When it comes to their digital lives, young people are strikingly different from older generations.
This was the key message from Gary Liu, Founder and CEO of Terminal 3, who moderated a session on Web3 tools, AI and younger generations at the World News Media Congress 2023. To set the stage for the discussion, he presented some key characteristics of the “Generation Z” – people born between 1995 and 2010.
“We’re talking about a generation whose current behaviour on the internet is unlike anything else that we’ve known before. They spend the vast majority of their waking hours in the digital world. Their digital identities are more important to them than their real-life identities. And they spend their money in the environments where they can augment their digital identities,” Liu said.
He highlighted five specific points that set Gen Z apart from older generations.
They are content creators: In addition to consuming a lot of content (in developed countries, they spend 10 hours a day consuming online content), many members of Gen Z are deeply interested in content creation: “Not only is digital creation a viable aspiration and career for them, it now already makes up a huge amount of their activity in their daily lives,” Liu said.
They are digital owners: Gen Z regularly spends money to buy digital assets (65% have done so), and so-called “virtual” assets are actually very real to them. Overall, $54 billion is spent on digital goods worldwide each year, Liu said. “That’s double the amount of money that is spent on the music industry.”
They value anonymity and expression: Many members of Gen Z prefer to use an avatar as their primary identity, and most consider digital-first impressions as more important than real-world impressions. In general, the more privacy they have, the more likely they are to express themselves.
They live in vibrant digital communities: 81% of Gen Z rely on online communities as their primary source of information. These communities, often formed around common causes and interests, gather in places that may be completely unfamiliar to older generations: For example, Roblox, a gaming platform, sees 60 billion messages sent every day. (By comparison, WhatsApp averages 100 billion messages a day.)
They are conflicted AI users: On the one hand, 65% of Gen Z actively use AI assistants (such as Apple’s Siri), and the majority are generally positive about AI. However, 44% are concerned about how AI will affect their work and careers in the future.
Why publishers should create emerging technologies beat
Given that large parts of Gen Z are at least curious about Web3 features such as the blockchain, cryptocurrencies and NFTs, this might be an area with potential for publishers to cover more deeply if they want to reach more young people.
Yet many newsrooms struggle when it comes to covering virtual worlds.
“I think mainstream media comes in when something dramatic happens. It’s very reactive coverage,” said Irene Jay Liu, Regional Director, Asia & the Pacific at International Fund for Public Interest Media.
“Also, you find people who are not subject matter experts suddenly trying to grapple with what the technology and the underlying industry is,” she added.
One particular aspect of Web3 that has received little news attention, she said, is the societal impact of the technology. While something like the Bored Ape Yacht Club might get a lot of attention, issues such as the blockchain-based game Axie Infinity and its impact on thousands of young people in the Philippines tend to get less coverage in the news media.
She called on media companies to cover innovative technologies and their impact on society in a more systematic way, for example by creating a dedicated beat for it.
“I think that’s the beat I would recommend that a media company start if they are looking to get into this. Not just crypto, but all the amazing things that are happening that are on the edge of technology, and that are just coming into focus.”
Blockchain’s impact on the business of journalism
Many publishers are also looking at Web3 and wondering if it will allow them to create new revenue streams. A key part of this is NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which can be used to create authenticity and ownership for digital assets.
For example, Quittner’s company Decrypt, which is a site dedicated to Web3-related news, has been “exploring [NFTs] as a way to gate access to our content,” he said.
However, Irene Jay Liu argued that NFTs are most appropriate in the context of specific artefacts that people want to own and value, such as works of art. News content is different because people don’t tend to want to “collect” or “own” journalism the way they might want to own art.
Yet some media companies have successfully experimented in this area, said Gary Liu, such as Time magazine, which has auctioned off original renderings of its cover stories as NFTs.
But even if daily news content is not necessarily a good fit for the NFT economy, the blockchain as an underlying technology still offers interesting possibilities for news publishers. In particular, content preservation is a promising area for experimentation, as anything added to the blockchain cannot be removed or altered.
Especially in countries where journalism is under attack and digital publishers are being forced to remove or alter their archives, having a blockchain system as a permanent repository for content is an attractive idea.
Initiatives such as Filecoin are working to make the process of adding content to the blockchain easier, Quittner said, adding that every article on Decrypt is uploaded to a part of the Filecoin infrastructure.
Will GenAI reduce or increase inequalities?
Finally, the panellists touched on the theme that had run through many of the Congress sessions: the rise of generative AI and the impact it could have on news publishers around the world.
Irene Jay Liu highlighted the threat of a widening technology gap between emerging and developed countries, and the fact that leading GenAI technologies are being developed in the West, “with the biases that come with being in certain geographies, without perhaps the full understanding of the unintended consequences as they manifest in other parts of the world.”
In addition, journalists in emerging markets are often restricted to using free tools, which means that the full potential of GenAI will be out of their reach, as the more advanced features are likely to be reserved for paid tools.
In terms of the best strategies for publishers to approach generative AI, a very illustrative distinction came up during a discussion of the differing views of Bloomberg and the Financial Times.
Quittner said comparing the two companies is actually a “false dichotomy,” and that the different approaches are largely a consequence of the vast amount of financial information that Bloomberg has thanks to its Terminal business.
“I think if you have a valuable database, a valuable archive, then it makes sense to train that archive on AI,” he said.
“I do believe it adds value to your media company to have AIs that are trained on that. I think people may very well go to a site and converse with a chatbot. … I think that stuff is going to get more and more fun and interesting as time goes by.”
‘If there’s a problem, Gen Z will fix it.’
The two panellists closed the session with their key messages on what publishers need to know about Gen Z and their online behaviour.
Irene Jay Liu stressed that young people are more likely to relate to individuals rather than institutions or companies: “The key critical issue for journalism and journalists now is the fact that Gen Z want to be creators. They are creators, they trust creators, they trust people.”
“In the Philippines, [the current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr] was elected without having done a single interview with a mainstream news publication or engaging in a debate. Nano influencers powered in a large part his victory. Mainstream media was almost cut out of conversation.
“I think that is the existential crisis. Because the users have gone elsewhere, and they trust other sources. So how do we bring journalism to the creator community? How do they take on journalistic ethics?”
Quittner closed the discussion on an optimistic note: “I think if there’s a problem, Gen Z will fix it.”
“People in the media business have dealt with violent, constant disruption for the last three decades. And that’s not going to stop. Thank God there’s a Gen Z that’s going to come to figure it out.”