The ‘always-on’ world of Generation Y and what we can learn from it

A young Gen Y iphone user (photo by JL! from Flickr - Creative Commons)It’s often tempting to see changes happening around you as somehow far more significant than they are. The ‘new‘ is seductive, and we all want to feel that momentous things are occuring that we’re just lucky enough to witness.

What’s happening with internet-connected smartphones?

Looking at the current growth of smartphones where sales grew 50% in the 1st quarter of 2009 (year on year), now accounting for 1 in 4 of all phones sold, and particularly at the way that Apple doubled their share of the smartphone market with the iPhone,   it is clear there is something going on with huge numbers of people becoming ‘connected’ to the web while mobile during their every waking hour.

But what does that really mean? Is this change really significant? What is this kind of ‘always-on’ / ‘always-on-me’ technology actually used for and what kind of impact is always-on going to have on the group that uses it?

Well once people get smartphones (and particularly iPhones) this is what they do with them in Comscore’s mid ’08 European study of smartphone usage:

  • 80% of users browse web-based news sources
  • 56% use web search
  • 32% watch mobile TV or video
  • 42% use a social networking site or blog
  • 70% listen to music
  • 70% use email

In the broader mobile market Comscore reckons that more than 22 million people accessed web content daily via mobile in January 2009.

Cwipes! What a scary proposition! The newspaper industry has hardly adjusted to the need to rewrite and present copy differently online, now they’ve got think about mobile as well?

What is this kind of ‘always-on’ smartphone connected world going to be like for me as an individual?

Fortunately even before smartphones came along there was a demographic that was always-on. These are the guys who were born from1980: “Generation Y”. That’s 60 million+ people in the US.

Texting, texting 1..2..3 (photo by me and the sysop on Flickr - Creative Commons)Generation Y loves phones more than any other device.

For example, how many text / SMS cell phone messages do you send a month?

30? …. 50? …. perhaps you’d consider yourself a heavy texter who sends 100 a month (roughly 3 a day)?

Gen Y teens send 2200 texts a month.

It’s an absolutely stunning number of itself but it starts to make more sense when you do a little math.

As a Gen Y’er explained to me it’s just keeping in touch with about 10 people during the day with 7 messages sent over the course of the day to each person. 

“I’d feel naked walking into a cafe without a phone,” she said,  “the first thing I do when I sit down with my coffee is text.”

Just as the Gen X’ers had trouble explaining how they were just ‘chatting’ on the phone to their parents (who saw the phone as something you only used for a special ‘transactional’ purpose), Gen Y use text messages more like status updates which can be broadcasted to multiple people in their phone address book.When refusal offends ... text (photo by PU/L on Flickr - Creative Commons)

The text message also carries a relatively low level of commitment. If a social event is being planned it’s possible to give only qualified approval by text, and then, because of the multi-threaded conversations going on, preserve your options to converge with whomever of your friends make sense in just a few hours time (read short term social planning). 

Difficult conversations and conflict are avoided by text but equally you may end up maintaining more ‘low-level’ relationships (notice how on Facebook your Gen Y friends have 200 or so Friends versus the Facebook average of  120).

Gen Y’ers of my acquaintance claim that they have more problems with friends who just won’t give them ‘attention-share’. 

 ‘Status updates’? ‘Social committment’? It is all beginning to sound a bit Facebooky isnt’ it? Well according to Facebook 1 in 4 active Facebookers are accessing Facebook via  mobile device anyway (or about 60 million people).

Gen Y are just at the more intense end of an always-on curve that most of us are moving along anyway (50% of internet users now use Facebook) which is why Gen Y are worth watching.

How do I know when I’m becoming an always-on digital native?

Here are some ways to tell you’re becoming an always-on digital native, and how Gen Y seems to deal with the issues raised:

  1. Feel like your Twitter Followers are more in touch with you than your family? Well Gen Y have been that way for a few years (unless their family are included in their updates!). Get into your Gen Y relative’s status updates!
  2. Concerned about feeling out of the loop unless you’re constantly in touch with your friends? Don’t worry, unless you’re exceeding social contact with more than 10 people a day you’re just acclimating to the environment shared by the rest of  digital natives. Despite the fact that you’ve only got 50 Friends on Facebook you need to be aware that the numbers of close friends people keep in touch with is usually totally independent of this (most Facebooker’s only regularly exchange info with 5% or less of their Friends).
  3. Want instant answers to any question? Gen Y’ers have grown up with Google since it really began to make waves around 2000 (the oldest Gen Y’ers were 20). They know how to use Google’s advanced search operators and they expect to instantly be able to find the answer to any question ‘of fact’ (analysis may take a little longer).  If you don’t know for example what the [site:] operator does on Google find out
  4. Worried about the fragmentation of your attention when you’re trying to do original work? Well at least you’re thinking about it. 36% of UK broadband users (aged 16-55) state they have both the TV and Internet on in the same room every day. On weekdays the time when TV and Internet multi-tasking is most likely to happen is around 8pm in the evening (TNS/YouTube Media & Audience Study December 2008). Be aware that not every Tweet, IM, txt or email requires any level of committed response, and your spelling or grammar doesn’t have to be correct when and if you do respond.  Put off your next bout of Facebook voyeurism till the evening or weekend when you’ve got the time. At work why not cruise through the constant stream of interruptions with an uninterrupted iPod-driven music beat, set Outlook to pick mail once an hour, and get to know the web-based productivity tools out there like Pipes or RSS readers for cobbling together streams of information in structured ways that don’t all end up in your email inbox where they have to be dealt with.
  5. Tempted to send an email or IM to deal with every eventuality? Gen Y’ers for all their obsessions seem to know the limits of electronic communication (perhaps those equally endless hours of movie consumption have taught them about body language?). Remember all that non-verbal communication and get out there and actually meet people. If you’re at work, call a project meeting so you can check out the negative body language of the guy who is not saying anything over electronic channels. Use the digital native tools that are out there to help arrange ‘face time’. Online dating is ok too: 1 in 10 American internet users claim to have used dating sites even back in 2006.
  6. Thinking about what other people are thinking all the time? Living in an always-on culture with an always-present peer group can make you feel insecure when you don’t receive instant positive feedback on your latest choice of fashion accessory, and let’s face it someone has to do the jobs out there that don’t come with a support group (for instance being an HR Manager in the middle of a recession). A level of concern about Gen Y ‘neediness’ for approval is easy to find on the web, and in some cases has also branched out into a belief that creativity/originality might be harder for Gen Ys. It’s a concern that arguably appears unfounded: there’s quite a lot of evidence that Gen Y’ers strive to separate themselves from the herd, and are quite self-aware when it comes to dependency on others. Do both these things yourself.
  7. Worried about privacy in the always-on electronic village? This seems a harder one to deal with. In this case you have the edge on Gen Y because you can remember youthful indiscretions that did come back to bite you! Think about the implications of privacy online, and use Facebook’s privacy settings in particular. For example, you probably don’t want your Facebook profile showing up above your LinkedIn profile when a prospective employer does a search and you even may not want registered Facebook users to be able to search for you if they’re clients as you don’t want to risk offending them by refusing their ‘Friend’ requests.

Always-on smartphones. Internet 1995 all over again?

3G Unplugged - why your iPhone becomes an OffPhone (photo by Simon Doggett on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons)A last point worth noting is that the 3G always-on world of mobile devices is not just something that society isn’t quite ready for.  Neither are the telcos. 

AT&T’s experience with handling the surges of traffic caused by iPhones has been bumpy. iPhones are basically the bandwidth-hogging Hummer of the smartphone world which can make the experience of using 3G connections patchy as the network is just overwhelmed (try getting through the online traffic jam whilst sitting in a tech related conference session with a couple of hundred other delegates some time).

The telcos are scrambling to catch up but at the same time they are already dealing with a rapid increase in the use of bandwidth-hogging video and audio – so the backdrop for them is challenging even when they’re trying to pass this stuff down wires rather than than through the air.

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Article posted by @Drivelry on September 11, 2009

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