This is an excerpt from the 56th edition of The Write Fit, a fortnightly newsletter about writing, editing and proofreading, content marketing and good editorial practices for business, from Sarah Mitchell and Dan Hatch at Typeset.
That noise you can hear is our proofreader, Wendy, having a seizure over the headline you just read.
Which is fitting, because it’s about what I had when I was recently listening to a BBC Radio 4 program which was talking about internet influencers and generation gaps. It was a really interesting discussion about everything from intergenerational differences and unfairness (perceived and real) to the rise of new words and phrases, like “woke”, “biromantic” (not about the love of pens, sadly) and “dead name”. I encourage you to listen to it.
But the reason the discussion gave me cause for concern was the conversation about gen Z’s relationship with language and communication. This is a generation that has never known life without the internet (a cohort born between 1997 and 2012, apparently) and, according to linguist Sarah Ogilvie from the University of Oxford and from Stanford University, these kids are really, really using language differently to you and me.
Here are a few examples:
To give them their dues, the kids have actually developed an extremely sophisticated form of communication, inserting into text-based conversation the subtleties of tone and body language we associate with face-to-face interactions.
But that doesn’t mean the future is rosy. Dr Ogilvie spoke about a kindergarten teacher in California who noticed her five-year-old pupils now spoke to her “curtly, directly, devoid of respect, courtesy or politeness”. In short, they treat her like a human Alexa, because that’s what they think she is—a source of information.
The horrors do not stop there.
“My students told me they had calculated how long it took them to ride their bike to the lecture, listen to the lecture and then cycle back and they decided to watch the lecture instead, rather than do that,” Dr Ogilvie said. “I thought this must be a timesaving device but actually, when I dug deeper, it ended up being an attention-saving device.
“What they told me was when they listen to their lecture, they don’t listen to it on normal time, or on double-speed. They listen to it on triple-speed because that allows them to concentrate—because it is so hard to understand what the lecturer is saying, that they really have to focus. And when they have to focus, they can’t be looking at their social media and all their other screens and apps.”
Just a reminder, Dr Ogilvie lectures at Oxford and Stanford, two of the most prestigious universities in the world. These kids she’s talking about, who listen on triple-speed in order to concentrate, are some of the brightest young minds in the world.
For those of us who write for a living, who communicate for a living—and for anyone who needs to explain, share or promote anything that requires more than a TikTok video’s worth of attention—this is extremely worrying.
But should we really be worried? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
Dr Ogilvie said gen Z-ers are very savvy and are aware of the monetary value of their attention. One told her “I treat attention like a currency, and I can spend it on whatever I like”.
Is that so different to you and me and our relationship with attention, content, and time? I doubt it. The novel isn’t dead just because the kids are watching TikTok videos. (In fact, BookTok is extremely popular and a boon to publishing.) Twitter didn’t kill white papers, Facebook didn’t kill blogging and Alexa hasn’t killed the press release.
As gen Z grows up and becomes an important part of our audience, our job is to adapt to meet their needs—even if it gives us a little heart attack every now and again.
In other words, we just need to be better at telling our stories and securing our share of gen Z’s attention.
23 November 2021
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