CHICAGO — Teens don’t tweet, will never tweet – too public, too many older users. Not cool.
That has been the prediction for a while now, born of numbers showing that fewer than one in 10 teens were using Twitter early on.
But then their parents, grandparents, neighbors, parents’ friends and anyone in-between started friending them on Facebook – and a curious thing began to happen.
Suddenly, their space wasn’t just theirs anymore. So more young people have started shifting to Twitter, almost hiding in plain sight.
“I love Twitter, it’s the only thing I have to myself … cause my parents don’t have one,” Britteny Praznik, a 17-year-old who lives outside Milwaukee, tweeted recently.
She joined Twitter last summer after more people at her high school did the same.
“It just sort of caught on,” she said.
Teens tout the ease of use and the ability to send out thoughts to a circle of friends, often a smaller one than they have on crowded Facebook accounts. They can have multiple accounts and don’t have to use their real names.
The growing popularity teens report fits with findings from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit that monitors tech habits. The migration has been slow, but steady. A Pew survey last July found 16 percent of people ages 12 to 17 said they used Twitter. Two years earlier, that percentage was 8 percent.
A Pew survey also found that nearly one in five 18- to 29-year-olds have taken a liking to the micro-blogging service.
Early on, Twitter had a reputation that many didn’t think fit the online habits of teens – well over half of whom were already using Facebook or other social networking services in 2006, when Twitter launched.
“The first group to colonize Twitter were people in the technology industry – consummate self-promoters,” said Alice Marwick, a post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft Research who tracks young people’s online habits.
For teens, self-promotion isn’t usually the goal. At least until they go to college and start thinking about careers, social networking is, well, social.
As Twitter has grown, so have the ways people, and communities, use it.
A lot of teens like using locked, private accounts, where only their followers can read their tweets. Many also use pseudonyms, so only their friends know who they are.
“Facebook is like shouting into a crowd. Twitter is like speaking into a room” – that’s what one teen said in a focus group at Microsoft Research, Marwick says.
Other teens have told Pew researchers that they feel “social pressure” to friend people on Facebook – “for instance, friending everyone in your school or that friend of a friend you met at a football game,” Madden said.
Twitter’s more fluid and anonymous setup, teens say, gives them more freedom to avoid friends of friends of friends – not that they’re saying anything particularly earth-shattering. They just don’t want everyone to see it.
Praznik, for instance, tweets anything from complaints and random thoughts to angst and longing.
“i hate snow i hate winter.Moving to California as soon as i can,” one recent post from the Wisconsin teen read.
Different teenagers use Twitter for different reasons. Some monitor celebrities.
“Twitter is like a backstage pass to a concert,” said Jason Hennessey, the CEO of Everspark Interactive, a tech-based marketing agency in Atlanta. “You could send a tweet to Justin Bieber 10 minutes before the concert, and there’s a chance he might tweet you back.”
A few teens use it as a platform to share opinions, keeping their accounts public for all the world to see.
Taylor Smith, a 14-year-old in St. Louis, uses Twitter to monitor the news and to get her own “small points across.” Recently, that has included her dislike for strawberry Pop Tarts and her admiration for a video that features the accomplishments of young female scientists.
She started tweeting 18 months ago after her dad opened his account. He gave her his blessing, though he watches her account closely.
“Once or twice I used bad language and he never let me hear the end of it,” Taylor said.
She thinks it’s only a matter of time before her friends realize that Twitter is the cool place to be.
They need to “realize it’s time to get in the game,” Smith said, though she notes some don’t have smartphones or laptops – or their parents don’t want them to tweet, feeling they’re too young.
Pam Praznik, Britteny’s mother, keeps track of her daughter’s Facebook accounts. But Britteny asked that she not follow her on Twitter – and her mom is fine with that, as long as the tweets remain between friends.
“She could text her friends anyway, without me knowing,” Praznik said.
Teens and parents shouldn’t assume that locked accounts are completely private, said Ananda Mitra, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Online privacy, he said, is “mythical privacy.”
Someone with a public account might, for instance, retweet a posting made on a friend’s locked account, allowing anyone to see it.
On a deeper level, Mitra says, those who use Twitter and Facebook – publicly or privately – leave a trail of “digital DNA” that could be mined by universities or employers, law enforcement or advertisers because it is provided voluntarily.
Mitra has coined the term “narb” to describe the narrative bits people reveal about themselves online – age, gender, location and opinions, based on interactions with their friends.
Marwick at Microsoft still thinks private accounts pose little risk when you consider the content of the average teenager’s Twitter account.
“They just want someplace they can express themselves and talk with their friends without everyone watching,” she said.
Much like teens always have.