Growing up mobile: app dings and pings become soundtrack of millennial youth

Rather than objecting to steady feeds of alerts, a new generation is using them as a measure of self-esteem

Over the past decade, advertisers have spent untold millions trying to turn Talia Kocar and her peers in the millennial generation into loyal customers. But on a recent afternoon in a kind of consumer torch-passing, Kocar (25) watched a focus group of teenagers drink free Snapple and suck Doritos powder off their thumbs while answering questions about their smartphones.

Kocar works on Wishbone, a social networking application full of breezy polls about pop culture, prom dresses and other fixtures of teenage life. Users – most of them girls – post side-by-side pictures that compare rappers (Lil Wayne or Tyga?), celebrities (Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé?) and the like.

Wishbone users achieve status by amassing friends who vote with a thumb tap. There is a bonus, however, which is that, twice a day, Kocar and her team send a "Daily Dozen" of the best and most popular polls to every Wishbone user. This is somewhat like being named "funniest" or "most clever" in a yearbook: featured polls are guaranteed a lot of votes, and votes, similar to likes on Facebook, are the coin of Wishbone's realm.

Kocar said her first attempts at market research began with trips to Starbucks stores and nail salons, where she would find Wishbone users and ask them what they did and did not like about the app. She got lots of information but wanted more. Hence, the focus group.


Teenagers being teenagers, the room was full of angst and contradictions. They love Instagram, the photo-sharing app, but are terrified their posts will be ignored or mocked. They feel less pressure on Snapchat, the disappearing-message service, but say Snapchat can be annoying because disappearing messages make it hard to follow a continuing conversation. They do not like advertisements but also do not like to pay for things.

Constant use

At one point a questioner asked the group when they were least likely to be online. “When I’m in the shower,” a girl responded.

Nobody laughed, because it was barely an exaggeration. About three-quarters of US teenagers have access to a mobile phone, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre. Most go online daily, and about a quarter of them use the Internet “almost constantly”.

Those numbers have created a growing advertising market and fortunes for apps such as Snapchat and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. This year companies are projected to spend $30 billion on in-app advertising in the US, roughly double what they spent in 2014, according to eMarketer, a research company.

But even though these services all have the same core functions – find friends, post pictures, send messages – teenagers juggle them constantly, developing arcane customs for what to post where, and ditching one app for another the moment it becomes uncool.

That churn leaves an opening for upstarts such as Wishbone, which is about a year old and has about three million monthly users. Since July it has ranked among the top 30 most-downloaded social media apps in Apple’s App Store, according to App Annie, a data and analytics company. But staying there will be tough. Mobile apps are a hit or miss business in which a handful of top players get most users and money.

Hoping to get their app in that elite few, people such as Kocar pore through data and turn to focus groups for insight on how to get new users to sign up and old users to stay. Their efforts are a window into how teenage lives are documented on mobile screens.

"They have immediate social validation or lack of validation at the touch of a button," said Michael Jones, chief executive of Science Inc which owns Wishbone. "So if you thought that the immediate gratification generation was two generations ago, you haven't even seen what immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with a teen on a phone."

A daily rotation of apps

One hot afternoon last summer,

Leila Khan


Lucy Nemerov

cruised their local mall, scoring free samples and dropping into shores to look at clothes but not buy. Lucy is an avid Wishbone user, but the app is just one among several she and her friends rotate through each day.

To manage their identities in and obligations to this world in their pockets, they adhere to rules absorbed and adopted by their peers. For instance, that afternoon, since nothing particularly special happened, Lucy posted a few videos to Snapchat – including a clip of me interviewing her – but nothing on Instagram.

Why the distinction? Because Instagram is special, Leila explained. On Snapchat, where messages disappear, you can be less selective because there is a lower bar for quality. On Instagram, you have to be careful not to clog your friends’ feeds with a barrage of low-quality pictures that might annoy them.

Some of Leila’s rules for Instagram include never posting more than one photo a week, avoiding photo filters (too fake) and hashtags (too desperate). She tries to find a timely occasion to post – such as National Watermelon Day – and is so concerned about having the right caption that she keeps a running list of ideas on her iPhone. Neither girl had any such rules for Facebook, because they hardly use it.

App makers fear this kind of juggling the way TV networks fear DVRs. Each time someone leaves one app for another, there is a chance that user will never come back. And since apps make money only when users are plugged in and absorbing ads, the number of monthly users is less important than how many users they get each day – and how long they stay.

Social media apps and messaging services – Wishbone included – tend to get an outsize portion of ad revenue from a handful of mobile game-makers and other app download ads. But Wishbone is making the not-terribly-crazy bet that as people spend more time with their phones and advertisers become comfortable with the medium, more brands and money will follow.

For now, big advertisers remain focused on the millennial generation, who, at 18-35, are old enough to buy cars, homes and other big-ticket items. But an early wave is starting to think about the next group, said Erna Alfred Liousas, an analyst at Forrester Research, who said the firm had a number of financial services and media companies ask for studies on the under-17 group.

As with coffee and newspapers, the key to a successful app is to make it a daily habit. Which is why, in early September, Jones of Science Inc sat in a cinder block room staring at a computer screen full of data. He was with Benoit Vatere, head of Science's mobile group, and Peter Pham, the company's chief business officer, discussing the best time to send push notifications alerting Wishbone users to new polls.

Push notifications – those reminders that make your phone light up and ding – are the infantry of app warfare, cracking the attention span to remind users someone might be talking about them. All summer Wishbone had been sending out alerts four times a day, but the three men were thinking about adding more and, now that students were back in class, trying to recalibrate around the school day.

“Can we have a friends feed at noon?” Jones asked Vatere. “It would be great to do ‘Your friends have updated.’”

“And you talk about it while you’re at school,” Pham added.

Every generation has its thing, and the last two have been marked by digital technology. One of the big dividing lines between Generation X and millennials was that millennials grew up with the internet. A big difference between millennials and the next group – the postmillennials – has been smartphones.

Economic and cultural changes have an even larger influence, argues Neil Howe, an author and historian credited with coining the term "millennial generation". The Great Recession and its aftermath are likely to make the postmillennial generation more risk-averse, he said. At the same time, today's kids have absorbed parental advice about online safety and bullying.

“There’s a whole new curriculum being pushed by Gen X parents, and one thing it emphasises above all is emotional intelligence and being very sensitive to the needs of others,” Howe said.

In surveys, his consulting company, LifeCourse Associates, has found that teenagers are extremely anxious about being criticised on social media and are more conscious than their parents of when an app makes them feel bad – or at least aren’t bashful about saying so.

During the recent focus group, one girl said she showed Instagram ideas to at least three people before posting. Another said she deleted any post that did not garner enough likes. “I post and I just delete, because I don’t want to have, like, never mind,” she said, too ashamed to announce the precise number of likes out loud.

Wishbone sees those anxieties as an opportunity. The app doesn’t ask users to take pictures in which they look “sooo beautiful!!!!” nor does it require having parents who vacation in Instagram-perfect locales. Users just make funny polls to talk about celebrities, make-up and bands. It is about your tastes, not your identity.

Rajada Victor, a 14 year old who lives in Los Angeles, was seated near the girl who was ashamed of her paltry likes. In a follow-up interview, she said she had grown exhausted by the frenzy for online status but was a regular on Wishbone, which she checks all the time: in class, while walking to school, at weekends.

“I like the fact that you don’t have to look a certain type of way to post,” she said. “People don’t comment rudely or anything – you’re just comparing stuff.”

Vatere can see this in the data: Wishbone users frequently describe themselves by their interests – they might like Taylor Swift, for instance – but rarely post personal photos. The app also employs an "everyone gets a trophy" philosophy by having Kocar and her editorial team choose many different polls, not just the most popular ones, for the coveted Daily Dozen of posts that all Wishbone users vote on.

"You want to create an environment where it doesn't feel like only 1 per cent of the people win," said Eric Kuhn, Science's head of product. "And we've heard that with other platforms, like as soon as you're clearly not in that top 1 per cent, you don't want to use the app anymore."

Some facts and a hunch

Jones, a 40-year-old Gen Xer, has tracked youth culture since the grunge 1990s, when he started a magazine called


sophomore. This was back when teenagers went to bookstores in search of small-circulation “zines”.

He spent the next two decades tracking the migration of media to the web, to social platforms to mobile phones. Elixir became a website and, as Jones got more interested in the web than publishing, he started a software company called Userplane that was bought by AOL.

Later Jones became an executive at Myspace, where his job was to try to blunt the ascendance of a new competitor called Facebook. This did not go well.

He founded Science four years ago with Pham. He calls it a “start-up studio” that helps entrepreneurs turn their ideas into businesses. Wishbone is part of Science’s mobile group – which includes several other apps – but Jones is so enamored with social media that he decided to run the group and Wishbone himself. The Science offices are just a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica and have requisite start-up touches like exposed ceilings, copious whiteboards and employees who toil quietly while wearing Beats headphones.

Science has raised about $40 million in venture capital, most of it from Hearst Ventures. After the Myspace debacle, Jones said, he initially steered clear of social media and focused on building online commerce businesses such as Dollar Shave Club, a razor subscription service, and DogVacay, a dog-boarding version of Airbnb, the online home-rental service.

“Coming out of Myspace I was like, ahhh, this is so hard – social ads is tough,” he said. “Let’s just take a pause.”

As social media moved to mobile phones, Jones figured there would be a chance to get back in.

Wishbone came out of a few facts and a hunch. The facts are that people spend several hours a day on their phones and that teenagers favour apps in which everyone gets to create content and be part of the show.

The hunch was that a polling app would do well. Jones knew from his AOL days that polling was among the most addictive of online features. And since successful mobile apps reward repetitive behaviour, he figured polling would translate well to smartphones.

Apps per month

If Wishbone were almost anything besides an app, three million users would be a huge success. But apps are a brutal business, where a few gigantic hits like Facebook and


make most of the money. US smartphone owners use about 27 apps per month but spend about 80 per cent of their time in five, according to a recent study by Activate, a consulting firm.

And even the winners can’t rest for long. Facebook, the biggest social network, has tried to defend its top position by buying or trying to buy rival apps as they break through. Facebook tried to buy Snapchat but was spurned.

Four years ago, the company spent $1 billion to buy Instagram, which at the time had a dozen employees and about 30 million monthly users. Today Instagram has more than 400 million, about a quarter of Facebook’s users.

Wishbone is a long way from that top tier, which is why employees show up to meetings with laptops full of statistics about what teenagers are doing. And it is why they spend time running focus groups.

They had been limiting the number of daily alerts on the assumption that Wishbone users would be annoyed if they were interrupted by too many pings and dings. And, as one might expect when three fathers make an assumption about teenage girls, they could not have been more wrong.

“We talked to them and they’d be like, ‘Why am I not getting notified when people vote on my stuff?’” Jones said. “And we’d be like, ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to do that ‘cause we might send you, like, 50 notifications that you got 50 of your friends to vote on your card.’ They’re like, ‘But that’s what I want.’”

“In fact,” Jones said, “they would even kind of subtly infer that if they didn’t get at least 50, it was kind of like a bad day.”

The same way Gen X measured its worth in answering-machine messages, the mobile-minded teenager sees each like and mention as reassurance of an active social life. And when your phone is the default security blanket for enduring the awkwardness of walking a high school hallway, it feels nice to have a bunch of digital hellos ready with a swipe.

So just before Thanksgiving weekend, Wishbone opened the fire hose, sending out notifications for everything – every vote, every mention, everything that has to do with a user on the app. A week later they found several key metrics, like voting, had almost doubled.– (New York Times News Service)