Generation Z is the first group of people to have spent their entire lives with access to social media. They are growing up in a time when someone can earn millions of dollars based on their internet presence, where “likes” serve as social currency, and when the vast majority of their “friends” are people they have never, and will never, meet. They’ve never had to wait a week for photos to develop or paid extra for doubles to share. Instead, they can access and share all of their memories instantly. In some cases, their entire lives have been documented on social media with profiles or hashtags that their parents created for them at birth (or earlier).
Based on practices established by the social media pioneers that came before them, Generation Z-er’s entire lives have been public, shareable content. And while Millennials grew up deciding what aspects of their private lives they wanted to be included in their public profiles, the next generation is slowly doing the opposite. Along with regular posting, social media users of Generation Z are forging new ways to participate in the internet with anonymity or without leaving a trail.
Instead of texting, teenagers use Snapchat to communicate, favoring that the messages disappear when they’ve closed them. They have invented two ways to exist on Instagram by maintaining multiple profiles: a Finsta (fake Instagram) and a Rinsta (real Instagram), with the former serving as a private outlet to post photos that are meant for some eyes only. They encourage their followers to visit their Sarahah profile, where you can submit anonymous feedback on the profile owner, which users frequently aggregate and post on their other channels.
These practices and what motivates them are fascinating. But, they could also signal trouble for the multi-billion-dollar social media industry that we have come to rely on for all facets of personal life, business, news, and politics.
In Q1 of 2017, Facebook generated $7.9 billion in advertising. Along with rates that were reasonable in comparison with traditional ad buys, Facebook grew its advertising empire based on the notion that ads are more successful when they are interactive, shareable, and can be endorsed by one’s social network. But, as Generation Z is moving away from putting anything meaningful on their public profiles, will that remain true when they have buying power?
In response to recently exposed (and sometimes fraudulent or manipulative) political advertising practices on social media, users have expressed fatigue, skepticism, and anger. The outrage was so threatening to their ad structure that Twitter amended its advertising policy so that it is mandatory to display who is paying for the ads popping up on your feed. As Generation Z has instant access to resources they need to stay informed on any given topic or current event, they have the potential to be the most socially conscious generation to date—will this impact who they give their money to? And more importantly, will it impact who they are willing to publicly endorse?
As a direct result of the rise of social media, entire industries have been built around the assumption that individual behavior, business, advertising, news, and opinion sharing is for the public. Professionals are pursuing jobs in social media that didn’t even exist when they were getting their degrees with the belief that they are getting a foothold in the industry that is shaping our collective future. But what if it’s not? What if in pursuing this tidal wave of innovation and promise built around the preferences of today’s users we forgot to account for Generation Z?