Are we politically engaged and civic-minded Twitter addicts? Or narcissists with a penchant for Instagramming our food? We’re either the most socially-connected generation thus far with hundreds of Facebook friends, or we’re an anti-social bunch who would rather tap away at our smartphones than strike up a conversation.
Such is the challenge of distilling the essence of an entire generation. These are questions best answered by sharper minds than mine. But in the last eight years of running a new media company I’ve tried — with occasional success — to decipher what makes this “connected generation” tick, and I do have some observations.
(COVER STORY: The New Greatest Generation)
Perhaps the fundamental change in modern media consumption is a desire to participate. A generation of consumers now perceive themselves as content creators, with the material they publish competing with more traditional outlets for attention. My Facebook news feed may feature a link to TIME sandwiched between a friend’s photo album and a Spotify playlist.
Where some see a challenge, new media companies see opportunity. Distribution once meant having a cable channel or a shelf at the bookstore. Now, the reader distributes the content through social networks. In media at least, “community” trumps “consumer”.
Participatory media is reshaping the advertising world, too. If ad execs were to take a drink every time they said “engagement”, Madison Avenue would need more liquor stores.
The trend is a good one, however: Why shouldn’t advertising be engaging? Why can’t it be entertaining? Can brands create ads so good we’ll want to share them?
Having established that this generation loves to share, brands and media companies like ours increasingly seek to understand why. Gathering information about consumer preferences is no longer the challenge: There is more data about this generation than any other, and readers vocally express their opinions on a daily basis. Rather, we receive so much feedback from our community that increasingly our challenge is to make sense of it all.
(POLL: Who’s the Most Influential Millennial?)
Unsurprisingly, we find that humorous content is highly shared by Millennials: Making your friends laugh is as desirable online as it is in person.
We’re also encouraged to see that uplifting news and articles about human acts of kindness are shared a great deal. Does this tendency reflect my generation’s willingness to help others or simply a desire to promote a positive self-image? Probably both.
It’s often said that constant connectivity has created a generation that craves the ephemeral, and while timely news indexes highly among our readers, we’re often surprised to see another category that performs well: Nostalgia. My fellow Millennials, it seems, have developed a great fondness for sharing their favorite pastimes like arcade games, cassette tapes and 1990s pop culture.
Of course, new media companies have known for some time that “cute animals” are a subject matter favored in the digital realm. Our analytics software has yet to establish whether Millennials are cat people or dog people.
The connected generation loves images and videos. Articles with large imagery are shared more among this demographic than those without, and posts with videos also perform better on average than text. This is likely because we’re so bombarded by information these days: Visual mediums are faster to consume.
Finally, and for reasons we can’t fathom, Millennials love lists. My 20-something friends and I will read anything that starts with “Top 10.” We might not even realize we’ve been duped until the end of the article.