4 Reasons Why Twitter Resonates with Generation X

Have you noticed the recent spate of articles about Twitter user demographics? For example, one of my Twitter contacts, @dreig, pointed me to a Reuters piece which suggests that "you could be forgiven for thinking that Twitter was the latest example of youth culture," noting its increasing popularity with those in more, well, advanced demographic brackets ("Twitter Older than it Looks"). Then there's a similar CNET post which points out that "the majority of Twitter users are 35 or older" ("Why Facebook and Twitter are aging gracefully").

Assuming the accuracy of the ComScore numbers that both articles cite, what are some of the factors influencing Twitter adoption among the 35+ demographic? I'll discuss here four of the key features that I feel have contributed to Twitter's popularity with Generation X (full disclosure: I'm 35).

1. It's Dead Simple

Twitter is flexible. Twitter is agile. Twitter is mobile. Usability, thy name is Twitter. These properties could easily have been listed as adoption attributes in their own right for those 35+, but I've chosen to gather them under the rubric of "Dead Simple" here, because collectively they contribute to the fact that Twitter just works (occasional sightings of Fail Whales notwithstanding).

For a generation in college at the dawn of the web, finding unfettered, dead simple, web-based applications is particularly noteworthy, since that same generation has seen so much that didn't work over the years. And as David Weinberger notes, "twitter is an app that scales as a platform." Twitter's flexibility and agility have enabled user-generated innovation and robust third-party development; mired for so long in virtual walled gardens, users 35+ can uniquely appreciate the relative freedom of information circulation that Twitter enables (remember, one can grab an RSS feed of any public Twitter user without ever signing up!). Which leads us to point number two. . .

2. It's Distributed

Since it scales as a platform, Twitter realizes some of the potential of distributed knowledge work. I want to make a distinction here that this isn't necessarily the same type of distributed communication found on social networks like Facebook, where symmetry is enforced and past relationships--now distrubuted--are reinforced.

There is some sense of distributed communication with far-flung social ties on Twitter, to be sure, but the affordances for distributed knowledge work are also more easily leveraged (meaning that I can find and follow someone like Valdis Krebs, for example, without having an algorithm tell me that someone else I know is following him too). And since many of those 35+ are especially inclined to make use of such affordances--say, for professional reasons--Twitter easily enables distributed connections based upon self-identified shared interests, rather than a shared past or location.

Adina Levin argues that Twitter's dynamic asymmetry enables "discovery [of other, distributed users] with low social expense" ("How Asymmetry Scales"). It's easy to find and follow on Twitter, regardless of preexisting knowledge, relationship, or spatial proximity. As a distributed platform, then, the 35+ crowd can selectively receive information from others all over the world more easily than even an RSS feed.

3. It's Public

In a recent Microsoft Research talk, danah boyd argues that "social media continues to be age-graded. Right now, Twitter is all the rage, but are kids using it? For the most part, no" ("Social Media is Here to Stay ... Now What?"). She then explores why this is the case, and hits upon something that has been largely ignored: "the culture of Twitter is all about participation in a large public square ... many are leveraging Twitter to be a part of a broad dialogue. Teens are much more motivated to talk only with their friends..."

In my field, we approach this "participation in a large public square" from the perspective of civic rhetorics, of discursively contributing to culture at large. Those who are 35 and over are well-positioned and uniquely inclined to participate in civic rhetorics for personal, professional, and social reasons.

On a personal level, the 35+ user is likely to feel that age and experience lend a certain viability to their public voice. In professional terms, the 35+ user can leverage the distributed, public knowledge work noted above, while also deploying Twitter as a space to shape professional image. Finally, in social terms, a recognition of shared interests and a desire to shape shared futures allows the 35+ user to contribute publically to political discourse.

4. It's about Communication

In a certain sense, Twitter is really not a social network. The barriers to participation are tremendously low, and the primary--really the only--unit of social connection is discourse (isn't it nearly always so?). Twitter is about talk, and it's dead simple platform makes such talk travel and scale in ways that those 35+ are especially positioned to appreciate.

Generation X came of age with email, and likewise saw email's transition from novelty to nuisance. This morning when I checked my inbox, I found 40 things I didn't want; when I similarly checked my incoming tweets (on my mobie), I found 50 more things that I had explicitly asked for. And those tweets are incredible pivots for social interaction, for simple, agile, distributed, public connections with others that foster ineraction in ways that walled social networks and email simply cannot broach.


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