News & Views

Opinion / (Dis)Connected Lives

by Contagious Contributor

Oliver Conner, research director at Coin Research, on navigating social media’s ‘difficult years’

Born in 2004, with the launch of Facebook, social media is now entering its teenage years. And as we all know, adolescence is a difficult time…

As social media enters these angsty years we can see its potential, but we also feel frustrated at its growing pains, dangerous influences and bad habits.

Remember when social media empowered protestors to take down the government in Egypt? Remember when Barack Obama leveraged the web to sweep to victory? Those were the days of innocence. Now we see Donald Trump insidiously leveraging ‘big data’ and programmatic marketing, or ISIS demonstrating textbook social media strategy.

People are watching Black Mirror and committing to a digital-detox.

The big question today is what should organisations do?

To answer this we have launched the (dis)Connected Lives project. A deep dive into the increasingly complex relationship we have with social media. It’s an opportunity for us to stop and take stock of our new world.

The qualitative renaissance is digital

To access the rich inner world of others, to analyse how social media affects emotions, and to explore how social media is changing our consciousness, (dis)Connected Lives takes a fundamentally qualitative approach.

We’ve been engaging over WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others, to facilitate multi-format conversations and capture people’s digital stories.

With the right questions, asked in the right ways, we are mapping out rich behavioural constellations – unique stories that fuel innovative thinking.

Generation Z’s digital stories

Our tendency is to think of social media as a tool through which we can reach desired outcomes (entertainment, socialisation, nosiness, etc). But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of technology to fundamentally reshape the way we process and make sense of the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than with children.

Understanding Generation Z is going to be the biggest challenge yet. Even if you’re the most digitally-savvy millennial business decision maker, you have still merely learned to use digital technology. You’ve learned the language – but kids are natural speakers.

They banter on Twitter, share secrets on Snapchat, interact with family on Facebook, and engage with strangers on Instagram. They are constructing worlds in Minecraft, they have access to fun in abundance, and there is a new emphasis on oral (over written) communication.

The digital stories we have captured for (dis)Connected Lives have been compelling, profound and, often, hilarious. One of our nine-year old participants shared his favourite YouTube video which, in our opinion, perfectly illustrates how to engage in an authentic, ironic and collaborative way.

The kids are(n’t) alright

But, more seriously, our initial findings on Generation Z surround responsibility.

This is a generation who have grown up in a world faced with imminent environmental cataclysm and an uncertain future. Dystopian fiction tops the young adult bestselling lists. Protagonists (such as Katniss in The Hunger Games) are defined by their questioning of the values of an unjust and irresponsible society. They overcome media manipulation and consumerist excess to awaken as the heroines and heroes that will reshape society against the forces of dehumanisation.

Take Ben, one of our young participants, who was obsessed with zombies (a major trope in films and computer games). Whenever he would enter a new house he would do the ‘zombie security check’, looking out for potential zombie entry points and making suggestions on how to remedy them.

In his own way, he was acting responsibly. Organising and preparing us for the dangers of the future.

The lesson for organisations? Kids are hyper-attuned to when organisations are not acting responsibly. This is a huge opportunity for organisations to take the lead.

A place for brands?

Helping people shield themselves against the negative consequences of social media is where organisations can get started.

You may think this is not a space for you to fill, but social media channels aren’t doing much to help.

As the former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris, points out on his Time Well Spent project page – social media channels are doing everything they can to keep people hooked: ‘We as individuals can try to use our devices more responsibly, but its our willpower against hundreds of engineers who are paid to keep us glued to the screen’.

This is echoed by our participants, who crave constructive uses of their digital time: ‘I prefer the messaging apps like Snapchat because I find them slightly less addictive as Snapchat doesn't have a news feed that allows you to get drawn in endlessly.’ (George, 15)

By aligning your marketing and innovation with the ideals of our rational and human mind (as opposed to capitalising on peoples impulsive and irrational behaviours) you will be setting the foundation for long-term success.

To find out more about the first phase of (dis)Connected Lives, or to become involved in the second phase, get in touch.