Will you still add me, will you still tag me, when I'm 64?
Adults are typically grateful that social media didn't exist when they were teenagers -- that their Facebook photos and status messages date to their college years at the earliest, not their first years of high school or middle school. Would you retroactively give your 13-year-old self the power to permanently put anything he or she wanted on the Web? I'd sooner incapacitate him with arcade-prize finger traps, the unexpectedly hazardous technology of my youth.
What I'd never pondered, until a friend questioned me about it last weekend, is when I'll stop using Facebook. Assuming it endures as a company, will there be an age at which most people abandon it? Right now, I'm a light user who mostly exploits the platform to share links to my articles.
Some people in my "stream" do the same. We'll all follow the crowd.
As I reflect on the way most of my friends from high school and college have used Facebook in the past and how they use it today, I'd say that their activity is more often than not tied to life changes. A new "relationship status." A new job. A move to a new city. A wedding proposal, followed by photographs from the bachelorette party, the wedding, and the honeymoon. A pregnancy, followed by photos of the baby, her first steps, her second birthday, her last day of school, and her spot on the bronze medal podium after placing third in a state college swim meet.
People want to share these developments. And their friends and acquaintances don't want to miss out on happy news, or gossip, or vicarious presence at an event, or even mini-scandal or unexpected tragedy. So they keep coming back to Facebook, many times a day, to disseminate news and to receive it, and to decide whether their own life is proceeding at an acceptable pace. But what happens when the pace of "newsworthy" change slows down? When the career is established, the marriage is either stable or long over, the kids are grown, and seeing friends means dinner and a streamed movie rather than late nights drinking with camera phones out? Does Facebook start to feel depressing, like drawing on your dorm room white board during Thanksgiving break, or as if it has lost its purpose, like People magazine after Princess Diana?
In Joan Didion's essay on coming of age in New York City, she wrote:
I remember once, one cold bright December evening in New York, suggesting a friend who complained of having been around too long that he come with me to a party where there would be, I assured him with the bright resourcefulness of twenty-three, "new faces." He laughed literally until he choked, and I had to roll down the taxi window and hit him on the back. "New faces," he said finally, "don't tell me about new faces." It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised "new faces," there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. I laughed with him, but the first snow had just begun to fall and the big Christmas trees glittered yellow and white as far as I could see up Park Avenue and I had a new dress and it would be a long while before I would come to understand the particular moral of the story.
Years later, she was still attending the same parties, "all parties, bad parties," and only looking back was she able to appreciate her mistake: "You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand... that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair."
Imagine 7 years spent living in a college dorm, or 15 years spent attending the parties you went to in your twenties. Now imagine yourself perusing a Facebook stream daily for a full 25 years.
Doesn't that just feel like too long?
I wonder how many of you will agree. It's impossible to say right now. The popularity of Facebook among older people today doesn't really tell us much. Like everyone already grown up when social media came along, they experienced the addicting novelty of remaking long-lost, far-flung connections while in between tasks at work or waiting for the onions to caramelize. People who grew up with social media all along will experience it differently in middle age.
A colleague with whom I spoke about this topic guessed that the middle-aged will stick around as users for nostalgic reasons, their accounts, full of archived photographs, serving the same function as old high school yearbooks. Perhaps so. But how often do you look at your high school yearbook? In that scenario, Facebook pays to store ever more data that is seldom accessed.
Older folks might also stick around to lurk on the pages of their grown children, especially when grandchildren arrive. But Facebook will always be vulnerable to other companies fulfilling discrete social media niches, like photo-sharing with members of the immediate family. They're an "all-purpose sharing" site, with all of the attendant advantages and drawbacks.
Are my future children going to see the presence of my wife and I on Facebook as a drawback to doing their young-adult social media sharing on the platform? I suspect so. Of course, much of what I've written is premised on Facebook itself remaining static, which isn't going to happen. But the thought experiment helps us think through the challenges the company is facing. There are surely people within its hierarchy asking themselves these very same questions:
Is there a tension between keeping older users and attracting younger users?
It'll be interesting to see how they answer those questions, and how the people of my generation respond.
Which demographic do we care about most?
How do we retain users for the long haul?
Will we try to charge people one day for storing all their decades old photos?
How hard will we make it for our users to export their histories?
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