The reality that shocked the City: There are teenagers.

Picture by Mickey van der Stap

Surely I am not the only one who barely batted an eyelid with the news that teenagers consume different kinds of media, in different ways and tend to be inclined towards patterns of consumption that differs from adults?

In fact, I’m still trying to work out why the research note by 15-year-old Matthew Robson caused such a furore. Perhaps it was because it was published by Morgan Stanley?

And, if that’s the case, then the real story is that Morgan Stanley employees are so chained to their desks that those with kids clearly don’t spend as much time with them as they might like.

Who mentioned Twitter?

Naturally the headlines focused on the apparent lack of traction of Twitter among Matthew’s peers.

But so what? I don’t remember Twitter ever being pitched as a tool for teenagers. Do you?

It seems to me that what’s going on here is that traditional approaches to segmentation of products and their consumers is falling apart in the social media age. A traditional indicator like age is just not as significant as either marketers or traditional media brands would like it to be or would like us to believe.

The problem that marketers and media folks are faced with is that interaction is now ‘mashable’, so it’s the underlying trend in communication, and not which brand of application people prefer, which is really significant.

Matthew is pretty clear that Facebook is hugely significant among his peer group which begs the questions ‘what’s Twitter got to do with the story (unless the media need to undermine the inevitable march of social media by shooting down one of its totems?)’?

Matthew’s clear: his mates are using social media but Facebook rather than Twitter.

What’s critical here is that Matthew’s mates are using social media. That’s not the same as saying Matthew or his mates are representative of most 15-year-olds.

It’s very likely – like most human beings – that Matthew has affiliations with near-to, close-to and distant associates, who are each immersed in a communications landscape has suddenly become anarchically rich in content.

So its likely that Matthew participates in a variety of tribes (a concept coined by Seth Godin which you can see at Slideshare here) and we all live in a world in which we’ve all gone tribal. By this I mean that we instinctively or deliberately coalescence around content that’s of interest to us – regardless of our age – and we’ll use whichever technology suits us.

So, yes, some people will graduate to Twitter but most people won’t – just as now – because it’s not everybody’s preferred medium for content. Twitter is just another medium that some people like to use. Despite what Matthew says, there will be plenty of 15-year-olds using Twitter if it suits them.

Content as unique as you are

No matter what, the die is cast because networks of people are coalescing around common-interest content thanks to the increasingly accessible technology. However, the blend of content they consume is as unique as they are.

What’s interesting is that it’s likely that the dynamics behind choice of content hasn’t changed. I am certain that people seek out other people most like them, expressing views like them, or pursuing interests similar to them (in much the same way that people prefer newspapers which broadly reflect their own perspective of the world.)

The only change is that people are now able to personalise their consumption of content. (And that’s what Murdoch’s worried about.)

If you think about the sites that you visit, I bet there are no more than 10 that you visit daily. Some will be tools – like Google – others will be ‘life-enriching’ like Twitter, Facebook, and sites about pastimes, hobbies, interests; others will be work-related – online news, blogs, LinkedIn etc.

The killer app will be the one that allows you to aggregate content that you always want to access – so emerging technologies like FriendFeed and Google Wave are ones to watch (in fact Google OS now because it will be an Open Source platform). It’s also why RSS technologies like RSS Readers may yet enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

(And just wait for digital convergence in 2012 in the UK because that’s when the real winners and losers will emerge.)

What’s really going on: The new socialism

What’s really happening, though, is fascinating and takes me back to one of the few books I read at university which struck me as interesting.

It was called ‘Imagined Communities’ by a guy called Benedict Anderson. It was about political nationalism, but his thesis still stands today – in fact, it’s probably more pertinent – because he suggested that the media (print) had been the primary dynamic enabling the concept of ‘nations’ to thrive. It follows that, if the media becomes fragmented but easily accessible to most people, then there’s a corresponding fragmentation and proliferation of ‘imagined communities’.

It’s why nations like China are paranoid about the power of Google to spread ideas that have the potential to create dissonance between compliance to the state and pursuit of personal ambition – Uighurs/Han Chinese unrest may be an early indication of this.

It’s also why sects do weird things – because their imagined community transcends the consensual imagined community of most of the people around them.

You’re imagined community shifts and changes throughout the day, depending on context. So you might be part of a work-based community right now, or a member of a profession this afternoon, a commuter at the end of the day, an actor in amateur theatre tonight, a father, a sister or brother or friend. If you’re in the UK, its unlikely that you’ll be English or British, unless events take a remarkable turn, but you may well be a townie, villager or seasider.

So what’s happening has been described by Kevin Kelly at Wired as a ‘new socialism’; technology is enabling people to realise the potential of social connections, of whichever hue, for all sorts of different reasons and outcomes.

So we’re living through an ism, but its not ideological; its sociological.

And I think it’s brilliant because the desire to apply rational segementation models to deeply unpredictable human beings is being challenged by the diversity and accessibility of media.

As a consultant, my advice to clients in this maelstrom is:

  1. It’s not about empirical research but conversational richness. (You can’t be social unless you converse.)
  2. You’d better be interesting or you’re not. (If your brand was a person, would I enjoy a conversation with you at a social gathering?)
  3. It’s not about you, stupid, it’s about other people. (When was the last time you enjoyed the company of someone who just banged on about themselves all the time?)
  4. Don’t ever lie. (Because I won’t trust you again.)
  5. If you want evangelists, build places of worship. (Because you’ve got to have someone to meet and catch up haven’t you?)

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