Thursday, January 26, 2006
BLOGS/EDUCATION: New York Times report of Pew Internet study shows deep changes in how young adults consume media
January 22, 2006
A Generation Serves Notice: It's a Moving Target
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
The New York Times
JOE HANSON, 22, of Chicago likes to watch television, but rarely on his
TV. A folder on his computer lists an inventory of downloaded cable and
network programming - the kind of thing that makes traditional media
"I've got 'Ali G,' 'Arrested Development,' 'Scrubs,' 'The Sopranos,' " Mr.
Hanson told a visitor recently at his apartment on the city's Southwest
Side. " 'South Park,' 'The Office,' some 'Family Guy.' "
From the avalanche of Nintendo games alongside his TV to his very roommate
- acquired through the online classified site Craigslist - Mr. Hanson
channels the characteristics of a generation weaned on digital technology
and media convergence.
He is an avid gamer. He tinkers comfortably with digital media - from
creating Web sites and blogs to mixing his own hip-hop music files - and
like most people his age, he has nearly constant access to his friends
through instant messaging.
In addition to thumbing his nose at notions of "prime time" by downloading
his favorite shows (without commercials), Mr. Hanson almost never buys
newspapers or magazines, getting nearly all of his information from the
Internet, or from his network of electronic contacts.
"Papers are so clunky and big," he says. If those words are alarming to
old media, they are only the beginning of a larger puzzle for today's
marketers: how to make digital technology their ally as they try to
understand and reach an emerging generation.
The eldest of the millennials, as those born between 1980 and 2000 are
sometimes called, are now in their early to mid-20's. By 2010, they will
outnumber both baby boomers and Gen-X'ers among those 18 to 49 - the
crucial consumers for all kinds of businesses, from automakers and
clothing companies to Hollywood, record labels and the news media.
The number of vehicles through which young people find entertainment and
information (and one another) makes them a moving target for anyone hoping
to capture their attention.
Advertisers and media and technology companies, mindful that young
consumers have migrated away from the traditional carriers of their
messages, have begun to find new ways to reach them. They are creating
advertising and short videos for mobile phones, for instance, cell
networks with dedicated game channels, and $1.99 TV programs to download
to iPods and PC's.
And while the emerging generation's deftness with technology is a given,
researchers say the most potent byproduct may be the feedback factor,
which only accelerates the cycles of what's hot and what's over.
"We think that the single largest differentiator in this generation from
previous generations is the social network that is people's lives, the
part of it that technology enables," said Jack McKenzie, a senior vice
president at Frank N. Magid Associates, a market research and consulting
firm specializing in the news media and entertainment industries.
"What's hard to measure, and what we're trying to measure," Mr. McKenzie
continued, "is the impact of groupthink, of group mentality, and the
tendency of what we might call the democratization of social interaction
and how that changes this generation's relationship with almost everything
they come in contact with."
For Mr. Hanson, even his new job is an Internet-based, media-intensive
labor informed by feedback.
Mr. Hanson, who earlier took time off before earning his English degree at
the University of Chicago to appear as a contestant in a reality TV show
("Beauty and the Geek"), left his ad agency internship last month to
become a writer and producer at Current TV, Al Gore's media-converging
Before being hired, Mr. Hanson and Hassan Ali, a 20-year-old junior
studying economics at the University of Chicago, were already submitting
their own digital video shorts to Current TV, which allows Web audiences
to vote content up the ranks at www.current.tv and, if it becomes popular
enough, onto its cable television rotation.
Their signature series of jittery "Joe Gets" films, in which the white,
diminutive and blond Mr. Hanson might, for instance, get a haircut in a
predominantly black Chicago barbershop ("Joe Gets Cut"), were voted
regularly into the TV rotation - so often that both Mr. Hanson and Mr. Ali
were offered jobs.
"This was great!" wrote one visitor to their Current TV Web page. "I deff.
feel you on this one, being a white guy who also gets his hair cut at a
black barber shop. Convos are way more entertaining. ... Plus you can't
beat the crispy fades!" Mr. Hanson and Mr. Ali had reached out to their
peers, and their peers had spoken.
Other titles produced by Mr. Hanson and Mr. Ali include "Joe Gets Inked"
(a tattoo) and "Joe Gets Bent" (yoga). "Joe Gets Slammed," in which Mr.
Hanson attends a professional wrestling school, is expected to be shown
soon online and on television.
At the Digital Edge
Karell Roxas, 24, a senior editor at Gurl.com, begins each day in her
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, apartment with a diet of Gmail, Hotmail, work
e-mail, NYTimes.com ("I haven't picked up a print newspaper in forever,"
she says) and blogs, in that order. She says it is a necessary regimen for
maintaining a functional dialogue both at work and in her circle of
Ms. Roxas, who grew up in Ontario, Calif., and earned a fine-arts degree
in writing from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, says text messaging by
cellphone is the default mode of communication for her set, surpassing
e-mail, instant messaging or even talking on the phone itself.
It is all in keeping with recent research from the Pew Internet and
American Life Project, which has found that while certain aspects of
online life have become common across many age groups, it is the
millennials who live at the digital edge.
Among those with access to the Internet, for instance, e-mail services are
as likely to be used by teenagers (89 percent) as by retirees (90
percent), according to Pew researchers. Creating a blog is another matter.
Roughly 40 percent of teenage and 20-something Internet users do so, but
just 9 percent of 30-somethings. Nearly 80 percent of online teenagers and
adults 28 and younger report regularly visiting blogs, compared with just
30 percent of adults 29 to 40. About 44 percent of that older group sends
text messages by cellphone, compared with 60 percent of the younger group.
And as the millennials diverge from their elders in their media choices,
so do the ways in which they can be reached and influenced.
The preceding generation may have thought that e-mail, newsgroups, Web
forums and even online chats accelerated the word-of-mouth phenomenon.
They did. But they are nothing compared with the always-live electronic
dialogue among millions of teenagers and 20-somethings.
"What we're seeing is a whole different relationship with marketing and
advertising which obviously has ripple effects through the entire
economy," said Mr. McKenzie, who heads the Magid firm's Millennials
Strategy Group, formed two years ago to serve clients desperate to know
how to reach a new generation.
For the millennials, he said, "reliance and trust in nontraditional
sources - meaning everyday people, their friends, their networks, the
network they've created around them - has a much greater influence on
their behaviors than traditional advertising."
Magid calls it the peer-to-group phenomenon - a digital-age manifestation
of the grapevine.
"When someone wants to share it, forward it, record it, take a picture of
it, whatever the case may be, that puts it into a form of currency," Mr.
McKenzie said. "And when marketing gets to a level of currency, then it
has achieved nirvana status."
And, he added, that status has "much more influence on the acceptance of
television shows, or radio shows, or iPod offerings or jeans or whatever
the case may be."
Some researchers, like Dr. Melvin D. Levine, director of the Clinical
Center for the Study of Development and Learning at the University of
North Carolina School of Medicine, have expressed concerns about the
group-mentality dynamics that the Internet and the instant-message age may
"You've got a group of kids who are unbelievably, incredibly loyal to each
other," Dr. Levine said. "They are very bound to ethics and values. But in
a funny sort of way, it prevents some of them from developing as
individuals." Along with finding technological dexterity in this group,
and a highly developed ability to work in team settings, Dr. Levine said
he had encountered concerns that some young people lacked the ability to
think and plan for the long term, that they withered without immediate
feedback and that the machinery of groupthink had bred a generation flush
with loyal comrades but potentially weak on leaders.
Ms. Roxas would wholeheartedly disagree. Working at Gurl.com, she says
that it is all too common for older people to dismiss the "MTV generation"
as lacking concentration and wherewithal, as being team-oriented but
bereft of individual ideas, and as being hopelessly addicted to the hive.
The relentless multitasking and interactivity are "just a different way of
doing things," Ms. Roxas said, recalling that even as an undergraduate she
would often seek help and counsel among her peers through instant messages
on her computer. "I actually got more done that way," she said, "and I
always knew when to sign off and get my work done.
"It's no different than eating and watching TV at the same time."
But when asked if she might ever be able to really disconnect for a while,
Ms. Roxas paused and then laughed at herself. To really unplug, while an
attractive idea in theory, she said, would be to risk being swept aside by
a virtual torrent of information - or, worse, being forgotten.
"Say, if I haven't read what's going on every day, things are so
interconnected, you might not know what everyone's talking about," she
"It's like, if you don't check your e-mail and you turn off your phone,
it's almost like you don't exist."
Media on the Go
That existential quandary is giving marketers, media and technology
companies and Hollywood some potential openings to reach young adults.
Marketers, for instance, have signaled a broad desire to bring
television-style advertising to cellphones. As early as March, a limited
number of Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel customers may begin seeing
short video ads on their phones, in a test of consumer tolerance for the
And two weeks ago, the cellphone start-up Amp'd Mobile announced a
partnership with Electronic Arts, the world's largest maker of video
games, aimed at bringing more than a dozen Electronic Arts-brand games to
The television and film industries, like the recording industry before
them, are slowly recognizing that consumers - particularly young ones like
Mr. Hanson - want to watch on their own schedules, in a variety of
formats, and at a low price.
Clearly, if the market doesn't find ways to make programming simple,
inexpensive and legal to download, millennials will continue to find
solutions for themselves.
"Downloading is the poor man's TiVo," Mr. Hanson said in e-mail message,
adding, though, that if he likes a show he generally goes out and buys it
As if heeding the call, ABC, NBC and cable networks have found a new
outlet by striking deals that make television shows available for $1.99 a
download on Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, for playback on the new
video-capable iPod or on a personal computer. Steven P. Jobs, Apple's
chief executive, said this month that the company had sold eight million
videos and television shows online since October.
Still, such convergence is in its infancy. And aside from CBS's reported
plans for a short "mobisoap" video drama, written exclusively for delivery
on cellphones, original content for platforms other than television is
But the writing is even on Hollywood's wall.
In November, as if to nudge the entire industry, the National Academy of
Television Arts and Sciences rather hurriedly introduced a new Emmy award
for "outstanding content distributed via nontraditional delivery
"Consumers have the capability of seeing television anywhere, anytime,"
said Peter Price, the president of the academy, in announcing the new
award. "And as the technology continues to develop, it will be content -
news, sports and entertainment programming - that drives consumer demand."
Millennials in Action
Wen-Wen Lam, 23, a marketing representative at LinkedIn.com, a
professional networking site, said a colleague was bewildered by her
decision not to take her laptop home one evening. "He said, 'But how are
you going to talk to people?' " Ms. Lam recalled.
She rolled her eyes at the thought of people unable to cut the electronic
umbilical cord and added that an average day of 8 to 10 hours of time
spent online is "quite enough."
The T-shirt worn by one of her roommates, Diane Cichelli, calls out in
agreement. "Ctrl, alt, delete," it reads, for the keystrokes typically
used to reboot a PC - and also known as "the three-fingered salute," Ms.
Ms. Cichelli, 24, and Ms. Lam have been friends since they were 13. They
now share an apartment, along with a third roommate, in the upscale
Pacific Heights section of San Francisco. Scattered about the living room
and bedrooms are the indispensable totems of modern technological
privilege: I.B.M. laptops, pink iPods, multiple flat-screen televisions
and Ms. Cichelli's Treo 650, a combination cellphone and palmtop.
Indeed, the pair are cut from a marketer's millennial script. They are not
fashioning careers as filmmakers or digital artists, but they are
comfortable around digital media. They maintain blogs and create Web sites
of their own. They download music and share short videos online. They
watch their share of cable and network television, though rarely when it
is scheduled, slipping to a neighbor's apartment to enjoy the liberating
effects of TiVo.
They are avid blog consumers. They read celebrity gossip blogs like
Defamer and PopSugar and shopping and travel blogs like Luxist and
DailyCandy. And they learn of new sites through the tide of instant
messages flowing into the pockets and onto the laptop screens of millions
of young adults every minute of the day.
But popularity is often fleeting, and some of today's hot Web sites can
quickly give way to others, further underscoring the challenge for
"The period of rapid change we've been experiencing, it's just been that
much more dramatic," said Vicki Cohen, a senior vice president at Magid
and one of the leaders on its millennial strategy team. "I mean every time
you turn around there's something new on the horizon. And this group, as
we've been noticing, is kind of the arbiter, quickly determining whether
things are hot or not.
"And it's much more accelerated," Ms. Cohen added. "With the technology,
the Internet - in terms of being able to facilitate the social networking,
which is a big part of this younger group - there's just so much ability
to quickly transfer information."
Near the end of the evening in Pacific Heights, Ms. Cichelli volunteers
that she finds voice mail a wearisome time consumer.
"Why do I need to invest three minutes of my life listening to a message,"
she says, when she can just "ping" someone with an instant message or an
"Ping," as a computer term, seems to go back some distance. Does she know
its linguistic derivation?
Ms. Cichelli speculates that it came from the game Ping-Pong and was
applied to high-tech communication because people send notes back and
"Let's Google it," Ms. Cichelli says.
"I love Google," Ms. Lam says.
The answer appears almost instantly: in computer jargon, "ping" was most
likely borrowed from submarine technology and the sound that sonar makes
when seeking its reflection points.
No one is surprised. The answer had already been suggested by Ms.
Cichelli's friend in Albany, with whom she had been text-messaging
throughout much of the night.
David Bernstein and Carolyn Marshall contributed reporting for this
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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