Gen Z is a hard bunch to pin down. They don’t even have one defined name — iGen, Gen Tech, Digital Natives, Gen Z, Plurals?
If they were to accept any label, it would probably be plurals — precisely because it harks to their undefinable openness and whole-hearted rejection of labels.
Coined by the Generational Strategy Company Magid, plurals refers to the generation’s distinctive diversity of views and advocacy for systems in which multiple states, groups, or principles can exist.
It’s no wonder, then, that marketers are having a hard time reaching Gen Z. This inherent fluidity and fickleness means they’re all but impossible to target based on a strict set of views or preferences and they most certainly can’t be reached by focusing a strategy on a particular platform, at least not for longer than five minutes.
Most would put this restless activity down to shortening attention spans and an insatiable hunger for novelty. And as their interactions with the online world have largely been via bite-sized visual media and interactive video streamed live and direct to their pocket, there’s no doubt these factors come into it.
But Gen Z is a much more complicated and sophisticated generation than we give it credit for. Although on the surface their actions are influenced by the attention economy, their attitudes are complex and deeply embedded in a thirst for self-expression, meaning, privacy, experiences, and diversity.
If we want to have a chance in understanding how Gen Z can be reached online, then, as well as looking at what platforms they’re on at any given moment, we also need to look at the bigger picture and find out the larger themes that are driving their behaviour and decisions.
From social to private messaging
What makes the web so great, the fact it connects us to the world and all its information, is also one of its biggest downfalls. Privacy concerns, intrusive ads, fake news, information/choice overload, and trolls are just a few of the consequences of having one big free and open wild west of an internet.
Recently, though, with changes such as the reemergence of paywalls on publishing sites and the increasingly popular private social media account, parts of the web have begun to be reclaimed and closed off as private communities and invite-only destinations.
Two of the biggest drivers behind this shift is the need for privacy and the need to be heard. On the web, it’s always possible to find someone who shares the same view or opinion as you. On the one hand, this can be incredibly comforting (not to mention dangerous), but on the other, as it is on such a vast global scale, it can make you feel like just another lowly voice being drowned in a sea of noise.
Gen Z is finding they can get the best of both worlds — the ability to connect with others around shared interests and be heard — by turning to private messaging.
Private messaging used to be restricted to texting anyone you happened to have in your phone book. Even the emojis were made from text. But today, with apps like Kik, which has over 300 million users and is ranked as a top ten app with teens in the US, users can send an array of multimedia—images, emojis, sketches, GIFs, video—to their friends as well as find potential new friends with similar interests to share them with too.
The result is Gen Z are able to build their own online communities that are filtered and tailored around their interests. With such private networks as Kik, Gen Z can make it feel like they’re being heard among people who’s opinions they actually value. They retain the freedom of being able to talk to and connect with whoever they want, while at the same time retain their privacy, as they only need a username to sign up and interact with people.
Crucially, though, with the rise of automated chat bots, they can begin carving out their own personalised sections of the web, kitting out their accounts with things like celeb channels, beauty tips, adventure games, dog pics, trending memes, and any businesses or brands that serve and/or resonate with them.
It’s social media, this time, not built from the top down by some random tech company in Silicon Valley, but from the ground up by individual meme-loving teens.
Trends not platforms
Once anything goes mainstream, it by definition isn’t cool anymore. The thing is that the business model of social media platforms is to get as many people using it as possible. Before you know it, a niche platform has everyone from your mom to big corporate brands using it, and so it simply isn’t cool to become attached to any one in particular.
What is cool, not least because they are inherently transient, is whatever happens to be trending. Today a trend has no solid abode: it can begin on one platform, develop on another, explode on another and die on yet another still.
But trends are also cooler because they carry potent messages that are often spawned from the very people that follow them. This means trends allow a much greater sense of ownership than any platform could; they can feel like an extension of your personality, and part of a shared culture that is missing from the lives of many people, particularly the young, today.
The Yeehaw Agenda is a recent viral trend that encapsulates this sentiment perfectly.
A meme turned movement, there isn’t one single cause that sparked The Yeehaw Agenda. If you haven’t came across it yet, you would be fooled by thinking it’s just a bunch of people dressing up in cowboy hats. In reality, it’s a fashion statement, a tribute to black cowboys who were erased from the typical pop culture representation of the American West and South, and, of course, a celebration of cowboy jokes and memes.
As you can see, it’s not really clear what it is. But that doesn’t matter. If you look at any culture, ancient or modern, you will find its made up of similarly nonsensical ideas and practices. What matters is not the output, but the shared history and effort in their creation.
What also matters is that you have the right platforms to support your culture — whether campfires, festivals, public houses, or the cringe-worthy musical melting pot that is Tik Tok.
Although it could be argued it really got started on Twitter, Tik Tok is really where the Yeehaw Agenda blew up. It was made for sexy cowboy outfits and catchy beats that were made specifically to pick up on the trend. And to Gen Z, there is no better way to express who you are, what you care about, or at the very least, feel a part of something, than by recording yourself dancing and miming in your bedroom.
Hyperreal immersive experiences
For digital natives who grew up with smartphone in hand, life is something that happens around them and inside the little device in their pocket. There’s no difference, although the device often wins out because it can seemingly spit out much more of it.
What happens when your primary source of life comes from your pocket? Well, you become a voyeur in the real world and start doing weird things like watching live streams of other people playing video games and having 15-second video chats with random strangers.
When you spend most your time indirectly engaging with life, then you can begin seeing it as a matter of how much stimulation and immersion you can get with as little time and energy invested as possible.
This is one reason why Gen Z make a habit out of rapidly switching between platforms and tasks—going from Instagram to Tik Tok to talking to their friend next to them to Snapchat to eating to reading a book to hosting a group video call.
They want ever greater hits of reality, but of course, they can never get them this way. So the outcome is searching for more immersive and interactive experiences, which allow them to be both voyeurs and to put themselves at the centre of the action.
Twitch Sings, an interactive karaoke-style experience, in which users live-stream karaoke with friends and are cheered along by viewers who can request songs, send emotes to activate light shows and virtual ovations, and activate “singing challenges”, is one of the latest platforms to emerge to meet this demand.
Although it looks kinda crazy from the outside, to Gen Z, such a bold and on-demand kick of sensory-overloading, cringe-inducing, semi-eroticism is what makes them feel alive. And as you can’t easily access such experiences, especially without dropping your voyeuristic guard and submitting yourself to actual discomfort and actual embarrassment, such platforms offer a distinct advantage and unique appeal when compared to the ‘real’ world.
In this sense, they’re not any less real than reality. They’re hyperreal: they operate in a whole different paradigm in which the real nor the representation remains. It’s Gen Z’s universal home, their culture without labels, and where we need to spend time and be if we have of chance of reaching them.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn and find more articles on work, technology, spirituality, and everything in between.