what does changing social media use reveal about the shifting anxieties of gen z?
Does migration to self-deleting media and trigger-happy liking mean that Gen Z are less anxious than millennials?
Businesses obsess over the differences between Gen Z and millennials. How do you market goods to them differently, Forbes asks. Business Insider has attempted to nail the key differences between the two generations. Brands are desperate to know how Gen Z’s purchasing habits differ, what will they respond to that millennials won’t. What comes out in these endless analyses is invariably a reiteration of the same boring point — Gen Z lives on social media, and have done all their lives.
Without disputing the validity of the data that these conclusions are based on, that Gen Z spends a lot of time on Instagram is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. Removing the conversation from the economic context it’s often been couched in allows us to zone in on more interesting and more subtle behavioural differences. What does changing social media use reveal about the shifting anxieties and social attitudes of Gen Z?
Two of the most tangible evolutions that we hear discussed colloquially are 1) the migration to disappearing media, and 2) increasing returns on likes and favourites.
The first change is obvious. Gen Z wants what’s temporary, they want short term social media, which is why they began to migrate en masse to the self-deleting messages and media of Snapchat. Instagram’s stories were a direct response to the threat of this new competition, and their creation managed to partially stem the exodus of Gen Z users — Snapchat growth slowed 82% after their launch. Now the two apps are locked in a back and forth struggle, with many younger users actually migrating back to Instagram.
The stats show that Gen Z seems to abhor the permanency of Facebook statuses, but why do they love disappearing posts? Dane Scott is a 19-year-old student who lives in New York. “This definitely will sound obnoxious,” he prefaces, “but I’ve actually never had Facebook. Even in middle school it felt so disingenuous to me. Everyone would have hundreds of ‘friends’ they didn’t even slightly care about.”
“Self-deleting ‘stories’ play into our contemporary instincts,” he continues. “I love that you can throw up random selfies or drunk videos or even a snapshot of an album you like — and it doesn’t really matter in the way an actual post might.”
Dr. Miriam Liss is a professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, and her interpretation of the self-deleting trend is much more bleak. “Gen Z was raised with constant warnings about how predators can get them through social media and how pictures of them online can haunt them forever. I think the desire to use self-deleting media like Snapchat is because those are seen as less dangerous,” she argues. “The images can't haunt them because they are temporary.”
"But while the newness of the phenomenon made us feel like innovators, it also inflamed our worst anxieties. We suddenly went from basic email to platforms which allowed us to reach everyone on earth — surely it’s not surprising that they became a harbour for all of our angst, both economic and social."
The second most prominent trend, increasing returns on likes, is a running joke among millennials. When Gen Z does deign to make permanent grid posts, they seem to give and receive ‘likes’ much more freely than their predecessors. While a millennial with 1000 Insta followers might be content with 100 likes on a post, a more common figure for their younger Gen Z sibling with the same following might be 500 likes.
Megan Rose is 18 and lives in Dublin. “Yes, I do notice that,” she says about the ‘likes’ differential between her and her older siblings. Echoing Dane’s earlier comments about Facebook fake friends, she attributes it to a more genuine use of social media: “If there’s a person I don’t like, I won’t like their picture or follow them in the first place,” she explains. “If in real life I wouldn’t associate with them, I don’t on social media either.” Is it possible that millennial ‘liking’ is more reserved because we follow people out of a sense of obligation, of some social anxiety, but are too bitter to actually engage with their content? If so, why is it that Gen Z is immune from this anxious behaviour?
Perhaps the social media use of Gen Z is more mature than those of us with the Millennial label. We think of ourselves as the vanguard of the social media age because we were there in the beginning, when the Pandora’s Box of Myspace/Bebo was opened. We were entrusted with the dawning of a new era, carrying the seeds of meme culture far and wide. We bravely jumped from the sinking ship of Bebo to the steadfast bow of Facebook. We were adapting, discovering brave new worlds.
We suddenly went from basic email to platforms which allowed us to reach everyone on earth, and while the newness of the phenomenon made us feel like innovators, it also inflamed our worst anxieties.
The early days of MSN messenger were a cosy period when people went online to spend time with friends, engaging on an individual level in little chat windows. The element of performativity was almost non-existent, which is perhaps why we will always look back at those nostalgic noughties, MSN/emo days as a time of utopian, emoji-saturated bliss. Then came the dark monolith of Myspace and Bebo, and with it the hulking shadow of paranoia and bargaining for spots in your friends’ top eight?
"Millennials cleave desperately to the permanence of grid posts and statuses. I mean, when people are telling us we may never own our own houses, is it any wonder we Instagram pictures of our dinner?"
When Instagram launched in 2010, it was against the backdrop of a global economic catastrophe, and a rapidly growing Facebook user base. As our economic fortunes declined and instability was the new normal, it seemed that the urge to preserve and to withhold crept over us like a disease. Studies showed that people were lurking and scrolling for hours on social media, but as most of us can attest from the average of 16 likes we garnered on our cringey Facebook statuses, people certainly weren’t liking everything. The image we’re left with is of millions of people peering jealously over their parapets and not really interacting -- exactly the sort of image of millennials Megan and Dane seem to describe. A youth under the malevolent tutelage of Myspace and Bebo and a growing sense of economic terror had taught us to ruthlessly ration our resources, to prize tit-for-tat reciprocity and cultivate a pretence of disinterest.
Perhaps this history explains why millennial social media use is defined by a distinct reticence, a sort of resentful begrudgery coupled with an anguished need for self-preservation. We cleave desperately to the permanence of grid posts and statuses. I mean, when people are telling us we may never own our own houses, is it any wonder we Instagram pictures of our dinner? And doesn’t it logically follow that we would refuse to like other people’s identical pictures of their own dinners? We are desperate to produce something concrete but are terrified to give our capital to other people. After all, unless my dinner is better than yours, how am I supposed to quantify my worth? In a world of unpaid internships, living is competitive. You can't spend social media capital in the shops.
So if, as Megan describes, Gen Z ‘liking’ is defined by genuineness and carelessness -- and if this carelessness is also the driving force behind the casual nature of self-deleting stories -- can we conclude that Gen Z is growing out of some the anxieties that have defined our online millennial lives? Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of the Innovation Group at J. Walter Thompson, told the New York Times in 2015 that while millennials are defined by “innocence lost” (told everything would be fine then enduring an economic crash), Gen Z have “had their eyes open from the beginning”, meaning that they are less affected emotionally by the economic fortunes both generations share. Is it possible that this reduced anxiety is what’s shaping their social media use?
Not according to Dr. Liss. “I think there is an increase, not a decrease in anxiety,” she counters. “This is being noticed at all levels. Part of this anxiety is a general sense of terror (think school shootings) but some of it has to do with social media itself.” So their carefree liking doesn’t mean they’re full of love and mellowness? Dr. Liss argues, rather, that it’s a case of dependency. “Gen Z does not remember a time before social media. Even as children, their worth has been measured by the number of likes that their pictures and posts get”, she points out.
Conor Lynch is 18 and lives in Dublin. As a member of Gen Z, he echoes Dr. Liss’s somewhat disheartening analysis. “Younger people love to be hit with continuous dopamine in the form of Instagram likes, and will do anything to get them,” he says. “They like every post they see to gain the likes in return. It’s a continuous cycle of liking each other’s posts to maintain your own popularity or status.”
Maybe the migration to self-deleting media and trigger-happy liking does show that Gen Z’s social media use is more sophisticated — but only insofar as it cleverly disguises the very real anxiety and self-doubt that millennials share, but are too clumsy to hide.