New Year, Old You: Why Entrenched Behavior Even Matters In The App Age
With the tick of every clock, the tear of every calendar, we get farther and farther away from the last next-greatest-app or network and in many ways become more entrenched in our ways with the channels that either mean the most to us or mean the most to our friends and family that we want to stay in touch with. We thought it would be worth taking a moment to lay out some key truths that we find in all online behavior and can help you navigate no matter the year or the shiniest new app/network.
Nothing But a Number
Twitter will be 12 years old this year. Facebook is as old as my daughter (14, with nearly the same birthday), Reddit 13, Circle of Moms 10, Instagram 8, and Snapchat 7. A still-running message board for the collegiate athletic conference Mountain West has been around for 20. Nursing message boards have been around for at least two decades – and their activity in Groups supercharged Facebook’s early days. Other boards have changed structures but have been around in some form for 30+ years. Obviously, this is far from a comprehensive list, but it illustrates that time marches on even for an area of our lives we often imbue with the notion of “new.” When you look at them this way the savvy of the behaviors loses its luster. But it’s important to turn the prism this way not to critique social but to understand how our behavior has changed. In some ways, it has grown roots and alliances – in others it’s given us a freedom of fleeting attention.
You’re as Young as You Feel/Act
Since the dawn of the early internet, audiences have taken on several roles that are important to acknowledge:
- Participant – Engaged consumer who posts textual commentary, opinions, etc.
- Endorser – Engages largely through endorsing actions such as Likes or Favorites
- Lurker – Only there to read or gather information, often satisfied with finding similar questions and scanning for answers; May not join communities
So let’s repeat this: we did these exact same things decades ago and we’re doing them now. We ghosted, we lurked, we went in internet fights, we shared thoughts. What likely happened more then was sticking with a particular habit, personality, persona – really what we’re talking about is identity. (Identity is a bit of a separate topic – how identity has changed over the years, from perception to projection, is a pretty remarkable story directly influenced by both intentional and unintentional uses of the networks, channels, apps, etc.) Age is irrelevant in what I’m describing here; there’s so much we could talk about when it comes to generations (it’s a professional and academic focus of mine, after all), but when we’re looking at the history of interactions it’s obviously not just about young people, or professionals, or whatever. Access to the internet actually drove many of the changes we perceive as generational (consider the fact that prior to 2000 online behaviors and interactions were primarily dominated by adults – and adults never stopped, it’s just that as younger people received increased access it began to dominate larger parts of their lives). But my point is putting identity, and age, aside for a bit we have to come to grips that our behaviors aren’t all that new, but our involvement is what changed.
Just That Into You
So what does this mean for our current network obsessions? Mostly it means that behavior is worth examining more closely. As we’ve spoken about here before, geography and interests play outsized roles in how we develop our behaviors. Countries and states with small populations find audiences drifting to larger networks with less discreet geographic designations – so they can sometimes disappear into the diaspora online. Likewise, within a single region multiple cities may have developed entirely different long-term behaviors and/or communities around an app. All kinds of factors – from cell network strength to demographic diversity – can play into how an app may seem ubiquitous but whose actual use may vary wildly just an area code away. (We see this in Virginia between say, geographic hashtag use in Richmond with #rva vs. Hampton Roads’ #757).
Being honest about how we do everything – from looking for a nearby restaurant, finding out how to deal with frozen pipes, and talking about the latest Star Wars movie – means confronting that we’re not using all networks / channels / apps differently. In several of our recent studies we’ve uncovered discreet audiences who take on radically different personas based on the channel – not because of the channel’s nature or features, but because of who they think will encounter them there.
Right Here, Right Now
Long-term behavior often ends up helping you interpret short-term behavior correctly. (I’m reminded of an old Edward Albee quote from The Zoo Story: “Sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.”) Even the networks themselves aren’t immune to mistakes of not listening or watching – and their pitfalls can be great examples of lessons they can learn for you.
So what’s the result of ignoring these over-arching behaviors and audience-entrenched behaviors over the years? Just ask Snapchat. Snapchat “rarely reveals numbers” and it’s probably good they haven’t. A recent leak shows that Snapchat is being used way more as a chat app than anything else, much to internal chagrin and no matter what new features show up. This is absolutely no surprise to us, as we have been saying this is the behavioral backbone of its use since users started migrating to it. But it has to be disappointing for a company that has spent the last couple of years ignoring that behavior in hopes of shifting its focus. One-to-one or one-to-many, ephemeral chat is why people came to Snapchat in the first place. It’s a messenger app, people like it as a messenger app – and trying to treat it as more starts to violate what brought them to it in the first place. So in other words: ignore behavior at your peril.
And even the biggest networks struggle to meet the actual behavioral needs of its users when they fly in the face of the needs of businesses and brands (see Facebook’s big News Feed announcement). But they eventually have to give in, otherwise they won’t have a network at all. We are the network – and we always have been.
– Dean Browell, PhD
EVP and Co-Founder