Where have Gen Z and Gen Alpha gone?

24th January 2024 by David Fenlon

Toxic environments fueled by bots

Toxicity and trolling in a social setting are not new phenomena, especially if there are limited / no consequences to it. For instance, graffiti recovered in the excavations of ancient Pompei reveal all sorts of sordid and nasty commentary about different members of the town. These were all locals who knew who they were attacking and had to go to some lengths to hide their identity. The consequences of being found out could be lethal.

Contrast this to the modern manifestations of this behaviour by reading some of the comments left on the large social media platforms. An apparently small but very vocal group in any social media community can rain down unpleasantries and ad hominum attacks on individuals hourly if they wish. With the exception of LinkedIn, where unprofessional behaviour will follow your career and sales prospects around indefinitely, many people who troll others don’t even hide their identities on other platforms. The scale of the communities online has created anonymity, especially if your livelihood is not dependent upon your public persona.

This confrontational style based upon anonymity has grabbed eyeballs and click throughs. Since eyeballs and clicks translate into large advertising revenues and followers for political movements, the door has been opened for enormous numbers of bot profiles to be set up and be poisonous / provocative. Instagram had to delete 5.8 billion fake accounts in 20221, and TikTok removed 416 million accounts in the same year. This represents an enormous effort by the social media platforms themselves to clean up the environment, but to stamp this out is an impossible task.

Losing their shine: the relationship between big social media platforms and youngsters

Younger generations are becoming far less tolerant of the aggressive sensationalism that is becoming common thoroughfare on some of these platforms. They are also starting to recognize that some of the idealized imagery that lifestyle influencers are pushing are making them miserable.3 This is reflected in that Millennials are leaving many social media platforms, Gen Z are limiting their usage of platforms, and Gen Alpha are often foregoing social media platforms completely. Amnesty International’s survey of 13 – 24 year olds 2023 revealed 86% of respondents had previously blocked users in response to content they did not want to be exposed to and more than half of respondents had reported content on Instagram. Many felt however that their reports made across all platforms were either ignored or they continued to be exposed to posts “similar to the reported ones”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the imminent collapse of the big social media platforms – Facebook and TikTok are still registering moderate user growth. However, user habits are changing as audiences become more discerning on what they look at. If the trends are anything to go by, advertisers will need to drastically change their approach and budget distribution.

Online communities founded on specific interests are growing rapidly

Where the focus has shifted is crucial to understanding where younger audiences are flocking to. Most popular content platforms and applications now have a social media function of sorts, but the focus is the specialist content or the interest, not the commentary surrounding it. The massive growth of podcast listenership is symptom of this trend.8 Furthermore, in the influencer world there is an important difference between KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) and celebrity influencers. The former discuss specific topics of interest and can field commentary in relation to that interest. These types are growing their audiences consistently, and the audiences tend to be highly engaged. The latter are often looking for a reaction from an image or stunt that they pulled, which has great shock value but does not necessarily cultivate a highly engaged audience.

This pull away from the free-for-all, generic voicing of opinions on whatever topic incenses vocal commentators is an important landscape shift. What this means for large established social media platforms is more competition for younger audiences has arisen from content lead outlets, and that audiences on their platforms will be seeking out very specific content or interests. Generic brand advertising becomes increasingly ineffective in these circumstances. Unless the social media platforms are able to change their business models they may find themselves squeezed by audiences flitting to other options, content creators making demands around their IP, and brand budgets shifting away.

Gaming is a haven for Gen Z, Gen Alpha and Millennials

The world of gaming has become one of the key competitors for the attention of younger audiences. 3.3bn people game worldwide, with a skew towards those under 40.9 Whilst toxicity exists in these communities and is well documented, it is fundamentally limited because of the ease in which toxic accounts can be blocked, the consequence of losing all prestige and points of being blocked, and because commentary isn’t the focus of the game. Gameplay takes up over 90% of interactions and whilst bots can be used to win multiplayer games, their effectiveness as social trolls is negligible.

Under these circumstances it is easy to see why gaming is held in high regard by Gen Alpha and Gen Z. This is reflected in the fact that 77% of Gen Z say they play video games to relieve stress and anxiety and 65% have developed new relationships through gaming.10 Contrast studies between playing video games and social media consumption have shown that playing video games has a positive effect on mental health whilst the latter has had a distinctly negative effect. Again, this is down to how humans use the platforms, rather than whether the platforms are inherently good or bad themselves. But it is this human element that may give brands food for thought – if they want to attract Gen Z and Gen Alpha they may wish to review their approach.