Wall Street Journal tech columnist Farhad Manjoo recently took aim at Snapchat as a way of asking the question of whether youth are good predictors of tech trends. Here's the short answer, according to Manjoo: no. He writes that there is a "widely shared cultural belief... that young people are on the technological vanguard, that they somehow have got an inside scoop on what's next."
He then continues to say that "kids are often wrong" and that "there is little evidence to support the idea that the youth have any closer insight on the future than the rest of us do." In staking out a position that might be technically correct, though, Manjoo misses the nuances of the situation--and also backs up his arguments with some incorrect assertions.
A Demographic Too Significant to Ignore
Let's start with some basic statistics. According to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, there were roughly 62 million people in the category of 10- through 24-years-old in 2011. That is a reasonably close match to what you could call the youth market, with 25 years being the cut-off that Manjoo used.
That is about 20 percent of the population--a significant portion. But the importance of the youth market is more than its numbers, which, although sizeable, could not by themselves fuel the interest in high tech and the surrounding economic activity.
It's not that young people are particularly prescient about what will ultimately win in the marketplace. Rather, we have a culture that is obsessed with youth. Has been for many years. Older adults eventually adopt many of the fashions and trends of youth, and young people eventually flee from those very practices to avoid sounding like mom and dad.
Manjoo gives a nod to Facebook as a technology first heavily adapted by people under 25 but then goes on to say that "the vast majority of your most-used things weren't initially popular among teens." He includes the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Google search engine, YouTube, Twitter, Gmail, Google Maps, Pinterest, LinkedIn, the Kindle, blogs, and personal computers.
Time to take a step back. Facebook was initially populated by younger people because they were the only ones allowed to use it. Before Facebook, many of these people used MySpace, which eventually attracted adults. If it hadn't been for the youth-centric aspect of Facebook, that company might never have seen the adoption by older people, simply because they wouldn't have been driven in part by curiosity about what their kids were doing.
And although I would agree with Manjoo about some of the technologies initially driven by adults--LinkedIn, Kindles, and Pinterest are good examples--he's simply wrong about the popularity of some of these others among youth.
Personal computers? Many of the early experimenters and proponents were young people. Steve Wozniak was 26 when he designed the Apple I and Jobs was 21. Teens were heavily enamored of the iPhone before the product even shipped and would have preferred one to a new car. Teens were also heavy early adopters for YouTube, in part because it was the original way to share videos when the kids were still using MySpace.
The point is not that youth is a perfect predictor of technical trends, but that older people quite often follow what youth do. It's something that marketers in a range of industries have understood for a long time, and it would be counterproductive to suddenly forget.