The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter is looking for younger users. It’s turning to the tech world’s teen savant to help find them.

As TikTok maintains its grasp as the platform of choice for teenagers, Twitter is trying find a way to make inroads with younger users. (John Raoux/AP)

When Joss Robinson, 18, a freshman at the University of Connecticut, wants to catch up on what his friends are talking about, he often turns to Twitter. “It’s a cool way to see what people are thinking,” he said. “Going on other forms of social media is a lot of work. Twitter, it’s not.” He likes how you don’t have to plug in headphones to watch video content or scroll through shopping ads just to see a few photos of friends.

Robinson is exactly the type of user Twitter is moving aggressively to court. Teenagers have flocked to TikTok in recent years, abandoning apps like Facebook and Instagram. Twitter is stuck somewhere in the middle. Despite its large cultural relevance, Twitter has repeatedly failed to gain mass adoption, and its forays into new formats like short-form video and live-streaming have flopped. But cultivating a young, hyper-engaged user base could be a key step toward becoming a platform as influential as its power users believe it to be.

To lead these efforts, Twitter has tapped Michael Sayman. Sayman is known as a prodigy in Silicon Valley when it comes to building products for young people. He dropped out of high school at age 17 after being recruited by Mark Zuckerberg to work for Facebook. At Facebook, he helped the platform build out and launch products like Instagram Stories and Facebook Groups, features primarily directed at college students. In 2017, Sayman left Facebook for Google, where he once again was tapped with helping a tech giant grow and retain young users. He worked on YouTube Shorts, a TikTok-like format within YouTube, and other projects before joining Roblox in 2020 to help the gaming platform incorporate more social functionality.

At Twitter, Sayman will be working on “0-1,” a new group focused on building experimental features within the company. “Twitter is a very different product for young adults, and most people are unaware of that,” he told The Washington Post. While media and politics people generally use the app for news, younger users, Sayman says, are more likely to turn to it as a place to express opinions or drive conversation on issues. “People in the media look at Twitter as an important news platform,” he says. “That is not how young adults use Twitter at all. Their perception of Twitter is much more varied, encompassing news for some, but not for many others.”

When it comes to cornering the young market, TikTok is Twitter’s primary competition. The short-form video platform has exploded in popularity since launching in the United States in 2018 and has evolved from an app full of dance content and lip-sync videos to a robust social network that young people turn to when they want to comment on big issues and news events.

Twitter does play a key role in fan communities and pop culture, however. Many of Twitter’s youngest users run stan accounts (dedicated to certain celebrities or fandoms — such as Zendaya Updates, which tweets a steady stream of news about the “Euphoria” star), but most of those profiles remain within their niche, and users age out of the communities.

Haley Johnson, 20, downloaded Twitter in high school to participate in the One Direction fandom but has found the app useful as a college student keeping up with what’s happening on campus. Compared to the lightning speed of content and discourse on TikTok, however, Twitter can still feel a little behind, Johnson said. “I definitely feel like Twitter is older and stuff on there moves a little slower,” she said.

While other apps have copied TikTok’s functionality to compete with the platform, Sayman says Twitter’s differences could be to its advantage. For instance, there’s no pressure to perform for the camera on Twitter or have your ideas questioned by people because of the nature of your appearance.

“The value I’ve seen in Twitter is that there are a lot of young people who use it that feel liberated by the lack of pressure to be super perfect, or have the perfect appearance,” he said. Sayman says that for every teenager posting on TikTok, there are countless more who want to express themselves but haven’t found the right format. “There’s always the group of kids that are cool and can go on TikTok and do a video and get a whole bunch of likes,” he said. “But there are so many other kids out there who feel shy or don’t want to deal with the pressure of showing themselves and having to think about what people think of their braces when they want to talk about what’s going on in the world.”

And to find out what’s happening in the world, young people prefer to hear from people, not brands, including news brands. “One thing that turned me off from Twitter,” said Yousra Lakhani, an 18-year-old high school student in Toronto: “I found the brands I follow are more prominent in the news feed. The real people I follow get lost.”

To woo more of the content creators that appeal to young people, Twitter has also started beefing up its offerings for influencers. In September, the app introduced Super Follows, which allow creators to earn money through monthly subscription revenue. In May, Twitter rolled out Tip Jar, which allows fans of creators to send monetary gifts through a button on their profiles. The company has also aggressively onboarded top TikTokers to the platform and begun featuring top TikTok stars in ads for Twitter. In October, Twitter even set up its own TikTok account to promote itself organically within the app.

And while TikTok is rendering platforms like Facebook and Instagram increasingly uncool, Sayman said Twitter’s biggest advantage is that it’s been included in that conversation. Facebook, meanwhile, predicts teen usage of its app will drop by 45 percent over the next two years, adding to a 13 percent drop since 2019, according to data obtained by the Verge. “Twitter kind of feels like the Tumblr of this generation; it doesn’t seem to be hurt by TikTok’s growth in the same way.”

Sayman said that, at its core, “regardless of if you’re young or old, Twitter is a place for you to share how you feel about things.” And he says the app is well positioned as media becomes more personality driven. He also hopes to usher the platform into new, experimental formats.

As Twitter expands beyond text, Shaina Zafar, chief marketing officer at JUV Consulting, a Gen Z marketing consultancy, said the platform needs to be careful not to alienate young users. She expressed skepticism about Twitter’s foray into real-time audio. “Things like Twitter spaces aren’t the right way to engage with young audiences because we feel so much fatigue digitally since covid,” she said.

But Sayman said it was a good sign that the company was willing to move fast and experiment, and to accept when a feature is a flop. Fleets, for instance, Twitter’s Instagram Stories clone, shut down last year after just nine months, citing low usage.

“I think Twitter has a huge opportunity right now,” Sayman said. “Young people want a service where they can share their thoughts without the pressure of having an algorithm factor their physical appearance into the popularity of their content.”

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