I remember the first time an AOL CD-ROM appeared in my parent’s mailbox. It promised me thousands of minutes to connect with others through our computer. A computer, that up until that moment, had been used primarily for solitaire.
I patiently waited for the program to load. Nothing happened. Where was my Internet? I didn’t realize I needed a phone line to connect. I “borrowed” a phone cord from my parents room and figured out how to connect the computer’s modem to the phone jack. For the first time, I heard the strange sound of dial up, and the word “Connected!” appeared. I was online.
Learning to use the web has changed slightly since then. While everything in the past had to be self-taught, we can now get degrees or go to bootcamps to learn all kinds of Internet technology. Indeed, staying abreast of the latest techniques is a must for developers to do their jobs. Learning more about the latest technology trends led me to attend ConvergeSE, where I heard a keynote that blew my mind—Pamela Pavliscak’s talk on Gen Z and the Future of Technology.
As Pamela Pavliscak explained, GenZ is the first generation who are truly digital natives. They make up 25% of the population, representing how future technology users will navigate the web and expect applications and interfaces to work. By paying attention to how GenZ uses the Internet, we can both improve the quality of our own work and make future technology more accessible and useful going forward.
The Future of Community
The definition of community for GenZ is different from what I grew up with. My idea of a community was going to the park and seeing kids on the playground. Today, kids have fewer physical hangouts. Instead they hang out online in spaces like Twitch. These digital communities allow teens to have their own identities and play around with their social presence. Because GenZ uses the web to create a vast social community and develop real relationships online, their communities have the power to be both local and global.
What does this mean for the future of technology? It means we can control the context. This means allowing and encouraging GenZ to participate in grown-up conversations through technology. We also need to know how to protect ourselves and GenZ from turning toward Dark Social–the social sharing of content that occurs outside of what can be measured or tracked by web analytics. Because everything in Dark Social is anonymous, it often leads to bad (even illegal) behavior. To combat this, we have to promote a digital culture of openness that shifts how we identify ourselves and others through the web.
Communicate in All the Ways
GenZ’s communication style favors immediate, diverse, and ever-changing connections. For GenZ, phones are no longer for talking. GenZ spends more time texting and talking to Siri than they do talking to real people. They do not email. Why would they? An email isn’t real time. Emails don’t offer instant gratification or connection like text messaging or Snapchat. GenZ wants to create a memory and experience something together. This means they want to re-frame, reshape, and re-experience the moment. For them, a memory isn’t something that is set in stone. It’s a moment in time that is captured and built on.
The future of technology allows us to communicate in all the ways: to convey a mood, to show rather than describe how we feel, to constantly stay connected, even when we have nothing to say. We have to learn how to incorporate all kinds of technology into our communication, from voice to texting to video capture. GenZ communicates in bite sizes. They communicate in symbols. They speak in emoticons and emojis. The symbols provide context and create subtext for their private conversations. If we can understand what these symbols and shortcuts mean in our language, we can use the right visual and textual vocabulary in our technology and design.
Default to Private
GenZ often uses technology as a way to escape the everyday. This explains why they are usually the early adopters of new social networks. For them, new tech trends are like new wearables. For example, when I was a kid, everyone had slap bracelets. If you didn’t have one, you weren’t cool. For GenZ, being connected to the latest tech trend is their slap bracelet. They don’t want to be the only kid in school who isn’t on Twitch. GenZ is constantly online, but that doesn’t mean they want you to know everything about them—they understand how to hide and limit who can see their posts using privacy settings.
What’s our lesson? Educating yourself on how to use privacy settings is imperative. We are stepping away from wanting everyone to know everything to only wanting to share with those that we know. This trend will lead to more social networks adapting stronger privacy settings. Besides affecting how we advertise and communicate on these networks, this also means we need to learn how to protect ourselves from what we share. As we continue to create our own social brands using technology, we need to know how to portray ourselves without losing our privacy. And when we design new communication technology, we should make user information private by default.
Leave it Open
Being creative and playing is about combining off-screen and on-screen. GenZ wants to be able to create. They want to to see what they are creating on-screen. Zs want to do anything but read on a device. They want to tell stories and they are using their devices to do this, by creating art with their screens. They create short animations through different apps. They build entire movies out of photos. They do this, not for themselves, but for their family and friends.
When designing for the future, we need to leave our platforms and technology open. GenZ doesn’t want the story to end. They want to make their own choices. If there is an ending, it doesn’t appeal to them. We need to design for GenZ’s short attention spans, allowing them to operate multiple screens at the same time.
We also need to learn how to build for the worst case scenario. For example, GenZ cares less about having the latest technology than just being connected. Growing up, they typically inherited older devices from parents or siblings, so they became experts at connecting with slower tools. Our lesson? If you’re building for mobile, you need to develop apps that work well on older devices instead of focusing entirely on state-of-the-art smartphones.
Understanding Our Future
I thought back to my first online experience. No one showed me how to connect to the web. I was lucky to have a computer. I had to teach myself everything that I learned about technology.
This is not the case for GenZ. They will never need to figure out a dial-up modem or wait to connect. They were born with online technology, and navigating it has become primary for them. And one day, GenZ will be the ones who provide us with our future web education. Zs will be our teachers and we will be their students. But before that happens, we can learn from how GenZ uses the web: making our technology more secure, more connective, and more open.
What are your experiences with how GenZ uses the Internet or web-based technology? What are you learning from this new generation’s preferences and practices? Let me know in the comments below.