How to Explain Social Networks to Non-Users (Without Making Them Feel Stupid)

Moms are being unfairly maligned online. Posts promising to explain tech tools and trends are now too often framed as, “How would you explain this to your mom.” Examples include the widely circulated “Mom This is How Twitter Works,” to The New York Times’ recent post “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.” The “mom” character in these pieces is a demographic stand-in for unsophisticated users, but this ignores the reality of women and technology.

In truth, women, moms included, use every social media channel except LinkedIn more than men. Pew found that 78 percent of online U.S. adult females use Facebook, while only 69 percent of men do; 54 percent of women are on Tumblr compared to only 46 percent of men, and 20 percent of women are on Instagram, while 15 percent of men are. Your mom may not need you to explain Twitter either, since 18 percent of women use it, 1 per cent more than men. I would also argue — and I have — that moms use certain social networks in a better way than teenagers or young adults.

Apart from being statistically incorrect, it’s sexist to equate motherhood with a lack of technological know-how. Or at least ageist, as Slate argued in a post responding to the Times’ Bitcoin post. We know that anyone can be a sophisticated social media user, and that the inverse is true as well: anyone, regardless of age or gender, could need a little help.

At their most basic level, most of these posts are simply trying to explain social media and tech trends to non-users. There’s a way to do that without being condescending and without making a newbie feel stupid. Here’s how:

Address What Confused You

I remember when I first started on Facebook, if someone posted to my wall I would respond on their wall. It might seem stupid now, but the idea of carrying on a conversation in the comments wasn’t self-evident.

The first time you used Facebook, you probably had no idea what to make of it either. The same can be said of Twitter, Instagram and pretty much every social network.

We were all new users once. Try and remember what specifically confused you about a social network, and address that when explaining it to a non-user. If the first time you used Twitter you had no trouble understanding how to post a Tweet, maybe that process is intuitive. Focus your attention on things that aren’t so clear.

Avoid The Little Things

Facebook is a social network that allows you to share content with friends, and see the content that they share. But it’s also a place to donate to charities, sell your stuff, play games, watch videos, join groups, plan events, and much, much more. So how do you explain the vast array of functionalities to a non-user? You don’t.

If you’re explaining a social network to a non-user, avoid all the little intricacies that come along with it. Your first day on Facebook probably wasn’t spent creating an event or promoting a post with Facebook ads. Teach them the basics, enough to get them started, and allow them to discover the extra functionality on their own.

Avoid Unhelpful Comparisons

Twitter is like texting, but to the whole world. Pinterest is like a million scrapbooks, all on one website. Do these pithy descriptions sound helpful? If so, you’re not thinking like a new user.

Just because someone knows how to text, doesn’t mean they know how to Tweet. And just because they have a scrapbook, doesn’t mean they can sign up for Pinterest and start pinning. Comparisons can be a valuable teaching tool, but they often understate the complexity of social networks.

The fact is, aside from other social networks, almost nothing that came before social networks really compares to social networks. Use comparisons sparingly, and only when you’re sure they’ll act as a valuable reference point for the other person.

Stick to What It Is, Does, And Looks Like

The longer it takes you to explain a social network, the more likely you are to lose the person you’re explaining it to. Keeping things short is absolutely essential.

If you’re looking for a guideline, try to keep it under five sentences. The first sentence should be “What It Is.” The second sentence should cover “What It Does.” Finally, you should mention “What It Looks Like” so they’re not caught off guard when they first log on.

Applied to Instagram, this system would look something like this:

Instagram is a smartphone social networking app focused on photos. The app allows you to edit and add filters to your photos, share them with your friends, and see photos your friends have shared. When you log on, you’ll see a stream of your friends’ photos. Clicking the small camera button at the bottom of the screen will take you to the photo editing and sharing functionality.

Ultimately, the best way to learn about social networks is to use them. If you can, sit down with the non-user as they try the network for the first time. Let them ask the questions.

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