Cultural anthropologists would call it participant-observation, but for Jeff and his team, being entrenched teen culture is necessary to earn the type of respect and trust that allows teens to reach out when they go through break-ups, run away from home, or face any number of difficult circumstances.
In an extensive interview, he shared experiences that highlight how life as a teen in today's culture differs from our experiences 20 years ago. "One night at an event I saw a group of four teenagers talking in a circle -- two football jocks and two less popular, socially awkward types. They were all talking about the awesome time they had the night before. Turns out they were talking about playing 'Call of Duty' on Xbox Live. They play together all the time, but they wouldn't be caught dead hanging out together at school.
"Another Xbox Live phenomenon occurred after a college volunteer got sick and had to take a semester off school. To pass the time during his recuperation, this person played 'Call of Duty' -- a lot! By the time he returned to Austin, he was ranked 12th on global leader boards. Once the connection was made between this volunteer and his online persona, "the guy was a celebrity. Word spread through the school and we had teenagers coming to events just to meet him."
But, it's not just Xbox Live and "Call of Duty." In fact, unless there is a good excuse (like you were laid up for a semester), being too extreme in gaming can be a kiss of death socially. It is just that hanging out, or even talking, has taken on different connotations from what I experienced as a teenager. "When someone says they were talking with so-and-so last night, it's more than likely they were texting, not actually talking."
In fact, digital communication has become so central to the lives of teens that some struggle to relate without a keyboard, "several times I've sat in Starbucks with a teenager who will barely speak. Then we go home and I start getting texts responding to the questions I asked face-to-face. These text conversations can go on for an hour or two."
Given the popularity of Facebook, the importance of social interaction, and a seeming reliance on digital communication, it would make sense that Facebook would be a place teens go to congregate online, right? Yeah, sorta. Facebook's most critical role is as a hub for coordinating other social activities. Teens may set a time to meet at Starbucks or they may direct attention to another online gathering spot.
Consider the case of YouTube celebrity Ray William Johnson, who posts two five-minute webisodes each week poking fun at the dumbest online videos he can find. While he has 187,000 Facebook fans, even those who haven't identified themselves as fans post links to his videos on their Facebook wall. In the 48 hours after posting this week's episode, "Evil Bunneh!!," 957,000 YouTube subscribers posted over 1,000 video responses and 75,000 comments. While much of this is crude banter that often results in comments being disabled after a few days, his YouTube channel serves as a virtual gathering point for teens and young adults.
In a recent survey, I asked teens (15-17 years old) to name the brand that did the best job communicating with them. Facebook ranked sixth on the list. Nike, with its focus on athletic accomplishment, ranked fourth. Amazon had more write-ins than any other brand, for males and females and across both U.S. and U.K. respondents.
Why? Because it is a socially driven shopping experience. Teens can read reviews, they can submit their own, and they can get recommendations based on what they like. If you're responsible for marketing a consumer product, I'd argue that managing your Amazon presence is more important that building out a Facebook strategy.
But if teens are drawn to Amazon for a social shopping experience, then shouldn't Beacon have been a huge success? It wasn't because it was creepy. The information being shared was out of its socially accepted context.
There is a function behind every online hangout. For Facebook, it's socializing. For Amazon, it's shopping. In fact, Facebook, Xbox, YouTube, Nike, Amazon, and other virtual meeting places each serve distinct functions within the digital realm, and teens are congregating around them all. * Name has been changed for purposes of this article.