David Glance: Challenge of keeping up with cyber teens

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Social networks will have to make changes if they are to survive as fickle young users look for something new

Today's teens have a wide range of ways to communicate. Photo / Getty Images
Today's teens have a wide range of ways to communicate. Photo / Getty Images

It seems Facebook is coming to terms with the fact that teenagers are fickle and unlikely to stay interested in anything for long - even Facebook. In its annual report, Facebook admitted that "some of our users, particularly our younger users, are aware of and actively engaging with other products and services similar to, or as a substitute for, Facebook". This, with anecdotes of teenagers being questioned about their attitude to Facebook, has led the media at least to speculate that teenagers are tossing both their iPhones and social networks into the same category as everything else their parents are involved with.

Facebook, at least, has apparently become uncool and boring.

The fact specific social networks should become passe is hardly surprising. Social network sites such as MySpace are testament to how quickly a network can be abandoned and forgotten.

There is also an ever-increasing number of sites and mobile applications that allow sharing, leading to a corresponding decrease in time spent on any one platform.

At the same time, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are trying to find ways of making money, which has led to an increase in the amount of content that is pure advertising masquerading as shared content. This has recently been made worse with the announcement by Facebook of a revamped news feed that will make the page look more like a personalised newspaper or magazine.

For teens at least, social networking sites have never been the primary means of communication. In a Pew internet study last year, 63 per cent of teens used text messaging to communicate with others on a daily basis compared to only 29 per cent who used social networks to communicate daily with others. Thirty seven per cent of teens surveyed had participated in video chats on platforms like Skype, Google+ and iChat.

In other words, teens will employ a range of modes of communication with their friends and will be driven by what peers are doing collectively above any sense of loyalty to a brand.

The recent phenomenon of the popularity of photo sharing network SnapChat is an example of this. Sharing photos that exist only for few seconds before disappearing supports a novel way of using images to communicate that is different to posting photos to Facebook or Instagram. Teens will use SnapChat in preference to the same feature hosted on Facebook.

Ultimately, for a group of teens to change social networks altogether would be only a matter of a collective decision and it could happen overnight.

In a way, for social networks to survive, they need to be all things to all people and provide a range of communication and sharing options. At the moment, users of social network sites are all treated as being uniform. Even our sharing options usually default to treating everyone on the network as a single group, even though connections will consist of friends, family, acquaintances, work colleagues and strangers. Although some networks allow a manual sorting of people into categories, few people would do this so sharing things that are relevant to even a small number of connected friends is made that much harder.

As only a small percentage of people produce the majority of the content and activity on social networks like Facebook, finding relevant and interesting things in a news feed or stream is a challenge.

Social network sites are trying to solve this challenge for advertisers by analysing audiences and deciding what to show to any given individual. This technology is likely to improve over the next 5-10 years to the point where relevance is assessed not only by your profile and interests but your actual needs.

For normal users, the technology would allow them to have content selected for them and sharing tailored to people who would want to see the content. So teenagers posting pictures of drunken parties would automatically hide them from family - especially parents.

Of course, to get the level of sophistication in social networks making these decisions or even suggestions on our behalf, we would have to agree to provide a great deal of private information. This has often been a red flag to privacy advocates, who see the benefits being far outweighed by the risks.

There is a way around this, however - individuals can set up a private "personal data cloud" to store all of the information about themselves provided by social networks, apps and websites that they had interacted with.

When a software system wants to decide what to do in terms of a person's social connections, it could then just ask the user's "personal data cloud" to give them suggestions without revealing anything about the information held in that cloud.

Social networks are likely to remain for the foreseeable future as part of the way in which we interact with others on the internet. But the degree of their relevance will depend on how sophisticated they can become in filtering content that we consume and send.

The technical challenges posed by this are the easy part. It is solving the privacy issue that will be the biggest challenge. This will have to start with giving individuals complete control over that data and when and how it is accessed.

David Glance is director of the Centre for Software Practice at the University of Western Australia.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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