Silicon Valley has no idea what teens want

When Yahoo was last at its peak—in January 2000, when its stock reached record highs and BusinessWeek called it “the No. 1 Internet portal”—the term “social media” barely existed. Silicon Valley was still reeling from the Dot-Com Crisis and Savage Garden was racing up the charts. When Yahoo was last the biggest player in tech, most of today’s teenagers were either in nappies or not quite born. 

This makes Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s mission to become the next big thing among young people all the more daunting. This week, the aging “Internet portal” (which is still the best way to describe it) unveiled Livetext, a mobile app for iOS and Android that allows users to send text messages while streaming video

The only problem is that Livetext does not allow sound, forcing users to communicate via text or use non-verbal cues to send their message. Livetext seems impractical—like being stuck in a silent movie—but Mayer and Yahoo hope it’s enough to bring the company into the Web 3.0 fold. However, it’s more likely a transparent attempt to capture the ever-profitable messaging market largely buoyed by teen use.

Livetext sounds like the ultimate example of board room spitballing. It combines the face-to-face communication of FaceTime with the ephemeral aspects of Snapchat, while attempting to inspire the quirky creative energy you find on Vine. Its soundless video gimmick is not so different than similar aspects of apps like Kik, Yik Yak, or Periscope—and not inherently a fatal flaw. In fact, Livetext’s very existence proves nothing anyone thinks is certain can be said about teens.

The volatility of teen interests is one reason Yahoo might be aiming at this young market. As youth marketing expert Mary Leigh Bliss told Inc., teens are “moving away from platforms where everyone’s in one place toward using several apps for several reasons.” Teenagers attach themselves to a wide array of social media—in order to never miss out. 

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, over 71 percent of teens use more than one social media service with 52 percent on Instagram, 41 percent on Snapchat, 33 percent on Twitter, and 24 percent on Vine. Pew’s limited choices also leave out messaging apps like Kik, WhatsApp, and Jott, all of which have growing popularity among teens and even middle schoolers.

It combines the face-to-face communication of FaceTime with the ephemeral aspects of Snapchat, while attempting to inspire the quirky creative energy you find on Vine. 

The catch-all approach of most teens means there could be room for Livetext, but it also means just about any idea might work just as well. Attempting to model the “less is more” standard of Twitter, Vine, and Snapchat—all of which restrict the length or lifespan of a video or message—Livetext’s soundless video seems as likely to be the next big thing among teens as any of those services were in their infancy. 

When it initially gained in popularity, Twitter was frequently the focus of criticism—as were the later Snapchat and Vine—for failing to provide a solid case for its use. Who, after all, wants to send only 140 characters in a message or six seconds of video, much less have no record of either?

As both Twitter, Vine, and Snapchat discovered, many, many teenagers do. Even at a time when Twitter is struggling to show consistent growth, teen usage continues to increase on both its main service and Vine. Snapchat has gone from a niche (and fairly creepy) sexting service to a mainstream app used by a majority of teenagers today. 

But failing to supply a usage case for Livetext because people also once suggested currently successful apps were pointless is a false argument. That logic assumes there is no rhyme or reason to why teens like what they like—and, therefore, anything shoved down their throat enough will eventually gain acceptance.

It’s similar to the logic used by Apple and its fanboys in retaliation to the widespread questioning of the Apple Watch. Much like with Livetext, Apple is largely operating under the assumption that people even want a smartwatch—which is far from a foregone conclusion—and frequently cites similar criticisms of the iPhone and iPad as proof that the Watch will one day, too, become the standard bearer for a new kind of technology.

If we follow this deluded thinking, Apple could have released an entirely useless product and defended it, just like Yahoo can say without justification or evidence that soundless video is what teenagers secretly want. It all works on the assumption that consumers will eventually find a way to enjoy just about any product, which is itself proof many Silicon Valley companies have no idea what they’re doing or who they’re even selling to.

That logic assumes there is no rhyme or reason to why teens like what they like—and, therefore, anything shoved down their throat enough will eventually gain acceptance.

The number of apps that have been criticized right before exploding in popularity is far smaller than the number of apps tech and media types have hailed only to never find a mainstream audience. Ello might be the most famous example of this—which, a year after being praised as a possible Facebook killer (by yours truly as well as many others), has failed to slay the beast or even gather a modest following.

Currently, the new popular kid on the street is Beme, an app that, like Livetext, rests on a seemingly meaningless gimmick: Beme lets you record video and take photos but does not let your preview them before uploading them to your feed. While Beme’s creator Casey Neistat says he wants to bring authenticity to a culture that thrives on artifice and performance, he’s missing the fact that social media shouldn’t just be honest—it should also be fun.

These criticisms shouldn’t be taken as an argument against the viability of Beme, Ello, or even Livetext. Any one of them could be picked and popularized up by the right social media starlet—or like Meerkat, they could become the darling of the tech journalists that build these narratives to begin with. While Livetext has the potential to become a massive, billion-dollar success, the messy ideology of Yahoo’s app wreaks of a corporate culture that’s still shooting in the dark. 

While one could blame Yahoo for simply being out-of-date, the plain truth is that even those who hit it big have no idea why.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via ricky_1146/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.