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What You Need To Know About Millennials And Social Media

Katie Swalm Posted by Katie Swalm, Editorial and Digital Intern.

Katie is the Editorial and Digital intern at Berrett-Koehler, a third year student at Westmont College, and a habitual overcommitter. She currently lives and writes in San Francisco.

What You Need To Know About Millennials And Social Media

I've noticed that a question I've heard quite a few times now from different sources is - "What do you kids do on those phones anyways?" And since I am landed squarely in the Millennial generation - born in 1995, and most generational scholarship defines the borders from about 1982-2004 - and I professionally run the social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram) for my college "study away" program, I believe I have a bit of insight into how myself and peers behave on each site, and the answer to this question. 

My generation appreciates a few basic tenants on social media: authenticity, humor, justice, and above all, not being sold something.

Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, and there are people who don't care about any one of these. But if you want to have a good following of Millennials, this is a good place to start. 


The culture-defining hashtag and 140 word count has been the source of hundreds of late-night television skits, news articles, and anyone hoping to make a culturally relevant joke. But who actually uses Twitter? As of January 2014, only 23% of online adults (18+) use Twitter. In my experience, it is very useful for companies to interact with each other; for those who are extraverted and like lots of stimulation and interaction; and a way to follow what your favorite celebrity is doing at that moment. Most either love Twitter or never use Twitter, as opposed to other sites where users will "occasionally frequent," like Facebook. 

One interesting aspect of Twitter is it breaks down the barriers between the famous and the obscure. Anyone can Tweet at a celebrity, and they will probably see it, and maybe even respond. We have TV shows dedicated to reading mean Tweets out loud to humanize these celebrities, and the message that they reinforce is "Celebrities Are People Too". 

But Twitter has a purpose outside of these jokes - many social change movements in the US and the rest of the world gain traction and exposure through the site. For example, #BlackLivesMatter, the group that combats police brutality and racism in the United States, started on Twitter. This shows that people in my generation, as in previous generations, are diverse in their interests and passionate about what they believe in, and they are committed to social change and activism.


The "secret" but exceedingly popular blog site has taken off in recent years and actually creates much of internet culture. Ever heard of a meme? They were popularized by Tumblr. Tumblr is a place for photosharing (called "reblogging") and sharing other forms of content, like video, text, and story format. It has almost no senior following behind it, but many teenagers and twenty-somethings use it religiously.

The way to get involved on Tumblr is to follow popular users and learn about the inside jokes on the site, and also to follow your own interests and those who share them. Tumblr users are resistant to outside influence such as marketing and advertisements, but many are very passionate about social justice, which facilitates a lot of conversations about race, class, and gender. And it might even be changing the face of activism, which again - Millennials are into that. 


This social media outlet has probably seen the most dramatic rise and then fall in terms of influence. But even though our emotional attachment to Facebook has waned, it is still the number one way to connect with someone, simply because everyone has a Facebook. As another Millennial writer on the same topic has pointed out, Facebook is still relevant for "the ease and the powerful search functionality that gives you results of people who you actually have a chance of knowing."  It is the starting point for all other social media, because it does the "social" part so well. 


I would say, with a little hesitation, that Instagram is the favorite social media site among my peer group. Its culture has evolved from "hipsters taking bad pictures of their food" into real communities being formed through "meet ups" where different IG ers all go to a set location and then take a lot of pictures. This fosters creativity and new ideas, and is just fun to look at. Instagram culture is largely positive, and it can help you to see the world in a more creative way, but many people (see: Socality Barbie) have pointed out the hypocrisy in trying to make your life look better than everyone else's, which is a common critique of the platform.


One newer form of social media has opted to take away all the likes and comments of the other sites and simply share the content with your friends. Snapchat lets you send a picture or video to a friend, which only appears for no more than 10 seconds, and then it disappears forever.

At its launch, everyone pointed out the dubious uses that this media could take - but that hasn't stopped my peer group from using it frequently. In contrast with Instagram, it can show the moments of your life that aren't so glamorous - though only to the people you choose. And then once it's gone, it's gone forever (or is it?)

Recently, Snapchat has gone bigger and more communal by creating location filters that use your phone's GPS to detect your location, then shows you a pre-made filter of that place that you can put over your pictures. Whole cities can post to this geo-tag and thus create a wider sense of community and place identity. 

These are the main outlets that we spend our time on. Keep in mind that there are Millennials who don't have access to this technology, or feel that it is a waste of time, or use a myriad of other platforms that we have to choose from.

But if you want to have influence on these sites, there is a certain amount of agenda that you must sacrifice in order to build trust that you are not there to market something. You must bring something else to the table - whether that be inspiring, thought-provoking, humorous, or just interesting. 

For further reading, check out this article about a sociological and inclusive perspective on Millennial social media use!