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Idealog—in the ideas business

Meet Generation C: Renaissance revisited

Meet Generation C feature

Idealog May/June 2006, page 36. Illustration by Greg Hodgson/saltdesign.co.nz. Design by Michael Chalberg/saltdesign.co.nz

The spread of digital technology has exploded the number of video moviemakiers, bloggers and bedroom musicians. Suddenly we're all poets and publishers. Are we witnessing a creative renaissance? Or drowning under a wave of wannabeees? Idealog introduces Gen C—the generation of digital creatives remaking the way we buy, sell and communicate

Ant Timpson is a film buff from way back. This self-confessed movie nerd knows more about the big screen than most die-hard rugby fans know about the injuries of Buck Shelford—and there have been a few.

But ask Timpson if he knew how happily his own film career would progress and he shakes his head. “I’ve been stunned at the volume,” he says.

Not volume as in sound, but volume in entries. Timpson is founder of the 48Hour film festival, a competition to find the best short film made within a precisely-timed 48-hour period. The wacky, stress-filled, movie smackdown has become a cause célèbre, not just in the rarefied airs of Grey Lynn movie circles, but for anyone half-competent with a digital camera and a sister with acting skills. In its first year the competition attracted 88 entries in Wellington and Auckland. By year three it almost tripled to 234 entries and expanded to Christchurch and Dunedin. This year the competition is being run nationwide and Timpson expects entries to pass 450.

“It might plateau at year five, I guess,” he says. We doubt it.

Suddenly it feels like we’re all filmmakers. In fact we are. The world’s most popular camera brand is not one the professionals would necessarily pick. It’s Nokia. There are already 350 million camera phones out there, meaning we’ve all become snap-happy movie makers and photographers. Flickr, a picture-sharing website, boasts over 100 million photographs on its servers, up from 15 million just a year ago.

Suddenly we’re all publishers too: research firm Pew claims 44 percent of American adults have created some kind of Internet content. We’re now all historians (Wikipedia), columnists (blogs), book reviewers (Amazon), movie critics (everyonesacritic.net), advertising creatives (Trade Me) or global authorities on matters obscure (visit any specialty site).

Thanks to technology you can be a singer (Songstar), a musician (GarageBand), a disc jockey (MP3 players), TV programmer (MySky), model (MySpace) and designer (go to Nike.com and design your next shoe).

You might have a Ulysses in your bottom drawer but printing and distributing it was always beyond the ability of most ordinary folk. Now you can it take to Blurb.com, where wannabe authors can have their masterpiece published for as little as $50.

Digital technology has lowered the barriers that once stood between Joe Public and his artistic cousins. It’s a massive change. Marketers have even coined a snazzy new name for this onslaught of digital artists: Generation C.

“Generation C is probably today’s fastest-rising niche,” declares Trendwatching.com, publisher of a popular marketing e-newsletter.

“Are you creative, opinionated and technofluent? Do you have access to professional equipment and online distribution? You may be part of Generation C,” writes Digital Hive, a weblog for direct marketers.

The way these trendspotters see it, Gen C is a mega-shift in the way we operate, not just as consumers but as a society. It’s leading, say some, to a global renaissance in creative endeavour.

If it all sounds a bit like, well, marketing speak, you could be right. No one yet agrees on what the C stands for. Trendwatching.com says it’s C for ‘content’, meaning Gen C are defined by their production of original material. The bloggers at Digital Hive say it’s all about ‘creativity’—that Gen C want to become co-creators of their world (“Don’t just sell me a car—involve me in designing it”). Tomi Ahonen, a Swedish telco consultant and author, has another definition: C is for ‘community’. He says young consumers walk around with “a gang in their pocket”, continually txting, phoning and pxting their friends and families. “No decision is now made as individual, everything is done in community.”

Tom Eslinger, Saatchi & Saatchi’s worldwide interactive creative director, says it’s all the above but is also C for ‘channel’. “You can have all the digital devices and creative skills you like, but opening a channel to reach millions of customers and fans marks out Generation C.”

Whatever. You would miss the point if you got hung up on the semantics of Gen C. What can’t be ignored is the explosion in creative endeavour—in the arts, in commerce and in government, where policy on culture and creativity is being rewritten around the world as a cornerstone contributor to economic growth. Are we witnessing a creative rebirth—another Renaissance, even? Generation C may be ill-defined and misunderstood but the combination of technology, prosperity, peaceful times and youth is shaping a mega-trend in the way the economy works. Better listen up.

I was taught at school that the European Renaissance was the result of man rediscovering himself after years of slumming it in the Dark Ages. The revolution in arts and science was literally a rebirth of inner, and especially Italian, creativity. But when I read about it now, I’m told the cause was more prosaic: peace, trade and communication opened Europe to a host of new influences, especially from the Middle East. “Trade revolutionised taste in Europe,” writes historian Jerry Brotton.

Are we entering a similar point in history? Could we be witnessing an explosion in creativity and culture, thanks to the new digital age? I’ll nail my colours to the mast. I don’t believe there’s any more creativity innate in the MP3 generation than anyone else. I don’t believe the C stands for creativity. Yet we may be seeing the same conditions which gave rise to the Renaissance—where trade and peace led to a flowering of creative endeavour.

True, most of that original expression is not much better than home videos and angsty teenage scribblings. Ant Timpson is the first to admit the popularity of the competition has not necessarily led to an increase in quality.

But it has led to an increase in output and, crucially, an environment that values and rewards creative endeavour.

Other people have said as much. Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’— or what the founders of this magazine have called ‘commercial creatives’— is a fast-growing and important part of the working population. Gen C, however, is different. Despite my flippant introduction, I don’t believe that we’re all artists, publishers and filmmakers now, at least not in a professional sense. The hardcore of the creative economy is made up of individuals who have turned their creative output into a fulltime career. They’re professionally inquisitive, original, tireless and determined. They’re quite a different sort of person from the after-dinner blogger. But my point is this: not since the Renaissance have the conditions been as favourable for amateurs to aspire to or actually join the creative class. It’s never been a better time to be a wannabe.

Take two examples. At one end of the Gen C spectrum is MySpace, the website purchased by Rupert Murdoch last year for US$580 million. Murdoch is no media slouch and what he has bought is really a fantastic media model. Speaking recently to—yes, this is for real—the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, Murdoch predicted he might be among the last of a dying breed. “Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry—the editors, the chief executives and, let’s face it, the proprietors.”

MySpace is a collection of millions of pages of autobiographical data, blogs, homemade movies, pictures and lists or, as the site describes itself, “an online community that lets you meet your friends’ friends.” Is the content genuinely creative and world-changing? If you can call teenage dribblings, incoherent ramblings and bad digital movies creative then yes, it is.

Taken by itself, MySpace might suggest that the C in Gen C stands for ‘celebrity’. As with reality TV shows like So You Wanna Be A Pop Star?, MySpace taps into the desire for fame embedded into our tabloid culture. Maybe after Generation X and Gen Y comes Gen W, for ‘wannabe’. A UK Sunday Times columnist described it as C for ‘conceited’.

That sounds elitist and a mistake—and not one that Murdoch would make. Who knows whether MySpace might not throw together another Fisher and Paykel or discover another Peter Jackson?

In fact, maybe it already has. Twenty-one year-old amateur film maker David Lehre was last heard speaking to MTV after his 11-minute film, MySpace: The Movie, was downloaded by some 3.4 million viewers. That was back in January. He’s unlikely to be the last talented youngster spotted on MySpace. The site has also launched an album of greatest songs—as voted by the members—containing bands that never would have made it through the record companies’ net.

A more impressive example of Gen C at work is the open-source movement. The framework of exchange is much the same as MySpace: it’s digital, worldwide, volunteer-based and self-organising. Like MySpace diaries and the 48Hour films, not all the output is good. Software archive freshmeat.net lists over 30,000 open-source projects; many of those are abandoned, dying through neglect, incompetence or argument. But the projects that people find useful, like Apache, a free Web server, quickly develops a community of interest. Want a feature? Write it yourself. Want to adapt it to a new purpose? Go right ahead. If your customisation is any good, it might be accepted by the high priests of open source, the project leaders, and become part of the core software where others might improve it further. If the project leaders really like your work you might even be invited into the inner sanctum and given ‘commit rights’, allowing you to make changes on the original software yourself.

Consider the surprising (or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising) story of Ben Goodger, a University of Auckland student who a few years ago started making his own changes to Mozilla, an open-source Web browser. Goodger was originally scratching his own itch but found he had a knack for improving the browser. Mozilla engineers noticed too, and Goodger now leads development of the Mozilla Firefox browser from Google’s California offices. Last year he made the cover of Wired magazine. Not a bad career progression for someone who was merely tinkering with Mozilla because he could.

This isn’t just about software; content is also produced collaboratively. Wikipedia allows us to tap into the collective expertise. Google Maps data is repurposed by people who want to create their own global maps of pizza joints, alien landings or Elvis sightings. If you have something to contribute then there’s probably someone, somewhere who wants to hear from you.

The open-source movement is a metaphor for what’s happening in every sector. It’s the volunteer economy, the content economy and the creative economy. It’s Gen C.

In an elegant, Japanese-style office, squashed between a motorbike shop and a panelbeater, I’m sitting with some clever company. If anyone understands Gen C it’s this trio of women fashioning themselves as the Providence Report, a high-level market research company based in Dunedin and Auckland. Sandy Callister, Sandy Burgham and Jude Hooson are seasoned researchers with five major reports under their belts and a strong sense of what makes Kiwis tick.

For them Gen C consists largely of youth, but not exclusively. Most importantly it’s technology-driven. It’s the MP3 generation.

“My daughter is a great example of Gen C,” says Callister. “She’s 13 but has joined a poetry club on a website where these kids critique one another’s work and vote on the best poems, a lá reality TV. She takes it deadly seriously and is always talking about concepts and looking for meaning!”

 

Providence identifies some common themes linking Gen C: Virtual lives. Gen C have rich online lives and many, especially Asian Kiwis, will have multiple identities for life online and off.

Almost famous. Gen C are convinced they can become world-famous and rich by expressing who they are as individuals (and not by donning a suit).

Just your opinion. A generation used to political correctness and positive affirmation, Gen C won’t be told by self-appointed experts that what they do or make is crap.

Reality bites. But just like New Zealand Idol, they know the court of public opinion can vote them off at any time (no matter how good they are).

Everything is for publication. Whether it’s a family holiday or the showers in Big Brother, nothing escapes the blog or the camera. Not even King Kong.

Everything is a game. Day-to-day life should be challenging but ultimately fun. Even a book on Warren Buffet investment tips should be a comic strip.

“Whatever Gen C do, it somehow involves originality and expression. Nothing is just about work; it’s about meaning and transformation. Life as art,” says Jude Hooson.

So what now? What are we to make of Gen C?

For business, the consequence is that Gen C wants to become involved in everything—design, production and even marketing. Think of consumers as co-creators of the products. “We were always taught that brands are owned by the customers. But the changes in technology have accelerated that idea to make it a reality,” says Kevin Kenrick, general manager of Telecom Mobile. As an experiment, Telecom last year launched the Rubbish Film Festival, asking users to submit their homemade digital camera movies.

Kenrick says the company was “amazed and overwhelmed by the number of entries”. A thousand mostly dreadful movies later Telecom is still receiving submissions and will run the event again and expand it this year. It recently won the best mobile campaign at an advertising awards event in London.

Okay, so that’s a marketing stunt but at MTV it’s a business. MTV Über was a cable-only TV channel aimed at college kids. Demand for interactivity (viewers upload their own music, videos and playlists) was so great that MTV turned it into a free online channel that’s funded through advertising. The content is largely edited and created by the users. How long before Telecom or Sky TV offers a similar, self-edited channel through MySky?

The lesson for marketers and manufacturers is this: how are you involving your customers in co-creation? It might be as simple as a Subway-style menu of self-assembly options. It might be getting your customers to do the marketing—how many emails do you receive with Hotmail ads at the bottom? It might simply mean getting out of the way and playing host to customer interaction. Ask Sam Morgan, founder of Trade Me, if that’s a good idea.

As for careers, there’s a future in plastics—or at least plasticity. Gen C might be the first generation whose parents have no expectation that the road to success is through the professions. From cheap surgery in the Philippines to free legal advice off the Internet, professionals are being forced to find new and creative ways to add value. If I were a parent I’d want my kids to study at the University of Flexibility. And I’d certainly want them to study the commerce of everything.

Finally, if Gen C is a real phenomenon, it will have national implications. The countries that win will be those with the most robust respect for the fostering and commercialisation of intellectual property. If Gen C is defined by its desire for original thought and unconstrained outcomes, then our country could look a little like the United States in 1900, marked by inventiveness, optimism and a determination to become rich through talent and effort.

Alternatively it could collapse from the misguided idea that fame and riches come through a lucky break on a TV show. But Gen C has the potential to move beyond the conceited, celebrity culture we are drowning in. Here’s to the Gen Cers who stand for something original, creative and good. Your time has come.

Selling Gen C

Marketing to a generation of wannabe artists might feel like riding to hell on a skateboard. But the smartest marketers are finding rich veins to exploit—you just gotta know how. Here’s a selection of Gen C marketing strategies that work

Open the kimono

Hollywood execs freaked at the idea of Peter Jackson video blogging his way through the making of King Kong. In fact, it thrilled fans, built anticipation and created a DVD to sell for a tidy sum.

Lesson: involve, involve, involve

Wisdom of crowds

Growing demand for self-generated content forced MTV to shift their MTV Über from pay TV to a free Internet site, mtvu.com. Now paid for by advertising, the site consists of self-made playlists, music, blogs and videos by users.

Lesson: the kids wanna talk

Let the customers do the talking

Get out of the way and let the customers exchange. Being part of the discussion has become the prime reason we do business with Amazon and Trade Me.

Lesson: repeat after me: $700 million

Don’t judge

On reality TV every plonker thinks she can sing—so let the market decide. Telecom’s Rubbish Film Festival generated 1,000 entries last year of mostly, well, crap movies. But it got everyone using the network and, hey, some of it’s not that awful.

Lesson: let the market vote on what’s good

Turn clients into designers

Nike is using the power of just-in-time manufacturing to mass-customise shoes. Want a red swoosh with that? Click here …

Lesson: involvement by design

– Additional reporting by Vincent Heeringa

Originally published in Idealog #3, page 36

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Comments

While the explosion of technology has enabled many talented people to be able to put together creative works using affordable devices, there is no doubt that some people think that they are artists and photographers or even film directors just because they own a camera. Meh.

I think it is more of a renaissance of creativity because the more technology evolves, the more fluent we get with the tech language. That leads us to what we are today — a creative bunch that gets more creative by the day. All seems positive but modern technology does have its setbacks too like trouble with the law. An example is the illegal modes of obtaining music, videos and many others. We just need to be tactful on how we utilize technology.

We have been seeing the technology exploding from the last two decades, here everyone doing their work with a gadget, which is proving the explosion of technology.


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