A_Roundtable: Gen Z Online: Control, Expression, Connection
A roundtable discussing the youth culture at the intersection of tech and media
Generational segmentation and labeling sucks.
It’s antiquated and arbitrary. And especially for a generation like Gen Z, which is objectively the most diverse, attempting to identify common denominators and paint the broadest strokes of representation for roughly 70,000,000 people is absolutely ridiculous.
That said... There's still value in decoding the generalized cohort of emerging adults to better understand shifting values and differences and ultimately culture at large.
The following conversation is an edited “round table” discussing youth culture, particularly life online, and while we know we cannot represent all voices, we want to remain mindful of the discussion’s limitations and bias.
But the fact that “fluidity” as a buzzword wasn’t mentioned once... it’s a success and trustworthy convo in my book.
Lore Oxford (LO) is a researcher, cultural theorist and strategist, with 10+ years experience in brand consulting, and a focus on decoding digital cultures.
Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel (AKG) is a brand strategist and cultural theorist who earned her doctorate in cultural studies, since consulting on cultural fluency and inclusive marketing.
Andrew Roth (AR), 24, is the Founder and CEO of the Gen Z consultancy dcdx.
Taylor Crain (TC) is a Gen Z cultural change leader, transforming mindsets to storytelling, design, and policy through equitable L&D, and is the Player Policy Writer at EA.
MinJi Joo (MJ) is a Gen Z Brooklyn-based Korean American creative strategist and mental health advocate in the pursuit to culturally redefine advertising.
MK: To understand youth culture, it’s perhaps best to first identify the underlying vectors which are most influential.
To kick us off, what do you think are those tectonic shifts?
MJ: Gen Z has been hit with uncontrollable, youth-sucking events: unprecedented student debt, a pandemic, persisting economic crisis (of their own and their parents), heated social uproar – the list could go on.
Gen Z has been robbed of any form of childlike youth.
This is why they are uniquely wanting more control — like the way they express themselves on social media, music, fashion, activism, makeup, etc.
AKG: Democratized access to digital content creation has lowered barriers to self-making and community-building.
Movements towards radical self-acceptance have blurred the lines between the public sphere and what was once too personal to share, kept behind closed doors, shushed, or left unsaid.
From “no pain, no gain” to over-sharing and collective coping — in an anxiety-ridden era of constant connectivity and heightened political polarization, social hyper-intimacy is a critical undercurrent of contemporary youth culture.
MK: There’s a cultural pendulum sway towards honesty, vulnerability and a differentiated take on presentation control.
From Millennial self-posturing, to more accurate self-representation.
This in conjunction with the continued de-stigmatization of mental health and shared trauma is radically shaping youth culture as we know it.
AR: If the internet is making it easier to belong, to find community and to explore our identities, then why are 1-in-3 teen girls seriously considering suicide? Why are 42% of high school students feeling persistently sad or hopeless?
The internet is powerful and has the potential to do good as mentioned. But right now, the internet is a cultural weapon our society still can not harness for good.
TC: "Yes and" to Andrew’s point. Speaking to U.S. teen/young adult experiences, the hyper-uncertainty of compounding intermittent crises (climate, reproductive rights, trans rights, inflation, recession, war, pandemic, political polarization, student debt, loss of social safety nets), being gaslit by the government, big business, and the media narrative of "back to business as usual" when things have gotten increasingly more absurd and normalized... is depressing.
Many like to simplify and reduce this social and cultural context by attributing it all to social media. But for myself and many other Gen Z, many are using social media to cope and find validation in the community (the self-care industrial complex is a whole other conversation entirely).
Many Gen Z realize the limitations of mainstream social media and their algorithms as profit-driven spaces, but have nowhere else really to go given the decline in safe, offline spaces.
LO: Gen Z grew up amid a restructuring of the fabric of social culture. Digitization – alongside populist politics, shifting family values, and more dynamic living arrangements – has put many Gen Zers on the back foot when it comes to laying social roots. Likely contributing to this uneasiness and lack of offline spaces.
In this atomized social landscape, connection of any kind is sacred.
MK: Connection in the collective sense is often fulfilled, but lost in the intimate sense. In other words, youth culture is perceived as more “connected and intimate” than ever before, yet 1-to-1 closeness and genuine belonging lags as Andrew pointed out.
These are of course not equal, nor substitutes for one another.
This is also against a backdrop of trivial tribalism and heated debates replacing open discussion online.
MJ: Division runs deep — things are often only seen as one of two extremes: liberal or conservative, masculine or feminine, cis or trans, pro- or anti-.
Online media’s hunger and demand for headlines leave no room for nuanced thoughtful discussion. And for anyone who challenges a popular opinion or personality, they’re at risk.
The Internet, as vast as it is, is quite oversimplified in nature and has little patience or room for intersectional identities.
MK: It feels people are also quicker to hop on movements. Algorithms and bubbles dictate hard, and escaping comes with conflict.
AR: De-influencing, while fading fast, was a signal of a widespread shift in mentality of young people towards digital culture and the bubble of internet fame.
Emma Chamberlain mentioned on her podcast last summer, “There are more people famous today for being famous than for actually having a talent... there are so many internet celebrities that it has gone stale... Now we’re following these people to see what famous people are doing, rooted in nothing of real value.”
I believe, to Emma’s point, we’re getting dangerously close to the internet’s fault line. And it just needs a few tremors to disrupt the entire landscape.
LO: With younger generations feeling the pressure of always having to be on, and creator burnout more prevalent than ever, we’ll likely continue to see social spaces carved out online where people can participate without presenting imagery of their lives and faces at all times.
Not every social platform has to be about you.
TC: I think there is a deepening desire amongst Gen Z to be "real" — to be able to have a multi-dimensional identity online and to build community around shared experiences (not just interests) in a way that de-centers spectacle and doesn't feel like you have to have it all figured out.
Every aspect of your social media experience can't and shouldn't be commodified.
AKG: We are caught up in the convoluted tension between historic high social awareness of outdated legacies, which define lived existence, and the crushing weight of age-old systems that hold us back.
TC: Yes, I feel like something that is swept under the rug by the media is how many people lost their elders to COVID. So what is happening is not just loss of institutional trust, loss of peers to gun violence, loss of key developmental time to the pandemic, but also loss of key sources of stability and wisdom.
That is super chaotic.
What makes me hopeful, though, is how Gen Z is democratizing learning through digital spaces and discerning how age-old systems and mindsets are holding us back.
Sure, some of it isn't accurate and hate is being emboldened (looking to the toxic masculinity of Andrew Tate fandom). But I see these anti-oppression spaces being created and I see these offline and digital communities being made and think "the kids are gonna be alright." Including me because I'm also Gen Z (laughs).
LO: Which brings us to subcultures.
Subcultures traditionally referred to communities of people within a larger culture, who shared beliefs which deviated from the mainstream’s beliefs or codes.
A lot of the discourse around youth culture currently mistakes aesthetics and micro-trends (from Gorpcore to the Weird Girl Aesthetic) as subcultures.
But these aesthetics are exactly that — video game skins for this generation’s digital identities, which act as a means of creative experimentation with identity in an online and offline space. They’re a red herring. What you care about is no longer tied to what you look like.
For real subcultures, look to digital spaces that house lived-in cultural movements, whose participants have a proven history of coming together around ideals they believe in. See r/FuckCars, r/GuerillaGardening, r/AuntieNetwork, etc.
MK: There's been a reversal of the figure and ground when it comes to subcultures.
Subcultures were once secondary to the mainstream. But today, the multiplicity of concurrent niche interests take center-stage (whether they’re algorithmically driven and fake or not).
Today’s subcultures are less about rebelling against the norm — because there is no longer a traditional norm, and more about the mere camaraderie. Fandoms. Case and point.
AKG: Subcultures used to thrive on the sidelines. From alternative lifestyle to fashion, the delineation was crystal clear: us, not “them.”
Digitization moved the periphery closer to the center.
The “underground” is no longer a geographic boundary, and deviance is no longer a site of moral panics that incite fear of the “other.”
MK: This therefore affects “cool” — no?
MJ: When it comes to “your brand,” getting more granularly unique is the pressure which is now put on content creators and youth.
It’s a no-no if you are a “normie” (AKA “uncool” person with statistically common background amongst the rest of the world). You have to be a million things and more if you wanna get an official badge of “coolness.”
But being “cool” is not punk anymore; being cool is now just lucrative. This has made cool meaningless.
AKG: “Counter-culture” is now part of the viral spectacle. It is what gets our attention and drives clicks, shares, and likes. If we want to know how culture will evolve, we only need to pay attention to what’s brewing on the farthest margins.
TC: Something I always love to ask is "counter" to what? "Cool" to whom? What is the unspoken dominant cultural narrative and identity that Gen Z is shirking off, which in this way is making it mainstream? Who's cultures are being repurposed and appropriated? Gen Z is rejecting their identity being defined solely by the social media they consume.
They see the man behind the curtain in Oz. And they think he is trying too hard. They have collectively identified certain mannerisms, dress, and taste as too mainstream and icky to be followed.
Now it's about being subtle, effortless, and just the right amount of different.
And this is happening without much attention to the power dynamics of why the taste of certain demographics is on the margins.
MK: When thinking about what’s important to Gen Z, there’s a lot of focus on those margins (although still not enough). The fringes are the future. But perhaps a more apt approach is to also just remember what’s important to young people.
The answer doesn’t change much: an exploration of self, interests and the formation of tastes and styles. The manifestations of tools change, but the need is everlasting.
AR: True. Explorations of identity and taste formation have been part of developmental theory for decades.
But I believe what’s important to understand about Gen Z is not only the manifestation of the tools available to do so as you point out, but mainly the locus of control in using those tools.
Exploring identity for many generations was an active process sought out in controlled ways. Go to the record store and find the music you like. Try different clothing styles until you find what fits. But what happens when identity exploration is forced?
MK: What feels most unique about this generation is the extent in which there’s preference interference around identity. Algorithms and audiences at scale push taste and dictate exposure, adoption, etc.
AR: When before you want to — or should — think about who you are, what you like and how you want others to think about you, the maintenance of an Instagram profile forces you to shape an identity you may not even believe in yourself.
When the FYP (For Your Page) vigorously feeds you niche content, is it because you like it, or do you end up liking it because it’s what you’re being fed?
Which way does the arrow of influence point?