Millennials: Trust No One But Twitter

A generation that's lost faith in institutions puts itself in the hands of social media

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Millennials — today’s 80 million-strong generation of 18 to 34 year olds — have been raised to be wary of, at the risk of sounding like a Boomer, The Man. They’ve graduated college with tens of thousands of student loan debt. They’ve entered a job market at its tightest since the Great Depression. They’re economically conservative almost to the point of being frugal and don’t assume they’ll live better than their parents (and many won’t). Trust, for them, isn’t a given; it has to be earned.

But while millennials may have lost the ability to blindly count on those institutions that earlier generations may have relied on as constants — the government, banks, big Pharma, conventional media (it turns out millennials don’t even trust Jay-Z) —what they do rely on in increasing numbers is social media. And each other.

It seems counterintuitive: to trust a genre that allows people, for the most part, to say whatever they like, with no real official measure for, or guarantee of, truth and accuracy. “We have these Twitter accounts, some of us command these huge audiences and we can essentially be saying whatever we want at our own behest,” 25-year-old Leandra Medine, creator of the fashion blog Man Repeller, told the New York Times in December. Yet numerous studies have found that while social media may be rife with fraud and misrepresentation (and here I’m speaking generally, and not about Medine’s site in particular), millennials put more stock in the format than in anything said by government, business, or religious institutions.

They buy ideas, beliefs, and products from people, not corporations. An annual report compiled by global public relations firm Edelman found just 38 percent of consumers — with millennials being the largest part of this group — trust government officials, down from an already modest 52 percent just two years ago. Forty-three percent trust CEOs, down from 50 percent. But there is a way to regain that trust: 82 percent said they would have more faith in a company or institution if they were involved in social media.

In fact, for even more proof that truth in social media is of little consequence, millennials are more willing to take the word of strangers on the Internet than people they know. A study conducted by social media software service Bazaarvoice, in partnership with The Center for Generational Kinetics and Kelton Research, found that 51 percent of millennials contemplating a purchase are more likely to be influenced by input from strangers—in the form of user-generated content, anonymous reviews, and the like—over recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues. A 2013 survey of more than 500 millennials by advocate marketing firm SocialChorus, meanwhile, found that 67 percent of them have never clicked on a sponsored story, questioning (rightly so) the motives behind it and relying instead on user-generated content to decide how and where to spend their money. The upshot: Millennials learn what they think about Congress, how they think about God, and what they want from a shampoo not from the institutions trying to promote those ideas (or that shampoo), but from each other.

Of course, the fact that firms, corporations, and even religions are using social media to help restore trust (see: Pope Francis on Twitter) means that they recognize the need to recover millennial goodwill, and may move towards a more open dialogue in attempting to achieve it. Social media is but one means to this end. And conversation, of course, is healthy. At the same time, social media-obsessed millennials may be suffering at the hands of their own connectedness. A Pew report found that while this age group has more tools to acquire the information they need to make decisions than any generation before them, they retain less of that information in the long run. They may also develop unrealistic expectations of their power to change things. After all: Already, in an attempt to circumvent millennial disdain, many institutions and corporations have started to recruit millennial advocates to speak on their behalf. Which means the message is the same, even if the messenger has changed. Bloggers, we know, are branding tools. But your best friend may very well be next.