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Generation Y: We're just not that into Twitter

Young adults are heavily involved with social networking, so why haven't they made the move to Twitter? CNET intern Sharon Vaknin has a theory.

Given that Generation Y is often pegged as narcissistic, lazy, having high expectations, craving the limelight, and other such flattering characterizations, one might expect we'd be Twittering as if it were breathing. After all, Twitter is known as a place where people expose the most minute details of their lives--missing the bus, stubbing a toe, toasting an English muffin.

But a recent survey from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network shows that only 22 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds use Twitter, while 99 percent have profiles on social networks.

This may seem surprising on the face of it, but as a member of the Millennial Generation myself, I have some theories as to why it might be true. To see why we're not into Twitter, I'll have to revisit the start of the social-networking timeline: MySpace.

We Gen Yers spent hours on MySpace customizing our profiles and making them perfect representations of us (or rather, who we wanted to be). We couldn't wait for our friends to comment a new photo: "New pic, please comment!" MySpace made many of us feel popular, or even famous. I remember posting a new profile picture and refreshing the page in anticipation of responses.

Jean Twenge, psychologist and author of "The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement," calls this phenomenon "self-branding." People use MySpace as a portal for creating their own personal brand, Twenge says, complete with photos, custom banners, gossip, and fans (friends). One of the most successful self-branders is Tila Tequila, who tactfully used MySpace to achieve status as one of the users with the most friends on the site, and later parlayed that fame into a career as an MTV reality star.

My status is better than yours. Neener! Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Though we weren't international superstars, my friends and I were content on MySpace. But fast-forward a couple years to Facebook. It proved to be a difficult transition: where were all the flashing graphics, purple fonts, and exhaustive, multimedia-laden About Me sections? Why weren't the number of photo comments shown? Every user's profile looks the same, and at a glance, it seems self-branding is not easily attained.

The clean design of Facebook deemed decked-out profiles and artsy photos passe, but the site provided us with a new form of self-expression--"What are you doing?" status updates, which became the new platform for what Twenge describes as my generation's narcissistic need for attention.

What Facebook intends as a forum for sharing, Gen Yers see as a game of show-off. A quick look at my news feed and I see "Melissa" (name changed to protect the innocent) is having "one of the funnest nights of her life," and "beer and vodka make a interesting combination oww." 'Nuff said.

Brendon Nemeth, a 22-year-old San Franciscan whom I met this spring, says he updates his status to "keep family and friends informed on what's going on that's interesting in my life."

We no longer impress our friends with profiles that represent us through our creative flourishes, but rather with profiles that spell out what we're doing. (Out of fairness, our status updates don't always revolve around happenings at the local bar; plenty of us want to share our work promotions or volunteer activities, too.)

When Facebook implemented its news feed, users formed groups to oppose the feature. Now our status updates are lost in a flood of information, including quiz results, wall posts (not our own), and links. An update is posted, two minutes pass, and it's nowhere to be seen. Some of us even resort to reposting our updates just so they grab the attention they deserve.

On her blog, Twenge suggests that the kids of Gen Y aren't interested in their community, they are interested in themselves: "Younger generations are more individualistic and are higher in self-esteem and narcissism. There have been no changes in 'communal' traits."

I'd have to agree. We do anticipate seeing our friends' activities, but what we really look forward to is what they think of our activities--we want to be "cyberstalked," preferably in the form of replies to our self-published content. Nemeth says that "there are times when I update my status to induce a reaction." Reactions are what drive us to add photos, update our status, and write on our friends' walls.

So where does Twitter fit in?
Twitter's microblogging platform is what many Gen Y's may describe as "like Facebook, but just the status update." What is the point of that? We like to consolidate, so Nemeth explains that he doesn't "want to join another community, just tell people what (he's) doing." We have everything we need on Facebook.

Based on Twenge's theory, a good explanation of my generation's lag in joining the Twitter mania is that there isn't an obvious way to achieve a self-brand on Twitter.

My last update was seven days ago. Whoops. Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Participating on Twitter requires a fan base that knows why you are unique, special, and deserve attention. Fan base aside, the Web site's interface paves a short path for cyberstalking--there is nothing to find past a user's status.

For example, Sally went to a great party last weekend, but where are the photos? Who went with her? These features, which Gen Y's value so much, are missing.

As much as I like to know what my friends are doing, updates on Twitter happen so fast there really isn't time to react. More importantly, my friends don't have time to react to my activities.

Largely as a result of the digital communication tools on which we were raised, a big part of my generation wants to know what the cyberworld thinks of us, and we want its inhabitants to pay attention to us. How can they do this if they're following 300 other people?

For the Millennials to make the move, Twitter will have to find a way to integrate the self-branding features MySpace gave birth to and Facebook nurtured. Even if they're packaged in 140 characters or less.