyone’s life look awesome, but that’s exactly what we tried to do with Myspace. The only difference is that Instagram updates way more, making it a more realistic representation of the person. To that point, Snapchat’s stories feature was revolutionary because it made self-expression even faster and way more authentic than anything that had come before. I think teenagers today clearly have us beat in terms of their ability to express themselves.

How do they waste time?

The primary time-waster for my nephews is probably tapping through their friends’ stories. Outside of that, Instagram’s Explore tab is where my nephews get the basketball highlights and Internet memes to forward to their friends. They told me that they also watch the Discover content on Snapchat, which Instagram is trying to copy with IGTV but it’s not as good yet. They also waste time together with their friends posting stories with questions, polls, lenses, stickers, etc.

Having never thought much about consumer apps, the basic product strategy from these companies seems quite straightforward and similar to Facebook and the consumer web portals from the early web days. You aggregate different types of content (ephemeral, permanent, short-form, long-form, professional, semi-professional, social) to keep users in your ecosystem as long as you can, and you build out communication utility like text, voice, and video-calling to keep them there even longer. Open DMs are like email. Different lenses and stickers are like Yahoo! and Facebook Games and Quizzes. A Snapchat-commissioned show is like Yahoo! paying to livestream NFL games.

I had to ask about YouTube because I spend so much time on there and I was surprised it was never brought up. My nephews said that sometimes creators they follow would do a preview on Instagram and then send them to YouTube to watch the full clip, and that’s when they would go. They rarely go to YouTube otherwise and they don’t really follow any creators on YouTube. Gaming-wise, they told me Fortnite is for kids. Instead, they play Brawl Stars and Clash Royale (both Supercell games). They don’t use TikTok and neither does anyone else in their school, but they get a lot of TikTok content on Instagram. They have never heard of tbh or Houseparty.

Given that Fortnite is all the rage with kids and I for sure have seen another crop of teenagers in Taiwan obsessed with YouTube and TikTok, my nephews’ answers made me think that I’m stupid for expecting all teenagers to be roughly the same. Now I wonder if the Fortnite-playing population correlates with playing Minecraft when they were younger since it’s a First-Person Shooter. As far as YouTube and TikTok go, maybe because they’re not social, there’s no real reason to visit them if the best content are already getting ripped and shared to Instagram. This is why Facebook’s moat is extremely formidable.

What else?

When I asked my nephews what gifts they’d want me to buy them they said the iPhone, and the primary reasons are Facetime and…GamePigeon. On Android phones when their friends send them GamePigeon games it just looks like a link and it doesn’t work.

My sister has parental controls over their phones and that’s why they have a VPN, which sometimes lets them get around it. The device differences and parental involvement probably underscore the “not all teens are created equal” realization.

Finally, here’s a picture with my nephews!


Have you talked to teenagers about their digital habits? How do they compare to my nephews? Let me know!

How Facebook saved the news industry

Mark Zuckerberg’s news feed in 2006 (source: Slate)

Last Friday, Facebook’s Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri announced that Facebook will begin prioritizing content created by friends and family over content from the media, brands and other Pages since space in the News Feed is limited. This is a good long-term move for Facebook and I hope they continue to experiment with other ways of distributing news stories, but the announcement may mark the end of an era of opportunity for the news industry. The media’s reaction so far (BuzzFeed, The Outline, New York Times) suggests that this is yet another example of how Facebook has ruined journalism by pulling another bait-and-switch, depriving the media of access to their audience, which is fair but missing an important point. Facebook has actually helped keep the mainstream news industry relevant for far longer than they would otherwise have been.

What if Facebook didn’t exist?

Today, Facebook has a monopoly of our attention. However, what if this was never the case?

In the early days, people were excited about the Internet because of its potential to help the little guys compete with the giants. Anyone can start a website and immediately begin vying for user attention against traditional media giants like the New York Times. However, long tail websites weren’t interesting and they were difficult to discover. The mainstream behavior that emerged was to access the web through portals like Aol and Yahoo!, which meant the portals were responsible for picking the content for us to consume. As a result, web portals mostly featured well-known, traditional media brands from the offline world. This worked out well for everyone. Portals like Yahoo! needed credible content to engage their new audience and the traditional media brands ready-made credible content and were eager to get in front of web users. Better yet, news content trained people to visit web portals regularly. The democratizing power the web was awesome in theory, but a poor user experience in practice.

As Internet usage grew and the web started to mature, portals began to feel insufficient to the average user. Google search took over as the primary entry point because it offered a better way to access all the interesting stuff on the web. Bookmarking became mainstream. Services like del.icio.us made it possible to discover content via other people’s bookmarks. Blogrolls helped users go from one awesome blog to another. RSS and RSS readers made it manageable for people to keep up-to-date with their favorite media sites. I was in college at this time, and I remember having hundreds of feeds in my RSS reader and sharing my OPML file with my friends. Surfing the web was awesome because I was discovering great websites and blogs that were much better than traditional media sources, and I had the tools to keep up with them directly. Traditional media companies did not have as much of an advantage in this version of the web where I actively curated my own experience.

And then Twitter was born. Twitter was the culmination of this self-curated web surfing experience. While search, bookmarking and subscribing to RSS feeds were useful activities, they were quickly getting overwhelming. I loved sharing my OPML files with friends and recommending blogs for them to read, but most of my friends did not care enough to learn to customize their own experience. Most of them underutilized bookmarking, relied on aggregators like Google News, and maybe installed the StumbleUpon extension for occasional serendipity. Twitter made curating your own web a whole lot easier. I could follow Fred Wilson to get his Tweets, which were more frequent and personal compared to his blog posts, and I’d still see Tweets pointing me to his new blog posts. I didn’t need to organize bookmarks. I didn’t need to use an RSS reader, and I didn’t need to be stressed out by the tens of thousands of “unreads” in my RSS reader. Twitter was about to bring the self-curated web that I loved mainstream.

Twitter raced to 50M users one full year faster than Facebook, and all of my favorite bloggers started tweeting regularly. I got on relatively early and I was sure my friends would soon follow. They never did. Instead, Facebook started doubling down on their News Feed, which turned into the killer app. Facebook now sits at 2B users and Twitter is out there trying to prove that their meager 300M users are not all bots.

Twitter didn’t lose to Facebook because they didn’t invest in lists or fix the “cold start” experience for new users. It also wasn’t because Twitter was too slow to add images, videos, and expand to more than 140 characters. Twitter lost because the self-curated web lost. At the core, Twitter was about rolling your own version of the web. Twitter accomplished that by letting you easily follow the people and entities that you cared about, and then bringing their content to you. It didn’t matter if you wanted to only use the web for sports, or if you wanted to just consume mainstream news, or if you were like me, obsessed with tech and wanted to follow all kinds of interesting people in tech.

Facebook’s News Feed had a very different vision for the web and it’s closer to the vision of web portals of the late 90s. Because Facebook was initially about friends, when they launched the News Feed, they had to figure out what to put in the News Feed to engage their users. Friends’ content were only so interesting. After a failed experiment with the Facebook platform that allowed third-party developers to push content to the feed, Facebook realized that the opportunity for the News Feed is for them to decide what goes in the feed, and that was the right move. To Facebook, people would rather have someone decide for them what content to consume. Just like how people preferred for Yahoo! to pick the websites to feature on its portal, for CBS to program the shows we watch, and for the New York Times to decide what stories we read about on Page One.

This is why I think Facebook actually helped save the news industry. Facebook sheltered the news industry from the most intense competition they’ve ever seen. The web could’ve gone in a direction where the mainstream activity is something closer to Twitter, where users proactively decide what they want to read without a gatekeeper. In that self-curated version of the web, it’s hard to believe that most people would volunteer to simply choose content from traditional news media. The news business would have to really work to compete for that privilege. Instead, Facebook became the gatekeeper, and traditional news media was the right-hand man. Together, they pumped news stories into everyone’s news feed, establishing and expanding the influence of the news media to two billion people. I think this is a hugely under-appreciated fact.

As Facebook shifts back to more friends and family content, media organizations will find that the page views are not coming back. The news industry was influential before Facebook, but not on the scale of two billion people. In the last few years, Facebook may have helped publishers reach and engage a wide enough audience that examples of successful transitions to healthier digital business models at places like the Washington Post likely have a lot to do with Facebook. However, most publications are still in the midst of that digital transition and barely surviving. My colleague Leo Schwartz asked Joshua Topolsky the difficult question this morning.

Without Facebook, how do people find your stories? Will we all move to Twitter just to follow The Outline? Are we going to rely on Flipboard and Apple News as the new entry points?

On the “problem” of Fake News

There is a deeper point here to help explain Fake News problem. To the extent that Facebook caused Fake News, it has to do with the level of scale and intimacy that’s attached to news in the Facebook era.

I think it’s bad to assume that people want to consume news to the level of intensity that I think the makers of news would like to believe. While services like 24-hour cable news stations, Yahoo! and Facebook definitely helped pushed news on to the mainstream, it doesn’t mean that the users were actively seeking to consume news. It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes news is just there as great filler content to help engage end users.

Growing up, I never enjoyed reading the news and I still don’t. Some people I know talk about wanting to develop a news reading habit like they want to develop an exercise regimen —because it’s not easy but sold to us as a good thing to do. That’s why parents and teachers used to make us read the newspaper regularly. If it were as easy as watching YouTube, they wouldn’t have to. I’d guess that most of us pretend to care about the news and actually still need a lot of work to improve our reading comprehension scores.

However, even if you aren’t actively seeking to consume news. News finds you because of Facebook. Facebook is delivering news at an unprecedented scale, and they are doing it in a very intimate way through our mobile devices and contextualized by our friends. That is why we seem like we are not prepared for it. We are not. Fake news is not the problem. The problem is news literacy and intimacy.

We’ve never seen an entire population forced to grapple with the news every day, multiple times a day, during our best and worst moments. For the first time, news can easily get personal and emotional in the context of friends. For the first time, we are required to get good at reading between the lines and critically evaluate every claim. We are not prepared.

So where do we get our news from now?

I don’t know, but I’m sure Facebook will continue to promote news articles that your friends share because they need to drive engagement, so the change might not even be noticeable. I am still obsessed with Twitter and I think they found the right balance of mixing both real-time and algorithmic feed. I’m starting to miss high-quality blogs, but I’ve filled that void with podcasts, newsletters, and YouTube channels. reddit is growing into a dominant force as well. While the self-curated web has lost for now, there’s still a lot we can do if we want to be an active consumer of the media. I’m optimistic to see what the future holds.

It’s interesting to think about a world where Facebook didn’t exist. Some other algorithm-based content aggregator adept at engaging the end user at scale might have taken its place. This alternate reality already exists in China with Toutiao, a Flipboard-like app but with Facebook-level dominance that has commoditized publishers just like Facebook, but to an even greater extent that A.I. is writing articles instead of humans.

Thanks Regina Wong, Richard Lo, David Tran, Ruby Lee, Liisa Sailaranta and Yvonne Leow for reading a draft of this post.