They see life as a game. They enjoy nothing more than outsmarting the system. They don’t trust politicians, medias, nor brands. They see corporations as inefficient and plagued by an outmoded hierarchy. Even if they harbor little hope of doing better than their parents, they don’t see themselves as unhappy. They belong to a group — several, actually — they trust and rely upon.
“They”, are the Digital Natives.
The French polling institute BVA published an enlightening survey of this generation: between 18-24 years of age, born with a mouse and a keyboard, and now permanently tied to their smartphone. All of it shaping their vision of an unstable world. The study is titled GENE-TIC for Generation and Technology of Information and Communication. Between November 2009 and February 2010, BVA studied hundred young people in order to understand their digital habits. Various techniques where used: spyware in PCs , subjective glasses to “see what they see”, and hours of video recording. (The 500 pages survey is for sale but abstracts, in French, are here ; BVA is considering a similar study for the US market). Here are the key findings:
The constant gamer. The way a Digital Native see his (or, once for all “her“) environment is deeply shaped by computer games. “When he is buying something”, says Edouard Le Marechal who engineered the survey, “finding the best bargain is a process as important as acquiring the good. The Digital Native enjoys using all tools available in his arsenal to outsmart the merchant system and to find the best deal. He doesn’t trust the brand. Like in a game, the brand is the enemy to defeat”.
According to the study, brands face a serious challenge from the Digital Native. Not only does he gets a kick out of triumphing over the brand, but he is not deceived by the marketing pitch. To make things worse, he’ll become an expert, he’ll achieve more knowledge than the merchant trying to lure him. That’s part of the game. Reading the GENE-TIC survey, brands and their vector (advertising), appear under siege in multiple ways. They look increasingly disconnected and outpaced by their target. In addition, advertising is reduced to its utilitarian dimension: if an ad message does not carry an explicit promotion, it is unlikely to lead to a good bargain.
Weirdly enough, when I asked Edouard Le Marechal if big ad agencies were flocking to subscribe to his survey, he replied they were not. Instead, GENE-TIC is massively subscribed to by clients such as high tech or telecommunications companies. (That also reinforces the idea that the brand – whether it is a manufacturer or a service – is willing to (re)connect more directly with its customer base at the expense of the advertising intermediary which appears to have lost its power).
There are notable exceptions, such as brands that are direct components of the digital sphere. Sony and especially Apple, maybe very few others, have gained access to a unique status of blind trustfulness (which, in itself, shows the crucial importance of design and user interface).
Corporate Defiance. How come the corporate world can be so unsophisticated, so focused on its internal processes when compared to the digital world? It doesn’t come as a surprise: the Digital Native doesn’t fit into the corporation. When the digital sphere is seen as fast, efficient, transverse, the corporation appears slow, loaded with heavy rules, crippled by hierarchy. The Digital Native has a problem with authority, but he respects competence. Statutory dimension and attributes are pointless. “It mainly results from a generation gap in which management is still in the hands of people who don’t have a clue on how Digital Natives think”, says Edouard Le Marechal. The old style management can’t handle behavioral dispersion, inability to concentrate, compulsive multitasking. This difference from Digital Natives is almost irreconcilable. But it’s not highly conflictual either, as long as companies are able to grant recognition of its employees’ different affect.
The estrangement toward the corporate community also result from macro-economic considerations. For the most part, this generation has grown in a tormented business environment: industrial downsizing in the nineties, tech and financial bubbles (that inevitably burst), credit crunch, global financial crisis. The result is mostly a hopeless – but not desperate – future for this generation: it shares (at least in France where the survey was conducted) the belief that it won’t do better than its parents.
The Group they trust. The Digital Native does not rely on a single group but on several, each with a different degree of trust. The three concentric circles are : close friends and family as the core, a group of 20 to 30 pals whom they trust, and the “Facebook friends” of 200 or so, which acts as an echo chamber. Beyond these groups, behaviors such as elusiveness, temptation to trick and circumvent the social system will prevail.
How do they get the news? No wonder why the group is crucial to the Digital Native getting his information. First of all, the fastest is the best. Forget about long form journalism. Quick TV newscasts, free commuter newspapers, bursts of news bulletins on the radio are more than enough. The group will do the rest: it will organize the importance, the hierarchy of news elements, it will set the news cycle’s pace.
More chilling: the group’s belief in its power to decide what’s credible and what’s not. Truth – at least perceived truth – seems to emerge from an implicit group vote, in total disregard for actual facts. If the group believes it, chances are it is “true”. When something flares up, if it turns out to be a groundless rumor, it’s fine since it won’t last (which is little consolation for the victim of a baseless rumor); and the news cycle waves are so compressed that old-fashioned notions such as reliability or trustfulness become secondary. Anyway, because they are systematically manipulated, the Digital Natives don’t trust the media (when they themselves are not the manipulators).
Consequently, resources can only be group-related or collectively-driven. The perfect example is Wikipedia: because it is crowd-powered and carries an image of neutrality, it is embraced as trustworthy. In addition, Wikipedia is accessible, straightforward and well structured. As a result, many Digital Natives acknowledge turning to Wikipedia to check facts, or to get a good digest of the class there where given.
It would be presumptuous to draw too many conclusions from this survey. But let’s float few ideas:
Workplace. The corporation’s organization model has to be reconsidered in light of the Digital Native’s distrust. Personal rewards and empowerment must be redesigned. Top-down, the our-way-or-the-highway arbitrary system needs retooling. The survey showed that 3/4 of Digital Natives want to be entrepreneurs, not just for the the sake of it, but in order to be relieved from a hierarchy they don’t respect.
The group. Because it is at the core of the new social system, the group deserves a keener understanding. As for now, there is no sign of an “hostile disconnection” between the group and the rest of the society. But as long a the elite – political, corporate, media – is a disappointment to the group, a disconnect is looming. Today, no one in the ruling elite seems to understand the group’s arcane structure and rules. This, too, deserves a closer look.
The information. Trust will be difficult to restore. Again, such recovery will be achieved through a better understanding of the group. But the most likely scenario is a growing split of news consumers. The Digital Natives will be happy with superficial, quickly digestible streams of information. On the other hand, in-depth, balanced information will be the perquisite of a shrinking elite, sensitive to the notion of a trusted brand and ready to pay for it. This split is fine as long as we can be sure that a misinformed and growing share of the electorate is not becoming a threat to the very fabric of democracy.
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