Teens: It's So Hard To Relate

Your teen consumers have now become your competition

Let's begin by admitting that grown-ups have always been terrified by teenagers -- their noise and warp-drive energy, their hyperactive libidos. There are fingerprints all over cultural history. Think of movies, from The Warriors to Blackboard Jungle. Think of the uproar over flappers in the '20s. Think of Romeo and Juliet.

This fear easily transposes to media realms. Yesterday's version was that Grand Theft Auto and rap lyrics would turn teens into violent, sex-crazed thugs. The newish, slightly-higher-brow version is this: Teens are too good at absorbing new technologies, too skilled in processing multidimensional streams of information. Their brains are getting too big. Soon, they'll be too far ahead of us overwhelmed grown-ups. (This, presumably, is progress.)

But if you work in media and seek realistic grounds for your next panic attack, consider this. Today's teens are the first for whom self-created content competes with teen-aimed media like videogames. There are now widespread means with which they can create and share their stuff, be they blogs, or the music recording software and design tools found on many computers, or sites like myspace.com (NWS ). Established media has to grapple with the novel fact that its next generation of consumers is also competition.

"The generation under 25 is the first to grow up watching its entire life on video," says Aaron Cohen, CEO of Bolt Media. Bolt runs teen and twentysomething site bolt.com, on which self-created video documenting, say, tongue-piercings, is a major draw. (This generation also grew up with "mash-ups," in which parts of different songs are digitally reconstituted into new ones, and thus expects content to be played with as much as absorbed.) "As you grow up watching your life, you want to be [seen]," says Cohen. Not everyone wants an American Idol-size audience, so that show hasn't collapsed from the weight of millions of auditioners. "But everyone does want an audience," he says. Keeping it small is easy: Users can ensure that their videos posted on bolt.com are viewed only by their closest online buddies.

Hints of today's trends surfaced in past eras. A 'zine revolution of self-published periodicals exploded in the 1980s and '90s, particularly among the younger set. In that era, the plugged-in could create an alternate mediasphere from these 'zines and, say, small-label punk-inflected bands. But finding what you needed to build your own media life took tenacity. You had to know people who knew people. You had to dig through stacks of records. You had to know when you could hear underground bands on which college radio station. Creating, and sharing, mediaspheres is easier now. Sarah Chubb, president of Condé Nast Publications' CondéNet likens social network sites to teens' fervently decorated rooms and notebooks, and says, "in the olden days, [friends] saw the room or the notebook. Now they can see it, comment, and change it."

This is why executives at places like Condé Nast, which publishes Teen Vogue, spend a lot of time thinking about new ways to reach teens. CondéNet is readying a teen site, on which Chubb is mum. America Online (TWX ), as previously reported here, will launch a suite of tools and services to enable a MySpace-ization of its wildly popular AOL Instant Messenger service.

These efforts are worth watching, but they're no slam-dunk for teens whose allegiance to established media brands is tenuous. "I'd much rather use [social networking site] myyearbook.com," says one 17-year-old. "It's much more fun than watching TV. You can do a lot more." This teen is David Cook, and he's kind of biased because one year ago he, his younger sister, and older brother started myyearbook.com. Cook, who lives outside Princeton, N.J., makes frequent fervent declarations about how badly he wants to defeat MySpace. He hasn't yet. But myyearbook.com, which launched last May, attracted 2.3 million unique visitors last month, up from 1.7 million in November. Not only can teens now compete when it comes to making content, they can compete for the business as well. Man. Grown-ups should be terrified.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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