The Social Media Diets of Generation Z: Twitter, previously a hub of digital journalism, has failed to attract Generation Z attention as a source of serious news.

Twitter has become a hub for journalism online. The ability to communicate ideas quickly and briefly has made it the apparent perfect platform for distributing news. Generation Z, however, has engaged with the platform less than older generations and is less likely to go to it for serious news.  

Generation Z uses social media, unsurprisingly, more than any other age group. Interestingly, though, the rates of use for many services, such as Facebook and Twitter have decreased. The net gain in social media use among my generation can be explained, then, by a movement towards new and more diverse platforms. 35% more Gen-Z-ers than Millennials use Snapchat, for example.

The most popular social media service among Generation Z is YouTube, with 84% of the cohort using it. Facebook comes second place, at 80%. Only 44% of the generation are on Twitter, representing a small decrease compared to Millennials.

Twitter has the reputation of being the hippest media platform, but it appears that Generation Z does not use it that regularly. This was backed up by my in-person research. Most of the people I talked to had Twitter, or had had a Twitter, but rarely posted. None used Twitter for anything other than entertainment. News was gotten through news sites, apps, or current events concerned channels on YouTube. Among the other Generation Z Correspondents here at the Pavlovic today, only a couple had a viable handle as of two weeks ago.

Gold-Fish Attention Spans

Still, marketers like to generalize. Look up ‘Generation Z’ and you will find a lot of cringe-inducing content instructing you and your company how to use various platforms to make us buy your product or vote for your candidate. Instead of focusing on products, a blog focusing on ideal Generation Z marketing strategies stated, focus on creating content that your community is excited to engage in; focus on being relatable. This advice sounds sound, but consider the grotesque menagerie of snarky, fast-food brand Twitters which have been the result. Or, consider the proliferation of gaffes which would result from politicians with Snapchats, a campaign strategy recommended by a consulting firm to the Australian government in order to make candidates seem more authentic.

It is clear when you read them, central to all of these Generation Z engagement strategies is the supposed short attention spans of Generation Z. The most repeated figure is 8 seconds. This was hard to find a source for. Further, it is unclear what is meant by attention span.

8 seconds is especially hard to come to terms with when one considers the amount of time Generation Z will put to binge-watching an entire Netflix series, or to watching an un-engaging YouTube video. We can, when the occasion calls, be exceptionally attentive.

Attention Spans Actually Increasing

A study from, of all places, Prezi seems to confirm this. According to the report by the online presentation service, attentions spans are actually increasing among younger people. The study did not differentiate between millennials and Generation Z, but it found that younger participants have attention spans greater than those of Generation X and Baby Boomers.

This study appeared to use a different definition of attention span. Participants in the Prezi study were tested for how long they could stay engaged with a task, while the studies that produced the 8 second maximum were looking at how long, on average, a user engaged with any given piece of content. The Prezi study concluded that the much smaller numbers produced by other studies are representative not of a decreased attention span—but of a more selective one.

Prezi has a stake in this result. The study, which Prezi funded, suggested that more engaging content was the solution to ensnaring young people’s more selective attention. Prezi markets itself as a more engaging alternative to its main competitor, Microsoft Office PowerPoint. If a study concludes that more engaging content is the key to capturing a younger audience, then, this is to Prezi’s advantage.

Regardless of the corporate incentive to get this result, a longer but more selective attention span appears to match the experiences of the Gen-Z-ers I spoke to. (We must have a better genonym than Gen-Z-ers. Leave your suggestions in the comments.) Every one reported being chafed by the emphasis on our supposed fish-like ability focus.

Or look at the views on many a YouTube video essay. “Sherlock is Garbage, And Here’s Why,” for example, has just over three million views at time of writing. It’s over an hour and a half long. My suggestions bar is full of other examples. Clicking almost at random: “A Lukewarm Defence of Fifty Shades of Grey (The Movie),” 65 minutes , 683 thousand views; “Fight Club: Cultural Fascism & The Colonization of Victimhood,” 56 minutes, 88 thousand views; “The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy” Parts 1, 2 & 3, collectively 100 minutes, 1.1 million views on the least viewed part (Part 2). These are long-form media studies essays, people sitting on their beds talking, not bingeable Netflix programming. But all the videos above still have a significant Generation Z audience. If it is worth paying attention to, and sometimes even when it is not, Generation Z can focus up.

The Alt-Right Advantage

One group which has taken full advantage of the attention spans of the young is the Alt-Right. While Alt-Right Twitter exists, the ideology of the movement has also made use of long-form essays to communicate its ideology. Virulent on YouTube, there are an abundance of Alt-Right and Alt-Light creators who will ramble on for longer than the videos linked above. These videos have much lower production values than those above but still receive significant viewership.

Generation Z is hungry for in-depth, long content. Instead of dicing our attention spans, living in a media environment full of content which began bite-sized and has since gotten shorter in order to attract us and our imaginary tiny attentions has made Generation Z long for an alternative. The Alt-Right has seen this need and moved to fill it, and Gen-Z-ers are so hungry for long content to eat anything they’re given.

So, Back to Twitter

So, an 8-seconds attention span is fake news. This, perhaps, explains some of our lack of engagement with Twitter. Twitter has the shortest form among the main social media platforms, and so, though they still use it at similar rates to past generations, the young are uninclined to go to it for information on more substantial issues.

Though I was limited to talking to college students and so the sample was biased, most people I talked to got their news from news apps (or if they were less affluent [like the author], they got their news from visiting news sites in incognito mode to get around article limits). Generation Z is hungry for long-form, not 140-character, journalism. Real news must move to fill this desire or lose ground to the fake news of the Alt-Right.

Jonathan Compo

Jonathan is a Generation Z voice at the Pavlovic Today. He is studying Theatre and Biology at Georgetown University. His interests include healthcare, arts, culture and the environment.