October 18, 2022

The unscientific state of social media, according a bunch of 21 year old students

Last night, I ran one of my favorite classes of the semester – the focus group. After a couple months of me doing most of the talking, in this lesson we turn things around and I spend an hour and change asking the students questions about how they use social media, their phones, and everything else we talk about in our course. Increasingly, the results have been putting me in my place as I have been slowly but surely aging out of the demographic for which many of these platforms are targeted.

These numbers and insights are purely, exceedingly, unscientific. We had about 50 students yesterday, and while it is a diverse group in many ways, all of them pretty much meet some of the same demographics: 21ish, living in-and-around New York City, business majors at Baruch College. But, still insightful anecdotal evidence nonetheless.

Here are the results from surveying the class about which platforms they use on a “regular basis” (for our purposes, if they have accounts on them and have logged-in over the past week):

Discord ascendent, Clubhouse comatose

Big numbers for WhatsApp can be explained since nowadays nearly all students create WhatsApp groups for their classes (and LinkedIn always performs well with job-seeking college seniors). Otherwise, we see a trend continuing that started since my first class eight years ago: Facebook is fading, Instagram is strong (though wavering), and everything else is jockeying for position. Over the past few semesters, Reddit, Twitch, and Discord have been emerging – and obviously TikTok has broken everything.

Some attention-grabbing insights from the group:

  • The “favorites” were widely spread. Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Reddit all had multiple mentions. Many students like their messaging apps too, as that’s where their friends “live” – Discord, WhatsApp, and even Telegram had votes.
  • No students reported Facebook as their favorite platform. What’s keeping them on Facebook: international relatives, Messenger, birthdays, and advertising.
  • Very few followed influencers (or at least admitted to). Those that did valued authenticity and consistency as top attributes.
  • Nearly everybody uses their phone as an alarm. Nearly everybody opens their phone before they get out of bed. Some said they stayed in bed scrolling for over an hour.
  • There was a sense of dread and annoyance surrounding TikTok. Many students reported that they found it addicting and wanted to use it less.
  • Nearly all students use their phone more than 4 hours a day. A sizable chunk use it more than 6. Several students reported 10 or more hours of daily use.
  • When asked what apps make them happiest, the most popular answers were Spotify, Netflix and YouTube. When asked which annoyed them the most, the answers that came back included TikTok, Instagram, and Slack (everybody hates those notifications).
  • Twitter, as you would expect, made nobody happy. Pinterest did though.
  • Events are still tricky. One student reported still using Facebook Events, but other answers included messaging apps like WhatsApp, and posting “flyers” for public events on Instagram.
  • Most students said they looked on TikTok, Reddit, and YouTube when they are considering a purchase. Many were weary of spammy sites that clog Google’s results, and reported seeking out “name brand” publishers like The New York Times or Tom’s Guide for info.
  • Surprisingly few students knew about BeReal (though those that did have tried it). Very few knew what Quora or Medium was. No students knew about Swarm, formally FourSquare.
  • Clubhouse is dead to them. 0 students reported using it, and the name alone caused a fit of laughter.
  • There was a wide disparity in engagement behavior. Some students reported liking every post (to train the notorious TikTok algorithm), and some were very stingy with their interactions.
  • The kicker: When asked which platform they would bet $10,000 on to be a top network in five years, the class largely chose YouTube. The platform most of them want to bet against: Snapchat. “Snapchat is dying, again.”

My biggest takeaway from this week’s discussion is that the social media landscape is in a moment of flux. These young adults know they use digital media a lot and they know that this algorithms are getting creepily good, and feel slightly uncomfortable with those facts. With Facebook and Instagram in rocky positions, many are looking for community in other, smaller places – but nothing has really struck gold yet.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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