Youtube and Generation Z
In 1991, Neil Howe and William Strauss invented the 'generational theory', which means that every 20 or 25 years a new generation is born, having different character traits, habits and identities, which make them unique. There has been many studies and sociology investigations on the topic, distinguishing Generation Y, the so called “millennials”, born from 1980 to 2000, from the most recent Generation (known as gen Z), for example. I was born in 2003, therefore I am a part of Generation Z. It consists almost entirely of teenagers and children, it hasn’t yet reached the academic maturity necessary to diagnose itself, but that is exactly what I intend to do.
Let it be clear: I have no formal experience in sociology, I simply aim to use my experience to understand how Generation Z’s cultural identity was formed and is still being formed.
It is undeniable that the internet plays a fundamental role in this process, but that’s not only for gen Z’s. The millennials, in fact, were the first to be born in a world connected by the internet. However, the 1990 network has almost no similarities with that of 2010. While the internet in the 1990s became popular and the personal computer became increasingly accessible, by the end of the 2000s it had already established itself as an indispensable tool. With the 2010s came the inevitable explosion of social networks, like Facebook and MySpace. The beginning of this new internet, easy to use and indispensable, coincided with generation Z’s childhood. These sites have shaped us. However, what attracts me the most (and is also the most formative) is YouTube.
Youtube has gone through countless changes, both structural and related to the site’s content. What’s most interesting to me is the year 2010, when the site was 5 years old and I was 7. In this Youtube, the infamous ‘vloggers’ (video bloggers) are born, an extremely outdated term, but that perfectly defines this era. In 2010, the platform had already been successful, but never before had it created real celebrities. It is important to note that every generation is formed, in parts, by the media they consume; the “baby boomers” of the 1940s were marked by the popularization of television, for example. Even with these similarities, what happened with YouTube was unprecedented. The people behind these videos were not actors, often not even charismatic. Posting videos on Youtube in 2010 was an unpaid activity and, more importantly, without social prestige, that is, the people and content popularized by the site had never achieved notoriety.
A perfect example is the “Let’s Play”s, a genre in which a person (rarely, a group) films themselves and their reactions while playing a video game. The concept is practically extraterrestrial to other generations, considered (with some reason) stupid. I have to admit that defending Let’s Plays in a mature and logical way is a bit surreal but it’s also a dream of my 11-year-old self. When analyzed in an academic way, the genre makes perfect sense: it is extremely easy to watch, does not require much on the part of the audience, being perfect for children; it has the audiovisual appeal of the ‘angry game’ as well as the youtuber’s personality. When you think of it that way, Let’s Plays sell the same product as a soap opera, for example, the audiovisual element; accessibility and personality are common to both.
Another thing all genres born on Youtube have in common is the revolutionary character, even though most of the time there is no intention. In this context, the parallel with the millenials is interesting, initially characterized by the hyper consumerism of the 90s, eventually creating non-standard norms and entertainment, such as grunge culture. Generation Z also suffered from this same process, however, alternative culture was not produced by them, but developed independently. This nature of the site attracted a massive audience of young people who felt represented. Youtubers validate their personalities as well as giving these young people a community. And therein lies the real influence of Youtube.
The word is 'contrast'. Gen Z’s entire identity was formed through a process that can be summed up in that word, especially when talking about Youtube. The platform, which aimed for anonymity, ended up giving birth to celebrities; the individualism to choose a subgroup on the internet and the subsequent sense of community; the search for non-standard media eventually becoming the standard; the platform advertised as an independent space becoming a cruel monopoly owned by a multinational. In reality, this process reflects us: my generation lives in an extremely individualistic world, but we hold communities, we want change, but we have no power. We seek identity and uniqueness in a standardized society.
The biggest paradox is our nostalgia. The most nostalgic period of our lives was marked by truly useless content, our childhood composed of media without pretension that is made someday and forgotten the next. Even in a place as expendable as Youtube, those videos attracted us for reflecting some kind of reality, for soothing our sensibility, validating and comforting us.