There is great debate that takes place among those who work online and its premise is that the younger you are, the better you ‘get’ social media. I’d like to consider and challenge some of the basic assumptions that this attitude creates.
On the 20th July 2012 a young student called Catherine Sloane published a blog post entitled ‘Why Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25’. The post achieved notoriety among many different demographics and across a variety of sectors. I really don’t feel a need to link to it as it was designed to be great link bait, that is its sole purpose was to get people linking and sharing a piece of content in a viral nature, with the result that the website hosting it gets a better result on the search engines. What is perhaps more interesting is that searching for that specific title doesn’t bring up the article itself, but rather a whole host of articles about it.
In the article she suggested that anyone over that age doesn’t understand enough about the world of social media because they haven’t grown up with it, and therefore by the time they hit 30 they are over the hill and should forget it.
I’d like to consider her post for a moment because there are some key elements that I’d like everyone to think about before I deconstruct it’s assumptions.
The post received
- 638 comments,
- it was tweeted out 240 times,
- it got 2,400 Facebook ‘likes’
- it received 24 Google +1’s
- and it was shared through other social media accounts 113 times.
In terms of the metrics that are often used to judge how successful a piece of social media is, it could be termed ‘good’. However, that means we are forgetting some key elements.
The vast majority of the comments were negative; they tended to dismiss what Catherine had said as the ‘arrogance of youth’. Almost all of those who commented from her own age group felt that she had done them a huge disservice. In many cases the Facebook ‘likes’, Twitter ‘tweets’ and other shares were anything but positive and many were used as an illustration of ‘how not to do it’!
But she did do one thing right; she got the attention she wanted and the underlying aim of all social media activity is always to get attention. The reason for this is because it cuts to the heart of what being human is all about, we each need to be validated by others and we count the act of receiving attention (whether it’s positive or negative) as validation.
The advantage of youth is that they adapt to change easily, that as soon as something new comes along they are in there trying it out and testing it, pushing the boundaries to see what does and doesn’t break. In many ways they could be considered early adopters.
However, this has an underlying assumption that something actually has changed and my observation of the world, particularly that online, is that nothing really changes; that we are still using the same skills we had in the Stone Age, all we are doing is adapting them to fit the current circumstances.
So what does the world of social media really look like and where did it all start?
What I’d like to consider is that the act of getting involved in social media, whether you are young or older, requires us to have two particular skills. These skills are not based in the online world, they are based in the real world and we all learn them to one degree or another as we work our way through life.
Those core skills are: discernment and communication.
In other words, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should and not all attention is ‘good’ attention. Knowing what works, in what context and what the future ramifications of an action taken might be, should be what underlies everything everyone does online.
Discernment is the understanding that what you say can be taken out of context, that the pictures you share will hang around and that you can’t be real friends with 600 people, and that others do not necessarily have your best interests at heart but are gaming the systems, trying to gather as much attention for themselves.
What Catherine conveniently forgot in her post was that the world typically has more older people in its population than younger; for instance in the UK in 2012 only 31% of the population are under 25. She also managed to ignore the metrics on use of the key social networks themselves.
- The average age of a LinkedIn user is 44.
- The average age of someone on Facebook is 40.5
- The average age of someone on Twitter is 37.5.
On almost all social networks, the fastest rising age groups are those in their 40’s – 60’s.
What we might ignore is that these metrics will change significantly as those in the younger age brackets age themselves and become part of the older generation.
She also overlooked the fact that online communication and networking has been around since the early days of the Internet and that today’s social networks are just over engineered forums in many cases. I’ve grown up with the web in particular, using it from the early days and I was in Catherine’s position, being 23 when I first started online. Had she considered these aspects in her article, it might have been a great article, but she didn’t.
The key to using all social media effectively is not the age or necessarily the experience but it is the universal ability to communicate correctly and in the right context, whether that is with the ubiquitous status update you will find on almost all networking sites or a longer length blog post, video or image. However, for that communication to have validity and gain that all important attention it must be something worth saying, that other people, outside your normal social circle, will want to engage with.
For a business this is a skill that has been prevalent since we first constructed commerce as a way of trading goods. The need to differentiate our goods and services from those of other people and businesses is paramount. In essence we need to be able to tell the right person, what they need to hear at the right time so they can take the action we want them to take.
In the example that I shared about Catherine, she took some action and she got some results but were they the long term results she might have wanted. That blog post will follow her around, like a ship’s anchor, holding her back and possibly preventing her from getting the positions she wants as she herself ages. The social networks change; when Catherine is 30 there will be a different set again with a younger generation growing up using them, when she is 40 the same thing will have happened. However what remains constant is that this is all just a mechanism for communication and we can learn that skill at any age.
This article was the basis of a lecture I presented today to the Centre of Excellence for Industrial Liaison at Budmouth College.