Try chatting to a teenager about social media. Not about the dangers of spending too much time online or the potential problems with privacy but what they are actually using it for. You will probably find out that like every generation before them, it’s just viewed by them as another tool to overcome their tireless conquest of boredom. That’s how they see it at least but are the people building the products designing only for that? Social media apps are designed to remember and learn from everything. Whilst they do a great job of relieving the boredom, they also pay great attention to every click and it’s consequences. What might be an idle view to the bored teenager, will be a link that gives another clue in their usage pattern, and probably stored for future reference.
As long as it cures the boredom, it doesn’t matter what the app is
I did my own surveying with just a few teenage boredom fighters . I asked about TikTokand the response was casual and uninterested ‘It’s just the musically app updated, it’s no big deal’ and in response to snapchat ‘it’s only 6th graders who use it anymore’. Every app I asked about received the same blasé response. It’s not that they didn’t know about it or appreciate what it did, it’s just that they didn’t really care about it or how it worked. Like a discarded toy, its initial excitement wears off and each time the cycle of excitement to boredom gets shorter. There was little loyalty around UI and features. They might be using it a lot but there is little to suggest they have any love for it beyond a temporary fix for their boredom and they probably don’t expect or are aware of every click they make being taken into account i.e. counted, analyzed and possibly developed into an algorithm.
Those trying to combat their boredom point to YouTube as a solution because of the variation of content available providing an endless supply of documentaries and ‘how to’s’. The content is as diverse as documentaries about witchdoctors in Africa, ocean plastic in the Pacific, and ‘how to’s’ about every little thing you would wish to know. The important thing, I was assured, is that they don’t get bored. As long as they can control the content by skipping from app to app, and video to video quickly, that was the key thing. The greater the capability of the app to fill the void of boredom, the higher the usage which is why YouTube and TikTok are the apps of choice among teenagers right now.
Spotting a pattern in the bored mind is next to impossible
Older generations seem to have experienced some loyalty to the way they consumed e.g. one channel vs another, a specific music magazine, a local video store, or even Facebook when it first appeared. It could have been the limited choice of content that kept them more tied to the curator and source. With the lack of content choice to be had, a pattern may have been easier to recognize but with today’s ability to bounce between apps and content, it’s much harder to spot. It may be impossible to track a coherent set of preferences with so much choice of content available, spread across different platforms and no specific goal in the mind of the user.
Even though the younger generations may not care about the mediums they they use to consume content, what’s happening behind the scenes may come back to haunt them. Casually flicking through videos may seem a harmless antidote to boredom but somewhere in the background an algorithm may be working out more about them. The real worry is the clumsiness of the algorithm that may lead to wildly incorrect assumptions and then follow the teenager around into their later lives. It would pay them to avoid any disclosure of who they are if they can help it. This is a topic I discussed before about the platforms handling of our perceived identity online.
How about a ‘bored’ mode where you don’t pay so much attention?
When designing apps, we should let the search to relieve boredom exist unmonitored and not see it as anything more consequential. We need to ensure we aren’t taking browsing information so seriously in every context and instead protect the right to stave off boredom without inadvertently creating a profile that one day a user wants to forget.
How we do that is a challenge.
It could involve providing some way for a user to indicate a ‘bored’ mode which we would signal to the app to forget history or disassociate from the personal profile. It could involve proactively asking users to add weight for specific content views to their profile. It could involve refreshing browsing history after an allotted time e.g. a year. Whatever we do as creators of apps that provide content for the bored user, we need to find a smarter way to learn from the data or we could be concluding some odd and untrue implications that comes from trying to make sense of something that doesn’t actually mean much.