Generation Z, The Minecraft Generation
As everyone is aware we are in a period of huge transformations in media where we can all see some of the big changes that are underway. The headlines mostly talk about the rise of VoD/OTT providers led by Netflix and the accompanying slow decline of mainstream broadcasters. But, while constant, contrary to what the doomsayers are constantly saying, the decline is just not that big. The vast majority of TV (or similar) viewing is still today done on a TV and following the linear programme guide. So yes, worrisome in the long run, but a decline of at most a very few percent a year allows for a long time for the media industry to make the transition. Right???
Well, maybe… The most obvious point is that, while overall numbers are not that bad, the numbers amongst younger viewers (the so-called Millennials and Gen Z’s) are much, much worse. The fact is that, except for live programmes and events, the millennials are watching less linear and/or broadcast television (and more “non-traditional” channels) than their older brothers and sisters and far, far less than their parents. They would, for the most part, rather watch YouTube or play games and when they do watch TV it is for sports, in catch-up mode or for blockbuster hits. The billion dollar question is, of course, as they get older, will they come back? Many in the industry are thinking (hoping??) that as they get older, move out of the house, have kids, etc. they will return to something approaching their parents media consumption habits (though with a much higher degree of catch-up). Is this realistic? Those on the online side of the fence think it isn’t, those on the broadcast side think it is. I wouldn’t bet the farm on them coming back but we’ll just have to wait a very few years and see who’s correct.
But the real (and I consider unavoidable and fatal) danger for the broadcast industry is the next cohort, generally referred to as Gen Z, what I am calling the Minecraft Generation. This is a generation that is growing up with games, social media and YouTube just like their older brothers and sisters. Therefore, can we treat them basically like a more “digital native” version of the millennials? I would argue definitely not! Their relationship with content is fundamentally different, they are the first digital generation where content creation (as opposed to consumption) is absolutely normal. Where their older brothers or sisters watched videos on YouTube, they make their own videos and upload them. Where their older siblings played Grand Theft Auto following narratives defined by the game’s authors, they play Minecraft in which they, or one of their peers, create their own worlds and characters and define their own narratives.
In traditional media, on TV and elsewhere, and also now digitally, we all have our stories told to us. We are basically passive participants. But the Minecraft Generation is different, they create, adapt and trade stories. This is such a fundamental difference that it is hard to imagine how most of the current media industry, but especially broadcast, can adapt to maintain anything even remotely resembling its current size and role in society*.
Some of the signs of this sea change in media include, as the title of the blog would suggest, the importance amongst younger gamers of Minecraft and sandbox (open world) games. But other indications are the continuing popularity of Twitch (see a previous blog of mine), but also the evolution of Facebook from basically a content distribution network to being a content creation network (Facebook Live) as well as, of course, the more general and obvious trends towards selfies, personal content sharing, multiple alternative news sources including “citizen journalists” (and fake news), etc. Perhaps most importantly, how many of us know 10 year olds who already upload their own videos to YouTube!
For years now, there has been talk about prosumers, people who both produce and consume content, but this generation is the real thing. So what does this really mean? What does it mean for Gen Z, for society as a whole, and for the future of the media industry?
To begin with, if creating your own stories and content is a normal thing, then that means less central control - less control over style, forms or subject matter and less central control over rights, finance and commercial aspects. Think YouTube Channels on steroids! But, you might say, Google controls YouTube and YouTube Channels and so there is still a central contoller, its just done in a different way. Yes, true, but does anyone really think Google exercises anywhere near the same level of control over content in YouTube as does, say, the BBC, Pearson or the NY Times? Clearly not. In any case, at the very least, much of that content control function previously exercised by the traditional media industry, such as publishers, newspapers or broadcasters), is now passing over to the tech giants who are less interested in creative control.
And if everyone can be an author, what does that mean for society? One of the glues for human society, for the last thousands of years, has been common stories and narratives, religion, folk songs, myths, even news. If there are far fewer common stories, will that mean a less cohesive society, more “tribal” and sectarian? Is the blue state, red state divergence in the USA an early sign of what is to come?
In the second part of this blog series we will discuss the long term implications that these changes may bring to content and media, but also more generally to society.