Why Teenage Users Do Not Indicate Your Technical Future

So I had to sit through yet another meeting today where some breathless 30-something expert urgently asserted that email and blogs are going away because, as we all know, “teens” signal what’s coming in the future.  And since teens use Facebook and Twitter and SMS, and don’t use email or create blogs, that naturally means email and blogs will soon go away for all of us.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg earlier defended this idea, employing a recent PEW report that only 11% of teens email daily (a significant generational drop).  Then she said:

“If you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today.”

You’ve heard this elsewhere right?  A bunch of times probably.

And it makes a terrific little sound bite, and feels all edgy and smart and progressive.

And it would be – except for the fact that it’s completely dumb and wrong.  Maybe even backwards.

Theoretical beneficiaries like Sandberg’s Facebook, but also countless other less-well-positioned wannabe visionaries, parrot this meme because they love the idea that this mystical teenage behavior might be a reliable predictor of our future.

Depending on who you ask, the logic behind this theoried prediction tool follows one or both of the following threads:

a) Digital-immigrants that they are, those poor professional adults are so out of touch, so weakened by requirement for metaphor and instruction, and mystified by digital tools in general, that their use-case must naturally be antiquated and waning.  Whereas those brilliant little digital-native rag-a-muffins just seem like they can pick up any interface or game and play without instruction, so they must be the only ones who genuinely understand the true-use of digital media.

And/or,

b) Teens current technical preferences will inexorably follow them as they age and enter the workforce, ushering in sweeping infrastructural changes that will impact us all.

“So,” the expert goes, “uber-smart companies will prepare for that change, not get caught scrambling when it’s too late.  We should be progressive and develop new corporate communication policies that minimize reliance on email and involve the preferred tools of our upcoming workforce: Facebook and Twitter and SMS.”

OK, look people– the reason teens appear to inordinately prefer Twitter and Facebook and SMS over email is so simple –  they’re just talking.  Got it?  Chit-chatting.  Socializing.  Partying, labeling, posturing.  It’s what their life-phase destines them to do.  And like verbal communication, there is a high value on short response-time and convenience.  Conversely there’s not much use for persistence and record-keeping. So  Twitter/Facebook/SMS make perfect sense – they are arguably the right tools for the requirement.

Now let’s project ahead to the forewarned, paradigm-shifted time when these teens enter the workforce.  What is often ignored in the analysis is that those previously myopically social teens will suddenly be saddled with something completely new, something they did not carry as teens; suddenly they will have responsibility.  It’s a new life-phase and a related set of new needs will enter their use-case – the need to communicate officially and discretely, to record and execute plans, to manage interaction across teams, most importantly in all of these is the need to keep a persistent paper-trail, a record of their work and communication.

And all of a sudden email looks a whole lot less lame.  In fact – it looks indispensable.

Skype (or something like it) – not even on the panicky email-is-going-awayers’ list of tools for consideration – can do some of this and is way better suited to carry the torch, assuming it undergoes some significant design changes.  But email remains the best tool for that ubiquitous work-place requirement.

Will email go away?  The specific technical approach will.  Someday.  But not because teens don’t use it today.

Whatever as yet unnamed tool eventually rises to replace email – you can be sure that it will behave quite a lot like email.  Rather, it will essentially be email – only maybe faster with a lot more features.  But it won’t be Twitter, or Facebook, unless they reinvent themselves to be, well, emaily.

Blogs are another story.  Why don’t teens keep blogs?  They sort of did in the 90’s, what happened?  Well everyone did stupid things in the 90s.  But the truth is teens had no more reason to keep blogs in the 90s than they do now.  They just didn’t know any better then.  None of us did.  But again the lovers of those meddling teens predictive abilities don’t seem to recognize the fundamental difference in use-case between Facebook, Twitter, SMS and a Blog.

Blogs serve a very different purpose.  Most bloggers have reached a phase in their lives where they feel they have something to share with the world.  They have lived a certain amount of life, and or have acquired unique experiences they deem worth sharing. This can happen early for some, later for others.   As such, you might argue that blogging is a “mentor’s” life-phase tool.

And with all due respect to teens –  they are still experiencing the world.  By-in-large they are not yet the mentors/experts/teachers.  They are still filling their lives with experiences and knowledge that – someday – they will feel a strong desire to pass on.

And when they do enter that phase of their lives, they will look for a tool that does something a lot like a blog does.  Or they will write a book, or maybe start a company.

Teens are not tapped into some sort of advanced, predictive, knowledge-base.  There is no magic here.  Yes, they are “digital natives” and as such can learn to operate some technologies somewhat faster on average than “digital immigrants”. About the scan of an instruction manual faster, if I’m being generous.  But the frequency with which they use a technology once they’ve learned it, is no indication of changes to come for anyone but teens right then.

Most technologies will fall in and out of relevance over the phases of a user’s life and career, because as you age and advance, your needs change.  Adoption of one tool as a teen user, may or may not have any meaning as that user ages and gains responsibility into adult-hood and a career.

In short, teenagers will only dictate what technologies they themselves use.  And as they enter the next phase of their lives, don’t be surprised when it ends up looking quite a lot like what the rest of us are already using today.

If you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look for solutions that improve your life today.

And then maybe tell a teenager about it – because they’ll probably have to learn to do whatever it is when they get older.