Who’s Too Young for an App? Musical.ly Tests the Limits
In the folklore of the startup world, few figures loom larger than the teenager. Teenagers see the future, set trends and spend money, or compel parents to spend it for them. Their behavior has become an obsession for entrepreneurs.
This would seem to bode well for Musical.ly, an app that is young in every sense of the word. The Shanghai-based company founded in 2014 claims more than 100 million users, most of whom, the company says, are in the 13-20 age bracket. In August, the company teamed up with MTV for a promotion tied to the Video Music Awards.
对应用程序妈妈咪呀(Musical.ly)来说，这似乎是个好兆头。从各种角度讲，它都是一个年轻的应用。这家上海公司创立于2014年，号称拥有逾1亿用户。该公司称，他们大多在13岁至20岁这个年龄段。今年8月，该公司与MTV合作，与音乐录影带大奖(Video Music Awards)捆绑推广。
What is striking about the app, though, is how many of its users appear to be even younger than that. Musical.ly has not just found the coveted teenage audience — it may have gone lower. And it points to a growing tension between younger users, technology companies, and the norms and laws that regulate them both.
The app encourages a youthful audience in subtle and obvious ways. It lets users create short videos in which they can lip-sync, dance or goof around to popular songs, movie scenes and other audio sources, and then post the videos to an Instagram-style feed.
Its featured feed includes stars popular with young listeners, including Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, as well as lesser-known talent and social media personalities who have crossed over from services like Vine. And its tool for posting videos includes an entire category for songs from Disney films and TV shows.
它以年轻听众喜欢的巨星，比如爱莉安娜·格兰德(Ariana Grande)和塞琳娜·戈麦斯(Selena Gomez)，以及一些从Vine等网站转过来的不太出名的明星和网红发布的视频为号召。其发布视频的工具包括从迪士尼电影歌曲到电视节目等各种分类。
The app does not collect or show the age of its users, but some of its top-ranked users, whose posts routinely collect millions of likes, called hearts, appear from their videos and profile photos to be in grade school. Until recently, the app had a feature that suggested users to follow based on their location. In New York, that feature revealed a list composed largely not just of teenagers, but of children.
“This is no question the youngest social network we’ve ever seen,” said Gary Vaynerchuk, chief executive of VaynerMedia, an advertising agency that focuses on social media. Vaynerchuk, who has helped clients produce campaigns for the platform, said he first spotted the app in the iTunes App Store charts, and through Musical.ly videos reposted to other services like Instagram.
“这无疑是我们见过的最年轻的社交网络，”专攻社交媒体的广告公司VaynerMedia的首席执行官加里·维纳查克(Gary Vaynerchuk)说。维纳查克帮助客户为该平台制作广告。他说，他最初是通过iTunes的App Store列表以及转发到Instagram等网站上的妈妈咪呀视频注意到这个应用的。
“I would say that Snapchat and Instagram, they skew a little bit young,” he said. But with Musical.ly, “you’re talking about first, second, third grade.”
This puts Musical.ly in a strange position. Websites and online service operators that target users under 13 must meet federal requirements regarding the collection and sharing of personal information, which is defined broadly to include names, photos or videos, or persistent identifiers, such as usernames. The restrictions are part of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, often called COPPA, enacted by the Federal Trade Commission.
这将妈妈咪呀置于一个奇怪的位置。以13岁以下的儿童为目标用户的网站或在线服务运营商必须满足联邦政府关于收集和分享个人信息的要求，包括名字、照片、视频或长期身份，比如用户名。这些限制是联邦贸易委员会(Federal Trade Commission)制订的儿童网络隐私保护规定（Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule，通常被称为COPPA）的一部分。
Services that are more openly marketed toward children often stringently adhere to COPPA’s privacy rules. Vine Kids, for example, is a limited and largely passive service with no usernames or video posting capabilities; similarly, YouTube Kids is essentially an app full of streaming children’s programming, walled off from the rest of YouTube’s ecosystem. In contrast, Musical.ly, like Snapchat or Instagram, is a full-functioning social network, popular with young people but not openly marketed to them.
更公开地向儿童进行推广的服务商往往会严格遵守COPPA的隐私规定。比如，Vine Kids是一个有限的、很大程度上非常被动的应用，它没有用户名或视频发布功能。同样，YouTube Kids本质上是一个儿童节目在线播放平台，与YouTube生态系统的其他部分隔开。相比之下，妈妈咪呀和Snapchat或Instagram一样，是一个功能齐全的社交网络，在年轻人中很受欢迎，不过不是公开向他们推广。
Such discussions about privacy can feel strained against the backdrop of technological change. The first version of COPPA became law in 1998, almost a decade before the iPhone was introduced. Last year, the research firm Influence Central said that, on average, parents who give their children smartphones do so at age 12. And once they have a phone, they get apps.
In a study of the law published in 2011 by the academic journal First Monday, researchers suggested that COPPA created intractable issues. To remain compliant, tech companies either cut off young users or claimed ignorance of their presence, while parents, for whom the law is meant to provide guidance and comfort, often ended up helping their children circumvent sign-up rules.
Increasing the current style of enforcement, the report concluded, would only encourage firms to “focus on denying access rather than providing privacy protection or cooperating with parents.”
In short, children are using their smartphones much like the rest of us, whether or not they are comprehensively addressed by regulations or by broader cultural conventions.
Alex Hofmann, president of Musical.ly, said the company tries to be mindful of its popularity with younger users.
“One of the differences to other apps,” he said, “is that we don’t only talk to the musers” — the company’s term for users — “we talk to the parents.”
He keeps close counsel with a network of a few dozen top users, and some of their families, and frequently asks for feedback from both regarding everything from user safety to new features. (The company’s support page contains an entire section directed toward parents — one that notes the app is “intended for 13-plus only.”)
Ultimately, Hofmann said, he expects the app to diversify its audience.
“We really see ourselves as a real social network, and as a network for different age groups,” he said.
For now, the company will have to navigate a peculiar if widely envied situation — capitalizing on its apparent popularity with an audience that it cannot fully acknowledge, watched over by wary but increasingly complicit parents.
“A year ago, there was basically nobody who was 40 years old on Snapchat,” Vaynerchuk said. “If Musical.ly can hold on, they will age up.”