Tag Archives: teens

“Pep Rally” – a truly exogenous trending topic on Twitter

Logging onto Twitter to check out a few things quickly before running off to a homecoming football game, I couldn’t help but notice something important: “Pep Rally” was trending as a US trending topic. I immediately clicked on through and found countless teens commenting on their school pep rallies. These teens were posting about pep rallies that were happening at different schools across the east coast. The fact that teens are on Twitter still comes as a surprise to some but what surprised me about this trending topic is that it’s the first truly exogenous trending topic I’ve seen teenagers produce.

There are two types of trending topics on Twitter: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous TTs happen when a topic has a viral spread. Once it becomes a TT, everyone jumps onto it to spread it even further. So when we see a hashtag like #intenyears we know it didn’t happen naturally. It spread by a group of people until it became a TT and then off it went. Most highly visible teen participation centers on endogenous TTs. Sure, there are lots of tweens who like Justin Bieber but he trends on Twitter because people actively work to make that topic (or a related hashtag) trend. Exogenous TTs happen when everyone is talking about the same thing simultaneously, not really responding to each other or to the trending topic per say but responding to a cultural moment. This often happens when there are major new events or TV shows that are broadcasting something of great interest. For example, when Michael Jackson died, Twitter users were talking about MJ not because the topic was hott on Twitter but because it was simply of great public interest. Same with teens responding to events happening at the Teen Choice Awards.

So then why am I so enamored with “pep rally” as a trending topic? It’s Friday in the middle of October. A lot of high schools will have homecoming games tonight. Whenever there’s a homecoming game in the States (and often for other games too), there are pep rallies at the end of the school day. Schools typically let out around 2.30PM. So around 3PM, I login to Twitter and voila, Pep Rally is a trending topic. Click on through and there are thousands of teens from all over the east coast (because time zones haven’t shifted yet) talking about having just gotten out of the pep rally. Some were talking about it being lame; others were talking about it being awesome. But they weren’t talking about the same pep rally. They were talking about their individual schools’ pep rallies. Collectively, many teenagers are experiencing pep rallies right now, but it’s not the same event that they’re experiencing. They’re talking about pep rallies, but what they’re referring to isn’t a shared event. Collectively, their discussions are trending. It’s a fascinating exogenous trending topic that isn’t even about the same event but rather about an activity that teens across EST (and now CST) are experiencing simultaneously but not coherently. Thus, the TT is more about marking a pattern of day (like “good night”) than a particular event. And, in this case, an event that is wholly teen-centric. And now, as I finish this post, I can see the pep rallies finish in CST and start in MST. Amazing. And delightful.

OK… enough talking about pep rallies. It’s time to go get ready for the homecoming games of the night. Hopefully I’ll wear the right colors this time. (I’m really not good at color coordinating for football games.)

Thank you Nashville!

I’m just finishing up the first 10 days of my fall sprint at intensive fieldwork. I’m a long way from being about to synthesize what I’m seeing but I wanted to share a few things since many of you are curious about my observations.

First off, Nashville is a great city to do fieldwork because of a mix of different dynamics taking place here. There’s the obvious suburban dynamics which are really notable here, especially given some of the extraordinarily wealthy suburbs which their posh football fields and McMansions. But even in the low income regions, there are really interesting things going on, both in the city and in the suburbs. On one hand, you have amazing local organizations dedicated to youth culture. The public library’s facility for teens is better than anything I’ve seen in any public library in the States and boy do teens flock there after school to play with the Wii, get free snacks, do homework, get on the computer, and even read books. The energy after school is fantastic. The library and rec center are where many teens go after school to wait for their parents to pick them up or because they live close to these places and find them to be more fun than going home (for a whole host of reasons). Of course, the teens that go to these places aren’t necessarily representative of all teens in Nashville. One teen told me that the types of people who went to the library are “ghetto” which is why she won’t go there. Still, many of the teens that I met there are trying to stay out of trouble and it was great to see a place for them to go. Likewise, Rocketown, a club founded by Christian musician Michael W. Smith is a popular place for youth trying to keep out of trouble. And there’s a Youth Opportunity Center and a whole host of other organizations working to create activities and opportunities for teens. And, unlike many regions I’ve been in, many of the retailers and fast food joints employ teens.

And then there’s the flipside… There are drug issues, namely pills (although oddly, heroin also seems to be coming back). And gangs. Sure, there are gangs in other cities, but the Kurdish Pride gang down here is quite unique. Kurdish Pride is filled with teens and young adults who come from middle/upper-class two-parent families and are doing well in school, but are engaged in a two-front gang warfare battle. On one hand, they’re trying to stand up to the black and Hispanic gangs here; on the other, they’re trying to show that they’re tough to their cousins back in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. Things escalated post 9/11 and I can’t imagine that all of this anti-Islamic fever is helping anything down here at all.

A lot of how Nashville is organized depends on transportation, with teens in the suburbs rarely making it into the city because of lack of transportation (and familial rejections of the bus). Malls and movies trump everything in terms of hang out spaces for suburban youth, with parks operating as a critical site for urban youth. All of the youth centers and whatnot are located downtown, although some of the megachurches have great youth programs in the suburbs. Things like football games and Young Life are still playing a huge role in the communities. The biggest socio-economic mixing seemed to have happened at the Opry Mills Mall (which shut down after the flood) and among kids who attend magnet schools or other specialty schools (of which there are some phenomenal ones here… sadly, though, the typical public schools leave much to be desired). As always, geography and mobility really shape the social dynamics.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about the social dynamics of Nashville which are totally fascinating and require much more nuance than I can offer in 3 paragraphs, but I’m sure what you really want to know is about technology. Simply put, technology is really fading into the background and is mostly being used on top of everything else that teens are doing. Teens who are more likely to be stuck at home (namely the teens from wealthier families) are much more consciously engaged in the technology for technology sake, much more likely to sit and chat on Facebook because it’s Facebook. Cell phones are everywhere with texting at unbelievable levels across socio-economic divisions. But teens are treating technology with the same level of emotional connection as they treat their clothes. Some are obsessively passionate about it and some just see it as a functional thing that they may or may not want to engage with.

Some fun little things that I found intriguing… All of the MySpace Top 8 stuff has reappeared in Facebook under “siblings” as teens list their closest friends as their brothers and sisters (which requires confirmation). While joining “groups” used to be a cool way of doing identity marking, it’s now all about clicking “Like” to funny things that get passed around. Relationships aren’t official until they’re “Facebook official.” MySpace isn’t dead among teens but the socio-economic issues around it are extremely pronounced and those who are on MySpace are typically also on Facebook at this point. MySpace and YouTube are ground zero for law enforcement doing gang intelligence. Particularly interesting given that Facebook is heavily used by the Kurdish Pride kids to connect with family back in Iraq; both sides post photos with guns to show toughness and connection. And I confirmed the reality that Facebook is pretty darn public for these teens – available to everyone that they know. And they know very little about how to manage their settings but feel like Facebook’s defaults must be what they should use.

I also heard some pretty crazy heart-wrenching stories. For example, complications to the sexting picture in the news. A boy that I met shared his cell phone with his mother.  He takes the phone during the day and she takes it at night.  His mother appears to be promiscuous (“gets around”).  All day long, he receives naked photos of older men to his cell phone intended for his mother. He’s terrified that his friends will see those pictures and think that they’re intended for him.  He’s super embarrassed about his mother but too uncomfortable to confront her.

Anyhow, there’s a lot more in all of my notes that I still need to process and think through what I have before I can offer more conceptual reactions but I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve seen. And thanks to everyone who has been so supportive and welcoming. There are some truly dedicated folks in Nashville trying to make a difference and it really warms my heart to see so many dedicated folks working to help teens.

More soon! (Next stop… Raleigh and Durham.)

Favorite myth-making news articles?

The book that I’m writing is focused on myths that we have about teens and social media. I’m trying to find some good quotes from news media that perpetuate these myths and I’m hoping that you might be able to help. The more salacious and outraged, the better.  I’m looking for articles in mainstream venues that talk about all of the reasons in which social media is bad, bad, bad.  What are your favorite news articles that reinforce these widespread beliefs?

  • Myth #1: The digital is separate from the “real” world.
  • Myth #2: Social media makes kids deceptive.
  • Myth #3: Social media is addictive.
  • Myth #4: Kids don’t care about privacy.
  • Myth #5: The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place.
  • Myth #6: There’s nothing educational about social media.
  • Myth #7: Kids are digital natives.
  • Myth #8: The Internet is the great equalizer.


Before you ask… These are indeed the rough ideas that my book is organized around.  I’m not settled on any of the phrasings so if you’ve got feedback, I’m all ears.  I’m not yet ready to publicly describe what’s in each chapter but the structure is pretty simple.  I start with a widespread belief and then I use my data to complicate it, highlighting both why we have these myths and why they are focused on the wrong issues.  Hopefully it’ll be a fun read for everyone. <grin>

Teens Don’t Tweet… Or Do They?

Yesterday, Mashable reported Nielsen’s latest Twitter numbers with the headline Stats Confirm It: Teens Don’t Tweet. This gained traction on Twitter turning into the trending topic “teens don’t tweet” which was primarily kept in play all day yesterday with teens responding to the TT by saying “I’m a teen” or the equivalent of “you’re all idiots… what am I, mashed potatoes?”

I want to unpack some of what played out because I’m astonished by the misinterpretations in every which direction.

We have a methodology and interpretation problem. As Fred Stutzman has pointed out, there are reasons to question Nielsen’s methodology and, thus, their findings. Furthermore, the way that they present the data is misleading. If we were to assume an even distribution of Twitter use over the entire U.S. population, it would be completely normal to expect that 16% of Twitter users are young adults. So, really, what Nielsen is saying is, “Everyone expects social media to be used primarily by the young but OMG OMG OMG old farts are just as likely to be using Twitter as young folks! Like OMG.”

We have a presentation problem. Mashable presented this report completely inaccurately. First off, Nielsen is measuring 2-24. My guess is that there are a lot more 24-year-olds on Twitter than 2-year-olds. Unless Sockington counts. (And she’s probably older than 2 anyhow.) Regardless, the Nielsen data tells us nothing about teens. We don’t know if young adults (20-24) are all of those numbers or not. If all 16% of those under 24 on Twitter were teens, teens would be WAY over-represented in proportion to their demographic size.

We have a representation problem. The majority of people are not on Twitter, regardless of how old they are. Those who use Twitter are not a representative percentage of the population. Geeks are WAY over-represented on Twitter. Celebs and celeb-lovers are WAY over-represented on Twitter. Newshounds are WAY over-represented on Twitter. And while Joe the Plumber has an account on Twitter, I doubt it’s him. Age is not the right marker here.

We have an interpretation problem. Saying that 16% of Twitter users are 24 and under is NOT the same as saying that 16% of teens are on Twitter. We don’t know what percentage of youth (or adults) are on Twitter. If you want to compare across the ages, you need to know what percentage of a particular demographic is using the technology.

We have an impression management problem. There are teens on Twitter. Thousands of them. Saying “Teens Don’t Tweet” gives the wrong impression because there are plenty of teens who do tweet (as they so kindly vocalized on Mashable and on Twitter). Still, just because they suddenly became vocal doesn’t mean that those who are there are representative of teens as a whole. Furthermore, the presence of teens on Twitter doesn’t mean that Twitter is a mainstream tool amongst teens. It’s not.

Given all of these problems, I immediately dismissed the Nielsen report and the Mashable post as irrelevant and meaningless. Then it became a Trending Topic. So while I had a million things to do yesterday, I spent 6+ hours reading the messages of the people who added content to the trending topic, reading their posts about other things, going to their profiles on other sites, and simply trying to get a visceral understanding of what youth were engaged enough on Twitter to respond to the trending topic. What I found fascinated me. I’m still coding the data so you won’t get any quantitative data just yet, but I want to give you a sense of my impression.

Teens On Twitter

The majority of teens who responded to the Trending Topic simply responded to the statement “Teens Don’t Tweet” by noting that they were a teen and they tweeted. Others just noted that the trending topic was dumb. Many didn’t know why the term had become a trending topic, were unaware of the Mashable article or Nielsen study, and thought that Twitter chose the trending topics. (I was in awe of how many teens commented that Twitter was stupid for making such a lie a trending topic. Some thought it was Twitter’s attempts to tell them they didn’t belong. One did ask if it was a trap to get teens to come out of the closet about their real age.)

Many of the teens who responded to the TT were not American or Canadian. I saw bunches of Brazilian teens, some Indonesian teens, and a smattering of teens from Europe, China, and Mexico. Many of their Twitter streams mixed English and the local language of their country. English dominated the responses but I did see non-English responses to the English trending topic.

About half of the teens included a link to a non-Twitter page in their bio. The pages were really mixed. Among the SNSes, MySpace dominated, but there were some Facebook links and links to Piczo and Multiply. There were also links to YouTube, Blogspot, LiveJournal, Deviant Art, and personal homepages.

Very few of the teens put their age in their bio, although quite a few made their age available in the content or through links. Teens posted messages like “I’m 16 and I’m on Twitter.” And birthdays are a big enough deal that I was seeing things like, “I can’t wait until I’m 16 and can get a car. Only 3 months to go!” And of course there’s MySpace.

Most of the teens on Twitter followed on the order of 40-70 other people (with fewer followers). Who they followed included a smattering of other teens and a collection of big names – celebs, bloggers, geeks. There wasn’t much discussion on their feeds about the number of people following them but they frequently highlighted how many tweets they had. I was surprised by how many of them would write a tweet saying nothing more than “this is my 1207th tweet!” Their content is primarily phatic in nature with an eye for updating as often as possible.

The most salient visceral reaction that I got when looking at the teens’ Twitter streams was that teens on Twitter seemed to fit into three categories: 1) geeky teens, tech teens, fandom teens, machinema teens; 2) teens who are in love with the Jonas Brothers/Miley Cyrus, musicians, or another category of celebs; 3) multi-lingual foreign teens with friends/followers around the world who seemed to participate in lots of online communities.

While I can’t make any meaningful conclusions until I spend more time with the data, it seems to me that the teens on Twitter – or at least the teens responding to the trending topic – are not representative of teens as a whole. That’s not a bad thing. They’re geeks and passionate creators and trendsetters and pop culture addicts. I don’t get the sense that they’re dragging their friends into Twitter, but rather, focusing on using Twitter to engage with other people who share their interests or people that they admire.

Anyhow, I’m continuing to track this but I thought I should just report out what I’m seeing in case it’s of use to anyone but me.

Be warned: This blog post was written in brain-dump style to get some general impressions out there while I analyze the data. My goal is to give you a sense of what I’m seeing, assuming that you aren’t staring at thousands and thousands of tweets by teens. Please don’t interpret it as a “report” or a “study” or anything other than what it is: a blog post.